‘Do you want to come home?’ Mum asked me when the pandemic began spreading internationally. I assured her that I was fine in Australia. It has a better health infrastructure than home, a smaller population, and I had already paid my tuition for the year. New Delhi will always be my city but I was going to stay in Melbourne and try to reap my money’s worth, even if I couldn’t go to the campus in person. After all, tuition is high at the University of Melbourne.
Mum wasn’t too bothered. She understood my reasons. She told me it was up to me – if I changed my mind I would be welcome at home too – but I was not going to change my decision. Besides, I’d already been in Melbourne for six months, what’s six more?
Though I had to cancel the trip home I’d been planning, not seeing my family and friends for a while longer wouldn’t kill me. Being separated from everyone I love (and my dog) would be hard, but doable.
Just a little longer, I thought, just a few more months. . .
It’s now been fourteen months since I’ve been home. Of the three jobs I used to have, I now have none. What I do have is a kind-of-dying laptop, zoom fatigue, and a crippling addiction to sunlight – once the sun goes down, I go down.
The rational part of me understands the reality of the situation and the need to stay in lockdown. However, the emotional part of me – which my therapist is always telling me to ‘get in touch with’– is constantly suppressing the urge to throw tantrums. I feel five years old, clinging to my mother’s leg at a fancy party and whisper-crying about wanting to go home.
I didn’t think it would be this bad. I’ve always been fairly independent. I’m also very much the type to stay home alone most nights. Lockdown should’ve been a piece of cake.
I like Melbourne, too. In the six-ish months I had to explore it, I was enjoying being in the city. Sure, it took a while to adjust to coming to an entirely different continent with no relatives or friends. Sure, it was a very last-minute decision. I arrived late in the spring semester of uni last year and spent my first few weeks catching up with the content I’d missed rather than exploring this new place. Going from a Bachelor’s in Political Science to a Master’s in Creative Writing with only a break of a month in between was hard. Despite it all, I wasn’t very homesick initially – I liked the people, I liked the university and I got a job. It hit all the criteria on my checklist for a successful life.
But now I feel like curling up in my bed and sobbing out a ‘ghar jaana hai’ (that’s ‘want to go home’ in Hindi). I don’t get it. My family isn’t the type where we all get along – two days without a massive fight breaking out in the family actually makes me anxious (again, to my therapist – yes I know using humour to cover up dysfunction is not an effective coping mechanism). So what is it about home that’s so appealing right now?
I miss my dogs. I only have one dog at home but my friend and I had a habit of feeding the strays, so I got to pet at least fifteen dogs daily. I miss the frustration of trying to hail an autorickshaw, and the feeling of rejection when they drive straight past you. I miss how I could buy my favourite meals from street side stalls for a couple of bucks. I miss the way the shop behind my house would just let me take stuff without paying for it, confident that my mum would come by later with the money as she has for the past ten years. I even miss the way the air’s completely unbreathable after Diwali every year.
My desire to return home could also easily stem from the fact that I’m tired of seeing advertising for vegetarian and vegan products that ‘taste just like beef!’ I don’t care about beef! I’m a vegetarian, just give me my potatoes and let me be on my way, Melbourne.
Most of my friends living here are also international students and others are students from outside of Victoria. Though they arrived in February, they’ve been expressing a desire to go home too. I asked why and received a variety of responses. Popular ones were, ‘I miss the food’, or ‘I feel like coming to uni right now is a waste of time and money’, and ‘I’ve been in Melbourne for a while now but I don’t really know Melbourne.’
It was the last one that really resonated with me. What home has in abundance, but what I lack in Melbourne, is familiarity. Even though I had six months to explore before Covid-19 hit us, six months can’t compare to a lifetime.
Home, as turbulent as it may be for me, is familiar. In a time of uncertainty, fear, and isolation, it makes sense that we would want to return to something we know – somewhere that’s comfortable.
Banpreet Shahi is the author of several works-in-progress that will probably not be finished in this lifetime. They like to write and have a breakdown over every small and fluffy animal they see.