For the thousands of Indian Diaspora in Melbourne, Dr Jana Rao is not an unfamiliar name. The Tamil Nadu- born surgeon, who migrated to Australia in 1968 at a time when few Indians dabbled with the idea, launched his memoir at the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club this Independence Day (August 15).Friends and family turned up in strength to show support and love for a man whose services towards the Indian community as a former consul general and his larger duty towards Australians as a surgeon has touched many lives and hearts.
Dr Jana Rao’s memoir A Migrant Experience is a rich account of his early life in India growing up under the British Raj where his father served as a district collector. In all, a happy childhood, the exotic tales of hunting trips, camping in forests, playing cricket in the huge corridors of the big colonial bungalows he lived in with a battery of servants reflect the privileged life he grew up in. But Dr Rao would soon give all that up and come to Australia at the prime of his life after studying medicine and surgery in then Madras. With a young wife and two-year old son, Dr Rao was ready to start his ‘life from scratch’. Literally.
With the Indian government allowing only $7.50 per person for going abroad, Dr Rao and his wife Vimla had 15 dollars with them. But having spent $10 in Singapore enroute to Melbourne, they were left with$4.50 when they landed at this new country. With no email then, Dr Rao had wired a friend to pick him up but with no sign of the friend he had to stay put in the airport for almost a day calling up every half an hour when finally the phone was answered. The friend had not received the wire! A beginning not easy to forget.
Within months Dr Rao was able to find a job and was soon working long hours. Rao found assimilation with Australian society easy and that helped his wife cope with his long absence from home to a degree. He made friends with neighbours who helped his wife with shopping and looking after the little one. “Because my father worked with the British, growing up I had already developed an understanding of their culture and that helped me integrate well into western society,” he says. In fact, some of the audience in the crowd included his old neighbours and friends with whom he maintains friendship to this day.
“The book,” says Dr Rao, “Is a factual story of my life’s journey to Melbourne in the last 45 years.” He calls his meeting with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1982 as one of the highlights of the book because “it changed the direction of my life to an extent”. Gandhi appointed him as the Honorary Consul General for India in Victoria, a post he held on till 2007, looking after the welfare of the Indian community in Victoria and promoting Indo-Australian ties. At the same time he still had his other job – that of a practicing surgeon, some of the income of which he used to pay for a major part of his consular work.
The book outlines the details of his work topic wise form community to medical to politics etc. It is interesting how Dr Rao started the visa service from Melbourne. After a meeting with then Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao in 1989, Dr Rao got the go-ahead to issue visas from Melbourne based on the volume of work being handled. What is more, when the Indian government finally permitted him to charge $15 per visa, Dr Rao managed to save $400,000 which he donated to the Australia Indian Benevolent Charitable Trust, which he founded.
It was a particular incident in 1971 that sparked Dr Rao’s interest in community and social work. A young Telegu lady walked in to his house with two children. “She was a victim of domestic violence and could not speak a word of English.” Rao put her up in his house for six months and helped her settle down. Over the years, he has helped women in similar circumstances. It also made him realise how high the incidents of domestic violence was within the Indian community. As all social problems with the community were directed to the Consulate, Dr Rao became more and involved. For all his services, Dr Rao has received many accolades over the years, the most prestigious one being the Order of Australia in 1988.
It took Dr Rao 18 months to write and compile the book. He says he never thought he would be penning a story about his life.“I missed out on collecting valuable photographs of people and moments in history,” he laughs. But he makes an important point: while one should maintain one’s cultural heritage one should also make an effort to integrate with the Australian community.
By Indira Laisram