One evening a little over a decade ago, Arun Sharma arrived at SBS Radio at the Alfred Deakin Building in Federation Square to meet his wife, Jaya, who had just finished her shift.
The couple took a walk along the Yarra and Arun remembers how Jaya kept saying that they "just had to do something” in the three-year-old Federation Square.
"As we walked we saw the city lights glittering in the river and we both said, that's how Diwali is celebrated in India,” Arun says. “Lights everywhere. We agreed that if there was ever a place for a Diwali celebration it would have to be Fed Square.''
And right there and then, a dream was born. That evening walk would lead to the birth of Celebrate India, an organisation that would introduce Diwali to Melbourne and produce the city’s grandest Indian festival.
Fast-forward a decade later and this interview is taking place at the AFL House where Arun, the chairman of Celebrate India, has just officiated the 11th anniversary of the Diwali festival. The six-day celebration will culminate on Saturday, October 22 at Federation Square.
By this hour, dusk has fallen outside. The dignitaries have left, the shiny silver boxes of Indian sweets have been distributed and the events team is bumping out. Arun sits down for the first time in five hours with a soft drink and a sigh of relief.
You’ve just launched a Diwali festival in a suit instead of Indian attire. Why is that?
There’s a good reason for it! We are celebrating Diwali in Australia. All the VIPs opened their speeches with a few words of Hindi. This is the influence we've left on them. But we're talking about integration. I was happy to have the tilak on my forehead, which is part of the ceremony, but wearing Indian attire is not completely necessary all the time On the main day, many of us will be wearing it but again, people can wear whatever they want as long as there's an Indian touch to it.
Take us back to the idea that shaped Celebrate India’s vision.
Back then, the Indian community was growing in different suburbs and we noticed that cultural events were being held only within the suburb’s community. But what was the point of a good festival with a beautiful message if it was celebrated by some 100 or so Indians? Why wouldn’t we share it and invite others to join us? That's where real integration happens. We felt that the time was right to do something. Jaya and I decided to call the organisation Celebrate India because it didn’t confine us to anything yet it is clearly about the Indian culture. And with our friends, Jana Rao and Virendra Berera, we formed this organisation.
Was Diwali your first event?
Yes, because we found that of all the festivals it is the most non-political and non-religious so we wouldn't be creating any boundaries. Our message is one of integration, of sharing and caring, and of removing the darkness in our homes and in ourselves. That's the significance of celebrating the light.
What do you remember most about that inaugural festival?
Everything! It's so vivid. I remember trying to convince the first Lord Mayor, John So, to hold the event in Fed Square and he looked at me and said, ok it sounds very colourful but can we deliver? I told him if he supported us, we would deliver it. At the time no one knew what we were talking about so we had to convince everyone within and outside the community to support the event. That first year, we introduced it as the Festival of Lights, not Diwali. And we struggled to find good performers. But on the day, we were shocked to see more than 26,000 people turning up.
How has the festival changed over the years?
Well, for starters it has gone from a one-day event to a 10-day event. Back then we had to tell people what Diwali was but not today. If you walk in the city, there's a very good chance that 70% of people will know what Diwali is and some 90% would have been to the Fed Square event.
We've also had many iconic organisations partnering with us like the AFL, Melbourne Airport, Cricket Australia and Metro. And we've had some amazing experiences. We've brought in performers from India and had people call us from Tasmania to ask about performance times so they wouldn't miss anything. They came by ship and hired a bus to Fed Square. This is the kind of connection we're talking about.
Could you tell us about Celebrate India’s affiliation with the AFL?
My vision from the very beginning was to be an inclusive organisation. In 2010, I met someone from the AFL and later the AFL Diversity Manager, Ali Fahour, in 2011, who felt there was merit in a partnership because sports and culture are both inclusive and can be merged. Five years on, we're at the home of footy.
Let’s talk about your life now. When did you arrive in Melbourne?
I was very young, about 20-years-old. I left Delhi to further my medical studies here but with plans to return to India. I had promised my mother that I would be back as soon as I was done. But that didn't happen. It took me 19 years before I returned to India with my own family. Six months later, we were back in Melbourne.
We intended to stay in Delhi but unfortunately - or fortunately - we found things so different to when I left. People were very business-minded, businesses were booming and it just wasn't the same. My memories of India and of the old times were gone. It made me very sad. I hadn't gone back to start a business or practice. What I wanted was to be with my family and friends and feel the same way I felt before I left. But all that was missing. And we also had more friends here in Melbourne.
Did you head straight from Delhi to Melbourne that first time?
No, I went to Perth first. And I didn't like it at all. I was getting more homesick there. I was on the way to a job in Sydney and stopped for the weekend in Melbourne and I could not leave Melbourne. I felt so at home!
What was Melbourne like back then?
It was very quiet but it had more hustle bustle than Perth. But most importantly, the people were so easygoing. I'll give you an example. In Perth, people would just wink in the old Australian style of saying, “G'day!” That was it. Not a word. And they would stare at you.
In Melbourne, there was just amazing warmth. The people gave you welcoming looks and were ready to talk. They wanted to know where you were from, why you were there, what you were doing and did you need any help.
I'll tell you another story. I was once sitting on a bench feeling really homesick and lost in my thoughts. An old lady came up, put a hand on my head and said, “God bless you, everything will be ok.” I have never forgotten that day. So forget Sydney, forget Perth. I'm staying here.
There wasn’t much cultural diversity back then. Did you find it hard to assimilate?
It wasn't difficult but it was not easy either. We were new and the cultural difference was enormous. Most of the locals did not know anything about us. So they were respectful and polite but they wanted to know more. That was the difference. They wanted to know more rather than put a fence in front of them. But there was definitely a touch of racism as well.
Did you personally experience it?
Not even once. (pauses) Except for one stupid comment thrown at me a lot later. You want me to tell? Ok. I was working in a hospital and I was a young guy who had just become head of department. One particular head nurse said...(long pause)...whatever she said, I couldn't believe it. I turned around and asked, “Did you really say that? I can’t believe it.” And I had a big smile. She was so embarrassed and that was the end of it. I didn't feel I needed to confront or worry about it. I had more friends than one person.
But that didn't tarnish your experience in Melbourne.
How have you seen Melbourne change as a city?
Oh god. From a very easygoing and small place, Melbourne is now spreading all over. The trams are running further and further. And there are a lot of migrants here now. It has become truly multicultural which is great. When I first arrived, if you saw any coloured person or Asian, you would stop and ask, “Are you ok, do you need help?” Because there weren't many of them here and we knew they would be struggling too. Now you don't have to do that.
What would your advice be to new migrants on integration?
Oh, I have lots of it. Mainly, watch and learn. Do not force your ways on other people. Learn what they're doing but don't lose your identity, background or culture. I don't like when I see on the train these young migrants talking loudly and being ignorant of others.
A lot of young Asian migrants will also very happily call you by your first name. When you're addressing elders, do so how you would in your own culture. If you're meeting someone for the first time, don't call them by their first name until you're allowed to do so. Australians are very easygoing but don't take that for granted and disrespect them.
Favourite Aussie phrase: “G'day, mate!” Of course. I love it!
Favourite footy team: Carlton. I'm waiting for it. Soon!
Favourite Indian restaurant: Horn Please in North Fitzroy.
Best place for chai: Cafe Saffron in Ivanhoe.
Favourite city building: William Barak building. And, of course, Fed Square.