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Melbourne to Mumbai and back: How fear of COVID-19 in India drove an Indian-Australian family out

The Saboo family on the last day of their hotel quarantine. Source: Supplied

The rapid spread of the coronavirus in densely populated Mumbai and the associated fear prompted third-generation Indian-Australian Ramona Saboo to retrace her steps and return to Melbourne with her young family. The Saboos are still considering which of the two great megalopolises to finally call home.

Ramona Dhillon’s family came to Australia half a century ago from India. 14 years ago Ramona, now with the surname Saboo, left Australia to live in India.

In May this year, the fear of the coronavirus once again drove Ramona Saboo to Australia’s shores, this time with three other members of her family.

While the decision to move to Australia felt right, buttressed with the hope of enjoying a safer and more interesting life than in Mumbai, the Saboo family is once again living in lockdown under Melbourne’s Stage 4 restrictions. But this time, in an Air BnB.


Highlights:

  • Ramona’s family came to Australia in 1971, she reverse-migrated to India in 2006 after marrying Anurag Saboo.
  • Driven by the spread of COVID-19 in India, the Saboos have now moved to Australia, leaving behind a well-established life.
  • The family is tossing up between the safety of Australia and the business opportunity of India.

Reverse migration reversed

Ramona married Anurag Saboo 16 years ago, who she met while working on a documentary on first and second-generation Indians in Australia. This project transformed into an SBS documentary on their wedding called The Wedding Saree Showdown.

Ramona and Anurag Saboo at their wedding in 2004.
Ramona and Anurag Saboo at their wedding in 2004.
Supplied

Mr Saboo then had a job in Melbourne, which he left to join his family business in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. His wife and six-month-old baby moved along with him.

The third generation of the migrant Dhillon family had reversed the move.

The Saboos left Australia with two suitcases to explore what India had in store for them. Working over the years on 40 Red Bangles, their sustainable luxury lifestyle business in Jodhpur and Mumbai, they visited family in Melbourne on occasion.

Due to the rough and tumble of the coronavirus pandemic in India, particularly in thickly populated Mumbai, once again, Ms Saboo undid the move and reversed-migrated to Australia. This time, with four suitcases and another member added to their family.

“You cannot pack up your life in suitcases. We’ve been living in Mumbai for 14 years. Our daughters Arshia (14) and Omaira (11) went to school there. We have a five-bedroom house, a factory, offices and stores in India with many employees who are reliant on us for their income,” says Ms Saboo.

The business continues to operate in India, she adds.

The store in India.
The Saboo family's store in India.
Supplied

India in the time of coronavirus

This “leap of faith” as Ms Saboo calls it, was prompted by the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Mumbai, which continues to be one of the most significantly-impacted places in India.

“The mentality of people in India is quite different from ours. There was a lot of stigma, fear and paranoia amongst them about coronavirus. Our wavelength didn’t match with a lot of people in our apartment building in Mumbai. All of a sudden, we had to live by other people’s rules. It didn’t make sense,” says the 44-year-old.

“We were stuck in our apartment. Our kids were getting frustrated as we didn’t have any access to the outdoors. Things were looking like a big mess in India,” she recalls.

Where’s home: Mumbai or Melbourne?

While Ms Saboo was worried for the safety of her children in India, the well-being of her ageing parents in Melbourne also kept gnawing at her mind.

“My parents are medical practitioners who work on the frontline. There was a fear in my mind whether I’d be able to see them or not. Melbourne was always nana-nani’s (maternal grandparents) home for our children. But this time, they came here under very different circumstances,” Ms Saboo says.

Over the last 14 years, the Saboo family has made Mumbai their home. But when coronavirus started, there was a very strong yearning and pull on Ms Saboo’s heartstrings predominantly to come back “home”.

“Home for me is Melbourne, where all my family lives. In Mumbai, we lived in a nuclear family, so we felt isolated during the lockdown. There was a fear about how things were going to transpire in India, Mumbai in particular,” she recollects.

Right decision or wrong?

The decision was not easy. The Saboos “nearly booked and cancelled tickets to Melbourne several times”, before finally jumping onto one of the last Qantas flights from India to Australia in May.

The Saboo family enjoying a picnic in hotel quarantine in Melbourne.
The Saboo family enjoying a 'hotel quarantine picnic' after reaching Australia in May.
Supplied

“We knew we had the option to leave India. Two of us are Australian citizens and two permanent residents. We were in touch with the Australian Consulate in Mumbai and got an emergency passport made for one of our daughters. We felt we were making the right decision for our children. They’d be able to have their grandparents and cousins around, and go to school in Melbourne,” Ms Saboo says.

But Melbourne’s Stage 4 lockdown has been difficult for them as the girls are unable to attend school or spend time with their extended family, which was the magnet for them. The family has also not decided yet whether to invest in a house or not.

“We question our move every day. But it’s been a time of introspection. Returning to Australia had been on the cards for many years, but it wasn’t expected so soon. We had left it for when my now 14-year-old daughter goes to university. I’m happy we are safe in Australia, but is this where we’re meant to be,” wonders Ms Saboo, adding that business-wise, they wouldn’t have been able to achieve as much in Australia as they have in India.

Listen to this podcast in English by clicking on the audio link inside the picture at the top of the page.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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