Festive spirit

CLAIRE ALLISON
Last updated 11:06 05/11/2012
navratri
JOHN BISSET/ Fairfax NZ
TIME TO DANCE: St Paul's Church Hall was a colourful scene as beautifully-dressed dancers took to the floor.
navratri
JOHN BISSET/ Fairfax NZ
TINY TOTS: Sahaj, left and Hanna Petal, front, join in the traditional Indian stick dancing, copying the mothers and grandmothers in the group.
navratri
JOHN BISSET/ Fairfax NZ
GENERATIONS: Grandmothers Prabna Hari, left, with Devansh and Alka Kolhe with Dev.

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The Indian community is in festival mode, with the well-known Diwali festival taking place in a week. Features editor Claire Allison was invited to join South Canterbury's Indian community for Navratri last Saturday night.

It could be any church hall, in any small New Zealand town, on any Saturday night.

Women and children are sitting along a wall chatting, while the men are gathered at the back of the hall, some helping to bring out more seats. When the music starts playing, the women are the first to get up and dance.

But there are differences. For one, there is no alcohol, the food provided later is all vegetarian, and the hall is ablaze with colour; most here are wearing sparkling saris and other brightly-coloured Indian costumes. The dancers are in bare feet or socks, as a sign of respect.

This is Navratri. I've come along with my 9-year-old daughter and her friend, to sample some Indian culture and meet some of the 200-strong Indian community in South Canterbury.

We are warmly welcomed, everyone is happy to chat, and we are invited to join in the dancing and try the sweet treats that are passed around to share.

There are three generations here; grandmothers, sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren. The children are an important part of this event, their involvement helping them understand the traditions of their parents and grandparents. The little girls watch the dancers intently, copying their moves, and even the smallest are in costume.

Two grandmothers are a joy to watch, moving through the steps confidently and automatically. It looks simple, but I find, when I'm coaxed to try some moves, that it is harder than it looks. And it certainly looks prettier in a sari or other traditional costume than it does in jeans and a top.

The Indian community in South Canterbury is growing. About 10 years ago, there were perhaps four or five families. Latest estimates put the number at about 200, living in Timaru, Lake Tekapo, Winchester and Waimate. Indians work on dairy farms, in IT, accountancy and engineering firms; they teach, and they own local businesses.

That growing number has led to the formation of the South Canterbury Indian Cultural Society, with local counsellor and long-time South Canterbury resident Geeta Muralidharan elected president.

Talking to the people here, it's soon clear that the usual question, "What do you do?" has to be followed with, "What did you do in India?"

The Morven dairy farm manager I meet is a qualified vet. Others have bought businesses, but have impressive qualifications in professional fields; a store owner has a background in banking and teaching maths.

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The work ethic is very strong. Geeta says most Indians will fall into one of two categories; the business owners, and the professionals. If Indians cannot find work, they may return to studying to improve their qualifications, and they will keep looking for work.

"We'd find it a matter of shame if we had to go into Work and Income and ask for any benefit. We will avoid it; that's a very strong feeling in all of us, we don't want any unemployment benefit."

That work ethic, and valuing of education, is inculcated in their children, as are moral values, and a sense of right and wrong.

Most present are Hindu, but send their children to state integrated - Catholic - schools.

Why? They see the values and morals taught in those schools as complementing what they are teaching their children at home, and strongly believe in respecting other religions.

Geeta says members of the Indian community will make a point of attending interfaith gatherings.

One mother says they will eat Indian food at home - spicy food isn't an issue for their children - and will say Indian prayers, but at school, they will learn about Christ as well.

"We are all born Hindus or Sikhs, but we have equal respect for all religions. Our religious beliefs don't get forced on anybody."

Some have moved to Timaru from places like Blenheim, others from Wellington and Christchurch. South Canterbury, they say, is very welcoming. They speak of the kindness and support of neighbours. One man says his wife is receiving help from neighbours with her spoken English and their children play together.

Former Wellington residents have noticed that while they might not know everyone in South Canterbury, the fact they're still in a minority means everyone seems to know them. I say it's the same with my job; we meet lots of people through our work, but we may be the only reporter a person has ever met in their life.

The evening demonstrates how they want to preserve their Indian heritage, but as Geeta says, they are equally keen to assimilate into New Zealand's way of life.

"I don't know of any Indian here, across the board, in South Canterbury, who is not making a conscious effort to integrate."

Geeta and her husband's first Christmas in Timaru was spent with neighbours, who guided them through the season, and welcomed them into their home. They are now, Geeta says, her brother and sister, and have learned something of the Indian culture through the friendship.

Most in the hall are trilingual; all would know the common Hindi, then would be able to speak one of India's 26 regional languages, and then English.

They are aware of the stereotypes; I'm told one standing joke is that if you went to the moon and you found a corner shop, it would be owned by an Indian.

Or there's "Why are Indians no good at football? Because if you give them a corner, they will put a dairy on it".

There is a degree of truth to it. Later in the evening, there is a late influx of men. Their wives and children had been at the event since the beginning, while they had stayed on at their dairies and came only after they had closed up for the night. But, it also ties in with the work ethic and business focus that typifies members of this community.

They came to New Zealand, and eventually to South Canterbury, for a better life. There have been struggles, but the overwhelming feeling is of gratitude for the opportunity, and a sense that they must give something back. That might involve offering their skills on a voluntary basis but, with the formation of the society, it will also involve sharing more of their culture with the wider South Canterbury community.

"That's one thing as a president I am very aware of. Society has given us a lot, all of us talk about it. Overpopulation and civic amenities being such a huge problem in India, and the very competitive atmosphere. We've migrated to this country for peace of mind, for the amenities; and when we've got all that from society, we feel we must give something back."

The festival of Diwali, to be held on November 10, will cater to about 200, and provide an opportunity for others to see what they are all about. The evening will feature dancing, food, fun and entertainment, with some light-hearted skits around Indian-Kiwi integration and learning from each other.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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