by Avijit Sarkar
I first saw Bipin Patel at my wife’s medical practice. During the summer of 1990 and having retired from active work, I had wholeheartedly immersed myself into my new duties, managing the front desk at the practice. What added to my interest in my new role was the ability to be a curious fly on the wall and study the sea of humanity that passed through the practice every day.
Bipin was a thin young man with an extremely poor taste in fashion. He also had a particularly uninteresting personality and the only remarkable (for want of a better word) feature was a very large mole under his right eye. He could hardly converse in English and I remember that I had to revert to the Gujarati language in order to communicate with him when he showed up for an appointment with my wife on that day. He had come in with a bad bout of flu but was asked to wait since there was an unusually long waiting list at the surgery. After looking aimlessly at the television for a while, he started up a conversation with an elderly Gujarati gentleman sitting next to him. From the bits and pieces that I overheard, I surmised that Bipin was going through very hard times in Sydney and the strict government legislations on work practices for students hardly allowed him to make two ends meet.
After his consultation, as he came up to the desk to pay for the visit, my curiosity got the better of me.
“I overheard a fair bit of the conversation that you were having with the other gentleman,” I said. “Hope you settle in well.”
Bipin was obviously thirsting for eager ears because he immediately let me into his complete family history, his current state of affairs and his plans going forward.
He had arrived in Sydney a year ago on a student’s visa. Born on the outskirts of a small town called Nadiad in India, Bipin was raised in a lower-middle class household. Like many others in the smaller towns in India, Bipin grew up among wanton hardship, unending yearnings, and incurable impoverishment. Driven by sheer need and ambition, Bipin’s father had educated him at the local college and then sent him to Australia to further his education. The downside was that in order to get admission in a small dodgy college in the backstreets of Sydney, Bipin’s father had to sell off his house and take a loan as well. All Bipin now wanted was to work in Sydney, pay off his father’s loan, educate himself and then go back to his hometown with some extra money in his pockets.
I felt that his continuing struggle with the English language was only second to his struggle with life in Australia. His wife, who had travelled to Australia with him, was unemployed and hence he had to work long hours in three different jobs in order to run his house. His wife, I was told by him, was continuously looking for work but to no avail. In spite of all this, Bipin was excited because he had heard that the Australian government was about to open doors for students to apply for permanent residency. However when I spoke to him about his plans for the future, I was quite taken aback with his undying passion for India and his great dream of going back home to the small town in Gujarat with all the money that he would save in Australia.
Our next encounter was about a year later, once again at the surgery. I remember the day because there was some uncharacteristic heavy downpour in Sydney. I was immersed in some administrative work and I looked up as a shadow fell across the desk. It was Bipin and he had a very broad smile on his face. He had two pieces of news for me. One was that he had successfully acquired a permanent residency for Australia and had already applied for his wife’s permanent residency permit. The other piece of news was even more exciting; they now had a baby boy. When I asked him about his plans for his family, he was quick to reply that he wanted to get his permanent residency and then his citizenship for Australia only because he wanted his child to be an Australian citizen. He was in fact vociferously adamant about his child settling down in Australia and then becoming, what he termed as, a “real Aussie”. However, Bipin’s own future plans had not changed. He still wanted to go back to his beloved homeland and settle there with his friends and family.
I probably saw him again after a span of nearly five years with his wife and his son who must have been about four years old. This time around, I was quick to observe that he had a distinct change in his attitude. It was quite evident that while he spoke to his coy wife and to others with a heavy guttural Indian accent, he spoke very differently to his son. This change in his demeanour was subtle but quite amazing.
He constantly addressed his son with an assumed accent which was his best imitation of the Australian vernacular. This was his ‘real Aussie’ accent. Phrases like “Good on you mate” and “Fair dinkum” poured out in abandon. What was even more remarkable was the fact that the child had a surprising Australian accent and was being addressed by his parents as “Bob”! It was very obvious that Bipin was trying to pin the essential Australian personality on the child. When I spoke to him about my observations, Bipin had, as always, a very simple explanation. He did not want his son to be the typical Indian.
“We were born in India,” he said. “And we cannot be anything else but a true Indian. However, Bob needs to be a true Australian. He needs to talk like one, behave like one and live life the Australian way. I have made changes to my plans. Once Bob has settled down here after his studies, we will pack up and leave for good. Our town and our friends are still beckoning to us from India.”
That was the last time I saw Bipin at the surgery and with the passing years, his memories faded away.
It was only by chance that I came upon him again last summer at the local shopping centre. As I was transferring the contents of my shopping trolley into the boot of my car, I saw a car turn into the vacant spot next to my car. I looked up casually and I would not have known that it was Bipin Patel at the wheel, save for his trademark mole under his eye. As he stepped out of his car, he looked across at me and his face lit up when he recognised me.
It was twenty years since my first encounter with him and the changes were quite dramatic. His sense of fashion was leaning towards the more avant-garde and his Australian accent was shockingly pronounced when he spoke to me.
“How are ya?” asked Bipin in what I thought was a distinctly nasal tone. “Been a while now. Would be over twenty years, I reckon.”
I gulped and was a little slow in my response trying to fathom the change in the man’s personality.
“Don’t you remember me?” he asked shutting the door of his Holden Commodore with a flourish. “I am Bipin Patel. I used to come to your wife’s surgery. Gee! It’s been ages, I say.”
I smiled back. “Of course I remember you.”
We broke out into small talk about his family and life in Australia. After a while, I could not hold back on my curiosity any longer.
“You have changed a lot Bipin,” I said. “Your English accent, the way you dress. You are so different now.”
Bipin looked at me with a gleam in his eyes.
“We decided to stay back permanently and shape our future in Australia,” he said proudly. “It’s a great country and we wanted to be a part of this place. Be an Australian in every way possible.”
“So,” I remarked. “After all, you did change your plans of moving back to India.”
“Yes,’ replied Bipin with a faraway look in his eyes. “Opinions and beliefs change with time, I reckon. After twenty years in Australia, I felt like an alien during my last visit to India. These are different times. Things have changed in India and so have the people and their priorities.”
“Well, that’s life, I guess,” I replied. “And what about your son? If you have changed so much, I suspect your son would now be a true-blue Aussie!”
Bipin stared at me for a few moments. When he spoke, he had a remote look in his eyes.
“There has been a strange turn of events in our lives,” he said. “We tried to instil true Australian values and the Australian lifestyle in him. But Bob could never adjust to life here and was always keen on the Indian way of life. Last year, during our trip to India, he fell in love with that country. In fact, he also fell in love with a girl in our hometown. Since then, Bob has married and moved to India for good.”
Avijit Sarkar is a musician, composer, illustrator, cartoonist, writer, poet, philanthropist and a polymath from Sydney, Australia. He was awarded the Australia Day Award 2020 (by the City of Parramatta) for his contributions to Arts and Culture. He has written two books so far and his other literary works have been published in many international anthologies. Avijit’s designs, illustrations and cartoons have appeared in numerous magazines and books across the world.