Courage of Migrants

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    Hardev Singh Virk’s life may be an ordinary one, but his extraordinary journey to Australia in 1975 and his easy assimilation adds to the strength of this country’s rich multicultural story.
    I swam to Australia,” laughs Hardev Singh Virk, when asked how he came to Australia in 1975. It was a time when the country still had the White Policy, when visas and Permanent Residencies were far beyond the reach of those who were non-white. So it is with great inquisition that Virk is asked the question yet again: “How did you get here?”
    The answer that follows is the stuff Hollywood films are made.
    Virk was in his final year of graduation in a college in Chandigarh and all of 22 when he and some of his friends got together to meet a guy who had come from Germany. It would be a meeting that would inspire them to travel abroad. Living in India in the mid ‘70s, Virk and his friends were unsure about what to do in life. And they left India with this same sense of uncertainty.
    “I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing when I left India in January 1975.” For the first time in their lives, Virk and his friends took a flight from Amritsar to go to Kabul. They had never seen a plane and were curious as to how air hostesses looked like. To their dismay, it took them three days to reach Kabul as their plane was stranded in Kandahar in an army base which was built by America. It was winter and Kabul was blanketed by snow. Every day the pilot would attempt twice to land in Kabul. Without much success.
    “For the first time I saw a metre-long chapatti (bread) which was among the food given to us,” he says. “We were all impatient but finally on the third day we landed in Kabul.”
    Kabul was very cold, recalls Virk. After staying there for a week, they started their journey to destination unknown. “Somebody told us that if you get to Greece there is plenty of work and from there we could move to Switzerland or Germany.” So they travelled by road from Kabul through Iran, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania and Italy. During those days, one had to just show the passport at the border post where they were given three months’ entry.
    However the travels were quite eventful in itself. “I remember going to Yugoslavia from Bulgaria and we were there for one month. We couldn’t find any work. It was a cold, communist country and a new experience. When we left India we had some boxes of tea and pickles in our suitcases. We were staying in a hostel; somehow somebody reported that these people are funny looking and carrying a few things in their bag so the police came and searched our suitcases. We told them we were tourists. They saw the tins but somehow they took us to the police station and said ‘tomorrow you have to see the magistrate’. I still remember I was the one in the group who could communicate so I spoke. They wanted to know what brought us there, I said we are travelling and leaving shortly. Later they apologised as they found nothing on us.”
    From there they entered Greece, their first major point, where they spent the next six months. “Greece in those days was like the headquarters for tourists and migrants who wanted to find work in shipping. They used to recruit people in shipping lines to England, Holland, Europe and South Africa.”
    Virk and his friends worked in a passenger ship for about three months which brought them to Australia. “We landed in Sydney. Once the ship reached here I was convinced by some of my friends about leaving because shipping life not good. And I was very sick in the ship. So we decided to leave. Yes we were adventurous; it was something we hadn’t done in life.”
    Armed with some amount of money, the group stayed in a hotel. Soon they found out that there was plenty of work in Australia at that time. “After a couple of days we went to north Queensland, I was near Cairns, where the sugar cane belt is. There were a few Indian farmers who were brought by the British many, many years ago. The British used to bring a lot of horses and needed the labourers, and when they didn’t need them anymore they were told to go and find a place to live. So they just stayed on.”
    The seasonal farm work allowed them to move from state to state. They had no permanent address. “We worked three months in each place. So when the sugar cane work season got finished, we moved to New South Wales or Victoria.”
    Life was definitely lonely, recalls Virk. “We missed our family very much. We could write letters. But we kept working very hard putting in 12-14 hours a day. And in those days if you earned 100 dollars a week it was a lot of money. Besides, things were cheap. The main idea behind leaving India was to find something for ourselves so that we could help our families and also start something for ourselves.
    “When we first came here if we had to make a phone call to India, we used to go to the GPO, there were no landlines. Our families had to go to a bigger town with a bigger post office to receive our calls. Whenever there was an emergency call we used to go to the GPO but our main communication was a telegram,” says Virk.
    But they had also seen Australia’s transition from olden days to modernity. “The late 70s and early 80s was also when Telecom (now changed to Telstra) started coming into the homes. We used to have black and white TVs. Coloured TVs in Australia came in the 1980s, and then came the VCRs etc.”
    And many, many good memories were made along the way. The friendship among the group of friends who were mostly single was something that kept them going together. While they toiled hard during the day, come night and they would cook together, have a few drinks, sing and pass their time. One thing that also stayed in memory was the unavailability of spices save the curry powder and the occasional turmeric in stores.
    They also mingled with the other farmers who were of Italian and Yugoslavia backgrounds. “We really had a good time. It was easy for us to settle in this country because money was good and we were helping our families. At the same time we were comfortable here and our life was different to the one we were used to in India. We adapted very quickly though missing family and home was something that stayed in our hearts.”
    Did people look at them with curiosity? “Those days Australia was more accepting because the Australian people hadn’t seen many Indians. I didn’t have the turban, just the beard, because circumstances brought us here. Wherever we used to go people offered their help, talked to us and asked us questions such as ‘where are you from?’ It was a bit difficult to understand the accent in the beginning.” says Virk.
    Fortunately for Virk and his friends, the year they landed in Australia was the year when Gough Whitlam was sacked as the Premier and Malcolm Fraser from the Liberal Party took over. Fraser had earlier announced in his policy speech that anybody who entered Australia before 31st December 1975 would be given a permanent residency (PR) should he win the election. True enough, in the first week of winning his election, Virk was told by his farmer friends in Shepparton where he was working then to go and apply for residency.
    “First we had a suspicion thinking the immigration department was tightening its reins and that somebody had reported about us,” says Virk. So he and a friend went in first to the immigration office and stationed their other four friends outside should they spot something fishy. To his surprise, when he and his friend entered the room they were told ‘you are now permanent residents’.”
    It was the best piece of news. They had never thought of settling down permanently in a foreign country. The idea those days says Virk, was to go to a country, work hard, make some money and perhaps go back home and start something independently. “But God had something else planned for us.” Within three months of arrival in Australia, Virk was a permanent resident. “I have never looked back since.”
    After becoming a PR, Virk continued farming work for a year and later join the Victorian Railways where he served for 19 and half years. “I started in the electrical branch and then I became a suburban guard on train. After six years I became a training officer or instructor.” In between like the rest of his friends, he went back to Punjab in India, got married and brought his bride here.
    Doing shift works in the railways also gave him the opportunity to maximise his entrepreneurial instincts. In 1978, he had his taxi licence and was told by the registry office that he was the second Punjabi Indian to gain a taxi licence in Victoria.
    After Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett came in, the railways was privatised and Virk took his redundancy package and moved on to concentrate full time in driving his taxi. “There were not many Indian taxi drivers. I liked the flexibility too”.
    But Virk’s adventurous streak has always stayed with him. He has dabbled in a lot of different things besides working as a public servant and running a taxi. In 2005 he bought a motel with a friend and ran that for seven years in Mentone. “We had 52 rooms, a restaurant and a conference facility.” But in 2012 because of the global financial crisis he sold his shares to his friend and went into property business developing some units in Dandenong. Finally, with his children having grown up and doing well for themselves, he decided to slow down and enjoy life.
    Virk, now 62, has been driving taxis for decades now. He is the proud owner of two taxis and he thoroughly enjoys being in this profession.
    Having been in the industry for so long now, he has observed the changes. “In the olden days, there was no computerisation. There were old radios, very old cars but we never had trouble and people who were drinking were also not bad drunks. There was plenty of work too. You could start any time because petrol was cheap and demand was high. There were not many Indians but Greeks, Italians and Lebanese people in the field.”
    For the past 10-15 years, basing on the huge student migration who can’t find many jobs, the government didn’t put any restriction and it became easy to procure a licence. “But that brought a lot of problems in the industry. Because Melbourne is a complex city, you can’t know the area in one year or six months of living in it. That compounded with communication problem with passengers makes it a tough industry to deal with because you are working with the public. Wherever there is public there is always going to be problem, something I learnt while working with the railways. There too we were dealing with the public there were always complaints. So every industry has its different problems.”
    Virk says he understands that a lot of people might look down upon taxi driving as a profession. But having lived in Australia, he cherishes the dignity of labour. It is a profession he thoroughly enjoys and finds immense satisfaction. “You meet probably 20-30 different people every day. Majority of them are decent and nice. I don’t think I have ever had a bad experience but maybe sometimes minor argument but I take it very lightly. If someone says there is a one or two dollar difference I prefer to return a dollar from my pocket. I don’t want the customer to feel bad about it. It is pointless to argue over for 20 or 50 cent and you don’t want to have a bad name. This is the industry where you got to have a lot of patience otherwise you cannot work.”
    Virk’s story may seem ordinary but his journey and assimilation into Australia’s multicultural society is one that tugs at the heartstrings. “We have worked hard and we are happy.” He says he cannot thank God enough for the comfortable life he has been blessed with. The gurudwara is where you would often find him. “I try to hold my principles as much as I can.” The long years here has still kept him tied to his culture and roots, while also imbibing the best of what Australia has to offer.
    By Indira Laisram