It was a quiet voice, but a voice of reason. In the passing of Dr Subhakant Behera, the Indian community in Melbourne has lost one of its best ‘brand ambassadors’
On a Friday night, after work, a year-and-a-half ago, I met Dr Subhakant Behera for the first time. It was probably one of his first public engagements in Melbourne. The occasion was the launch of the Indian Executive magazine. Dr Behera arrived on time, stood in a corner, saying very little. My colleagues and I did not know how to handle the newly posted Consular General to Melbourne then. We didn’t know what to expect from him.
After the flamboyant Ms Anita Nair, Dr Behera looked timid, an introvert. Many in the restaurant wondered if he could pull off this hard job of breaking the ice between India and Australia. The two democracies had a strained relationship following attacks on Indian students in Melbourne. The restaurant was buzzing with local businessmen talking work, networking and gossiping.
My colleague Sreekant Balan managed to start a conversation with Dr Behera and asked him if everything was ok and if he wanted a drink. He said no to the drink and replied: “Yes, everything is ok. But I’m surprised you did not invite my wife to this event.” We were taken aback. Probably, it was our ignorance. Didn’t we know the protocol? It was time to cut the ribbon and launch the magazine. When the time came for Dr Behera to speak, he said a few words. A few words on how significant it is for Australia to engage with India in the current economic environment. He sounded thorough, informed and a total intellectual. Some doubts were laid to rest that night, but others prevailed.
Since that day, since we goofed up with the invite, we decided to leave him alone, not engage with this mystery. Not knowing if he’d be upset again. But Dr Behera always surprised. He would call, quite unexpectedly, to find out about our plans, our community engagements. In a very short span of time, he was visible at almost all events and engagements organised by the Indian diaspora in Melbourne. No active community member could miss his presence. He cultivated a support base and respect among the community fairly quickly. It was like he only made friends and very few enemies.
We also saw Mrs Rajashree Behera’s presence at all cultural events without fail. It wasn’t just her presence, but she very actively promoted Odissi and Indian art and culture in Melbourne. It’s only then that we realised the reason for his question when we first met — “Why didn’t you invite my wife.” We realised it was the most professional question he could ask. Dr Behera and Mrs Behera had cut out a plan for Melbourne on the cultural front. He wanted her that night to meet the community and get started with her work.
It was a well thought out strategy by Dr Behera to use the Indian diaspora to engage with Australia. He truly believed that Indians living in Melbourne were the “brand ambassadors” of India. Dr Behera very smartly and effectively used the Indian community to break the ice between India and Australia. He used us to bring positivity back in a relationship that had gone haywire. While Mrs Behera worked on the cultural front, he engaged with the political circles in an intellectual way, with community organisations as a smooth operator, business leaders in a dynamic way, the ethnic and mainstream media in an effortless and sincere manner.
Dr Behera sometimes would call us into his office and initiate a discussion on the ethnic media in Melbourne. With over 15 Indian newspapers in Melbourne, he often wondered how they survived commercially. He would sarcastically question their viability. By then I had realised he was a fair person to deal with. I wasn’t getting offended. I realised his sarcasm was only to get me to defend my job, to hear something positive about an industry that most people liked to be dismissive about. “Acha Siddharth, tell me, why are there so many newspapers in the market. What do you guys publish that keeps you in business.” My answers, I’m sure, satisfied his doubts about the ethnic media’s role in Melbourne. Only because he engaged with us, almost till the end.
One of the last events he attended, ironically, was again related to the Indian Executive — the second annual Indian Executive awards held at Docklands. In the lead up to this event, we got to know Dr Behera more closely. He kept calling us every second day to find out if the preparations were going well. He wanted to see the run-sheet, he wanted to know the guest list. I was invited to his office a couple of times so he could understand the credibility of the awards and its selection process. He posed questions, challenged some methods we adopted. All along, he was actively engaging with us, to help us get better at our business, to fine-tune our system.
I told him how some in the community were against the whole initiative. All he said was: “Why do you worry? Just do the right thing and you will be fine. Some attention is always good for growth.”
On the night of the awards, we made a few mistakes while calling him on stage. Our MC forgot to invite him to speak and had to bring him back again for his speech. The stand-up comedian Aamer Hussain from The Fear of the Brown Planet reminded the audience of old wounds between Australia and India. Aamer poked fun at racism in Australia. Dr Behera was at ease through the night, often touching base with me to find out if we were all ok and happy with the event.
After that night, we met again for the Diwali Souvenir launch at his office. I had asked him if his office would remain shut while he went on holidays. I was surprised. It cracked him up. He laughed and said: “No Siddharth, this office does not revolve around me.” On my way out, he called me again and said “Acha Siddharth, even if I go away for a long time, this office will remain closed only on December 25th.”
On 9 November, I got a call from Neeraj Nanda of South Asia Times to give me the sad news of Dr Behera’s death. His death has profoundly affected us. The community has lost a true mentor, India has lost a promising diplomat, Australia has lost a true friend, Indus Age lost a true supporter, the ethnic media in Melbourne lost a vocal critic.
R.I.P Dr Behera.