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espite being thousands
of kilometres from her
ancestral home, Aruna
Manuelrayan is always
proud to be seen in her
colourful sarees as she makes her way
through the city streets of Adelaide.
Not that she hasn’t embraced
the Australian way of life since
immigrating from Singapore 13 years
ago, but Aruna says her Indian heritage
has moulded her to become who she is
and remains a dominant influence.
“I still feel a strong connection to all
things Indian. I am so proud to wear
my saree, that’s the signature attire of
an Indian woman. When you see an
Indian woman in a saree, she chooses
to wear it to show her connection to
her roots,” she explains.
The daughter of an Indian mother
originally from Pondicherry and a
father of Indian descent who was
raised in Malaysia, Aruna describes
herself as a “Singapore-born-Indian
“I’m very passionate about all
things Indian. My childhood was very
steeped in both the Indian culture and
Aruna’s mother moved from her
home in southern India to Singapore
to marry her father in 1956. It was an
arranged marriage – as was the case
for Aruna and three of her sisters when
they were older.
“In the village or even the city
settings in India you have to, or are
expected to be, married within your
own ‘caste’, class, status, educational
or professional background.... there
are a lot of considerations. To an
outsider it is complicated, but not for
those who have grown up with the
expectations of the culture.
“In our family all of the arranged
marriages have worked out fine and
we’re still happily married,” she says,
adding that she and husband Gerard
have been married for nearly 35 years.
Raised and educated in Singapore,
Aruna and her family were part of a
larger community of about 25 Tamil-
speaking Indian migrant families who
all lived in the same housing block.
They were unified by their language,
although religion varied. The majority
were Hindus while the remainder, like
Aruna’s family, followed Catholicism.
Their living conditions were tight.
Her parents and their seven children
were crammed into a one-bedroom
unit, which had an outdoor kitchen,
and they shared a communal bathroom.
Being in such close proximity to
their neighbours meant most Indian
traditions were celebrated, including
some of Hindu origin such as the
puberty (coming of age) ceremony.
Aruna recalls how for a week she was
not allowed to leave her home and
her aunties and the neighbourhood
women came to bathe her in turmeric
water infused with petals. She had
to consume raw egg with ginger oil,
which helped to strengthen her womb,
and she was not allowed to meet with
any man, except her dad and brothers.
At the end of the week the women
brought fruits and flowers and gave
Another tradition was to celebrate
and rejoice the birth of the first boy
child. When her brother, who was
number four in the pecking order,
arrived it was finally time to visit India
and “showcase the first born son”.
It was the first time her mother had
returned to India since her marriage
and for Aruna, it was a chance to
finally meet her grandmother, aunties,
uncles and cousins.
“What struck me the most was their
religious fervour. Every morning
people went to church, you could hear
the church bells ringing and you could
hear the sermons.
“They lived in communities,
enclaves, based on their religion. The
Catholics lived in their own enclave,
like the Hindus and Muslims, so
there was very little intermingling
between the religious groups, unlike in
Singapore or Australia where we have
Hindus and Catholics and Muslims all
living in the same area.”
Back in Singapore, Aruna took
the faith journey expected of young
Catholics. She completed all the
sacraments and had the “big holy
communion celebration” with the
“mandatory white dress, photographers
and a meal”, to which everyone in the
neighbourhood was invited.
However, in her early 20s she
“veered away” from Catholicism and
joined the Assemblies of God Church.
When her marriage to Gerard was
arranged, he insisted they exchange
vows in the Catholic Church, saying he
was a cradle Catholic. After consulting
her pastor and praying about it, she
returned to the Catholic Church.
“Now I have an even stronger
relationship with God and am a better
testimony of the Catholic faith,” she
She has strengthened her faith to
the extent that she was involved in
the church on many committees when
in Singapore, and her faith journey
has helped her to answer God’s call
to become a special minister in her
present parish in Seaton, Adelaide.
Aruna, who turns 60 this month, and
Gerard’s decision to move to Australia
came later in their married life, when
their daughter Jean was finishing
her schooling. With such strong
competition to secure a place in a
university in Singapore, they believed
she would have better opportunities in
another country. Gerard requested an
early retirement from his stressful job
as an air traffic controller while Aruna,
who had worked as a teacher since she
was 21, resigned.
They decided to travel in order to
find the country that best met their
needs and eventually settled on
“Very few Singaporeans knew of
Adelaide back then so we came, and
loved it. We came back the following
year to be sure, and loved it again and
then we moved for good.”
Given Singapore’s multicultural
background they found assimilating
into the Australian way of life quite
easy, however Aruna did find some
differences when attending church.
“In Adelaide, you can sit in the first
row even if you go into church late...
if you go to Christmas Mass you can
also sit in front... you don’t have to go
two hours early just to get a seat, not to
mention a front seat.
“I also felt the Australian churches
were not vibrant then. The Catholic
Church here was just boring and you
were just going through the motions,
doing what you had to do. People were
not enthused, they were not on fire.
“I strongly believe that is why God
has brought this revival, this Asian
migration particularly for the Catholic
Church, as He sees a need for the
Church to be re-energised, to get a
transfusion of new blood.”
Although happy to be in Australia,
Aruna said connecting with other
Tamil-speaking Indians had been very
important for her. About five years
ago she helped set up a monthly Tamil
Mass at the Annunciation Church at
Hectorville; and her family regularly
attends Tamil events in Adelaide.
“The Tamil Catholic community is
small here, perhaps a few hundred,
but the Tamil-speaking community
in its entirety is huge, perhaps a few
thousand people,” she explains.
While the move to Australia was
to “slow down”, Aruna continues to
teach English for foundation studies
at the University of Adelaide Senior
College and is working on her thesis.
Entitled In Our Mother ’s Sarees, it is a
comparative study of how mothers and
daughters of Indian origin living in
Australia, India and Singapore invest
in their cultural capital.
For her it’s been a labour of love,
a chance to meet with Indian women
who, like her, are proud to wear their
sarees no matter where they live.
Proud to wear her saree
Aruna Manuelrayan describes herself as a Singapore-born
Indian-Australian, but it is her Indian heritage and Catholic faith
that she holds closest to her heart, writes LINDY MCNAMARA.
you can sit in
the first row
even if you go
right) with her
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