Birthdays under the regime
“When I asked Irene, my daughter, ‘What do you want for you birthday?’ She said, ‘Mama, I don’t want anything. Can we just get out from this house?’”
This interview took place on
I cycle up the north of Melbourne, past bridges and cemeteries, turning just past an American diner and into a suburban street. Charith and Priya live in the last of a series of units. Through the raised shutter of the garage I can see a couple of rugs on the floor, a table covered in bright red cloth set in the middle. I lock up the bike against a railing, bound up the stairs and ring the bell. Television voices boom from within.
It’s only when I call Priya on her mobile that she comes to the door. She says Charith’s away and her mum’s cleaning the house and asks me if I mind chatting in the garage. I tell her that’s okay and she disappears back into the house. When she returns she says it’s fine to talk inside. Seeing the footwear is left at the door, I take off my shoes. She apologises, explaining it’s a Hindu household and it’s tradition to leave footwear at the door.
There’s a stack of suitcases, clothes and a couple of schoolbags on the floor of the living room. On the left, a shrine’s been set up to Buddha and a Ganesh and other assorted Hindu gods. Sprawled on one of two leather couches hemming in the TV sits Aaron – Priya’s son [Aaron and Irene are Priya’s kids from a previous marriage. See The Curse of the Forebears]. Aaron’s completely engrossed with his iPad. He wriggles under a blue doona as we approach.
‘Do you remember this uncle,’ says Priya.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I don’t remember him.’
He’s not shy. Shows me what he’s playing – Minecraft. He takes me on a tour of the house he built for his sister, floating through the virtual living room, the toilet, and the Jacuzzi that’s heated by lava. Priya tells me it was Aaron’s birthday party yesterday. Shows me presents sitting next to the couch unopened.
‘He doesn’t care about those. He’s got his iPad,’ she says. She explains that Aaron’s actual birthday was a month ago but her mother [Aaron’s grandmother] was overseas and they waited for her return to have a party. ‘She brought both of them iPads.’
We step into the kitchen, away from the racket of Minecraft, and settle at the dining table. Irene’s in there, sitting in a corner, playing her own game on the iPad, wearing big blue headphones.
We had the birthday party yesterday. We noticed my mum was not in the best of mood and we came back, we dropped the kids home…after that I saw her holding her chest.
My mum will never say, ‘Take me to the hospital.’ Never heard her say that. [Yesterday] she said, ‘Take me to the hospital now.’
So, me and my sister rushed her to the Austin. She had chest pain. They admitted her in the emergency department. They did all the tests, the ECG, the blood check – for cancer – for everything. Thank god, nothing. It’s clear.
What did they find?
So we just came back home and Charith was with the kids at home.
But she’s doing the cleaning today?
She wants to do all the house cleaning and everything. I told her, ‘Don’t come out. Let me talk to Rajith.’
You should’ve told me it was a bad time.
Oh no no nononono. We didn’t want to change the time…no problem.
“Anything we do here it’s by their permission. That’s why we don’t have friends coming to the house, we don’t have anyone…that’s why I asked my mum’s permission before I... ”
I did my investigation course for a month. And got it. So, on Wednesday I have to go for my fingerprint…
Is that like a background check?
To get my private investigator license I need to go and do a fingerprint test with Victoria Police and then do a name check, together. Once I get the thing I have to put another form to the Licensing Regulation Division (LRD) to get the licensing. All together gonna cost me six-hundred or more, dollars.
Hopefully it’ll be a good investment.
Yeah. Then I can start practising. I’ve got people who ask me to do investigations for them but I don’t want any risk – because here everything’s by the book. I don’t wanna get into any trouble. With the license I can start practising.
So did you guys get your visa? Is all that settled?
No. There’s no news. Nothing. Nothing from the lawyers, nothing from the Immigration Department. We have no idea.
How long has it been now?
One and a half years already. Still no news.
But you’re on a bridging visa.
And you’re allowed to work.
Yep. Allowed to work, allowed to study, everything.
Just, when you come in with kids, they give you a Bridging Visa A. Unless alone or by boat or something, I’m not sure, that’s how it happens.
Is there an expiry date on your current visa?
No. Like, it’s written there: indefinite. But you have full working rights, full study rights or whatever. The kids can go to school. Everything. Basically same as a permanent resident but you’re limited. When you’re a permanent resident you get so many benefits. For us the only benefit we get from the government is a concession card for the public transport. That’s the only thing we get.
What about Medicare? Do you get that?
Oh yeah. Medicare. Yeah. So, it’s not bad.
And Charith just did his bodyguard course too. He wants to further and do Cert IV, I think. That’s what, Cash in Transit or something like that? Cash in Transit. You do the firearms.
So, like, getting the money out of the ATMs and transporting it – that sort of thing?
Yeah. It’s a good job and they pay quite well for that. Because we’re in this line – I’ve been in the investigation line, he’s been in the force so we can’t go and walk into an office and do marketing or sales or whatever. Can’t just suddenly change my whole thing to something else.
I used to love animals. And my parents wanted me to do law. The thing, which I like about zoology – I used to work in the zoo and stuff – that was good. That was really good. But here, to apply again, you have to do the certifications again – this, this this – everything.
And you’ve been here the whole time? In this house?
Yeah, yeah. From the time I came until now. Where else to go? We were thinking of getting our own place. We need to have a proper place to sleep because Aaron sleeps in my mum’s room and we’re sleeping in the lounge. It’s too difficult in the morning, carrying the mattress, carrying the blanket, carrying this and that…
“We need to have a proper place to sleep because Aaron sleeps in my mum’s room and we’re sleeping in the lounge. It’s too difficult in the morning, carrying the mattress, carrying the blanket, carrying this and that…”
Who’s in the second room?
Yeah. They’ll never give up their rooms. Anything we do here it’s by their permission. That’s why we don’t have friends coming to the house, we don’t have anyone…that’s why I asked my mum’s permission before I…I forgot to tell her when you called.
Anyone who wants to meet me, I say, ‘Come and call me,’ and we sneak into the garage. Either we’ll just go out or something.
Rules and regulations of my mum. Can’t do anything. Really can’t do anything. What to do?
What are the rules?
Too many rules. Too many. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. We don’t even have our own cupboard. You don’t have a closet or anything to put our clothes.
Living out of your suitcase?
Yeah. Did you see that?
I saw the bags [in the living room].
Every time I fold and keep, Charith or the kids will go and mess it up. So I have to keep it like that, every time. Fold and keep it – whatever things, from the school bags, our combs and makeup – everything’s on this side. What you see there is our clothes. Mum’s got her own closet and sister’s got her own closet.
It’s not easy for the kids. We had good life back in Malaysia. But things didn’t go well – because of all the risk. The kids had their own space, they had their own things.
“He bought a keyboard. She said, ‘Fuck off with your keyboard,’ and put it here. ”
Aaron comes over with his iPad, claiming he’s found a new world: ‘I don’t know what is that. See. I don’t know what is that thing. See?’ he shows Priya.
An older lady in a nightgown emerges from a bedroom and pads into the kitchen. Priya introduces us, ‘This is my mum.’
‘Hi. Nice to meet you,’ I say.
‘This is Rajith.’
‘Hullo,’ says the lady, then turns towards the living room and yells: ‘Aaron, why the light is on?’
Priya goes over to her mum and has a few words in a low voice. She returns.
Can we…[points outside]? She wants to have some food. Let’s go to the garage if you don’t mind?’
I don’t mind.
It’s all right.
Are you cold?
I’ve got a jumper.
Out in the garage, we sit at the little table with the red tablecloth. On it is an ashtray and a bottle of Fanta. Ceramic ornaments lie on the shelves, a few bottles of wine and spirits on a sideboard.
Do you guys smoke out here?
Yeah. You don’t smoke, right?
If you don’t mind, can I smoke?
I can’t do anything in this house without my mum’s permission. We can’t do anything. Everything is controlled. We can’t buy a glass. Can’t buy a mug. It’s that kind of thing. So we need every permission to do something.
He bought a keyboard. She said, ‘Fuck off with your keyboard,’ and put it here. [points at keyboard in the box, leaning against the wall].
So that was Charith who bought it?
Charith plays keyboard. I told him it’s all right – start off with a Livingstone. This was $80. I said, ‘When we were in Malaysia we could afford to buy anything we want. This is not the time for us to buy anything [expensive]. Just get this one.’ He bought it to teach the kids how to play.
At the moment we can’t afford to send the kids for piano lessons but we tried out best to pay $80 for Irene to do her guitar lessons. But what happened is Irene she went for two terms – we paid $80 each time, $160 for two terms – the third term now I asked her if she wanted to continue guitar and she said no because her father, her real biological father – my ex – he plays guitar and she doesn’t want anything to do with him. She wants to play, but she wants to be like this father [Charith].
Does Charith play? Is he good?
Yeah, yeah. He’s good.
Seriously, sometimes I think about it, I think, ‘What a life.’ You know what Irene asked me? When I asked Irene, my daughter, ‘What do you want for you birthday?’ She said, ‘Mama, I don’t want anything. Can we just get out from this house? Get a place?’ She’s quite matured for her age. She’s nine, but she knows what the hell is going on around us.
I told the kids, ‘Give me time. I need to work. Your father needs to work.’ Because investigations are paid well. Over $120 per hour. I don’t want to live this kind of life. Because seriously, this is torturing for me, for Charith, for the kids. The amount of stress that we go through.
Sometimes people look at as and say, ‘you’re so happy,’ but people don’t know what’s going on inside. Where is our life going at this moment? You don’t know what’s going to happen. What’s our future going to be? What’s going to happen to the kids?
“I said, 'what’s wrong with you? Why are you looking down at Sri Lankans for? Our grandparents were both Sri Lankan!'”
Was your mum always like this? From when you were young?
After we caught my dad cheating she became so so nasty. She’s nasty towards everyone. She’s got no friends. This is her whole life. Attention seeker. She’ll cry and everyone will have to attend to her.
Like, yesterday she had chest pain but I don’t how true it is. Everything was fine. Her blood pressure was good, I was checking her pulse – everything was good. Her blood pressure was 130/82.
That’s our life here. It’s basically living under a regime. Even, for example, these jeans. I bought these in February, six months ago. Yesterday I wore them and she asked me, ‘Oh, are you wearing new jeans? How come I don’t know?’ I have to tell her everything, whatever I buy. Whatever comes in and out of this house, it has to be audited.
It’s not easy. I’m bloody 33 years old and you’re [she’s] questioning me, what I’m doing, what I’m eating, every few minutes call and ask what are you doing, what are you eating, how much are you spending on food. If you’re living under her money, ok. But we’re not. We’re instead paying everything here. Even a thing can cost two dollars, it’s been recorded in this house. We have to pay.
She writes it down?
Yeah. She’ll buy something for ten dollars, she’ll get five dollars from me. But she won’t ask anything from my sister. So that’s the life we’re living here.
How is Charith finding it? Is it hard for him – because he’s kind of an outsider?
Everything they talk about is like, ‘you’re a fucking Sri Lankan.’
Yesterday my sister told bought my son a shirt and jeans – she bought skinny jeans for him. She bought a shirt, exactly like you’re wearing – with a t-shirt inside, and she bought the long sleeve shirt for outside.
So I was dressing up, and Charith dressed up Aaron. But what Aaron did, while he was playing iPad, he put on all the buttons. So my sister came, she asked, ‘who dressed up Aaron?’ I said, Charith. ‘My god, fucking Sri Lankans. Always fucking Sri Lankans. Look at how the fucking Sri Lankans dress up. He’s bringing the stupid Sri Lankan way of dressing to Aaron.
I said, ‘what’s wrong with you? Why are you looking down at Sri Lankans for?’
I said our grandparents were both Sri Lankan: ‘What the fuck are you talking about? You look down on Sri Lanka?’
“People talk about racism and everything. Racism happens not just in Australia, but around the world. I am a Malaysian and I go through racism, so what’s so different about Australia? ”
It’s how you handle things. It’s how you use your brain and cope with it. Everything people say – that’s stupidity. When I was young, when I used to go for school debates, my dad used to tell me, ‘To err is stupidity. But to keep repeating is pure insanity.’ I still have that in my mind.
Charith was at the boiling point yesterday. He just didn’t want to mess up Aaron’s birthday. But he was pissed off, I was pissed off.
What does he do? Go for a walk to cool off?
Yeah, this is our cooling off area. Come down and have a smoke?
My sister treats us like a bloody maid. She brings her friends, she drinks, she leaves all the glasses. And she’ll just leave the glasses here for us to wash. I just leave them here. It’s already been four months, I said keep it there. Until you come and wash it. For me and Charith, we don’t really drink. We drink very seldom. But occasionally we drink.
Does your mum drink?
Maybe a glass of beer. Occasional also.
So what’s the plan?
Oh, I have no idea. It’s still blank. It’s still very blank. We have no idea what’s going on, what’s going to happen to the kids.
One thing about us, the Australian government understands our situation – we can’t go and get a protection visa. We don’t mind working for the Australian government, in what way can we give back all the help we’ve gotten? Because we don’t want to go back anymore. That’s it.
We want our kids to be here, to be educated here, to be safe. We don’t need to think so much about what’s going on.
Charith returns on his motorbike. He comes over and talks to us about his bodyguard course, the landscaping work he’s been doing, the struggles with Priya’s mum. The kids, hearing their step-dad’s voice, come out to play. Irene goes straight to her scooter while Aaron mock-wrestles with Charith. I take some hurried photos before I pack up. When I leave the family’s out on the concrete yard, happily playing.