Tale of Townsville – Australian city where Malayalam is the 2nd most commonly spoken foreign language

Malaylees of Townsville never fail to celebrate Kerala's traditional festivals like Onam and Vishu. Photo: Special Arrangement

Far away Down Under, a tiny Kerala is in the making. Malayalam, the mother tongue of the people of the south Indian state, is the second most commonly spoken foreign language in Townsville, a city on the northeastern coast of Queensland, Australia.

As many as 793 people use Malayalam at home, only behind Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines, which is used by 960 people in the city, according to Australia Census 2021. It is a significant 0.4 per cent for an immigrant population.

The city has been witnessing a steady inflow of the Malayali population in the past few years, courtesy of the rising demand for nurses in Australia.

Townsville’s strong bond with Malayalis came to light recently when Mayor Jenny Hill posted a photo with Malayali nurse-writer Bissy Thoppil. The mayor wrote a touching note after receiving Thoppil’s books in Malayalam as a donation into the Mayoral Collection at the Townsville City Library.

A native of Udayamperoor in Ernakulam, Thoppil is among the early nurses who migrated to Australia from Kerala. She shifted to Townsville from Victoria along with her husband and two children. Now, around 350 Malayali families live in Townsville.

Townsville’s strong bond with Malayalees came to light recently when Mayor Jenny Hill posted a photo with Malayali nurse-writer Bissy Thoppil. Photo courtesy: Mayor Jenny Hill/Facebook

“For us, the weather was a major reason to shift to Townsville. It is very similar to that of Kerala. We can find almost everything we get in Kerala here,” Thoppil told Onmanorama.

Thoppil, who has already authored three anthologies of short stories, said the actual number of people speaking Malayalam at home could be much more than the census data.

As elsewhere in the world, the Malayali diaspora maintains strong community bonds in Townsville. The city already has two Malayali associations that organise gatherings and public events frequently. The Malayali population of Townsville grew manifold in the past three decades. “When I came here in 1997, there were only two or three Malayali families here. There was a boom in immigration since 2005 when Australia started recruiting nurses from the UK and Ireland,” Prof Mohan Jacob, a Kanjirappally native, who is the head of Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Jamescook University, Queensland, told Onmanorama.

Jacob also stressed the weather factor of Townsville. “It’s very similar to that of Kerala. It is a tropical climate and most tropical fruits and vegetables are available in North Queensland and fresh produce like tapioca, jackfruit, mango and coconut. People also cultivate crops like tapioca, plantain and greater yam,” Jacob, who is the Associate Dean of Research Education, at the College of Science and Engineering, said. He said there has been a huge inflow of Malayali students to Australia. “There was a dip during the pandemic, but the pace is picking up again now,” he said.

“Malayalis even do grocery business in Townsville so that all spices are available. We have several traditional festival celebrations, including Onam and Vishu, and hence, we have opportunities to share our culture and traditions with the local populations,” he said.

Sam Kadavil, a nurse who migrated to Townsville in 2009, said elderly people from Kerala who stay in the city were happy as they often felt at home. “There is a strong community feeling among the Keralites here. We have also been able to leave goodwill in the city council and the government offices here,” Kadavil, who is the former president of Kerala Association of Townsville, said. The other organisation is called the Malayali Association of Townsville. Malayalis are also active in the organisation of the India Festival in Townsville, one of the largest cultural events in the city.

People's representatives of Townsville attend an Onam celebration. Photo: Special Arrangement

Hailing the Keralites for their talent in diverse fields, the Office of the Mayor said Malayalee people contribute across the Townsville community. “You will find Malayalees being leaders in medicine, business, the legal profession, engineering, information technology and academia in Townsville,” the mayor’s office said in an email response.

The mayor’s office said Townsville City Council has had a long association with promoting multiculturalism in North Queensland. “Council sponsors many festivals that celebrate the culture and achievements of culturally and linguistically diverse people in the region – supporting events such as the Townsville Filipino Festival, Africa Fest and India Fest. These events are not just supported financially, but most Councillors thoroughly look forward to attending and participating in these events.

Townsville City Council, alongside the Queensland State Government, is proud to support and partner with organisations that look after migrant wellbeing in Townsville. The Townsville Multicultural Support Group and Multicultural Australia are peak organisations, but the Council also supports individual community associations, such as the Kerala Association of Townsville,” the office said.

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