The Journey to Australia – How and Why
The answer to the question “how” is simple – by coincidence. It follows that regarding “why”, it is more appropriate to ask why I chose to remain in Australia.
While in India, I had not ‘dreamt’ of living in Australia. In fact, except for half-hearted explorations of possibilities, I never thought strongly about settling overseas. During the later years in India (late eighties and early nineties) dreaming was a luxury. In 1990 I left a ‘stable and steady’ local government job – I taught Anatomy at the LTM Medical College (Sion), run by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay. With desire to free myself of the routine of the job and putting into practice some of my ideas on the teaching of the subject, I joined a private medical college at Nashik – about 200 km from Bombay. Much to the consternation of well-meaning seniors, I had let go of the retirement benefits available after 20 years of service. The event also marked a new beginning, from scratch, of personal life when I was approaching forty. In way I invited uncertainty upon myself. Having done considerable trekking in the ranges around Bombay, this was like a fresh trek in life.
In the early nineties then it was a new College, fresh responsibilities of a new anatomy department, new challenges. Our two daughters were born while at Nashik. Sometime in 1992, Dr Prashant Sathe a former student and a colleague at Nashik, showed me an ad in the Indian Express, from a Malaysian University. Among other positions was one for an anatomist. After some see-sawing, I sent in my papers. I almost forgot about it when one day they asked me why I had not responded to their offer (apparently the offer letter was lost in transit). After some to-and-fro correspondence, the ordeal of getting a passport, the plague epidemic and consequent closure of visa offices, we reached Malaysia in late 1994. Malaysia was not on the Indian tourists’ map then, nor was it on the employment map. Moreover, the medical school was in the small city of Kota Bharu, capital of the state of Kelantan close to the border with Thailand in the northeast corner of the Malayan peninsula. Kelantan was considered ‘backward’ even in Malaysia then!
The first three years were spent in just settling down. Even then there was no chance of long-term planning of any kind. The university’s contracts were drawn for three-year terms. They were usually renewed, but one could not depend on that possibility. One planned for three years at a time. Moreover, children’s education was a big problem. Most Malaysian schools taught in the local language. The bigger cities had expensive “international” schools, but in Kota Bharu the “International” school was one started by an Irish teacher, run mostly by wives of expatriate doctors working at the medical school or the government hospital. The total number of students in the entire school was 60 – yes, sixty. Most Indians felt that after the first six years (“Standard 6” in Indian terms), it was best to go back to India, send the children back to India or send wife and children back, while the husband stayed in Malaysia. Any delay, and the children would be more and more “unfit” for the Indian school system. Moreover, having spent some years outside India, even the doctor had less chances of getting a job ‘back home’ with equal seniority.
Somehow we decided to ignore all the negatives. Malaysia was a new experience, and a wonderful one at that. We plunged ourselves into the “Malaysian experience”. Malaysia had the label of a developing country, but what a contrast! Even in a ‘backward’ little place like Kota Bharu, the roads were good (despite the fact that it rained almost all round the year), the telecommunications system was excellent, the university campus was simply beautiful and the cost of living was very reasonable. A car was affordable – this may sound odd today, but bear in mind that this was 1994-95. Indeed, for a family of four, one’s own car was the most economical form of transport all over peninsular Malaysia. Sometime in 1995 the University provided individual in-office computers to all staff and established a network with email.
One day an Indian colleague announced that he was going to Australia on a job. He is a psychiatrist, a branch that was underserved in Australia then. This stimulated many others to explore Australia, but it was not an easy process. A pure academic like me, engaged largely in teaching, it was even more difficult. A friend in Australia confirmed this.
Another window opened just by coincidence. A colleague told me of a job offer on the internet – this time, in Fiji. One only heard of Fiji (if at all) as a beautiful tropical island country ‘somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, south of the equator. I did have a Fiji Indian student in my class during my student days. The memory only heightened my curiosity. Sneha was always game for another round of international trekking – indeed, she egged me on. So we sat at the new home computer late one night and filled in my details online. We received a phone call three days later form a telephonic interview. To cut a long story short, we landed in the remote Fiji Islands in June 1999. Once we reached Fiji she tried for a job for herself and after six months had a dual appointment at the medical school as a lecturer and the hospital as a dermatologist. As soon as she got in, she started looking for academic conferences with a pathologist friend. They decided to go for a conference at Perth. Less than a year into our stay in Fiji, the coup of 2000 upset all plans. Our house was just a few hundred metres from the Parliament. Luckily we had jobs in Malaysia in the pipeline and after ten tense days we left Fiji to reach Kuching in East Malaysia (Sarawak state on the island of Borneo).
With our departure, Sneha’s sponsors in Fiji backed out. Luckily, the chief organiser in Perth often sponsored one international delegate for these conferences, and Sneha had her chance. Her paper was received so well that the organiser, a leading skin pathologist, advised her to spend some time at Perth to study in his lab. The next year saw us in Perth – just a study visit for six weeks. Since I was deeply involved in curriculum planning and design, I asked if I could spend the time in the Anatomy department at Perth. The department agreed (it was a non-remunerative visit). As a part of my visit I also gave a few lectures and taught in the labs. Somewhere there was good feedback and next year I was asked if I could come for a year or two to fill a temporary vacancy. I had liked Perth as a city during the first short stay, and the Department of Anatomy was a very pleasant place – I agreed. So we landed in Perth on a job in 2002.
The Perth story had just begun! There was tremendous uncertainty regarding the future – there was no guarantee that Malaysia would take us back after this, and the girls would soon reach high-school age and require some degree of stability and continuity. Sneha was in a worse state, since she could enter the medical field without the Australian licensing examination. I did not need to do that as my job did not involve patient care. For two years Sneha went to Kuching as a fly-in, fly-out visiting lecturer to teach dermatology. This too had its limitations as the girls were still primary school. (In Australia Primary school is until year 7).
With the passage of time we felt this was a place we could settle in. but there was no red carpet. As workloads increased at the University, my contract was extended. However, by Australian immigration laws, a person above the age of 45 cannot apply for migration (“PR”) – it has to be supported by an employer. With the advent of another new medical course, I was delegated to represent Anatomy – that earned me the requisite contract and the University nominated me for a Permanent Residence.
Our international trek was over. Lucky coincidences, some risky steps, a lot of pain of uncertainty – regarding the future and financial, the rigorous exercises of winding up households and changing countries… and of course a lot of excitement. Despite interruptions in schooling which also involved different schooling systems, the girls had a great multinational experience at a young age. The ship has dropped anchor…