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When a love for your partner extends to a love for the community in which you live
The date 14 February, marks a day when couples profess their love for each other. On this particular day, Valentine’s Day, love is celebrated with candlelight dinners, moonlight cruises, picnics in the park and romantic dates. It is a special day of great commercial possibilities: greeting cards, roses, chocolates, teddy bears, even diamonds. Many couples declare their love from rooftops, with posters and banners and even from helicopters.
And then there are couples who celebrate each day as Valentine’s Day. Their love is silent, their dreams and goals are similar, and they work together for the common good, selflessly giving their time and energy for the benefit of the community. They enjoy working together and cherish each other’s company. They do not crave recognition and awards; the joy of togetherness, and sharing their time and skills with the community, is reward enough.
This is a tribute to the silent love of such couples.
On weekends when most people would rather sleep in or enjoy breakfast in bed, Suresh and Chhaya Khatav are out and about in Sydney suburbs from six in the morning teaching yoga and helping people lead healthier lives.
“Yoga is an ancient discipline that benefits the mind, body and soul and helps us balance our energies,” says Suresh. Suresh is the founder of Spirit of India. Spirit of India is a not-for-profit organisation founded twelve years ago, which promotes good health, spirituality, charity and community awareness through the practice of yoga.
Presently, Suresh and Chhaya, along with a dedicated team of volunteers, teach yoga to about 350 people in 14 centres across Sydney. This includes children, adults and senior citizens. So far, they claim to have taught yoga to 6000 people in Sydney. Spirit of India is well-known also for organising seminars, symposia, workshops and lectures on self-improvement and health and well-being. Suresh is respected for his dedication and his knowledge of yoga and affectionately called Suresh Yogi by the community.
Suresh learnt yoga in Thane, Maharashtra, and started reaping the benefits of a yogic lifestyle from a young age. He wanted to share this skill with the community in Australia, and the first person he turned to for support and guidance was his wife Chhaya. A keen yoga enthusiast herself, Chhaya was supportive of Suresh’s initiatives from day one. While Suresh goes from one class to another, Chhaya follows him, true to her name, like a shadow assisting him to set up the class, getting equipment ready for him to demonstrate the various yogic cleansing techniques. She supports the women not only through the asana practices but also through personal, physical and medical issues. The administrative responsibilities of this growing organisation also fall on Chhaya’s capable shoulders.
“Our dreams were not achieved easily,” recalls Chhaya, narrating the experiences and challenges in setting up the yoga classes. When they arrived in this country in 2001, Suresh knew yoga but did not have the mastery to teach it and was eager to gain that. He decided to go to India to learn yoga in-depth so he would be able to instruct. He could not get leave of absence from work, so he resigned from his job.
While in India he learnt about a veteran yoga practioner in Australia, Mr Patankar. As soon as he returned to Sydney, he called Mr Patankar from the airport wanting to discuss yoga classes with him! Seeing Suresh’s enthusiasm and determination, Patankar agreed to support him in his endeavours. After passing through the maze of bureaucracy, they finally booked a hall, distributed pamphlets and announced the inauguration of the yoga class.
“After waiting for three hours, one person turned up!” recounts Chhaya.
The indomitable spirit of this couple shone through in the early days and they wanted to share this spirit, the Spirit of India, with others. They soldiered on, undaunted by the cold response, as they were determined to spread the message of this wonderful practice, yoga. Mr Patankar guided and supported them in the initial stages until he left for India. Mr Surveji, the general secretary of Ambika Yoga Kutir in Mumbai, continues to provide support and guidance to Spirit of India and all its activities.
One day, as the Khatavs walked past the Epping Seniors Club, it struck Suresh that seniors could benefit from yoga, especially Pranayama, a series of breathing techniques. He walked in, spoke to the club president and offered his services. Reluctantly, the club agreed to let him teach yoga if he could do it free! Suresh agreed but due to his working hours could not fit in the senior classes on weekday mornings. Sensing his disappointment, Chhaya offered to step in and run the yoga classes for seniors from various cultural backgrounds. After five years, she still travels three hours by public transport to come to Epping and run classes for the elderly. This is now one of the most popular activities of the seniors club and they will accept no other teacher than their own Chhayaji!
“We can be happy only if our families, our communities and people around us are happy,” says this yogic duo in unison, rolling their yoga mats together. “We are doing our best to spread the light of yoga and infuse people with a spirit of joy and well-being.”
They say you can take a person out of his country but you can’t take his country out of him. When you migrate to a new country you carry the culture, traditions and more importantly the language with you. So did Narayan Kanakpura and Rajalakshmi, when they migrated to Australia as newlyweds in 1995.
A talented couple interested in music, dance, theatre, language and literature, they were naturally drawn to the activities of the Kannada community. A born leader, Narayan started organising cultural activities for both youngsters and adults. Their house started becoming the hub of Kannada activities, and perhaps the couple’s culinary skills added to the attraction in no small measure!
Many Kannada families wanting their children to learn their mothertongue approached Rajalakshmi, Raji as she is popularly known, and Narayan. They started Kannada classes in the drawing room, the number of students increased and the classes spilled into their garage. Today the Kannada classes are conducted in community halls in Liverpool, Parramatta and Epping. The annual crash courses in Kannada are extremely popular and every year 20-30 people enrol in this course to learn the basics of a sweet and rich language.
In 2005, they established Sugama Gana Samaja, a platform for local singers to perform in public. Many are the talented singers who have performed at their karaoke events and gained popularity in the community. Narayan and Raji put together popular songs and hand stapled them into books for distribution at these events!
“The success of the first musical evening gave us the confidence to expand our activities,” reminsences Raji, looking back on the multitude of events they have organised together.
By popular demand, the Sugama platform started including cookery demonstrations, nutrition and dietetics with an emphasis on healthy living. The popular annual picnics organised by the Samaja were just the indication of the community to enjoy together. The popular website managed by the Sugama Kannada Koota now includes a monthly e-magazine Hornada Chilume. This magazine is well-received in 27 countries and is growing in popularity every month providing opportunities for writers and poets.
That this couple have dedicated every weekend over the past ten years to teach a language, is testimony to their passion and dedication. That they have managed this amongst the various demands of full-time jobs and a growing family also speaks of their time management skills. There is now a band of dedicated volunteer teachers supporting their initiative; their teenage kids Sindhu and Sanjay are substitute teachers who will jump in whenever needed. The reward for this hard work is the satisfaction of preserving and propagating a 2500-year-old language in distant multicultural Australia.
“When a caterer cancelled in the last minute, Raji once pitched in and helped me cook for over 100 guests at a Sugama Koota function. She has been my strength and support in every activity,” says Narayan, eyes shining with pride and gratitude.
“To be an integral part of the mainstream and yet retain one’s ethnic identity and values is a major challenge in a foreign country,” says Satwant Calais.
“Yet this challenge can be overcome and our community, especially our youth, are proving this year after year,” chimes in his beautiful wife Sushil.
Satwant Singh and Sushil Kaur Calais have been involved with the Sikh Youth Australia (SYA) since its inception in 1989. SYA is dedicated to enriching and empowering Sikh Youth to become model Australian Sikh citizens and leaders in their chosen professions and the community. Along with a band of dedicated volunteers, this couple has contributed immensely to the success of SYA’s initiatives including the increasingly popular summer camps and leadership development programs.
“At SYA Summer Youth Camps, every participant will learn the values of the Sikh religion and skills such as teamwork, co-operation, leadership and respect for others,” says Satwant, President of the SYA, with a touch of pride in his voice. “By the end of the camp each participant, young or old, will leave with at least one new element – whether a new aspect of knowledge, a new friendship or a discovery about themselves.”
When Satwant migrated to Australia in the ‘70s there were hardly any students of other ethnicity in his school at Hobart. This challenged the young lad to merge into the mainstream despite his Indian heritage and his distinct Sikh identity. He adjusted so well with his new surroundings that it was no surprise when he was elected to the governing council of the University of Tasmania. His natural leadership traits were honed further as the president of the ‘Overseas Students Service’ in the University of Tasmania.
In 1985 Sushil Kaur entered his life as his life partner and soul mate. It was not hard for the smart dentist Sushil to engage with the community both in a professional and a social way. The Calais brought up their two young sons in Hobart and introduced Indian and Sikh culture so well in their children’s school that the teachers were able to fix the young boys’ turbans when they went swimming!
The Calais family settled in Sydney in 1995 and, within a year, they had laid the foundation of the Punjabi language classes in Epping. Punjabi is now offered at the HSC as a language by the NSW education board. The annual Sikh youth camp seemed a natural extension of the language classes, targeting the youth.
The camp grew in popularity and now has become a multi- generational mega event which includes the parents and grandparents too. The festive communal atmosphere at the camp, held at the Sydney Sports Academy at Narrabeen, is now so popular that the 2016 camp in January attracted 450 participants. Each year outstanding facilitators from all around the world are invited, to educate and inspire the youth in an interactive, fun and relaxed learning atmosphere. The Summer Camps include recreational activities every afternoon, including sailing, swimming, kayaking, ropes courses, archery and soccer. The Calais’ feel this exposure to outdoor activities helps the youth to not only fare well in school sport but to also excel and lead sports and work teams.
What about the natural tiffs and arguments that couples have especially while working together?
“Oh, we have plenty of those,” the Calais laugh.
“It is the goal that we are working towards that keeps us both motivated and makes us forget our differences and look at the bigger picture,” reveals Satwant. “When we see the young kids we trained in the earlier camps, now take leadership and organise the camps and social development programs such as the Young Sikhs Professional Network, Sikh2Give and Culture Care activities as responsible, successful adults, it makes our hearts swell with pride.”
Both gently agree that they couldn’t have done it without the love and support of the other.
“I am the General Secretary of the Australian Chapter of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and my husband is my efficient secretary who helps me spread the message of the world as one family or Vasudaiva Kutumbakam,” says Akila Ramarathinam.
“The vision of VHP is to spread the message of inter-dependence of human societies, nature and her environment – ‘Harmony with the Creation,” adds the soft-spoken Mr Ramarathinam.
Together, this couple have strived to preserve and promote the Hindu cultural heritage in Australia. This includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our kids, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events etc. It is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.
“Our Hindu scripture classes have now spread to seventy schools in NSW,” reveals Akila. “To conduct these classes VHP has trained 250 volunteer teachers who reach out to more than 20,000 students weekly.”
Their program has become a boon to new migrants who are looking for work experience and exposure to the Australian work place. They receive training and support not only in teaching scriptures to children but they are also supported to interact with the mainstream community and settle well in their new country.
Along with the scripture classes, there are youth camps, children’s camps, Sanskrit classes, Veda classes and social service activities conducted by the VHP.
Akila and Ramarathinam distribute their energies in contributing to all these activities not only through the working week but also on weekends, driving across Sydney, and purely on a voluntary basis.
Added to all these activities is the responsibility they share of their daughter Santoshi who has multiple disabilities and needs special care and attention. In their effort to give their daughter the best exposure to the society and culture around her, the Ramarathinams have included many other children with special needs and developed an inclusive community. Akila’s own training in behavioural therapy and autism spectrum disorders has come in handy here. The Veda chanting and recitation classes are open for children with special needs and they are encouraged to learn at their own pace. They have demonstrated to the community to value the abilities of such children. This has encouraged many families to break away from the sense of isolation they may feel in bringing up a child with special needs. In the third Hindu conference held at Novotel in Parramatta, two youngsters with special needs were supported to present a paper. Ramarathinam extends the same empathy and understanding in the Sanskrit classes he conducts while teaching this ancient Indian language to youngsters growing up in a distant country.
This busy couple also manage time to encourage and nurture the musical talents of their son Krishna Ramarathinam, who is a well-known figure in the Sydney Indian music circle. Krishna in turn participates and supports his parents in all their activities.
Presenting a paper in the prestigious World Parliament of Religions in 2009 was a major milestone in Akila’s life. It gives her goose bumps to think that this was the same platform from which Swami Vivekananda had famously addressed the world in 1893.
“I could not have travelled interstate to attend the conference if my husband did not offer to look after our child with special needs,” acknowledges Akila.
It is this sense of mutual care and respect that has strengthened their marriage over three decades.
The couple gratefully acknowledge the encouragement and support they have got from the dedicated volunteers in the community who foster the sense of one family or ‘Vasudaiv Kutumbakam’ in multicultural Australia.