Unapologetic Avan!

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From international table tennis star to working with refugees on Christmas Island at the Department of Justice and Correction, Avanti Sinha believes when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

As a writer, I often don’t interview friends, but this interview I couldn’t resist writing. I met Avanti Sinha (lovingly called Avan) four years ago through a common friend; I was instantly taken by her personality and later her creativity. There’s always something refreshing about her, whether it’s her Instagram page, her Facebook page or in real life with a quote or a dance video. She’s the sort of person you can spot in an empty car park doing a music video at three in the morning.

When I told her that G’day India and The Indian Weekly would like to interview her, she asked me if her story would be worth writing about. I would reply to that comment that it’s not every day you come across people who are inspiring us with their journey – and in her case, it’s no less than a hero’s journey.

From being nominated at the Indian Film Festival Melbourne in 2020 to being recognised as an essential worker, this woman wears a lot of caps; that’s what fascinates me about her. So, I invite all my readers to join me in this fluid tour of Avan.

Her journey started in 2013, when she got made redundant at a textile company. She wanted a change and had enough with the desk job. So, she hung up her business suit to start her job as a security and welfare officer with the recreational department in Christmas Island Detention Centre, working with the refugees. Who does that for a ‘change’?

She tells me that it was one of the most positive experiences she’s ever had. Most people would steer away from saying that but only Avan can see the real human endurance. Was it because of her being a migrant herself and travelling a lot because of her sports career?

Avan is definitely a people person but between that soft, kind, creative heart, she is tough – if you clear that façade you will be lucky to catch a glimpse of the elusive Avan. I titled the story “Unapologetic Avan” because she doesn’t hold any regrets; one thing that is constant to her is change and detachment. According to Avan, one just should keep moving and not worry about what other people think.

As a recreation officer on Christmas Island and working with immigrants, especially those from war-torn countries, one hears stories of pain, suffering and genocide – you need a brave heart to do this job. I definitely wouldn’t be able to do that job. But then she goes on to another surprising twist: working for the Department of Justice. According to her, it’s a very people-oriented job and she doesn’t see it as tough. It’s like any other job and it’s about the welfare of people.

Due to her non-disclosure agreement with the Department of Justice, she cannot tell me about her typical day, but she tells me that a few times she had been at the wrong place at the wrong time, with a couple of incidents where she had to experience unpleasant aggression. The warm friendly demeanour certainly has a firewall. Avan tells me she gets frustrated when she sees so much talent getting wasted.

People who know Avan might feel that they know her, yet the real Avan is elusive. But she has a heart of gold; recently I had to endure a walking stick and in passing, I had told her about my condition. Voila! Next day she gets me a new walking stick.

Coming to the sportsperson, Avan tells me that she got into table tennis by accident. In reality she loves sports, although she wanted to be a fashion designer or pursue a creative field … an artist at heart! I loved the idea of being a dancer or an actor too.

She was living her father’s dream, who was also a table tennis player at the state level, then left his career to pursue acting – and then left acting to become her table tennis coach. Her father acted in some Bengali films too, and he was hailed as Bengal’s Amitabh Bachchan – you have to see for yourself to believe it!

Avan started her table tennis journey at the age of eleven; slowly but surely, she climbed the ladder to state championships and international meets. She travelled a lot for her international matches. In India, she played ten matches and she was semi-professional with ranking, which meant she now had sponsors. She gained work through sports quota recruitment in West Bengal, and she was hired by Indian Airlines, Indian Railways, and Life Insurance. Soon her ranking got her to the Asian Junior and Cadet Table Tennis Championships, the Commonwealth Championship and the US Open.

To Avan, playing sports is more like an adventure; she agrees it has given her exposure and confidence, but she’s not one of the regretting kind who would sit and analyse a match-point loss. In fact, she would be planning the next adventure in her head. She tells me that when she was in India, she was hired by Indian Railways and Indian Airlines and she would just hop on a train to seek her game or the next adventure, with places to explore.
In Australia, she represented Victoria at the state level; I remember her showing me some of her medals after a game in 2018.

She also won Police Games twice in a row, as well as the World Master Games in 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand, representing Australia.

But saying all that, she’s her father’s daughter: recently she completed a short film, It’s on me, which will be touring the international short film festivals (including our own Melbourne festival).

I ask what’s next for Avan. Taking a brief pause, she tells me COVID has dampened a few plans but the spirit of sportsmanship is still alive – and with that, she indulges us in her little secret. She will soon be volunteering at IPDC, a non-profit organisation teaching young Islamic women table tennis. She will be coaching girls at the age of 10–12 at the Melbourne Multicultural Centre in Tarneit. The universe surely does a full circle and pokes us to give back what we gained. She started her career at the age of eleven, although her adventure for sports never gave her the same thrill as travel.

Avan the person is strong and no one can enter that private place; if anyone has slightly indulged, she is quick to regain that control. To her, rejection gives her strength, may that be love, career or any other setbacks. She is also an avid animal lover; she loves taking her cat Kyra on long drives and wants to do more to create awareness about animals.

I often told her that she is like the firebird, but never told her its meaning. The firebird (Russian folklore) is a magical and divinatory bird from a mysterious land which is both a blessing and damnation to its confinement.

So how can I quote someone else when Avan is her own fame? In her own words: “You are born original. Don’t die a copy.”

By Nandita Chakraborty