Everywhere and Nowhere
On a journey between India and Australia, Karishma Luthria reflects on home, self-identity and nights that have you tossing and turning.
For this edition of Notes, participants in our Signal Boost programme have created audio stories around the theme ‘Order’.
You can listen to this work here, or find a full transcript below.
Content warning: this piece includes discussions of mental health.
[SFX: Crssh, static sound of a pilot turning on the radio ready to speak over the P/A]
Pilot: Good morning ladies and gentlemen from the cockpit, this is your first officer. As you can feel we’re in our descent for the approach and landing into Sydney. Ah, Kingsford Smith International…
Karishma: I landed in Sydney on my 20th birthday in 2015.
[Music: musical jewellery box playing happy birthday fades in]
It was February, the sun was out, the humidity was in full strength. Back home in Mumbai, this would mean I wouldn’t venture out of home, lest my hair get frizzy, or I get sunstroke. Dramatic, I know. But here I was in Australia, attempting to fulfil a dream I’d had for a long time – to get away from my extremely sheltered family, and finally be myself. The best birthday gift yet.
[Music: musical jewellery box playing happy birthday fades out]
The next month was blurry – I drank too much at orientation nights with too few people that looked like me. That’s what I wanted, or that’s what I thought.
[SFX: echoing sounds of people chatting at a bar]
My parents returned to India and as the months went by, I delved further into the world of bookkeeping and microeconomics. Selling my soul to capitalism.
[SFX: cash register sounds and coins clinking against each other]
At college, my dorm room was long and rectangular. It was squished up against a million similar rooms, one tight box per person. At night, I’d be lying in bed, listening to the clock tick past midnight.
[SFX: a clock slowly ticks]
My ears piqued by the quietness of Australian suburbia and the low hum of crickets.
[SFX: sounds of crickets recorded during the night in an Australian suburb]
The sounds of the night in Sydney were so different to the sounds of night back in Mumbai. I missed the sounds of people having a chat on the streets and dogs barking at a distance that filtered through my window until all hours of the night.
[SFX: sounds of two men having a chat in India, overlaid with sounds of dogs barking in the distance]
In Sydney, I’d toss and turn, my dreams filled with nightmares of statistics, and late submissions. And on the weekends, I’d drink at college events until I couldn’t feel anything.
[Music: people chatting at a pub and the sound of glasses clinking]
I would eat in the dining hall, with 70 or so other residents, and we’d make conversation about the weather, our assignments and due dates, or the food.
[SFX: sounds of plates being handed out and people having a chat in a dining hall]
And this is when I most missed the smell of a home cooked meal, and of my mother’s gentle reminders to come and eat with my family.
[Preethi (Karishma’s mother): ‘Dinner is ready!’]
I’d chosen to get rid of those environments that had made me feel like myself back home: my family, my friends, my community, and even the space around me in my comfortable little bubble.
[Music: eerie, drone music and a crackling record sound fades in]
I wasn’t all alone though, there were other students around me. But without my family – I didn’t even know who I was?
[SFX: underlaid echoes: ‘Who am I? Who are you? What are you doing here, are you in the right…’]
In a country where knowing who you are as an individual is so central to forming connections, friendships and communities, not knowing who I was and living without my family – I felt isolated.
Over this four month period, I realised I was lost: academically, spatially and, most importantly, mentally. I could no longer keep up with the numbers, and the silence of Australian suburbia was only riling up my anxiety.
[SFX: Karishma muttering ‘I can’t do this’ softly yet anxiously]
[Music: crackling record sound fades out]
In lecture halls and tute rooms, the four walls, the calculations started to suffocate me. At the mention of exams, I could feel tears welling up or a sudden wave of claustrophobia.
I just remember it, I remember being in that tute room. A student leader, or a student tutor was explaining something about accounting and I just reached this point where I was like: ‘Oh God, I can’t do this anymore.’
I had to walk out. It was too much, too many people knew too much more than me about the subject and it made me so anxious.
[SFX: a train goes past at a distance and a soft wind blow past, quiet suburban street sounds]
I’d leave the room, gasping for air, looking at the greenery around me and wish I was home, in familiar territory, around familiar faces.
My anxiety was growing. Only I didn’t know it was anxiety.
With college friends growing weary of how I dealt with my lack of direction, I realised, I hadn’t really formed strong friendships in Sydney. I couldn’t wrap my head around the social dynamics here, and often kept to myself rather than sharing my thoughts. Or, being my real self.
[SFX: pan from left to right: ‘Why couldn’t I fit in? Why don’t I understand when people ask me “how ya’ going” that I don’t need to reply “where?” Why do I get annoyed when people misspell my name? Or, call Nepal, Nepaul?’]
I just didn’t get it and it annoyed me so much.
My racing thoughts on a daily basis left me exhausted.
[SFX: echoing traffic signal sounds fade in]
Add that to my feeling of isolation in Australian suburbia,
[SFX: echoing traffic signal sounds fade out]
[Music: eerie, drone music fades out]
and my unwillingness to really explore other parts of Sydney because of this weird fear of ignoring my studies, anxious thoughts that I’d fail. It was all too overwhelming.
[BREATH – big, exasperated]
My hopes were dashed, because I didn’t have that university experience straight out of an American college comedy movie or something.
I couldn’t deal with the silence anymore: Australian suburbia wasn’t for me.
[SFX: crickets overlaid with the sound of a car, and a suitcase rolling on concrete]
I found myself, back where I started, at the airport on my way back to India. I wasn’t ready to be away from family, and I needed to figure out who I was before I left home again.
[SFX: suitcase sounds fade out]
At home, the first few weeks were great, feeling like nothing had changed and the six months of isolation were all just a bad dream. I spent time understanding who I was and what my anxiety was, having ignored it and its cues all my life – it was obvious I could no longer leave it unaddressed. There was so much self imposed pressure to follow some sort of rigid life plan.
[SFX: sounding like an old tape recorder with teenage-y optimistic electropop music underlaid: ‘Dear Diary, by 23 I’d be a business graduate working for some big company, dating a pretty boy who looked like he’d walked out of a 90s MTV or VH1 set. I’m going to have the perfect, strong independent life. I would be happy…’]
But, plans don’t always work out, I consoled myself.
[SFX: market sounds in India]
Over time, I found myself in India’s art and music scene. I met people, shared ideas. I realised I loved debating politics, I loved going bargain hunting, and finding records for 500 rupees or $10 at a market in India and most importantly, I loved being on my own.
[SFX: market sounds in India fade out]
The comforting community vibes of home were completely opposed with my newfound love for going on dates by myself.
Almost unexpectedly, I knew who I was, and the comforting, sheltered ways of home felt limiting again.
What ensued after this realisation was convincing my family to let me go to Sydney again, that this time I knew what I was doing, and I knew who I was. But telling your Indian parents you want to study journalism at a time when print media was thought to be dying a slow death was not the best idea.
After lots of fighting, and lots of introspection about my own privilege to be able to give higher education another try, I came back to Sydney. I was scared.
[SFX: with an echo effect: ‘what if this didn’t work? What if I can’t do this? Why are you… why can’t you make things easier on yourself…’]
My anxiety was feeling really full.
But, I knew I could face whatever came my way, because we all have to be adults at some point right?
[Music: Upbeat interlude music fades in]
I moved to the city. I was surrounded by the lights, conversation and life in Newtown, I loved it. I reveled in it. This was me.
[SFX: Newtown street sounds]
Traffic in Newtown replaced the sounds of traffic in Mumbai, and I’d just found a new groove for myself.
[SFX: Mumbai and Newtown traffic sounds]
[Music: Interlude music fades out]
And while my anxiety continued to be full, this time, I decided I needed help on navigating it around university, and life in Australia. In fact, mental health help was so normalised in Australia that if I didn’t try to work on my anxious thoughts, I risked feeling like I was lost again.
As I asked for help, I slowly felt more accustomed to life and studying in Australia. I found I needed to explore and understand my anxiety, something that I hadn’t felt at home. There I was met with taunts.
[Preethi: ‘Go take a walk and clear out your head, okay.’
Friend: ‘Just breathe.’
Karishma: [breathing heavily] I can’t. I’m anxious.]
[Music: jazz music fades in]
Karishma: But now, I love walking through busy CBD streets, randomly finding little jazz bars…
[Music: jazz music fades out and hip hop bass tune fades in]
Listening to records at music shops, drinking a mocha and sharing conversations with friends who make Sydney a little more like home when I’m homesick.
[SFX: conversations with friends underlaid and hip hop bass tune fades out]
I find a new sense of community in food with friends and sometimes, we even watch sappy Bollywood movies and speak to each other in various Indian languages and colloquialisms.
[SFX: conversations with friends fades out]
At the same time, being alone no longer haunts me – I love going for long, romantic walks by myself,
[SFX: sounds of walking through dry leaves]
I love reading a book at a cafe,
[SFX: coffee machine sounds]
[Music: pop-like and uplifting music with some beats fades in]
and mostly – I’m grateful for being able to find a little part of myself by leaving places, faces, and times where I was most comfortable.
At nights, I no longer hear my ticking clock and when I do, it’s just that – a ticking clock.
And sometimes the chirping of crickets even brings me peace.
[Music: pop-like and uplifting music with some beats fades out].
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