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Cultures dance in harmony in new land

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Friday, 22 January 2010


Like many immigrant parents, mine were desperate for me to retain a connection with my ancestral culture. They usually resorted to attending cultural events that consisted of hours upon hours of dance showcasing the wonders of rural life in India, accompanied by the soporific beats of the harmonium and sitar.

My contemporaries would escape outside to sneak a smoke and debate sport. In spite of their parents' best efforts, traditional cultural events had little connection with the complex lives of adolescents trying to navigate two very different cultures.

Two decades on, the A.R. Rahman concert in Parramatta Park at the weekend had an extra charge in the aftermath of attacks on Indian students.Tens of thousands of concert-goers watched the composer-phenomenon of Slumdog Millionaire fame, who has made jai ho the most recognisable Indian catchphrase since om shanti.

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The dominant groups in the audience were from the subcontinent, and from every generation. Women in saris danced rhythmically to the energising music, a small group of young men performed the rituals of a Muslim prayer, South Indians passed around dosai filled with potatoes. And rather than sneaking out for a cigarette, the young people were as enthused as their elders.

The event was an affirmation of the South Asian community in Australia, a celebration of an ancient culture now able to meld with the modern, with Rahman's music drawing on influences as diverse as reggae to rap. It was a reminder that it is in the West that Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans mix with ease, barely without differentiation. It is here that the artifice of partition is most evident.

The event hinted that this expatriate group has become more united amid the Indian student crisis. At its height last July, representation was poor. Protests - like the spontaneous outpouring of anger at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne - were disorganised, petulant and threatened to undermine public sympathy.

At a Sydney meeting held by the Community Relations Commission, Indian elders encouraged students not to protest and let behind-the-scenes negotiations take their course. That angered student representatives, who suggested semi-retired suburban men had little understanding of their struggles.

Between July and October last year, Indian student visas fell 46 per cent - a massive economic hit. It can be partly explained by the high Australian dollar but news of further attacks will hardly help. A contraction in the range of courses will also dampen the influx.

But the significance of international students may pale in comparison with the importance of the expatriate South Asian community, arguably the most significant in the world.

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Expatriate Indians number about 50 million. They inhabit all corners of the world. India invented the notion of the ''non-resident citizen'' and has a ministry devoted to the issue.

In the United States, South Asians have been proclaimed by the government as the most successful immigrant group in its history. Here, the local group is just starting to mature. Numbering close to 400,000, it is as big as the Australian Muslim community, which has appropriately received disproportionate attention and money. The number is higher when Fijian Indians are included, a subset perceived to be less successful, with higher rates of crime and delinquency. A source at the Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre told me young Fijian Indians suffer similar difficulties as young Muslims, who struggle to negotiate between disparate cultures.

The Sri Lankan conflict and the mobilisation of young Tamils around the world indicated the growing importance of expatriate communities and their potential to influence the foreign policy of developed nations. Much of it is driven by a desire for migrant groups to remain connected to their ancestry and help those left in their disadvantaged homelands.

While some commentators have suggested India and South Asia was a blind spot in Australian foreign policy, this is unlikely to remain the case for long. Never mind international students, the growing visibility and significance of the more established expatriate community will ensure otherwise.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 19, 2010.



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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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