In 1968, when a Malayali banking executive based in Selangor, Malaysia, visited Sydney on business, he was invited by an Australian associate to take up a lucrative job in the city and migrate to the country. Looking around, the man who helped set up Indian Overseas Bank’s operations in Colombo, Ipoh and Klang, pondered over the offer. Sydney at that time was nothing like the vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis that it is now. The banker did not see it emerging as one of the world’s great cities. Add this to the fact that it was next to impossible to spot another Indian face, let alone a fellow Malayali, he decided to decline the offer. Eight years later when the banker visited the city and saw it full of energy, opportunities and life, he knew he had made the wrong decision.
The gentleman from Palakkad, now long deceased, went on to have a fairly remarkable banking career but there’s no telling how it would have turned out for him as one of the first Malayalis to settle in a country that for long has been considered one of the best places in the world to live.
In the 1960s almost all Malayalam speakers in Australia were Anglo-Indians from Kerala, who were considered ‘White enough’ by the government of Australia to allow them to settle in the country. Most of the Anglo-Indians who chose to leave Kerala for the distant island considered themselves culturally English and would have had little trouble integrating into Australian society. The presence of these migrants hardly caused a stir in a country where racist policies were a norm.
A Malayali in ‘White Australia’
Fearing mass migration from China and other parts of East Asia, the Australian government in 1901 set up policies, broadly known as the ‘White Australia’ policy, which aimed to restrict immigration of people of non-European ethnic origin. This was, at times, even extended to southern Europeans. So, for an Indian to migrate to Australia seemed next to impossible right until the early 1970s when the policies were dismantled.
The only Indians who could visit the country without much hassle when ‘White Australia’ was at its peak were cricketers, tennis players and other athletes who went for sporting events such as the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Australia slowly started to allow students from other British Commonwealth countries in the 1960s, but there were few takers from India.
The first Malayali from a non-Anglo-Indian background to try his luck ‘Down Under’ was George Varughese, who was born at Puthussery and moved to northern Borneo after graduating from university to teach in an Australian-run school. “I went there for two to three years and was going home to India or to England to do further studies as most Indians would do,” Varughese told the New South Wales Migration Heritage Centre in a 2006 interview. “What changed my direction was the teachers there; 90 per cent were Australian. They influenced me to come to Sydney which was impossible in those days because of the “White Australia” policy.”
In 1963, he enrolled at a Sydney University college, where he was the only Indian student. In the interview he described how he had to adapt to a completely new culture, cuisine and customs. The hostel he stayed in had a dining hall that insisted on all students being dressed in a suit and tie.
The Australian racist bureaucracy was not keen on extending Varughese’s visa. Unlike British and northern European immigrants, who were encouraged to stay and given state support, the Malayali student faced the brunt of immigration authorities. “I used to get telegrams from the Immigration Department at the end of every term to report to them within 24 hours,” Varughese said. “I’d be interviewed and had to produce my (education) results. Fortunately I was passing my courses so I didn’t have to go back (to India).”
Varughese managed to stay back after getting a job in what he termed “an unprecedented case” as his services were needed by the education department. He married a fellow Malayali back in Kerala and took his wife to Sydney. The birth of his son in 1970 received front-page newspaper coverage since the child was believed to be the first Indian to be born in Australia.
He later became an Australian citizen and a pillar of the slowly growing Malayali committee. He also sought out Malayali immigrants and organised Kerala-style Christmas celebrations. As in the case of most countries, all Malayalis in Australia first joined a single association, regardless of religious, caste or sub-regional origin. Varughese, who founded the Malayalee Association of Sydney, later became involved in the World Malayalee Council.
A leading diplomat
There are now believed to be about 55,000 Malayali-Australians. They’ve managed to shine in many walks of life in the country, but one of the true role models of the community is Peter Varghese, who was eight when his parents migrated to Australia in 1964. He began serving as an Australian diplomat in 1980, when he was posted to the country’s mission in Vienna. After several postings, he became the country’s high commissioner to Malaysia in 2000.
In August 2009, he became the first Indian-origin person to become the Australian high commissioner to India. While he was the toast of the Australian Malayali community and Malayalis in India and abroad, he did not arrive in India at the most opportune moment. During his time as the top Australian diplomat in India, the Indian media was full of reports of Indians students getting beaten up in Australia. Rabid and nationalist television anchors in India kept questioning Varghese about these attacks, but the charismatic diplomat kept his composure and poise while handling these ‘warriors.’ In fact, his tenure in India at this tough time in bilateral relations was widely seen as a success and he helped portray Australia as a country that had moved on from its uncomfortable racist past.
Decades separated from ‘White Australia,’ it’s good to see a thriving and happy Malayali community in the country. Besides contributing positively to Australian society, the Malayalis ‘Down Under’ serve as a valuable cultural bridge between the two countries.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)