Surya thinks his one-way ticket to Sydney is also a ticket to a new and improved life outside of India. The plan is to get valuable experience by studying abroad and making a fine living for himself. But he ends up working tirelessly at an Indian restaurant instead; here, Surya’s boss has almost no compassion for his employees.
Back home in Bengaluru lives his older sister, Malli, who has selective mutism. The highlight of her life is a long-standing weekly phone call with Surya. One day, Surya misses the call, and Malli is thrown into disarray.
In The Days Toppled Over, author Vidya Madabushi explores mental health and the plight of international students living in Australia.
“The book began as two separate short stories, one centred around Surya, an international student in Sydney, and another around Malli, who lives in a retirement village in India,” Sydney-based Madabushi tells Indian Link. “I was writing these stories simultaneously, and their lives intertwined in my head. I began the book in 2017, and one of the driving forces to shape it into its current form came from a callout for Writing NSW Grant applications, which I ended up receiving in 2018.”
When life gets real
Scores of international students arrive in Australia to experience high-quality education and post-graduate work opportunities. But not everyone ends up calling this country home. Many dreams are cut short.
Interestingly, The Days Toppled Over novel is based on Madabushi’s own struggles as a newbie in a new country. “My life followed the same trajectory as Surya’s… studying in Sydney, working at an Indian restaurant, and struggling to get a 457 visa (the temporary worker visa available at the time) before finally acquiring permanent residency through my employer,” she says, adding that she moved from South India to Sydney in 2004 to pursue a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.
“I faced similar issues Surya faced – the loneliness, the anxiety of letting family down, the financial stress, and the racism.”
Her American husband, too, faced similar challenges when he moved to Australia. Luckily for both of them, their lives turned around after getting a residency.
“I have a wonderful life here now with my family for which I’m very grateful, but it doesn’t always turn out that way for everyone else. So easily, my life could have gone in a different direction,” she wonders.
In her experience, the pathway to residency is “incredibly hard” no matter your background or your extent of wealth and privilege.
“If you come from a family that can afford to fund your stay in Sydney, that experience will be very different to someone whose family has taken out a huge loan for you and you now need to not only pay that money off but also prove to them that the investment in you was worth it.”
Not everyone can make it to the finish line. “I think it’s designed that way!”
The Australian government, she feels, needs to address students’ issues.
“Today’s students are tomorrow’s skilled workers and eventual citizens. They deserve better than what they are getting,” she adds.
The story of her central characters, Surya and Malli, revolves around these issues in this eye-opening novel. In the book, the two siblings are dividing their inheritance after the untimely passing of their parents in a car crash. Their relationship takes a thrilling turn after Surya disappears. Malli travels to Australia to find him.
And while this premise might give you a different notion about the book, for Madabushi, The Days Toppled Over is simply “an unconventional love story”.
What aspect or which character in the book does she relate to the most, we ask.
“Both Surya and Malli are outsiders in their own way, and I relate to that aspect of them,” the author smiles. “I think there can be a very strong internal and external push to ‘fit in’ to society, but I am drawn to lives explored outside of society’s norms and what it means to live a fulfilled life in those conditions. In both Surya’s and Malli’s cases, their lives turn out very different from what they expect, and in some ways, it changes them for the better and they discover what truly matters to them. I can relate to that.”
The Days Toppled Over is Madabushi’s Australian debut. It was picked up by The Guardian in its list of ‘Best Australian Books in June‘ this year.
Her first novel, ‘Bystanders’, was published in India in 2015.