How the Malayalees in Bendigo are keeping together

By Indira Laisram

“If you go to any hospital in India, you are sure to find a Malayalee (native of Kerala) nurse,” says Allen Joy, who is also from Kerala, the southern state that produces almost 60 per cent of India’s nurses.

The ubiquity of Malayalee nurses is also notable in a place like Bendigo with 80 per cent of them working in the health sector, says Joy, who is the secretary of the Bendigo Malayalee Association (BMA). “There are at least 20 males who are also nurses here,” he adds.

Joy, whose wife Ellsy too is a nurse, quips, “Luckily I got into pharmacy though there was immense pressure from my family to join nursing.”

The Joys arrived in Australia in 2010. After two years in Donald, a town near Mildura, they moved to Bendigo and embraced life there with gusto.

They were happy to join other Malayalees who had created their own little Kerala in Bendigo. A versatile group—there are other professionals too—the Malayalees have made their presence felt in this regional Victorian town (more on that below).

The Bendigo Malayalee Association was formed in 2010 by the 20 families that were there then “to maintain and promote the cultural and educational heritage of the land of Kerala”. Today, there are nearly 150 families and about 550 members, says its current president Johnny Mattathil, adding, the association got registered as corporation with Consumer Affairs, Victoria, in 2016.

In March this year, just before COVID-19 paralysed life, the BMA, fittingly celebrated ten years of its existence in “a big way” and acknowledging those who have volunteered for the organisation since its inception. Past presidents, secretaries and other executive members were presented with mementos and promises made to make the BMA an organisation that promotes culture and friendships. It would also be the last social gathering of the year.

Over the years, the Malayalee community has added richly to the multicultural fabric of Bendigo. It also works closely with organisations such as Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services (LCMS), a not-for-profit organisation that empowers people from migrant and refugee backgrounds to participate fully in Australian society. Joy says be it the Bendigo Chinese New Year, or the Zinda Festival that is Bendigo’s multicultural festival celebrating music, dance, food and cultures, the community has been at the forefront.

However, it is the celebration of Onam every year that sets them apart. Back home in Kerala, Onam is a traditional ten-day harvest festival during the month of either August or September (based on the Malayalam calendar) and the biggest in the state marking the homecoming of the mythical King Mahabali.

It is a festival that the Malaylees in Bendigo replicate with full fervour. This year, there was no celebration but their initiative during Onam made mainstream media news. Carrying forward the tradition of distributing Onam kits, BMA chose to use the festival to check on local families and distributed a COVID-kit containing hand sanitisers, masks and in-language COVID-19 messages to spread awareness about the virus.

In previous years, the growing community has always celebrated with a big feast of 20 curries and rice, song and dance and other cultural programs. For others, the celebrations are a dose of Malayalam generosity.

The BMA has also been credited with organising and starting the biggest tug of war (rope pulling) competition. Called vadam vali, this sport is an inevitable part of Onam festivities. “Last year, a total of 13 teams from all over including one from Oakland participated,” says Joy.

What draws teams to the BMA event is the fact that it gives away the highest prize money in Australia, particularly the past four years, says Joy. For instance, last year’s first prize money was $3,333. This was possible, says Joy, with some funding from the local Council, advertisements and a great tug of war team in Bendigo who simply likes to donate.

While the celebration of culture during Onam, Christmas, Easter and Vishu or Malayalam New Year offer a different kind of belonging, the BMA also encourages members to learn the Malayam language through classes being offered at TAFE. “For the past two years we have succeeded in getting a few people enrolled,” says Joy. “Keeping the community connected is the main thing.”

Last month, roping in Malayalee students from La Trobe University, BMA conducted a live Facebook talk on mental health awareness and how to seek help.

The Malayalees have grown accustomed to carving out a future in Australia but it also comes with the struggles of being immigrants where the ready help from joint families back in India is missing. As Joy says, “I have three children, we have all the facilities here but we don’t have family support so it is still hard work.” But this is where associations like the BMA assume importance as members find network and the necessary support system.

The BMA is also a story about mobility and with a structure that allows for nominating a new president, secretary, joint secretary, treasurer and six executive members every year,  members are given equal opportunity to take responsibility. “When you get a lot of people, ideas will change, politics will come and so on. But here everyone has to contribute, find time and volunteer. You do it for the love of the community and with passion,” says Joy, who became secretary last year.

Mattathil says they welcome new members and are looking at ways to expand their programs. “We believe in cultural exchange with mainstream Australian society and our long term goal is to achieve harmony and mutual respect.”

The group usually meets every month but with the pandemic it has been mainly via zoom and less regular. But they have been communicating through the WhatsApp group chat regularly.

With activities this year having come to a halt, BMA is looking forward to a virtual celebration of Christmas in a big way. For that, tasks have been allotted and members are stitching together a program of dance, cooking, other talents to showcase via videos. “Once the practice is over, we will start filming by mid-November,” says Joy.

What this means for an entire community is that it will carry forward a message for the younger members. The future is up to the rest of them—to find purpose and community life!

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

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