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Melbourne: An urban masterpiece gone wrong?

March 03, 2010 16:12 IST

With Melbourne, Australia has taken the first step to join the ranks of yesteryear Pretoria, South Africa and Birmingham, Alabama. Over the last two years, there have been an increasing number of attacks on Indians here. Lives have been lost or severe injuries inflicted upon members of an unarmed, peaceful Indian community.

The city authorities have been able to do little to prevent these attacks, and their public comments have been inciting or less than forthcoming at best. If you are an Indian, there is a higher probability that you will be a target of a prejudicial, physical attack in Melbourne than anywhere else in the world. So it seems.   

But, the similarity to the two cities of yesteryear prejudice is not as convenient. Let us remember, we live in 2010 and not in 1958. Gandhi's struggles in a foreign place sit a century away, King's against those in his hometown almost 50 years past and Mandela has walked freely for two decades. The world is more liberal today than it has ever been. Parts of the world where one had to be wary of one's heritage, colour of skin or race have shrunk and become rare, isolated pockets.

So, with that, Australia seems hardly the place where an Indian or for that matter a person of any minority community should walk with a watchful eye. Australia is a liberal democracy. A well-known fact. Melbourne keeps making it to the list of one of the best cities to live in the world. Another fact.

And yes, there are stark differences between Pretoria and Birmingham on one end and Melbourne on the other. The former bring images of darkness, segregated neighbourhoods and a biased civil justice system. Melbourne, on the contrary, is a pleasant city with friendly people sitting across the river having a beer. Sunny skies, the scenic riverfront and the whole environ makes you think you are on the lakeside in Chicago or on the Seine in Paris -- only prettier. Well-formed, open city ways and masterful urban planning enchant the soul as one walks from a coffee shop to a souvenir store to a sushi bar.

As you walk over Swanston Street, above the river, you will notice the city's Coat of Arms on each end of the bridge. The ornate craft consists of a shield, a red cross, a Royal crown, the upper half of a Kangaroo, a black bull standing on a hillock, on each side of the shield a gold lion, a spouting whale swimming in the sea and many other minute details. The motto below the Coat on a flowing ribbon reads Vires Acquirit Eundo, in Latin, meaning 'We gather strength as we go'.

But, to understand Melbourne and its association with India, we need to look back a bit.

Melbourne came of age to Indians in the '80s. With colour television we saw a faraway world. Cricketers in colourful clothes played day and night matches as beautiful people lay on open grasslands taking in the sun. We all fell in love with Melbourne and with Australia. It seemed a faraway paradise.

In the ensuing years, more a generation later, Melbourne saw an influx of Indians. Many found an avenue to their educational and professional appetites 'down under' as the traditional destination seemed to be apprehensive of keeping its boundaries wide open -- an aftermath of 9/11. One heard of more and more people moving to Australia. Friends sent images back of an open country, party culture and a progressive economic climate.

Then things changed somehow. Anecdotal and random responses by Indians present a worrying but a hopeful portrait of the city. Yes, the threat and the attacks are for real and they are brutal, but a good majority of the city residents are disgusted by it. Many locals have even intervened when an attack is in progress.

But, the authorities have done little to provide safety. The taxi driver has a flimsy frame portioning him from the occupants and nothing on him that would assist in his self-defense. They pull out a credit card swiping box to show an item that would serve as a shield. If time permits, a call to a friend could bring civilian reinforcements.

Most remain quiet, fearful that a police complaint would create a record and perhaps an impediment towards permanent immigration. Thus, reads the helpless story of members of a community in one of the world's 'best places to live in.'

So, what happened? A paradise no more? A people prejudiced? A government committing the ultimate sin -- incapable of providing security? Locals despising the influx of students who were deciding to settle down? Are brown folk an eyesore to the unvarnished image of a beautiful country?

These questions have flared in columns and editorials of major news dailies in parts of the world. The Indian external affairs ministry has protested assertively. The Australian politicians have gone out of their way to appease the Indian authorities, at once bothered by the risk of a tarnished image while concerned about the economic benefits the emigrating Indians have brought.

But in all this, we need to remember that urban masterpieces such as Melbourne are built on goodness in the hearts of its founders. Any attempt to tarnish its image needs to be handled forcefully. Melbourne area residents -- all of them need to ask for more from their civilian and public safety representatives.

Otherwise, 'we gather strength as we go', the city's motto, may be brought to life -- in a violent or a non-violent way. A community under attack is bound to run out of patience, as there already are some signs, and respond. And a non-violent movement as an instrument, as history tells us, is more sustaining and bruising to a place's psyche, image and prospects.

Let Melbourne be what it is in our memories. A city indulged in sports -- cricket and tennis --  a hub of commercial enterprise, a vacation destination, a friendly people and a place where people of all types live harmoniously.

Melbourne is twinned with the likes of Milan, Boston and Osaka. Let it not be paired with Pretoria and Birmingham.

The author is a Chicago-based writer

Girish Rishi