That Sydney of 1975 where it took Indra Ban a year to find another Nepali

By Ram Khatry, Sydney
3 January 2017

Although they come from a small country, the population of Nepali-speaking Australians isn’t small any more. Census 2006 put their strength at nearly twenty five thousand (24,636) while excited community leaders eagerly wait for results of the September 2016 census convinced that the number would be much higher this time. The influx of Nepalis in the intervening five years has been phenomenal, they argue. Some believe over 25,000 may now be living in Sydney alone! Tens of thousands live in capital cities like Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth as well as in smaller towns across Australia – a thriving bunch of nouveau Aussies.

Indra Ban
In this 1976 picture, Indra Ban (second from right) poses with her friends Ananda Shrestha (proudly bare-chested) and Akal Bahadur Singh at the first picnic programme organised by Australia’s first Nepali association. The fourth person is an unidentified friend from Pakistan I Photo: Supplied

Whatever number the upcoming census results may throw, one thing is certain. The growth of this South Asian community has been unprecedented, an increase of 439.6% in 2011 over 2006 results. One only has to visit few Sydney suburbs like Rockdale, Ashfield, Strathfield, Granville, Campsie and Blacktown to find out the concentration of the Nepali-speaking Australians. They have effectively established little pockets of mini-Nepals where they can buy anything and everything a Nepali may want to live a Nepali life – momos, curries, clothes, groceries and even traditional ornaments.

Marie Bashir
Indra Ban receiving her Order of Australia medal in 2011 from the then Governor of NSW, Marie Bashir I Photo: Supplied

Indra Ban OAM, the first and only Nepali-Australian to be conferred the Order of Australia medal, has seen the other side of this fastest growing migrant community of Australia. Not many have seen the community grow the way Ms Ban has, decades after decades.

She witnessed its birth, saw it make baby steps and then grow into adolescents. People who used to rinse glasses in hotels, drive cabs or toil away as an office clerk have now become multi-millionaires and Who-Is-Whos of the diaspora. She takes it all in positive light, feels happy for all and takes immense pride in the contribution Nepalis are making to Australia and its economy.

Speaking to over a lunch of smoked salmon at her Redfern apartment, Ms Ban recounted the early days of her life in Australia. The “flash-back” does not take back to mere five or six years ago, not even tens years, not twenty even! Her earliest memories of Australia date back to 1975, an unbelievable 41 years.

Many members of the present day Nepali Australian community would not have been born when the ex-librarian chanced to fly into Sydney four decades ago. As a 20 something, she was just following her youthful desire to see some faraway land. “I had no plans to live here permanently,” she reminisces, adding, “I wanted to spend some time abroad, study and then go back to Nepal and become a politician.”

This grainy picture shows former Nepali prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his wife Arzu Deuba with Indra Ban and other members of the Nepali community in Sydney.

She never went back home to pursue politics. Instead, she fell in love with the lucky country, stayed back and began promoting Nepal and Nepali culture, forming and joining organisations one after another.

“I arrived in 1975, and began living in Double Bay area, very close to the water,” she says. Unlike today’s international students who arrive in the country and put up with fellow-Nepalis and effect a slow and relaxed integration into the Australian community, Indra Ban’s life in Australia began in a completely Nepali-free environment. She put up with some European friends once she landed in the country. So she had no “luxury” of sumptuous daal-bhaat. Forty years on, she has retained both food habits. She is happy with European dish as well as a plate of steaming hot Nepali food.

Asked if there were any places where she could buy ingredients to cook Nepali meal in those days, she says it took her an entire year before she could find another soul who spoke her mother tongue. Any hope of finding Nepali food was therefore out of question, she indicated.

Ms Ban has not only seen the Nepali diaspora grow, the former University of NSW student has also seen Sydney change and become a melting pot of multiculturalism. According to her, there were only three coffee shops in Sydney those days. A far cry from modern Sydney where one would struggle to find a suburb, however small, that does not have a coffee shop!

Didi, as she is fondly addressed by most members of her community, has played a pivotal role in organising the diaspora in Australia. Her contribution to the community began in 1976 when she joined hands with a handful of fellow-Nepalis like Shree Govinda Shah, Ananda Shrestha and Akal Bahadur Singh to form Australia’s first Nepali association – the “Nepali Student Association” which was later rechristened “Nepalese and Australian Association”.

Australian friends helped her and her friends to establish the organisation, the humble guardian of the community does not forget to give credit to her Australian friends, and even assisted them organise occasional activities the Nepali Student Association began organising in those early years of the Himalayan community.

“I was almost like an embassy staff at one point. Nothing about the Nepali community in Australia would take place without me and my friends knowing about it, people would constantly reach out,” didi says. Be it visits of Nepali dignitaries or fund-raising events or any other organisational activities, there would be roles for her and her friends like Dr. Narayan Pradhan to play. They were regularly contacted by both Australian and Nepali government officials for help of all kinds and they would happily oblige.

She and her Australian mates even put up a party for Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, the first Everest climbers, in 1976 when they were visiting Australia.

Indra Ban played also played an important part in the formative stage of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA).The organisation, which has grown so massive that it is now present in 76 countries, was in its early stage of formation in 2003 when Russia-based Nepali businessman Upendra Mahato contacted her and asked for help from her and other community leaders in Australia. She jumped in to the movement and became one of the first batches of vice-presidents.

Didi was constantly worked with academicians attached to various universities. From 1989 until 1991, she was the research coordinator (Kathmandu base) for the School of Sociology under the Sydney University.  Over the years, she worked with Help Nepal Network, University of Western Sydney, Rotary Club, the Fred Hollows Foundation and Australian Himalayan Foundation.

It is not only her Nepali brothers and sisters who are indebted to her multi-dimensional personality. She has constantly assisted the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with various issues related to the Nepali diaspora. They would always seek her help and she never failed them.

It is in the recognition of this decades of selfless contribution to the Nepali communities across Australia that she was awarded the Order of Australia in 2011.

She continues to be the only Nepali to have received the medal.

Social work for didi is a sacred act. The service she gave to her community over the decades had no strings attached. All she wanted was to promote Nepali identity in Australia and thereby, bring the two nations closer. The respect she commands within the diaspora is evident from the fact that did not come across one community leader who did not speak highly of Indra Ban OAM.

However, she is not entirely happy the way things are going in the community. She is sad that petty politics has entered the organisation she so passionately contributed to – the NRNA. “Why party-based politics in such a non-government organisation?,” Ms Ban expresses her frustration. She says the organisation was apolitical until recent years but not anymore. She is particularly angered by the way votes are divided based on the voters’ association and affiliation with political parties back in Nepal.

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