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A Punjab left behind, a Melbourne that won’t move

"I turned to writing sad poetry, memorialising my failure as a newbie migrant"

When Melbourne stumbled into its fifth lockdown in July 2021, I was exhausted. We had toiled through too many lockdowns, and while I understood and agreed with the state’s Pandemic Orders, I was unsure whether I could cope with more isolation and loss. But more than my physical and mental well-being, I was concerned about my master’s thesis: I had an entire chapter still to write, I didn’t think I could, and my thesis was due in October 2021. 

The evening the lockdown was announced, I complained to my cousin in India. “This is ridiculous”, I remember saying. “I am looking at Levinas. He’s the philosopher of intersubjectivity, of sociality, and here I am stuck at my house, all alone and stuff.”

“You are making a big deal out of this,” he responded, “for no reason. Just focus on your writing and get your thesis out of the way.” 

“I don’t think you understand,” I replied, “it’s hard to do anything right now. I don’t even know what focus is.” 

“Well, you should teach yourself that again. And you should be glad you’re safe.” He wasn’t entirely wrong. “We are lucky none of us fell badly sick when we caught the virus. But you don’t realise how horrible the Delta wave was. It was truly apocalyptic.”  

“I know, but…”

“Na, man. Stop complaining, and deal with it.” This is the sort of sober advice that only a South Asian cousin can offer in desperate times. “Just give me a call whenever you feel lonely. Or one of your uncles. Or one of your aunts. Or your Nani. So many people to talk to, and you’re freaking out unnecessarily.” 


It’s not the lack of social interaction that I would miss. I knew I could stay digitally connected with friends and family. But I feared that I would lose that elusive quality we experience when we exist with others in a world of our own making, hopping from one affair to another, invested in our own unreasonable anxieties, always bounding forward, with no rhyme or rhythm - kind of carried upon a wave, sometimes ferocious, sometimes gentle, but ever persistent.


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Between lockdowns, my life was a glorious mess: daily study sessions at the library, shopping fashion in second-hand clothing stores, attending academic conferences and workshops, drinking beers with random strangers at the bar, inconsistent trips to the gym, chasing writing deadlines, and cooking regular dinners for friends. Amongst this fragile scaffolding of a routine were people—my people—claiming me and my time, pulling me in different directions, cleaving me into a million parts, demanding things of me. One friend insisted I go on a hike with her, while another wanted to drag me to dance shows. A third friend wished we resumed our weekly trips to the cinema, and there was a friend that I was publicly ignoring (to prove some point, of course). All these muddled relationships—along with their searing anticipations—came to a forestalling halt.

“Everything used to be so chaotic and fun but a week into this miserable lockdown, and it’s like I have already forgotten what it is like to do things,” I complained to my favourite uncle on a video call, “and I have hardly studied. I need to write another fifteen thousand words, and I could only manage three hundred this week. ONLY three hundred!” 

“Such is life, Bhanu,” he said, “but loneliness, I agree with you; it’s the worst. A lonely man is without a self. No identity. Nothing. Just an empty shell.” 

“What are you saying, mamu?” I asked, exasperated. 

“Eh, I am telling you the truth. Loneliness eats away at you, till you forget others and eventually your own self. This is a big philosophical insight I am offering you. Don’t you pretend to be a philosopher?”

“I called you to cheer me up. Not to give me anxiety.” That was my fault. I called the wrong person to soothe me. 

“Leave all of that. The more important question is, when are you visiting us again?”

“Soon, soon, let me make it out of this lockdown without losing my mind first.  And let the borders open too.” 

Last I had visited India was in February 2019 to attend a cousin’s wedding. It was a rushed trip. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, my mother elbowed all the aunties out of the way to reach the vanguard of the baraat, where I was frolicking with my cousins, waiting for the bride’s side of the family to turn up. She murmured in a carrying whisper, “Why are you standing in the front row, Bhanu? So poorly dressed. You don’t look like my son.” A moment of suspense. “If anything, you look like a silly NRI.” A cackle. That was her idea of a joke. I silently stormed out of the wedding. The groom had to fetch me, on foot, without his saffron-clad horse. 

As August rolled in, I found myself slipping into fresh habits. A morning walk with a friend in my 5 km radius, followed by a meditation session, with early afternoons culminating in long zoom study sessions with a group of research friends where I gently developed a steady work-from-home routine to make progress on my final thesis chapter. My evenings were set aside for digital hangouts, sometimes accompanied by a glass of wine but mostly eagerly awaiting my favourite vegan ice cream UberEATS delivery. The ice cream parlour would send me cute messages scribbled on the brown delivery paper bag. I would respond by leaving notes for their staff on the UberEATS app, satisfied that I was cultivating a lockdown friendship, albeit an expensive one. 

I wasn’t new to loneliness. I first experienced it when I moved to Australia in 2014. I wanted friends. I joined multiple societies and clubs at my university, tried learning salsa, frequented nightclubs with mere acquaintances, chatted with random people at bookstores, urged my classmates to hang out with me, and felt crushed when my sincere efforts to make friends were rejected. I turned to writing sad poetry, memorialising my failure as a newbie migrant. 

But in my daily conversations with my family, they had only one suggestion to make. “Don’t worry about friends,” they said, “but focus on yourself. Friends will come later.” I lamented that they underestimated my predicament. But they urged, “Let go of your desires to make friends. Who cares? Friends come and go.” And so, I listened. I redirected my attention to other things and tasks, slowly giving up on chasing people. If I met someone in class, I wouldn’t ask them to get coffee with me. If I didn’t have any weekend plans, I wouldn’t look up events I could attend so that I could meet new people. I became unafraid of becoming involved with my own voice.

As weeks turned into months, I soon came to be surrounded by a marvellous motley crew of friends: a painter here, a musician there, and a rich, pampered writer somewhere in the middle. However, this boost in my social popularity in Melbourne came at a steep price. My calls back home became more and more irregular. I was too busy, too occupied with concerns in Melbourne to find the time to have regular conversations with my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins. 

At least, I convinced myself that I was, indeed, a busy man, when I was, in fact, struggling with the problem of translation. How do I describe Melbourne’s glitzy arts scene? Or work/study balance while you’re at university? Or the obsession the Melbournian political scene had with microaggressions? Maybe I could have tried, but it was easier not to. I did experience guilt, but I suppressed it. I told myself that I was still connected to them, carrying their memories with me, while fashioning a life for myself elsewhere. They held onto me, for a while, till their incessant messages slowed down, and then became sparse.


I didn’t betray them; they didn’t betray me. It was the distance that got in the way. In my head, I could no longer picture a life with them. More than anything, it was a loss of a distinct type of visual imagery. 

“You’re so close, Bhanu. A final edit and you’ll be able to submit your thesis,” my friend said. We were in September. And I had just received feedback on my first complete draft from my supervisors. 

“I know! My supervisors reckon that it’s decent. With a strong edit, I can really make it shine.” 

“This is so good. Calls for a celebration,” she enthusiastically responded. 

“Yeah, can’t wait for that when we come out of this lockdown.” 

She had a glimmer in her eyes. Or was that just a classic Zoom glare? She continued, “I am not going to wait till October to celebrate this with you. I’ll send you some nice bourgeois chocolates.” She giggled, “For now.” 

I was excited for the parcel to arrive like a little child. That is all I could think of. I wondered whether she added a dark-coated strawberry to the pack. When the chocolates arrived, I opened the box and marvelled at them. I took a photograph and sent it to her, thanking her. There was a strawberry one, and I picked it up to take a bite. I stopped mid-air and put it down. I dropped that photograph in the family group chat with the following caption: ‘A friend sent me this. To wish me luck on the final fortnight of editing before I submit my thesis.’ Many messages started pouring in, and I realised that despite the horrible experiences of the last two years, I had finally learnt the skill to simultaneously occupy my two disparate worlds.


And maybe, in my imagination, to even bring them together.

Editor-at-large: Dilpreet Kaur Taggar

Co-Editor: Yohaan Prem Sharma

Graphic Designer: Jess Harwood

'Coping with COVID' is a multimedia series funded by the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. Through this project, we aim to highlight the mental, physical, social and financial recovery of South Asians in Australia post-lockdowns. Follow the hashtag #CopingWithCovid below for more.

About the author

Bhanuraj Kashyap is pursuing his doctoral studies in philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. In his spare time, he is trying to convince himself that he is an amateur chess player.



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