Jan 26 reflections: Negotiating the Australian-Indian identity

By Indira Laisram

January 26 is a day when India celebrates Republic Day and Australia celebrates Australia Day. A double celebration. For many Indians it is also a day when they take the citizenship oath and become a part of the national family. On the aside, there is, of course, the raging debate in Australia about changing the Australia Day date. Opinions are divided as there are those that want to mark 26 January as the beginning of modern Australia, while some others call it an ‘Invasion Day’ marking the start of “systematic dispossession of Indigenous Australians”.

Cut to Indians in Australia. As the second-largest group of migrants to Australia, there is now a great visibility of Indians in this country—from the work force to the proliferation of shops, restaurants or businesses. But is identity multifaceted, fluid or contextual?

The Indian Sun explores the expression of the Australian-Indian identity. Let’s hear how some negotiate, forge and experience the question of identity.

Dr Ash Mukherjee
Dr ASH MUKHERJEE, an emergency physician who trained in India, UK. Settled in Perth since 2012.

As an Indian, a British Indian and now an Australian Indian, I have various identities that formulate my being.

To me being an Australian Indian has meant my integration into Australian society. Without losing my inherent Indian culture, I integrate and adopt a lot of the Australian way of living and respect its ways. It does not mean that I can’t challenge the Australian way if I feel strongly about any particular topic. Although I do miss a lot of the little nuances of what is “India”, I do not believe in striving to build and live in a “little India” created here in Australia.

I will continually strive towards standing for my Indian heritage which has been the fundamental nucleus shaping my character and personality. At the same time, I pride myself equally in taking on the Australian way of life and the plethora of pleasures this beautiful country affords us.

I define my Australian Indian identity in the strong urge to make a difference, create an impact in Australia, for Australia. It’s the pride in singing the anthem and questioning it, standing beside the indigenous population and wanting to be endeared by them.

Australia is multicultural. There is diversity. It’s equity and inclusion where there is still work to be done. It takes time, but there is increased awareness of the lack especially of inclusion at various steps. In my humble opinion, the narrative has to improve and the image of Australia, especially in the media, has to be more representative of real society.

Media needs to introspect and appreciate that a move towards greater inclusion is necessary. Australia needs to use the talent that multiculturalism provides to its advantage. It will happen, change will come, the seeds are being sowed.

Pradip Sarkar
PRADIP SARKAR, an academic and DJ/producer. He is undertaking a PhD in Media & Communications at RMIT University and hosts South Asian independent music show on PBS 106.7 FM called Tiger Beats Elephant Grooves. Has been residing in Melbourne since 2000.

I see myself as a Melbourne-Indian, rather than an Australian Indian. The concept of “Australia” come across as white Anglo-Saxon, as depicted in the mainstream media and the ongoing narrative. I do not relate to that. But I identify with Melbourne, especially with its multiculturalism. It is in Melbourne that you encounter, interact, and experience the various diasporic cultures—this is where one experiences the diversity. The city draws its strength and appeal from this diversity. On the other hand, such feelings are not invoked by the notion of Australia. Australia Day does not mean anything for me. Of course, it is a sad day for Aboriginal people. I’d relate more to a Melbourne Day in spring!

My identity is complex. I was born in India but grew up in West Africa and Southeast Asia. I’ve lived most of my adult life in Melbourne. So, my identity is based on my experiences of all these cultures. This is why Melbourne has suited me as it represents my truly multicultural upbringing and experiences. The notion of Australia, on the other hand, needs to be re-worked to reflect the growing multicultural diversity and especially acknowledge the Aboriginal experience.

Divya Nagavara
DIVYA NAGAVARA, Manager, Business Optimisation, NSW Department of Customer Service. Living in Australia for 10 years now, currently based in Sydney.

With India in my heart and Australia as my adopted home, January 26th is not simply yet another holiday. For me, it brings back memories of gatherings at my school, watching the Indian flag hoist in the morning and then watching the Indian Republic Day parade on television in the afternoons. Now, Australia Day is about celebrating the values of mateship. It’s the time to meet with friends at a barbeque, have a laugh and, maybe, play a game or two. The spirit of Australia Day is to unify all people who call Australia home.

As an Aussie Indian, I’m defined by my Indian heritage as well as my Australian experiences. When I landed in Australia ten years ago, I decided to not only enjoy the opportunities but also to learn from diversities and grow from my acquired experiences. This innate drive has led me to give back by creating and growing a community to help fellow young migrants settle and find like-minded friends.

The state and federal governments already have many initiatives to promote cultural diversity and community harmony. But they need to tread a fine line between creating pockets of migrant communities and fostering the true spirit of one nation. One aspect for improvement could be at a grassroot level by providing better support and well-defined pathways for new migrants to settle, find meaningful connections and gainful employment.

Laxmi Maisnam
LAXMI MAISNAM, IT geek & a small business owner. Based in Sydney for the past 10 years.

Being Australian Indian to me means the best of both worlds. While my initial years in India equipped me with resilience and empathy, Australia has provided me with opportunities, experiences and a lifestyle that one dreams of!

A piece of advice for new Australian Indians would be—to appreciate and enjoy life fully. As an Australian Indian, we need to switch our thinking and go by the adage: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Anil Joseph
ANIL JOSEPH, CEO, Worldwide Digital Solutions Pty Ltd. Completed 20 plus years in Australia.

I have been in Australia for more than 20 years and still struggle to identify my true identity. I am an Indian by birth, culture and habits and an Australian by choice. As a first-generation migrant from India, I will always struggle with this identification. In my opinion, my life will always remain one, that’s swinging between two cultures, two countries and totally different personal value sets. I suppose it’s every migrant’s challenge that we are willing to endure for the future generations.

It’s such a pleasant challenge too, if you are willing to embrace it. You are in a country where multiculturalism is at its peak. The challenges you face are faced by every migrant as well as the Australians born here. While you are adjusting and learning about Australia, they are adjusting and learning along with. The true assimilation of cultures will only happen with the next generations whereupon the true identity of an Australian Indian will be born. Till then enjoy the ride, learn about other cultures, partake in their festivities, enjoy their cuisines, make friends, respect each other, be involved and keep an open mind. Our attitude towards other cultures will reflect in how our kids will eventually create the identity of an Australian Indian.

I will explain my point in an example. My 14-year-old daughter was selected in the National Team for Squash to represent Australia in the Under 15 girls Trans Tasman series between Australia and New Zealand. This was not possible without the help of so many Aussies who helped her reach there. A true assimilation of cultures with an Australian born to Indian parents representing Australia, cheered on by Australians and proud Indian parents. Just goes on to show that it’s our attitude towards change that matters and with the right attitude we can contribute towards creating a truly multicultural Australia.

At the same time, Australia needs to strengthen its effort towards developing a cohesive multicultural society. In 2020, there were over 7.6 million migrants living in Australia. It represents almost 30 per cent of the entire population that is struggling to establish its true identity.

While there are many good initiatives from the government to embrace migrants, there is plenty more to be done. There should be more representation of migrant communities in sport, government offices, political leaders, military, police, and media. The Australian government should try hard to drop the general image of Australia being a “White Man’s Country” and move towards representing Australia as the most successful experiment in multiculturalism. In my opinion, it’s an example that the world can learn from and follow. It will also elevate the general perception about Australia globally as it’s a peaceful land with lots of opportunities and a populace that’s willing to accept change and live together.

Aditi Gupta
ADITI GUPTA, Marketer/ Senior Partnerships and Activations Associate at Singapore Airlines. Has been in Melbourne for seven years now.

Australia is truly my home away from home. I have spent my most crucial years of growing up in Melbourne. This city has seen the best and worst of me, but most importantly, it always had my back. From a 21-year-old Master’s student to now becoming a full-time professional, I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey of becoming a proud Indian Australian. Just like the weather in Melbourne, the journey has been pretty unpredictable, but truly rewarding!

Multiculturalism to me in Australia means opportunities and inculcating a sense of belonging. These opportunities have helped me become the person I am proud of. With enough avenues to embrace my identity, I am grateful to be living in a city where multiculturalism is celebrated.

Sheetal Kallada
SHEETAL KALLADA, Naturopath at Chemist Warehouse & TAFE educator at Chisholm Institute. Living in Melbourne for 14 years now.

It took a while for me to settle in Australia. I remember when I first migrated in the winter of 2007, the first thing that struck me was how cold Melbourne was. By 5 pm it was dark and coming from a tropical country, I wondered if this was going to be the case throughout the year and worried about how I would cope with the cold.

I was terribly homesick the first year but came summer, the weather changed and we had made some new friends. As my son was a year old then, I didn’t try to look for work at that stage, I spent my time trying to learn more about the place. But the beauty of Australia is, there is such a wide Indian community. That apart, people are so friendly and many of my Australian friends helped me assimilate into life here in general.

I had a degree in homeopathy from India but didn’t want to start on my own. I started working at Chemist Warehouse and from there my career took a different turn. My family has learnt so many things in our life here, the work culture is so different, and you have the opportunity to explore yourself—that’s the best part about Australia.

In terms of education too, there is no age limit, you can learn any new skill or change your career path any time you want, which I think is not quite possible in India. I teach at TAFE and I have students ranging from school drop outs to 60-year-olds. This is amazing.

A year was enough for me to get rid of the homesickness, I now get homesick when I am in India, because I really miss my lifestyle and friends here. I identify myself as an Australian. This country is so multicultural, I can visit the Indian temple every week, the way I used to in India. That tradition has not changed and my kids are aware of most of the traditions and rituals. My children are an inseparable part of this country and their answer is ‘no’ if we ask them whether they would like to settle in India. My answer is also probably no because we have blended so beautifully in this country. I owe so much to this country in terms of how I have grown as a person. I am proud to call myself an Australian Indian.

(As told to Indira Laisram)

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