Speech by Mr Peter N Varghese AO, Chancellor of the University of Queensland, to the Families Week Breakfast, Toowoomba, 26 October 2017

Acknowledgements

I must tread carefully because everyone in this room is an expert on families. You have all done the field research. There are no universal truths I can offer you: only a perspective

The philosopher, George Santayana, - not to be confused with that rock band Santana - once described the family as one of nature’s masterpieces. It is certainly the oldest institution in existence and the most road tested.

But a masterpiece does not mean perfection. A masterpiece can be many things. Uplifting, inspiring, captivating but also brooding, anxious and difficult to understand. So also families.

This should not surprise us. Families are anchored in human nature.  They have all the strengths and flaws of human beings.  If they are masterpieces, they are masterpieces painted in every shade and each with its unique balance of light and dark.  As that great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote: “All happy families resemble one another. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

For me, there has been no greater influence on my life than my family: the one I grew up with and the one that I grew into. Each shaped me in different ways and with my wife, Margaret, in the audience I hasten to add still shapes me. Although I doubt she would describe what she has made of me as a masterpiece. 

I was the eighth of nine children: eight boys and one girl. We thought she was privileged and remain very proud of her. She thought she was simply unlucky.

I do have a theory about large families.  In a family of nine children the first three are prototypes when parents are struggling with how best to raise the kids, what theories to apply and how much traditional wisdom to draw on.  The next three are the resulting template run on auto pilot.  The last three are the sheer exhaustion model when parents are too tired to experiment further and largely leave this final batch to develop as they may.  It may sound a trifle negligent but it actually gives the final group a great deal of room to grow!

My parents, both deceased, were extraordinary individuals and an even more remarkable couple. They grew up in rural India in the state of Kerala.  They were scholarship kids.  Kerala is remarkable for a number of things.  Its Christian community from which my family hail is said to go back to the time of St Thomas the apostle. It has almost equal numbers of christians, muslims and Hindus. It had the first ever elected communist government in the world. And I am convinced it is where the term “argumentative Indian” must have been coined. 

My father was a restless man in a hurry. His great good fortune was that he married someone with her feet firmly on the ground but also with the vision to admire ambition and the sense to temper it.

Both my parents were fiercely independent thinkers. They also had courage. They married for love, not by arrangement as was the universal custom of their community at the time. If that wasn’t brave enough they then decided to sail to Tanganyika and then Kenya where they knew no one, when World War Two was raging and it was not uncommon for ships between India and Africa to be torpedoed.

I think of my parents as family entrepreneurs.  They had a vision of a better life for their children.  They took risks.  They backed their judgement even when things were tough.

In Kenya they both built careers as teachers. Mum only stopped teaching when we moved to Australia by which time the youngest of the nine children was three.  Dad rose to become a senior principal in the Kenyan system and was in the first group of Indians to be get equal pay with British teachers in colonial Kenya.

Middle class large families have to have clear priorities when it comes to the household budget.  In our case it was food and education. We always ate well and where we could we went to good schools. Holidays were rare, clothes a matter of inheritance, pocket money non existent, eating out a fantasy and entertainment provided on a do-it-yourself business model.

By today’s standards it would be judged a fairly hard life. But our points of comparison were limited and we thought we did pretty well. It was an enjoyable childhood full of hustle and bustle and with remarkably little enforced routine.

So what did I learn from growing up in this large family?  Let me list six lessons.

First, adaptability.  With two teachers as parents we moved house fairly often. I went to six primary schools. When you are the new kid at school you learn quickly how to adapt, how to observe, how to get a sense of the place, who is who in the pecking order, who are kindred spirits and whom you may have to deal with using more subtle techniques. Incidentally these were skills I later found to be very useful in diplomacy.

Second, there was no point thinking you are the centre of the universe. Large families beat the self centredness out of you. At least until you find yourself in your own smaller family when perhaps you can make up for lost time. But whether it is recognising that you cannot just help yourself to as much of your favourite food as you like or accepting that you have to get yourself to your weekend sports venues a large family is the equivalent of a forced conversion to having to think of others.

Third, you carry your universe with you.  What made moving somewhat easier is that your large family moved with you. You lived in a self contained universe.  You had an anchor.

Fourth, you had to hold your ground in debate and argument. Our dinner table was more like a seminar. You learned how to construct an argument, anticipate counter points, know when to intervene to maximum effect.  And that was just breakfast.

Fifth, you absorb values. Ours was not a pious household but religion was often the subject of intense discussion. We were taught to question, to put dogma to critical scrutiny. This did not make our school days any easier although it did subsequently sharpen up my skills as a policy adviser. I remember an exasperated Christian brother teacher at high school saying “the trouble with those Varghese boys is that they are allowed to say what they like at home”. He was quite right.  We were encouraged to speak our mind.  We learnt early how to disagree without being disagreeable.

And lastly growing up in a large family teaches you resilience. You rarely get your way in a large family. You learn to roll with the punches. And there is no skill in life more useful than resilience.  It is a hard skill to teach these days but in my view it is perhaps the most important skill to learn.

So for me the benefits of growing up in a large family – the skills you either learnt or absorbed – translated easily into my professional life and our ability to adapt to Australia and Australian society.

That was important because the Australia that our family came to in 1964 was a very different place.  The White Australia policy was still in force. My father was only given a two year visa and that under a special program. It was an act of extraordinary courage to take a family of eleven to a country where he did not know a soul and where the prospects of migration were far from certain.  It was further evidence of the family entrepreneur in my parents.

Australia has been an extraordinarily welcoming country to the Varghese family. The early years could not have been easy for my parents. They had left a comfortable life style with social standing, strong community ties and live in domestic help.  But they had come to Australia because they thought it would provide a better life for their children and that has been a judgement entirely vindicated.

Today Australia is rightly hailed as one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world. But in 1964 an Indian family of eleven with mum in a sari stood out like a sore thumb. Yet my experience in Australia is that, more than any other community that I know, Australians are prepared to take individuals at their face value. And while the history of Australia is fraught on questions of race, this baggage has amazingly not got in the way of Australians accepting non whites as long as they are seen to be committed to assimilating into the Australian life style. Of course if we had not been Christian and English speaking our Australian life story may have been very different.

It is interesting to reflect that when it came time to choose a life partner so many of us siblings chose Irish Catholics.  And when you think about it it is quite a natural fit. We shared a common religion. In my case we both came from large families and our values were a close match. At our wedding, my father described Indians as the  “browned off Irish”.

For me my marriage was the best decision of my life. And while both Margaret and I would have liked to have had more children we were blessed with an extraordinary son and now are enjoying being grandparents which is another experience altogether. I can speak objectively of it but I am afraid Margaret has lost all perspective when to comes to the virtues of our grandson. 

For me, the family has been the anchor of my life. I would not have been able to achieve what I have without their love and support.  And while Margaret and our son Christopher may occasionally feel they have been victims of my career, we have as a family had a remarkable life living in six countries and having extraordinary opportunities.

The diplomatic life makes many demands on families. With the possible exception of the defence forces there is no other occupation which intrudes so far into family life. It comes with great opportunities and often great privileges but it also means regularly leaving behind family and friends, and having to make new friends only to leave them again. For spouses it means careers interrupted so frequently they may as well be abandoned.  And no matter how hard you try to become a part of the community, a diplomat and their families will always be outsiders. Indeed to do your job effectively you can never lose the perspective of an outsider. That is easier for the diplomat to accept than for the accompanying family.

We have greatly enjoyed each of our five postings.  But without each other they would have been both more difficult and less enjoyable. And the best of them have been postings we have enjoyed as a family

But that is what families are all about. They weave their way through our life, shaping our identity, defining our experiences, connecting us in a way which transcends choice. Families are, as someone once said, the umbilical chord of love and sacrifice that binds us.

We all have our family stories: the good and the bad, the funny and the painful, the highs and the lows. Some also have their family secrets.  But on that, let me end with some sage advice from Will Smith:

“Live that you would not be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip”.

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