On being vegetarian and Hindu in 1970s Australia, and how the Garba was launched
“You know, when I came to Australia in 1970, I thought I had come to heaven,” Harshad Desai says. “And 45 years later, I still believe I am in heaven!”
Now you might say it is interesting to hear a devout Hindu talking about heaven (and hell), but Desai, a well-known Gujarati community stalwart in Sydney, recounts a number of times in the new book he recently launched, that the Australia that he came to in the 1970s was welcoming of people from all faiths.
Desai, who along with Sonal (Shah) Moore and Samin and Ashok Nathwani has produced a book entitled Early Gujarati Migration to Australia, spoke to Indian Link about his early experiences.
“I came here just as the White Australia policy was being phased out and so the local Australian community was keen to meet people from other parts of the world,” he recalls.
“They were as keen to know more about our cultures as we were about theirs.
In fact, some of my happiest memories of my early days are of the interactions my family and I had with my boss, Mr Clarke.
He would take us out for drives on the weekends and then invite us home for lunches and dinners.
We’re vegetarians and his wife struggled to cook for us til I convinced her that we were happy with cheese and salads and it was actually their hospitality and company which we enjoyed.”
These early stories provide a fascinating insight into what life was like in the 1970s and ‘80s Australia.
While it is now generally taken for granted that there is easy availability of spices and dals, in those times there were just a couple of shops in Sydney which used to stock these essentials. Forget the paneer, even yoghurt, or curd as Indians know it, was unheard of.
There were just two Indian restaurants in Sydney, and Bollywood movies, which now can be seen on the same day of release as in India, took months to reach Australia.
Of course, they came in large spools. Kati Patang was the first Hindi film to be shown in Australia.
“Yet, we accepted these realities as part of our lives. What we missed was more than made up in the camaraderie and friendships which we formed in the earlier days.”
“We worked hard to keep our traditions alive. In 1972, garba was celebrated the first time in Australia at the home of Dr Gunu Nakar and the 14-16 people there had a great time.
In 1973, we celebrated garba at my own home in Punchbowl and Gujarati families travelled from all over NSW to Sydney. That’s how the tradition of Navratri celebrations was born.
It is pleasing to see how the garba, which was first enjoyed in someone’s backyard, now has thousands of people enjoying in giant sports halls,” Desai writes in the book.
The garba, a form of folk dancing performed during the Navratri festival, is an essential element of Gujarati culture.
Keeping their religious beliefs strong was important to the Gujurati settlers and the Sri Mandir Society was started in 1976. It took a few years for the society to be formalised.
Three devotees, Dr Anand, Dr Prabhu and Dr Shankar, acting as Trustees, purchased the property at 286 Cumberland Road, Auburn from the Salvation Army for $34,000. And so the first ever Hindu temple in Australia was established.
Sonal Shah, one of the contributors to the book (who claims to be the first Gujarati born in Australia) recounts tales of how the early families from Sydney and Newcastle would meet at half way points for regular picnics.
“Mums would have the traditional puri bhaji and yes, dads would have the cricket gear and many a happy weekend was spent eating Gujju delicacies and playing cricket,” she reminisces.
“We all worked hard to support each other and helped each other as family. If a Gujju was arriving in Australia, there would be someone to receive them at the airport, put them up for a few days and then help them settle into jobs or at schools. This cycle kept on repeating and this spirit of caring and sharing helped all.”
With such foundations, no wonder the Gujjus are one of the most closely knit Australian Indian communities.
While impossible to recount all, not only Harshad and Indira Desai and those mentioned above, the Indian Australian community owes a lot to Rushi and Vasant Sheth, Navin and Shashi Kandhar, Pratap and Renuka Amin, Jayant and Jayashree Dave, Babu and Dinaben Goradia, RK and Raj Ram, Gunu and Usha Nakar and all those pioneers who have led the way.
Their early paths have made life easier for newer settlers such as us.
Early Gujarati Migration to Australia is an easy read, bringing a warm and fuzzy feeling to the extended families of those whose experiences are recounted here.
To others, it is an important resource in understanding the manner in which our community has evolved.
Free copies of the book are available from Harshad Desai.