There are many ways in which we view retirement success. For some it is accumulation of wealth, for others it is a successful transition from work life to home life, yet for some others it is making use of time to help others. Fiji-born Vishnu Prasad is someone who fits into the third category of people who, post their retirement, like to give something to the community without expecting anything in return. A retired engineer, Prasad moved to Melbourne from Fiji in 1988 primarily to be with his children who are settled here. But it was also the unstable political situation in Fiji at that time that made the decision easier for him. After coming here, Prasad discovered the innumerable joys of needlecraft, a habit which he says has been ‘rubbed off’ from Margeret, his wife and loving partner of 54 years. Together they make quilts and donate them to soldiers and children. This is among the many things Prasad does for the community.
Indeed, Prasad spends most of his hours volunteering. On the few occasions he is not, he spends his time reading Hindi texts and solving Sudoku puzzle. When he is not making quilts, he works as a Hindu chaplain visiting homes and hospitals to give company to the old, lonely and ailing members of the community. Sometimes he reads the Gita or Ramayana for them. He is also a registered Justice of Peace (JP) volunteer, a trait he acquired in 2004. For all his contribution and more, Prasad was winner of the Promotion of Multiculturalism Award for Victoria this October. As Victorian Governor Linda Dessau said at the ceremony at Government House, “Today’s seniors are breaking new ground. We are living in a time of transition where stereotypes of age are being torn apart.” True enough, Prasad is a living emblem of it. This is not his first award. In 2007, the Multicultural Commission gave him the ‘Meritorious Service’ to the community award.
In a candid interview, Prasad tells Indira Laisram how he is honoured by the recognition given to his ‘humble service’, while also giving us an insight into his life.
Tell us something about your growing up years in Fiji and your Indian background?
My grandfather belonged to Songara village in Etah, Uttar Pradesh (India) and he went to Fiji in 1882 under the Indenture System to work in the sugar cane industry. After the committed term, he set up a farm near Lokia village in Rewa district, approximately 20 kms from Suva in Fiji. A simple country boy, I grew up on this farm and attended Naililili Mission School and Marist Brothers’ High School in Suva.
I started working for Cable and Wireless Ltd as a telegraphist. This company became Fintel following Fiji’s Independence. I attended their training school in Porthcurno near Land’s End in England and became a Radio Technician. Later I specialised in submarine cable and satellite technologies. I was appointed the Engineer in Charge of the submarine cable terminal. At the time of my migration to Melbourne I was one of the four department managers of the company.
Looking back on your career as an engineer, what were some of the most memorable milestones?
Something which stands out is the ‘miniaturisation’ of equipment transiting from analogue to digital technologies passing from thermal valves, transistors, etc. to really compact equipment. Two highlights of my career in Fiji were the introduction of a Satellite Station and a digital submarine trans-pacific cable.
What prompted you to migrate to Australia in 1988 post retirement?
My decision to migrate was primarily to unite with both of my children and, secondarily, the coups which had taken place in Fiji.
Can you elaborate on the quilting and patch-working work that you are involved in and for which you got an award?
My wife is a keen needlecraft lady adept in knitting, crochet, embroidery, patch-working, tapestry etc. It is said that habits do rub off – my fancy picked up the patchwork as a hobby.
This work involves a process. We start by making blocks. First I sit down and draw what types of blocks I have. We make many blocks which vary in size, say, from 12 by 12 inches to 8 by 8. Then I work on the layout and design of the blocks. Once all the blocks are done and the colours coordinated we find the backing material. In the middle we have wadding, which is like a wool blend that gives the quilt its substance. We then go to a person who has a long arm machine to stitch all the pieces together. Once that is done we trim off the edges and put a binding on it. We buy our materials from various shops, we use cotton mainly and sometimes we exchange or share the materials with other friends. My wife helps me quite a lot especially with the colour coordination and designs.
How did you start this charitable work?
I got inspired by Quilts of Valor, which is an Australian organisation that sends quilts to soldiers injured in conflict or the grieving families of soldiers who will never come home. (There is a similar organisation in the US too). How the organisation came about was when this Australian soldier who got wounded in the war was transferred to a hospital in Germany and he was a recipient of one of such quilts. Later, he would tell his mother about it and they got encouraged to start an organisation that gives quilts to soldiers. So I started volunteering for the Quilts of Valor.
When my wife and I started, we were giving quilts only to the soldiers. But then we realised some of them have families – wives and children. As the number of quilts grew we gave to the family members too although our primary aim was to give to the soldiers.
What would you say most motivates you to do what you do?
Both my and my wife’s parents were very family and community orientated. It can be said that we were both groomed in community spirit. That motivates us both to get involved in community projects.
You have lived in Fiji and you are now in Australia? If you could hold on to one memory from your life forever, what would that be?
The separation from old folks was the heart-breaking moment; this has been replaced by the new folks established here. My memory cherished for ever is the love, inspiration, versatility, and support of my wife – I can emphatically say “My better half”. I really wish the award could have been a joint one.
You also volunteer as a Hindu chaplain, what all does it entail?
We regularly visit the elders of the community who remain alone when the younger family members are away at work/school. There are those who are sick either in a hospital or at home and we visit them. We sit with them, talk with them and say prayers or read for them.
I have been associated with Wesley Mission for 20 years now. Wesley’s Do Care program was established in 1977, and is one of the most popular services today that helps people participate in and reconnect with their community, by pairing volunteers with older people to spend regular time together, either individually or as part of a group. It has a list of lonely people who are living on their own; sometimes it can be a couple or single person. So they find someone close to our house, say, within 10-15 km radius, and then we arrange time to visit the person. After a while you establish rapport and you become friends.
My wife and I have been visiting people elder people from Fiji who have been here for decades now. We have a small group for whom I do a reading of the Ramayana and Gita. Also when there is a death in the family and during the 13-day period before kirya (last Hindu rites for the dead) is performed I so some reading. I visit hospitals and do similar readings for some patients. But I don’t perform any puja.
You have a multifaceted role in the community?
Yes I am also a Justice of Peace (JP) volunteer. (Justices of the Peace are volunteers who provide document witnessing and certification services to the community both during and outside business hours). I go down to Frankston and Cranbourne Police station at the document signing centres where people come to have their documents witnessed and signed. To be able to practice as a JP, you need to get a registration from the Justice department. And there is a bit of training, revision etc. involved. I have been a JP since 2004.
If somebody needs document signed they look up in the postcode on the internet which shows how many JPs are there and who is closer. People have our phone number and make an appointment and come home too. So I have lot of people coming in at home. Yes I lead a busy life.
What message would you like to give other members of the Indian community from all over who are in Australia?
Loneliness and idleness breed worries. Try to fill your times with hobbies such as reading, writing, singing, sewing, group chats/discussions games. Seniors groups provide many opportunities for get together or outings. Many low investment activities are possible. Internet is one avenue to access books. Do not cocoon yourself into a shell.