Life in good service

Hardeep Kaur Madan is all wit and grace. A recipient of many awards for service to the community, what keeps Madan going?
Hardeep Kaur Madan, 79, says her adventure in life started in her childhood itself. It goes back to Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Kohat (now in Pakistan) during the pre-Independence days when her father was serving with the British army as an accounts officer. Unlike many of her peers, she had the rare fortune of travelling places, thanks to her father’s transferable job. The result of these travels was meeting people, something she enjoyed immensely and something she enjoys even now. Whether it was the British in India or the Muslims in Peshawar or Kohat or the Hindus in Meerut, Madan had her first brush with multiculturalism at a young age. Today as a recipient of many awards for her service to the community, it is not hard to trace why Madan is a people’s person.
Walking down memory lane with Madan is as exciting as it could get. She was a part of history in the making seeing India up close and personal during the pre- Independence days, and after. One summer afternoon, she had travelled with her father to Rajghat, Old Delhi, where India’s great freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi was leading his evening prayers. They were singing Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Gandhiji’s personal favourite devotional song. “I was sitting right in front and singing my loudest when Gandhiji heard me and called me on the stage. He put me on his lap and said ‘now you sing’.” An unbelievable story but Madan had managed to impress the Mahatma even at that tender age of nine.
In the days leading up to India’s Independence, Delhi was a hotbed of activities with Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose (he had disappeared but his army Azad Hind Force was very much alive) leading centre-stage. “National songs rent the air. We had a big change.”
Living in Meerut, one of the biggest army cantonments which was also the hub for the Azad Hind Force, Madan felt she was right into the Azad Hind movement in getting independence from British rule. Behind her house was a big ground where the recruits practised the national songs every morning and evening. “I would listen and sing along with them. Some of them used to call me baby.” The songs, she says, are embedded in her memory and taught them as part of her voluntary work with the community.

When India achieved its Independence on 15 August 1947, Madan was part of the celebration. She got on the stage, danced and sang Dur hato duniya walo, Hindustan hamare hain. “Those were my beautiful childhood memories,” she recalls.
By the time the great partition between India and Pakistan was announced, her family had already settled in Meerut in 1945. But for days on end, hordes of relatives came from Pakistan and her place was a sanctuary of sorts. “We had to accommodate all of them whether there was place or not. They kept coming and everybody used to sleep outside. There was a strong family feeling, I have seen the partition that way,” says Madan, who was nine-years old then.
Growing up in Pakistan before Independence and in India post-Independence, Madan was exposed to an amalgam of cultures – Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. “I had qawwali and ghazals on one side and the Gurbani and kirtan on the other. I also studied Hindi literature for my BA,” she says, adding, “My influences were so versatile. We celebrated Dusherra, Diwali, Eid et al. On top of that I had a father who believed in multi faiths and in mixing with everybody. In my house I witnessed people of all religion coming. We had a Bible, a Koran, a Gita and my upbringing was multicultural. At heart I was true Sikh.”
After her graduation Madan did her teacher’s training. Then her family moved to Delhi where she worked as a teacher for a year before she got married and moved to England where she would spend the next two decades of her life. “We remember the British as those who came to our country and ruled over us but when they left us I followed them,” she laughs.
Madan’s memories of England are some of her best. She had the resilience and the spirit to love and nurture her new environment making memorable friends along the way. With no modern technology, a day before she was to go into labour, the doctor did an X-Ray and announced she was having twins. When the doctor asked if she was shocked, she replied “No”. “I had an attitude; I take things as they come. I thought it would be interesting having twins.” I had all the help from my English neighbours. I would say I had no problem living with English people.” Ten years later, she was also blessed with another child, a son this time.
After 26 years in England, the Madans moved to Australia. Her erudite husband who was then working with British Airways designed their computer system and had a project in New Zealand too which brought them to Australia a few times. Incidentally, the design won the Queen’s award. “That was the time that changed our life’s direction. We loved Australia.” With their daughters in the final years of their schooling, the idea of coming to Australia took three years to materialise.
In 1987, Madan moved to Australia. “I had a very bad start in Australia,” she says, reflecting on one of her daughters who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in England. “As soon she came here she started going downhill. She was bound in a wheel chair and I just didn’t know what to do. You are feeling on top of the world coming to a new country and suddenly you are confronted with sadness, but people were very good and I got a lot of support.”
In 1990 Madan lost her daughter and it was the year that her real life started. Faced with an all-consuming grief, she had two choices – mourn and get depressed or get out. A friend from the Gurudwara who also had a similar experience of losing her child to leukemia told her, “You shouldn’t sit at home, you will drown.” Madan took her advice and joined her friend in community work at the Gurudwara.
“That was my start with the community work. It was a way to escape my sorrows. In the process I realised my own quality. They say nothing succeeds like success. I had great success with community work which was just picking up then. This was a new country with all migrants coming but not all migrants were lucky like me. A majority of them had no exposure to education and the world. They needed a leader like me, someone who could talk and being a school teacher all my life helped. It’s also some qualities that I inherited from my father. He was a good speaker, was outgoing, broadminded and had the ability to unite people,” says Madan.
With her ability to sing and dance, Madan started Jhankar, a cultural group at Monash University. The group performed in different events and functions.
When Blackburn Gurudwara was established in 1993, Madan was elected the first general secretary.
She recalls a great partnership with Gurbaksh Singh Uppal who started the gurudwara. “When I told him I don’t have a family here to back me up, he pointed to the members of the gurudwara and said ‘these are your family. To this day they all respect me like their own family. I really enjoyed working with the gurudwara.”
Madan also started the Sikh Council of Victoria with a team which went on to win many government awards for multicultural work. “I loved the multicultural field because multiculturalism was in my blood again. We brought people together through cultural activities. We did a program once at Boxhill Townhall and it was our first attempt to bring people of different cultures together – we had the Asians, European etc., who brought showcased their cultural songs and dances.”
Madan also taught English, Hindi and spoken Punjabi for those who were born and brought up here or Singapore and Malaysia. She taught Hindi at the Hindi Niketan, which is today one of the oldest Indian organisations in Victoria having been in existence for 20 years.
With every passing year, she loved the work that she was doing. As Madan says as soon as she came out of her daughter’s death, there was no limit to what she could do. She became the first principal of the first ever Punjabi language school at Blackburn gurudwara. After that, she put the application for accreditation of Punjabi language for VCE. “It took years but we eventually got it.” That is one role she is proud of.
She continued doing a lot of work through the Sikh Welfare Council promoting language and culture of Punjabi. For 12 years in a row, a contingent of the council took part in the Australia Day parade where the bhangra and the gidda were one of the main attractions.
But while there were a lot of activities for Sikh youths, migrants and women, there was nothing for seniors, so Madan and her team started the seniors’ welfare group. “We realised the seniors were very lonely. They made me in charge and I was president for many years.”
Madan says her life has been busier after retirement than when she was younger. All her service has been voluntary, something she carries on with all earnestness even today. It was only last year when she turned 78 that she suffered a big shock. It was the afternoon after she had just turned 78 that she felt a stinging pain on her chest and a slight breathlessness. “I had no idea that there was anything wrong with me. Till the day before I was shopping cooking, went to bed fine and got up fine.” Immediately she dialled triple zero and told them she was having a heart attack. “They asked ‘how are you so sure’, I said because I teach elders what to watch and it’s coming to me today.” The ambulance arrived on time. True enough, Madan had a massive heart attack and was in coma from the afternoon till the next morning. She was in ICU for six days. However, she says she survived “because God wants me to do more work. I am getting stronger, I am ok.”
Perhaps Madan’s recovery has to do with the fact that she is a very determined person. “I look after myself, I live alone and I have all the help from Whitehorse Council.” Her other daughter and son also give her company from time to time.
For all her selfless and exemplary work, Madan has not gone unnoticed. This August recognising her community work in Melbourne for over 20 years, the Victorian Sikh Association felicitated her. “They had different categories of awards and one category overall for the best deserving candidate which came to me. They had a big screen displaying my work. I got a certificate and a cash prize.”
She has also in the past received the Victorian award for excellence in multicultural affairs in 2006. She received an award for the meritorious service in the community from the Sikh Society of Australia in 2004 in recognition towards promotion of Punjabi language in Australia. In 1995, she received the meritorious service award from Government House, she was declared Volunteer of the Year in 2001 and also won the senior of the year award that year. She was recommended for Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2008.
Madan’s vivacious energy is infectious. Not bad for a 79 year old and a heart patient eh, she asks as she gives a hearty laugh. There is no stopping this remarkable woman who has embedded good community service year after year.
By Indira Laisram