Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin
Love of place and people, no joke
When Desh Ramiah hears critics complain that city planning is a joke, this environmental-planner-by-day and comedian-by-night takes it very seriously
THEY call him The Deshman.
Disguised in a business suit, he’s an environmental planner by day … but by night, he’s a notso-corporate comedian.
He may not be the superhero we deserve but he is truly the superhero we need.
After all, if this city can lighten up about urban planning, truly anything is possible.
Fortunately, that’s all in a (long) day’s work for Desh, aka Pradesh Ramiah.
Desh was born in Durban to Indian South African parents but raised near Rockhampton, and growing up Hindu in the beef capital of Australia is perhaps the reason he finds being a little different completely ordinary.
From receiving accolades for his contributions to government policy to receiving applause for entertaining the capacity crowd at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium (during the State of Origin while wearing a Maroons jersey), from appearances on the Footy Show and Rove to membership in the Planning Institute of Australia, Desh is nothing if not versatile.
But while he can switch between business suit and civvies, what he can’t change is the skin he’s in – and providing some diversity in this fair, fair city is just one more service this superhero offers.
“I’ve dealt with comments about my skin colour all my life, when I play golf someone always thinks I’m the greenskeeper,” says Desh.
“It’s rarely full-on racism but it’s a lot of just micro-aggressions.
“But that’s the great thing about comedy, I can switch the sting around. And, even better, I can provide some representation for people
who are not Anglo.
“My experience growing
up in Rockhampton and Yeppoon was actually really positive – but I was the son of a doctor and I was the only Indian South African.
“The Indigenous kids would have a very different story from me – so even though I’m still a minority, I have a different experience again.
“But being an outsider is the perfect place for a comedian … it gives you a very unique perspective.”
Something that Desh takes very seriously is his love for the land, something that some find surprising considering he is a first-generation Australian.
But Desh says not only is that what led him to environmental planning but it turns out it’s a trait that runs in his blood.
“It’s like they say, you can’t outrun fate,” he says.
“Even though my family lived in South Africa and were Indian, they have the same love of country as I do – it’s just a different country.
“My mother’s family lost their farm under apartheid, they were forced to move to a designated area in Durban for Indian South Africans. My father was politically active, he had a medical degree, which was highly unusual for his race at that time, but he knew things were going from bad to worse and he wanted to get his family out.
“My father built a new life here, he became the first registrar at Yeppoon Hospital and he later formed an international society, he was someone who was connected to everybody in his community.
“I knew I was different to the other kids in Yeppoon but what really made me realise that was when we would visit family in South Africa – suddenly I knew what it was like to look like everyone else. But I was still an outsider of sorts.”
Desh’s fierce individual streak meant he was something of an anomaly when it came to his education – a son of immigrants who was happy just to pass.
But he must have inherited enough intelligence to still pursue science at university – even if his options were more limited than expected.
“Every Indian family wants to have a doctor or a lawyer –
but I was the son of a doctor so there was only one way I could go. I finished high school with a pretty mediocre TE score and the only science degree I could get into was environmental science … but it turned out that was the right fit for me.”
Desh says knowing the history of his family in South Africa, and of South Africa in general, gave him the insight to understand how even lowlevel political decisions can have an impact.
“I was always really interested in economics and politics, I had seen just how badly politics can affect your life in my own family. I knew that if I could get engaged with environmental policy at a government level, I could make a difference.
“I wasn’t interested in being political but I didn’t want to be on the outside of the system. I didn’t want to raise attention but I wanted to be on the inside and just focus on getting good work done.”
It was while studying his first love at university that he discovered his second.
Playing soccer in between studying, he met a crew of Gold Coasters working at Crazies Comedy Restaurant in Brisbane, who suggested young Desh come along and earn some extra money.
“I wasn’t performing, I was just working out the back, but I was always telling the booker that I could do better than the guys performing. Finally she just said … ‘do it then’.
“The first time was six minutes of just silence. It was horrifying. But then at the end I got a huge laugh and that was it … I was addicted.
“I had a fellow comic say to me once that when you’re killing it, it’s better than heroin. And he was a heroin addict, so he would know.”
Speaking of highs, Desh was hitting them in both his careers as the new millennium dawned.
He was writing environmental policy legislation in Queensland, while winning accolades as a new comedian.
“Using the words ‘environmental’ and ‘Queensland’ in the same sentence was its own joke back in those days,” he says.
“I actually worked on the first piece of state environmental policy in the 90s, and while it wasn’t great – it was amazing we even had something that was, at best, satisfactory.
“But then I had an opportunity to help write Queensland’s State Coastal Management Plan, which was a real landmark in terms of land use, conservation and exploitation. It even won a national award … not that anyone wanted to know about it.
“Around the same era I was named a finalist in Triple J’s Raw Comedy Competition and was starting to get noticed.”
Desh and his wife decided to move to Sydney to pursue career opportunities, a move that soon paid off.
Until it didn’t.
“It was a slow start for me but once I won over the Blacktown RSL, I was on my way,” he says.
“I was getting some big bookings – the State of Origin, TV spots, big stages and circuits. I was just at the point where I could take that leap and quit my job – because I was still working full-time for the NSW government. But then the global financial crisis happened, and we were way over-exposed. I couldn’t make that leap anymore and comedy gigs were drying up with the economy – plus my wife was three-months pregnant. We decided to head back to Queensland.”
Just as they made the decision to return, Desh’s father died. His parents had since moved to the Gold Coast, building the Ormeau Medical Practice, and that helped Desh decide to call the Coast home too.
But it wasn’t the only factor. “Believe it or not, it was the light rail that made me choose the Gold Coast,” he says. “When I heard about that project, I decided this was the city for me.
“I thought this place really knows what it’s doing, it’s really thinking of the future – that’s exciting and I wanted to be a part of it. There is so much more opportunity here than in Brisbane or the Sunshine Coast.”
Unfortunately, Desh’s first job back in the Sunshine State was with the state government … just months before Campbell Newman became premier and sacked thousands of public servants.
“I lost my day job … but boy, did it give me some great material for my night job,” laughs Desh. “It’s actually since then that I feel like I’ve really found the perfect balance between my two lives.
“I remember soon after we moved here, I was still finding my feet and was starting to question if I had made the right decision.
“I had a series of shows booked which featured Tom Gleeson. One night, I stood on the wings of the stage and watched him do a routine on fate. He said, ‘it doesn’t seem to matter what path you take, you always end up where you are meant to be’.
“It really resonated with me. I had just made a big audience laugh and feel good, I was standing backstage in the wings watching a fantastic comedian showcase his talent and craft. I got to go home to my wife and kids and then wake up the next day and go to work to do something that I loved. I was where I was meant to be.
“I can look back now and say that I’m glad I never became a famous comedian, that’s just not the life for me. Even back in those Sydney days, I was still different from the others – I had a real job and a great relationship. That’s not normal. Now I have the best of both worlds.”
Desh says with his day job now primarily focused on dealing with climate change adaptation, it’s another opportunity to make the actual world that little bit better.
“As much as I love comedy, in my heart I’m a geographer. I love people and place … and with planning, if you do it right, great things can happen.
“Which is kind of funny, given that both my careers involved very little planning – yet great things have happened.”
Creating urban sustainability by day, making them laugh by night … that’s the power of The Deshman.
But being an outsider is the perfect place for a comedian