A little bit Indian, a little bit Aussie!

Reading Time: 16 minutes

What habits have you retained from your life in India, and which new ones have you taken on after coming to Australia?

The number of Indians settled in Australia makes a comforting statistic for the community, and that number is undoubtedly increasing. But just how well have we adapted to all things Aussie, and how much of our own culture and tradition have we preserved living so far from home? Some of us have lived here for over a quarter of a century, some have been here a few months. So do we think “Oye, oye, oye!” is an Aussie watchword or the lyrics of some almost-forgotten Bollywood hit?

We ask Indian Link readers for their opinion on exactly how ‘Aussiefied’ they’ve become. Or if they still retain a good bit of their desi heritage. Have they completely forgotten their Indian roots, or do some vestiges remain as they add a pinch of garam masala to their pasta?

Thoda Indian, thoda Aussie!’ was the expected general response. We are adept at using barbies, have taken to sport and shorts regardless of the state of our bottoms (too large or non-existent), we call chappals ‘thongs’ without embarrassment, and not a day goes by without using the phrase, “No worries, mate!”

And yet we still observe religious rites, do pujas, fast on karva chauth and think rice-dal-pickle-papad is the best meal in the world. We also believe that we are the only nationality in the world with an incomparable sense of duty to our parents and family. Even if they drive us crazy. We still follow our tele-soaps, surreptitiously keeping up with episodes on the net, because our children would laugh themselves silly if we were caught watching Kyonki Saas Kabhi Bahu Thi!

But our respondents agree that most of us love the life and manage to maintain that essential balance between all things Aussie and Indian. We get to work on time each day, but land up at a friend’s party two hours late in typical Indian-eshtyle, and no-one notices. So let’s celebrate our Aussie Indian-ness, or is it the other way around?

Cover illustration: Dakshinamurthy Anjanappa


It’s chai time, Uncle and Aunty!


I have maintained the habit of respecting my elders irrespective if they are family or not, and still address them as “Aunty” or “Uncle”.  Addressing an older person thus is something we were taught as children in India – it showed our respect for our elders, and it was much appreciated by them.

The new habit I’ve taken on is having an early dinner which is at 6:00pm. Back in India 6 pm would normally be tea time, just to refresh oneself after a long day out at work.


Om bhur bhuva…


Many aspects of my Indian personality have remained – and – enhanced since I moved to Australia 20 years ago. Primary among them, without a doubt, is praying. As a child I was taught to say my prayers and did so irregularly, tad procedurally; however today, my day is incomplete without them. In the early days I would just chant them but as they grew on me, I have delved into the deeper meanings of some of our foremost mantras. My research has convinced me even more about the power of prayer, and it has consolidated my core Indian values – being open, meticulous, logical and intelligent about everything.

Another aspect that continues to live with me to this day is the cooking I learnt from my mum. Most friends would tell you that I love to cook, and I attribute this passion to my mum. I don’t mean particular recipes my mum handed down to me (though those are precious too), but the entire science (and art!) of it: you know, how to go about it all, whatever you are cooking, not just Indian cuisine. And much of it I recall not from our time together in the family kitchen, but from memories of what she might have said in passing, or while she described something about cooking to someone else.

Looking back though, both aspects I have listed, have been honed through the skills I have picked up here in Australia. Through my formal training as well as my informal education here, I have learnt to approach issues in a humane and core-value-based manner. This has helped me greatly in all my endeavours at work and in life, and has actually helped me achieve many of my ‘impossible-ish’ dreams.

Another thing I must mention is that from the Australians I have learnt that no job is too small. I take absolute pride in cleaning my home (why, even the toilet), something many back home would never do – or never had to do.

Overall, I’d say, I’m a successful human being today because of the core values that were instilled in me in India, and equally because I learned how to apply my values and sharpen my skillset more effectively here in Oz. India and Australia are a dynamite of a combo that I’d recommend to anyone.


Some chai? Or would you prefer Old Monk?
On a recent visit to India, I chatted with my mom as she made some tea. It boiled to the point where it turned pink. Then more milk was poured in, to boil yet again and again. That’s tea for you, Indian ishtyle, a habit I have moved miles away from, thankfully and fortunately, to say the least.
My Australian kind of tea with a tea bag and no milk is not only miles away from the tea I grew up drinking, it’s also “no good”, “Bakwas chai” and “gori chai” for my family and friends in India. They reckon I am missing out on the “true flavours” of tea. Beside the true flavours, I am also missing out on the acidity and the heart burn it caused. Like food, we have a tendency to over-cook whatever we get our hands on. Tea is no exception. A soft leaf, full of flavour, is done to literal death by boiling and re-boiling. I am happy with the new kind of tea I drink. I get to try the herbals, the greens and the earl greys and they all taste different. That’s one thing I am happy to move on from. Missing desi chai? Naaaaa…
But I could tell you about another drink from my old life in India that I still love.
At a drinking session one evening, my mate opened his bar full of the Glenmorangies, the Taliskars and Laphroaig single malts. Sitting quietly amidst them was a familiar bottle, every desi’s jaan, Old Monk Rum. This, dear readers, is something I have not moved on from even after having lived in Australia for 14 years. Why would you even try to move on from something as good as Old Monk? Recently when I bought a case of the divine nectar, the queue of mates ready to buy their quota was long.
Be it the complex vanilla taste or the wholesome flavour, it’s a well-known fact that Old Monk drinkers seldom move away from the monk. If they do, it’s to the Old Monk Gold reserve, even better. Every time I have a drink of the Monk it brings back memories from old times, college, Uni days, first job, first drink… even the first throw-up!

Here are two interesting stats which will make the Monk more attractive: it’s the 3rd largest selling rum in the world, and, they don’t advertise – it’s popularity depends on word of mouth and loyalty of customers.

Oh well, with loyal customer base like me, we will keep the flag flying for a very long time!


Indian Standard Time


The habit from India that I have maintained is definitely keeping up respect for my parents and giving them that high stature in life that they deserve. I miss having them physically close to me and being blessed by them at important junctures of my life. Having a family support structure in this foreign land is the one very essential thing that is missing for most of us here. Therefore I try to keep in touch with my parents as much as I can and seek their blessings all the time.

The new habit that I have taken on after coming to Australia is punctuality. I know that Indians have created the impression that we are always running late for everything, be it going to a friend’s place for dinner or meeting someone at a scheduled time. However after coming to Australia I have learned to meet time deadlines and to be punctual to the core. On my visits to India though, some strange looks come my way when I put my new habit to practice!


To tidy up the house, and then to watch the daily soaps (or not)

The habit from India that I have maintained is my orderliness and fuss over cleanliness. I have always been finicky about having my things in order and keeping everything organised. After living in a society where domestic help is not available at your fingertips, I think this habit of mine is a blessing as it makes home chores easier for me if things are already in order.
The new habit that I have taken on is not being addicted to Ekta Kapoor’s saas-bahu kind of daily soaps. Whilst being in India, almost everyone is glued to the telly from 7pm onwards however with the busy lifestyle here there is no time for following any kind of daily soaps. I am glad I have been able to break free of those highly melodramatic family dramas that everyone in India seems to idolise. These shows may have changed the face of Indian television but in my opinion are highly dangerous for the society and I am happy to stay away from them.


So what are habits?


Are habits the ‘us’ that others know us by?

Are they ingrained to the point of compulsion?

Are they stagnant or softly malleable as we adapt to change?

Are they cultural and personal – or are some habits possibly universal?

Is a habit, a method of doing or working?

Does breaking a habit cause anxiety and unrest?

Do I have a habit that causes others unrest?

Whether the term ‘Habit’ comes from ‘Habitation’ or the Habitat Centre at Delhi, it seems to have something to do with preserving culture.

Habits vary according to age and life situation.

My own begin from waking: the making of my bed, because it won’t make itself, and the magic maid has long resigned. Bleary eyed to the kettle, no matter how fresh the water in it is, it must be filled anew from the tap, anytime of the morning is fine, I can sleep in or be late, water runs at all hours unabated. Instant coffee or Tea bag please – it’s too hard to boil milk and add the elaichi, unless there was someone at home I was bothering for. That noise, no it’s not the shrieking of taped bhajans nor is it honking: I am still getting used to the droning of the mower and the beeps of the rubbish truck.  The morning rush must be the same, lunches packed, kids TV  or X Box switched off (with minimal argument today), the school bus triple packed replaced by Mummy’s taxi with chips under the seat.

Dare I think, that women in both places, rush about trying to run homes, be there for the family, organise away, and fulfil a quarter of the dreams instilled by juggling  adapting to change. Some supported wholly, others partially and some not at all, each develops habits that make things possible according to the life situation.

But while I am home, I would rather ignore the cobweb and dust under the bed or the sticky range hood, but never the fuel gauge of the car or my net bank.

There is also the matter of my clothing, the comfy colourful one size salwar kameez to business suits and tights: taking on an identity that is harmonious to the place, but keeping the same soul within.

A soul that struggles with the fascination of chasing after balls of all shapes. One that confuses media and sports stars unless they are from Bollywood. One that uses random masala mixes and bottles of paste to make up concocted curries, delicious in taste. One that remembers the Kanthas and reuses old clothes as stuffing for cushions, and dyes skirts to deeper shades of red. That keeps the envelopes from letters with Indian stamps and hoards memories easily remembered after decades have gone by.


Masala chai, seeking blessings from elders, petrol and punctuality


The magic mantra when one migrates to Australia is “assimilate”. Out with the old, and in with the new. It was easy for me and didn’t take much effort. But what are the habits that I have still maintained? Well it certainly is my favourite chai! It was hard in the beginning to get my masala chai or Indian tea but the local Indian store always had a stock of good tea. But it’s easier now that chai is widely available (though I have yet to acquire a taste for Chai Latte)!  And I still love drinking water from my stainless steel glass and by pouring it straight in to my mouth; lips never making contact with the glass. There is something about it! And water from that glass when it hits my throat tastes divine.

Another habit I have maintained is cooking an authentic Indian meal at least three times a week. Which means the food is spicy and not bland.  I wanted my children growing up in Australia to appreciate Indian cuisine and whenever they travelled to India and home I wanted them to feel comfortable at home eating the food there with all its spices. So we may have the pasta, the steaks or Thai curries but rice, dal, roti, sabzi and even idli, dosa and the occasional kheer is a habit I have happily kept up.

Having married into a Coorgi family I was told early on by my in-laws about touching elders’ feet to seek their blessing. Touching feet is a gesture of respect in India and though this practice is more prevalent in North India, as a social etiquette in southern parts of India it is uncommon. It signifies the humility of the person and is done to seek the blessings of elders. Now this is a habit that I have still maintained after 21 years in Australia. Whenever I meet my husband’s family, in India or in Australia, I dive straight at their feet and seek their blessings.  It is awkward at times as it may be at the airport, at restaurants or at public places. It does take the relatives by surprise; some are pleasantly flattered, whilst some quickly try and stop it.

But the one habit I have adopted here in Australia is the famous peck on the cheek when I meet somebody. Growing up in Bombay I always saw my mother greeting people with a warm Namaste. For me after university and working in an advertising agency it seemed natural to shake hands when I was introduced to new people. But now, whether it’s old friends or somebody I am meeting for the second time, it’s a peck on the cheek!!

All of us here have also learnt to fill petrol in our cars. I had never stepped out of the car to fill petrol in India. It was all taken care of at the petrol station. But now not only am I an expert on filling petrol but have even learnt to fill air in the tyre. Hopefully I won’t have to learn how to change a flat car tyre!!

And of course the one habit I am glad I gave up was turning up fashionably late. It seemed OK in India to keep someone waiting for an hour or turning up late for an event. We could always blame it on the traffic and it was accepted. But now I have no excuses and with a watch on my hand, a clock in the car and with even my phone telling me the time, there is no reason to be late anywhere.

Getting rid of old habits is a matter of individual choice and a social process. But clinging on to old habits is also a gentle reminder of a life shared with family, close relatives and friends and a warm reminder of another place.


The weekend routine

Sibil Philip Zhaveri, Adelaide

How my weekends have changed! Back then, the weekend was a time to spend with friends – at the movies, having long lunches, or lazing in front of the TV

Now, weekends are spent playing ‘soccer mom’ at my son’s soccer matches, and lazing at a park with the kids running around and a picnic basket and a book fro company!


Indo-Australian cakes!

Shaantha Jeyaraj PERTH

When I left India for Australia with my husband and two young children in 1989, the big fear that I had was, how would I get my children to follow our culture and traditions? My husband and I worked very hard to keep our culture alive in our family. The first step we took was to talk to our children in our native tongue Tamil.

Other things I did included joining the Tamil Association of Western Australia and becoming a member of the working committee; taking upon myself the huge responsibility of being the producer and presenter of the 6EBA Tamil ethnic radio channel which I continued doing for 10 years; organising annual cultural show “Kalai vizha” on behalf of the Tamil Association to promote Indian culture, and founding a school named “Palkalaikkalanjiyem” [The academy of fine arts and home economics] in 1995, which was purely aimed at promoting culture to the younger generation. The school taught music, dance and other culinary arts such as bridal dressing and cooking.               It is nearly 24 years since I landed on these shores.  Now I can proudly say that my family still holds on to our culture, our traditions, our morals and values. However, although my husband and myself have worked very hard to maintain our culture, it has been inevitable that we too have been influenced by Australia and its many values. So I can also proudly say that I now understand Australia and its openness to other cultures. I can now say that although I value my culture very highly, I too like Australia, enjoy the multiculturalism of this country and am appreciative of all new cultures.

I especially love the new and wonderful cooking methods that I have come to learn during my years in Australia. I have especially learned a lot in relation to cake making and decorating here. In fact I have created a bit of fusion of my own, Cultural Cakes! This is a result of the combination of the traditions and culture of India with the new Australian methods and techniques of cake decorating.


Gayatri to gardener

Chandana Unnithan, Melbourne

The daily ritual of waking up, opening the windows, a ritual shower and reciting the Gayatri Mantra – I followed these rules set by my grandfather since childhood. The powerful mantra salutes the solar principle, evokes the supreme consciousness and three levels of consciousness to destroy the ignorance with divine wisdom, and lead our intellects and energy in the right direction. When I could fathom sufficient courage to question this tradition, I quietly asked my grandfather, “Why this chant? I can understand the need of fresh air in the house, and we need to be clean, but why this chant every morning, that too in cold water?”

With his years of wisdom smiling on his face, he replied. “It is an invitation for a friend, into your home, for breakfast, as he comes to cheer you up and warm up your spirits. So will you not welcome this friend? If you don’t open your windows, don’t water the garden, get ready and invite him home, he might just walk away so not to disturb you!” Somehow, that registered. To this day, miles away from my birthplace, in Melbourne’s cold wintry mornings, I still do this in the hope that my friend will come for brekkie!!


Clearing leaves in the garden and from the roads, were always considered the gardener’s responsibility in India. Unconsciously I watched the mali (gardener) clean up the garden, rake leaves and stems from the pathways and the surrounding roads. One day, as I drove down the road, I saw him remove debris lying on the road, which all the others had ignored, walked past or driven around. Perhaps, the habit of raking up the dirt and keeping the surrounds clean was etched in his psyche. The past few years in Melbourne, I have been mowing the lawn, cleaning the garden, clearly organising the garden waste and unconsciously removing stems/leaves from roads when I see them. And I often wonder, is this a new habit or was the mali my original teacher?


Waxing eloquent… about threading (and being on time)


I squinted my eyes, braced myself and clenched all my muscles. This was gonna hurt and bloody hell it did, one whisk and off came all the unwanted, unsightly, unsuitable hair. I nearly passed out from the unfamiliar feeling. I looked at the mirror and did not recognise the alien with two thin straight lines of hair passing off as eyebrows.  A fortnight later I thumped through all the phone books and newspapers to find someone who does ‘threading’. I am talking about decades ago when Indians were seen few and far between in Melbourne’s suburbs, and a proper ‘eyebrow-wali ‘ rarer. After much searching I found someone who claimed to offer eyebrows and face threading. I was there in a nanosecond and happily endured the longer, more disturbing process of getting my eyebrows threaded. Each hair being pulled individually from its follicle seemed less painful than a simple whisk away. I even beamed with pleasure when the salon lady handed me a whopping bill that would feed a small Ethiopian village.

That’s one habit that I will not change. I will search high and low (actually don’t have to anymore) to find someone who will thread my eyebrows, instead of having them waxed into grotesque shapes.

What I did change though, was the habit of reaching everywhere fashionably late or according to  ‘Indian Stretchable Time’. Barring the true blood desi events which operate on the same time-zone, I make sure that I get there on the dot or maximum five minutes behind. I have learnt to respect the value of getting everywhere on time, be it work or a social event. I understand how my coming late can inconvenience the host and upset their carefully organised event. I also understand that I am a role model for my children who will only emulate my behaviour. In a country where punctuality is considered a given, not an exception, I am happy to have adopted the good and shed my tardy habits from back home. Having said that, I gotta run now, ‘cause I am running enormously late for the Indian Independence Day celebrations. Hang on, did they say 7 pm  for a 7. 30 start, or was it the other way round??


Vasudaiva kutumbakam: The world is one big family


One of the things I do unconsciously as I walk into a room, is to say hello to everyone individually. Likewise, when I leave, I like to say goodbye to each person individually. This is a habit I learned years ago from my grandmother. She would say, “Jab bhi ghar aao, to sabse shukrana karke milo ke theek thaak ghar aaye ho. Aur jab bhi jaao, sab ko sukh se mil ke jaao”. Fourteen years after moving to Australia, I continue to follow my grandmother’s edict.

There are many other little things I learnt at her knee that I still practice to this day.  Starting new ventures with ardas (prayer), eating a spoon of meethi dahi (sweetened yogurt) for good luck before a major event, taking recourse to haldi (turmeric) as the first shot of medication for any ailment, addressing all and sundry as family members (Uncle, Aunty, Didi, Bhaiya)… old habits die hard!

And yet, I’ve found that new values are not so hard to take on either. From the Aussies I’ve learnt dignity of labour, egalitarianism, the value of time. They lead simple lives – they enjoy what they do, and do what they enjoy. I’ve learnt from them to be strong enough to be myself, and say and do what I really want to without any pretense. I love that they have no competition, no social stress of ‘keeping up’.

I have been very influenced by the Australian value of volunteering, particularly their spirit of charity and compassion that makes them give of their time freely to worthwhile causes such as aged care, kids’ sport etc. I’ve been volunteering for some time now at a school for special needs children in my suburb.

And I simply love the Aussie concept of BYO: if only we could adopt this, socializing wouldn’t be such an expensive and stressful affair!


Fitness first


One of the aspects of my life in India that I have kept up after moving here, is my passion for fitness. As a keen sportsman in my university days, I was determined to keep the passion alive. Today I am lucky enough to be living my dream in Australia, as a physical education teacher. My lifestyle revolves around fitness, having inculcated my wife and two young kids into it too, as well as many of my friends. After school hours, I run a coaching centre, and in the school holidays have organised physical fitness camps for kids. At the moment I am recovering from surgery after a major injury I suffered while playing soccer, but you will be glad to know that I’m off crutches now, which means I will be able to participate in Sydney’s City-to-Surf this weekend! I’ll have to walk this year though, while the rest of the family and the extended friends’ group will be running as always.

One of the new behaviours I have adopted consciously after moving to Australia, is to dress well. Even as a Phys Ed teacher, I take special care each morning to make an impression with clean and smart clothes. Happily, I’m frequently complimented for it!

And here’s something for you from my dear wife, who wants me to share with you that I haven’t lost the old habit of losing my keys: the locksmith has to be called – or the bathroom window smashed – on too regular a basis at our home.


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