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To be or not to be - that is the question

By Babette Francis - posted Monday, 13 February 2012

Graham Young provides an invaluable social monitor of how we feel and live in Australia in the 21st century, so I hope someone is placing all the contributions to his On Line Opinion in a safe time-capsule which will be preserved for future historians in case Brisbane, from where On Line Opinion emerges, is completely submerged by the Pacific Ocean or the over-flowing Wivenhoe Dam

His latest project is surveying Australia's diaspora, that 5% of Australians who live and work abroad. I don't fit into that category, rather the reverse, being among the 25% of Australian residents who were born overseas. Having been born in India and having lived in Australia for over 50 years, I want to play tribute to this country because I have been happy here, and apart from the death of my husband two years ago - which was devastating and still is - I have not experienced any other major trauma

There have been moments of acute nostalgia for the land of my birth, and they strike at the most unexpected times. Once watching a sunset in Tasmania I was thinking how beautiful it was when it suddenly struck me that the sunset had overwhelmingly purple tones, unlike the orange-reds of an Indian sunset. I felt like a migratory bird that had flown too far off course in its migration. I shivered and something in my brain was saying "You are too far south - go back, go back". Absurd, I know, but the moment of unease and the longing for the warmth one feels with sunsets in south India was real


Another absurd moment of nostalgia was when I was at a police station dealing with a routine task of getting a signature on a document when a policeman brought in a young teenage girl, obviously of Indian origin, who had been involved in some minor escapade. She was very pretty but it was her eyes that tugged at my heart - they were the familiar almond-shaped dark brown eyes so familiar on the sub-continent, and I felt irrationally "Why don't I see eyes like that more often - I am surrounded by strangers"

Enough of my minor bouts of homesickness. I am beginning to sound like Ruth, in Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale', "in tears amid the alien corn". I want to pay tribute to the lack of racism in Australia. I have lived and worked on all five continents, and I can honestly say I believe Australia is the least racist country in the world and that includes India where the caste system, although illegal, still bedevils the country

The lack of racism in Australia was a surprising revelation as I came to live here in 1954 when the White Australia Policy was still in force. My husband, Charles, and I met on a ship going to London in 1953 - he boarded the ship in Melbourne and I boarded in Bombay. We first met when the ship was somewhere in the Red Sea, and we married three months later in London

Meanwhile my parents in India had made discreet inquiries to find out if Charles was of good character, and most importantly, was he in fact single. There had been some bad experiences in India where some members of the US army stationed in India during World War 2 had married Indian girls while they already had wives back home in the US

Charles received a good report following the inquiries; my parents were informed that he was a barrister of good character and good prospects and had never been married

Under the White Australia Policy, Asians could only get 5-year permits to live in Australia; these had to be renewed every 5 years. To get me a 5-year-permit my husband was interviewed by Australia's High Commissioner in London. Charles explained that I was a Christian, spoke English well, had a university degree and would assimilate easily. The High Commissioner said "That's all very well, but what colour is she?" After India gained Independence in 1947, many Anglo-Indians had migrated to Australia, but I was a full Indian and brown as a berry. Anyway I did get a series of 5-year permits to live here and when Harold Holt became Prime Minister the White Australia Policy was abolished and I was granted Australian citizenship


Before arriving in Australia, in view of the White Australia policy and the High Commissioner's question about my colour, I was more than a little apprehensive about living in this country, but I was pleasantly surprised: my husband's family and friends treated me with great warmth and affection and I felt very much at home. The one comic exception was an elderly couple, distant relatives by marriage of my husband. The wife said she didn't want to meet me because I was Indian, and the husband said he didn't mind me being Indian but he didn't want to meet me because I was a Catholic! I guess one can't win them all

It wasn't just the lack of racism that relaxed me when I arrived in Australia, what was really heartening was the genuine interest in India - I received many invitations to speak to groups about India, its culture, politics, food, and fashion. As I became involved in politics myself, I was able to establish and maintain for the past 33 years a pro-family organisation, Endeavour Forum Inc., on the conservative edge of the Australian political scene. That in itself is a tribute to the lack of racism (and sexism) in Australia - for an Indian to be able to establish and be the National Co-ordinator of a conservative NGO in Australia

I am not implying that my experience with the lack of racism is common to all the non-European immigrants to this country, and I have often pondered what made my experience so happy. I have come to the conclusion that it is my facility in the English language - I have a big vocabulary and enjoy writing. For that I have to thank the nuns in the various convent schools I attended in India, who immersed their pupils in English literature and poetry, taught us to write essays and precis long articles. If one can communicate, one can talk one's way through most problems in a democratic country. I am not sure I could talk my way out of a jail cell in Iran, but English works in Australia. Being facile in English does not of course solve problems, but at least one can figure out in what direction to head

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About the Author

Babette Francis, (BSc.Hons), mother of eight, is the National & Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc. an NGO with special consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the UN. Mrs. Francis is the Australian representative of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer - She lived in India during the Partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan, a historical event that she believes was caused by the unwillingness of the Muslim leaders of that era to live in a secular democracy.

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