Authors: Om Swami
'Yeah, I trade in both the primary and secondary market. And I want to code an investment monitoring tool.'
'Are you free for a few hours?' he said.
'Umm … now? Okay, but what do you do?'
'Have you heard of
was a regional newspaper in the Punjabi language.
'I work there.'
Harpreet Singh took me to his office. He drove his scooter while I followed him on my moped. When we walked into the office, he took me into a cabin. The sign on the door said 'Chief Editor and Publisher'. He turned on the air conditioning, picked up the phone and asked for someone. A man came in and my new friend ordered some tea. I was curious now.
'Who are you? And how come you are in the chief editor’s cabin?'
He smiled. 'This is us,' he said pointing to a family picture on the desk.
'What do you mean?'
'Harpreet Singh Dardi. That’s my full name. My father owns this enterprise.'
'Now, tell me something,' he said. 'Would you like to write for our newspaper?'
‘I've never written for any newspaper. And I don’t write in Punjabi.
lso, what could I possibly write on?'
'We launched an English language financial publication last year called
The Business Times
and it’s doing well. I’m looking for a good columnist.'
And so it happened that I began writing a regular column for them with my stock picks. Pleased with my work, a few months later, they offered me the role of editor to run their weekly edition. I readily accepted. Soon, I was spending most evenings at the press. Writing editorials, selecting news items and editing the work of other journalists gave me an intellectual kick.
A couple of years later, I resigned and moved on to grow my part-time business of making computerized presentations for small businesses. My stint at the press came in handy while writing content. After finishing class twelve, I stopped going to junior college and opted for distance education so I could better utilize my time. My college education had completely disappointed me, and I couldn't see what I had learned in the past two years. I thought of studying abroad, but affordability was a big issue. I didn't have any siyar singhi
I could use to fulfil my ambition to go abroad. But I did have a mantra with me. It was said that chanting this mantra would send the practitioner on a voyage. Its sonic vibrations were supposed to manifest your desire—the law of attraction.
I expressed my desire to the Universe and started chanting the mantra in January 1998. While driving, bathing, eating, travelling, before sleeping, upon getting up, day and night when I wasn't doing anything else, I meditated on the mantra with great mindfulness. I had faith in the mantra but I wasn’t sure if it would work quickly enough. My scepticism disappeared one day in March when one of my acquaintances casually mentioned her cousin, who was an education consultant and sent students to Australia.
I asked my father, and he immediately approved of the idea of my higher education in Australia. I enrolled in a two-year diploma in information technology at Hurstville Business College in Sydney. My father made withdrawals from his retirement fund to pay for the first year’s college fee and my air ticket. I used my savings to do some shopping and buy Australian dollars. Meanwhile, I left behind my shares as a long-term investment.
If I thought India was hard work for me, I didn’t know what lay ahead in Australia. I had no tertiary degrees and no relevant work experience to help me settle down in a new country and be able to earn enough to support myself. I didn’t even have full working rights since I could only work twenty hours per week on a student visa. What was to become of me? What chance did I really have? I just had the willingness to work hard, very hard.
At eighteen, I was on my way to Australia. Chanting the mantra had manifested my desire, but I was responsible for living through the consequences. Alone but overconfident, unprepared but resolute, clueless but hopeful at heart, I was ready to face everything life would throw at me.
I distinctly remember feeling numb on two occasions in my life. The first was when I was flying to Australia and the second was twelve years later when I took renunciation. No, this was not a physical numbness but a sort of emotional paralysis. I remember not feeling any emotions. My family, along with a couple of family friends, came to see me off at the airport. Though they didn't say much, their eyes spoke volumes. I was going to a place thousands of miles away without knowing when I would return.
No one in the family had ever been on a plane before, let alone leave the country altogether. At the airport, they talked about everything else except my impending departure. This wasn’t something they wanted to think about because, on the train of thoughts about my future, the only passengers were worries, insecurities and the pain of separation. I remember saying goodbye as I passed through the security barrier. My loved ones stood watching me. I looked hopeful and helpless while they looked sad and helpless.
The flight from New Delhi to Sydney was a little adventure for me. It was not like the first sighting of the bookshop when I was five or like my first trip to the library. Those were pleasant and joyful discoveries and there had been no confusion at all. Here, I was doing things I’d never done before, like working out the mechanics of the seat belt and trying to understand what the paper bag was for. I didn't know if they charged for meals and drinks or what was stocked in the tiny restroom. Above all, I didn't know what awaited me in Australia.
Thoughts of the future—nice and not so nice—continued to bubble in my mind. I wasn't anxious or nervous though; internally, I was prepared to handle whatever came my way. I was simply quiet. This had always been my way. In the face of grave adversity, extreme joy or an unfamiliar emotion, I would become quiet. The quietude allowed the emotion I was experiencing to sink in and it allowed me to think. I held no conversations with my fellow passengers; I didn’t watch any movies or listen to music. I simply sat there, dreaming and reflecting.
I remembered how excited I had been when my agent, who had not only handled my college admission but also my travel arrangements, had told me that my college would be arranging for a ‘home stay’: I would be living with an Australian family. This kind of accommodation would give me a chance to learn about Australian culture. I was also pleased to know that vegetarian food wouldn't be an issue for the family.
'We've already sent the fax to the college administration and they'll arrange for someone,' the agent told me. 'They will hold a placard with your name on it at the airport,’ he said with conviction.
Upon my arrival in Sydney, I went through immigration and baggage collection and then waited in the arrivals area. I was eager to see who was coming to pick me up and wondered what kind of family I would be staying with. I waited and waited but no one turned up. I approached the crowd outside, scanning people’s faces anxiously, expecting someone to step forward and ask if I was Amit Sharma. I peered at the signs they were holding, hoping my name might be on one of them. I went from one corner of the arrivals area to the other, thinking I may have come out of the wrong exit. But my efforts were in vain.
I passed an hour moving around like a squirrel searching for walnuts in the rainy season. I was slightly nervous and restless; hopeful too. The faces of my loved ones flashed before me. They must have been wondering if I'd reached safely. I got change for five dollars from a florist at the airport. Popping two one-dollar coins into a payphone, I made a brief call home to let them know I was safe and sound and everything was fine. My family was relieved to hear my voice.
I went back to waiting, which I did for another three hours. Anyone who could have turned up or intended to be here should have been here by now, I thought. Eventually, I concluded that no one was coming to get me. Later, the college administration would tell me that they were never given any intimation about an airport pick up or a home stay arrangement.
Now, I had nowhere to go. Other than the Australian flag, kangaroos and the Sydney Opera House, all of which I had seen on the TV and on the college brochure, I recognized nothing else in Australia. I knew no one here. Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. I did have a cousin here but I wasn’t in touch with him.
A friend of a friend lived in Australia as well. I had a number for him, in fact, two numbers. I tried them but both turned out wrong numbers. For a moment, I felt a sweat break out on my body. I scratched my head. Literally. Where was I to go now? Where could I find a place to stay and where would I eat? I could go to a hotel but, with just over three thousand dollars being my entire lifeline, how long could I survive?
Just then, I remembered that my agent’s son lived in Sydney, and he had given me his son’s phone number. 'You can call him if there’s any emergency,' he had said. Well, this was an emergency for me. I tried the number. Someone picked up the phone; it was the agent's son. I thanked my lucky stars. I briefly told him about the home stay fiasco and that I had nowhere to go.
'My brother and sister have gone to India for the next three weeks, so I can accommodate you,’ he said. 'Take a taxi and come over.' He gave me his address.
I hailed a taxi and got in. The taxi driver said, 'G’day mate.’ I had no clue what he said because it didn’t sound like English to me. I’d never come across an Australian accent, not even in the Hollywood movies I had seen. Besides, I hadn’t watched that many. Maybe twenty in all, ranging from
Baby’s Day Out
I gave the address and we were on our way. My, my, how spic and span everything was. I never thought such cleanliness and organization were even possible. Finally, we arrived at our destination—Falcon Street in North Sydney. I don’t remember the house number. The weather was cold: I had arrived on 21 June. Fortunately, it was a Sunday. Had it been a weekday, the agent’s son would not have been home and no one would have taken my call. Meanwhile, after paying for the cab and phone calls, I was down by $36. Nearly 1 per cent of my savings was already gone.
I dragged my heavy bags to the first floor. My host, a young man in his early twenties, introduced himself as Happy. He asked me to leave my bags in the living room. It was a one-bedroom apartment.
'You can sleep on the sofa bed,' he offered.
I nodded. I was just glad to be somewhere with a roof over my head.
Happy had another friend over for the weekend. A postgraduate in commerce, he was there on a student visa and worked in a factory. Soon, four other guys joined us. They all worked in the same factory and one of them had recently got his taxi driver’s licence.
The postgraduate gave me some unsolicited advice as we were sitting around: 'If you think you can get a job, forget it. I have an MCom from Delhi University and I work in a factory here. There’s too much racism in this country and Indian degrees or experience have no value. Local work experience is all that matters.'
'Can’t he get a security guard’s licence?' another fellow asked.
'The course costs around $1,200, if he can afford it, but even after that, he may or may not get any shifts, as you know,' the master of commerce proclaimed like an oracle.
'Yeah. Perhaps he can get a job at a car wash.'
'As a waiter at a restaurant?'
'He wouldn’t understand their accent.'
‘Can he work in a countryside farm?'
'He can do that if he doesn’t get anything else. It's not ideal because he won’t be able to study that way. He can go to the farms if he doesn’t pass his exams or if his visa runs out. I know someone who can offer him a job; he has a potato farm.' This was Mr Commerce again.
'You're kidding me! You have to memorize all the street names and routes. Do you know how difficult the test for the licence is?'
Till now, I had not participated in the discussion. This was going on between them quite independently of me. Ordinarily, I couldn’t have cared about what they said or thought about me. I didn’t have to prove myself to anybody, and certainly not to these people. However, looking at their zest and concern for me, I feared they might never stop this conversation.
'Listen folks,' I interrupted. 'I know exactly what I’m here to do and it’s not driving taxis, washing cars or ripping potatoes. Before I run out of money, I’ll have something more fitting arranged for me.' I said some more things that I can’t recall now, but I do remember speaking for about five minutes non-stop. They didn't bother me after that.
Happy asked me to pay rent from the very first day I arrived. ‘The phone bill will be on actuals, the utilities on a pro rata basis,' he added. And I had to find my own accommodation within three weeks. Fair enough. But, for now, I was hungry, not having eaten anything since the morning. It was well past the lunch hour and no one mentioned lunch. Finally, at about 5 p.m., they got beer and other liquor, and ordered food. They offered me some beer and even insisted that I tried whisky. I refused. Drinking, smoking and partying weren’t my style. Besides, I was unfamiliar with these guys. Prof. Sharma and Parvesh were the only two people I knew who drank alcohol. Parvesh drank rather rarely and Prof. Sharma drank extremely gracefully.
All our pleasures live in the brain anyway. I had experienced far better, long-lasting stimulants for my gratification, and they were free of any damaging side effects. An intellectual challenge gave me the greatest thrill. For hours at a stretch, I could happily sit and solve a coding problem or stare at the chessboard, not to mention reading or creating music on my keyboard. Heck, I even got a hangover when a great book ended or I cracked a piece of code.
Above all, there were the joys I knew within. I had experienced the pleasure of diving into the ocean of meditation. I had felt the rapture of chanting Vedic verses, where each escalating sound would transport me to another world. If there was adrenalin for the soul, if there was an intoxicant of the spirit, for me, it was meditation.
The next morning, I walked to the bank to start a new account. The bank manager was friendly and greeted me with a big smile. No one jumped the line; the place was well organized but relaxed. In less than thirty minutes, I had a bank account number and a temporary ATM card. On my way back home, I picked up a free local newspaper. It was full of advertisements seeking administrative secretaries, assistants, telemarketers and so on. There were no jobs for programmers, editors or salespeople though. I found out later that only mainstream newspapers advertised the types of jobs I was searching for.
In the afternoon, I went to my new college. It was just a few rooms occupying one floor in a small building. The principal, Richard Da Silva, was a nice man. I introduced myself and requested him to help me find a job, but he said there was nothing he could do. I asked him if he could help me get work experience without pay, and he promised to try.
Close to the flat, I found a business centre where I could prepare, print and fax my
to companies. I applied for numerous secretarial and administrative jobs. After spending about an hour sending faxes, I rushed home to be close to the phone in case anyone called. I sat by the phone the entire day but it didn’t ring. Day two: I sent out more faxes. Day three: I learned that I had to make follow-up calls to the recruitment consultants at the various companies; they wouldn’t call me.
Day four: I called home and let them know all was well. It turned out my mother had spoken to her elder brother whose son, Arun Modgil, lived in Sydney. He had suggested I contact my cousin, which I did. Arun told me he would pick me up on the weekend, and I should pack my things for a couple of days with them. I was glad to be spending some time with Arun and his family.
Day five: I saw not one but two letters in the mail; they had logos printed on them. I was thrilled. Finally, I had got an interview call or maybe even a straight job offer. The first letter turned out to be a polite rejection. It was so courteously worded that I thought they really loved me but couldn’t hire me for some genuine reason. I opened the second letter; it sounded just like the first one. I was disappointed, but still appreciated the communication: someone had cared to write that they didn't want me. Nevertheless, I called the numbers printed on the letters and was told that they would let me know if there were any future opportunities.
Normally, in India, I would have shared my experience with someone in the family or with Prof. Sharma, but there was no one here to talk to. Suddenly, I felt a great vacuum. It dawned on me for the first time that I was in a totally new country, all alone. I had no backup and had to find a way to survive. I had to study in college, find work, foot my living expenses as well as save enough to pay for my next year’s tuition fees, failing which I could be deported. I went into the bathroom, the only place in Happy’s apartment where I had any privacy. Looking into the mirror, I saw that I was crying. I didn't stop myself but let myself go. This was the first and the only time I cried in Australia.
Afterwards, my eyes were red and swollen and my face looked tired but I felt fresh and light. Perhaps it had just sunk in that I was on my own here and this acceptance had made me feel lighter. Anyhow, I couldn’t afford to look scruffy because I was going to see Arun in less than an hour's time and didn't want him to know I had been crying. I washed up and waited for him, my bag packed for the weekend.