Of a cat, anxiety, and homecoming – May to July

The inevitability of Covid brings with it occasional bouts of excruciating anxiety and lethargy. But there’s a glimmer of hope in the form a foster cat.

We pick up Hannah from SPCA and smuggle her into our home (which isn’t without its share of trials and tribulations). She warms our hearts with her unbearable cuteness and softness. Cuddling her every morning upon waking up and after returning from work become the highlights of our day. Words may not be enough – as is always the case – so here are some pictures

You know you are loved when your cat gives you company while you grade mind-numbing tests.

Meanwhile, May brings with it, relief coupled with trepidation. The borders open for temporary visa holders and I book my tickets to visit home in June, a day after H’s birthday. Home. A part of me is in disbelief while the rest grapples with a bout of anticipatory travel anxiety. I begin jotting down my check-lists. Despite everything, I realize the pandemic is still a fixture at this point which necessitates a bunch of documents such as vaccine certificates, letters of permission from the University and my supervisor, and self-declaration forms. To top this, I find myself plagued with questions, wondering how things would be back home. Would they have changed a lot? Would the familiarity overwhelm me? Will my boyfriend and I actually come out of this visit unscathed? I see my residual resentment towards him bubbling up through the cracks occasionally. My mind is plagued with questions.

Though I find the whole process stressful, it is indeed soothing to have a cat around. Hannah sidles up to me each time she senses my low moods. H and I move onto another gripping K-drama, Beyond Evil which stays with us long after the season finale. One particular Friday, I wake up extraordinarily early and treat myself to a sumptuous breakfast at Ima, a popular Mediterranean eatery. I think it’s important to pamper yourself – if it is affordable – and let yourself off the hook from time to time. That evening, Ap and I go to the bouldering gym together. Little do I know that it would be probably be the last time we do so but more about that later.

Eventually, Hannah finds a (hopefully) loving home. It is bittersweet but H and I hope we can get her new parents to send us updates. Unfortunately, our efforts to persuade SPCA to pass on our message go in vain as we never hear from anybody. We try not to dwell on it and move on with our lives.

As my visit to home looms, I find myself getting frequently anxious. It doesn’t help that my PMS worsens with each cycle. There are increasingly vicious arguments with my partner, and no, I won’t elaborate but let’s just say – they leave me desolate and miserable. Add to this, the sudden demise of a favourite singer. I wake up to the news that KK – a musician beloved to millennials like me, whose music formed the soundtrack of our adolescence – is no more. I’m gutted to say the least.

On a positive note – a much needed therapy session helps me focus on my triggers and thoughts upon getting triggered. Engaging with thoughts is what escalates an emotion from 3 to 10 and my homework is to bring this point into awareness. Thoughts are words. They are meaningless unless acted upon. This includes false reassurances to calm myself down temporarily. A heartening realization that makes realize that I can get a grip on my emotions by engineering the thoughts behind them.

Times whizzes past and H’s birthday finally arrives. One day before, I wrap up stuff at the uni, hurriedly hug my coworkers which includes Ap, and rush home to decorate the house and keep an assortment of cakes and pastries ready. Unbeknownst to H, I have proactively organized a birthday treasure-hunt after consulting her college friends virtually, the treasure being a deluxe version of her favourite BTS album Be. H is not one to vocalize her affection towards me, but the treasure hunt proves to be a success the next day, and her joy is palpable! I film a reaction video of sorts and share it with her friends.

We eat lunch at a cosy South-African eatery on Elliot Street. As I watch H happily munch on chicken and waffles, I feel a sudden pinch in my heart. It feels gut-wrenching to leave my best friend, flatmate and sole support system in New Zealand all by herself for a month whilst I visit home. It doesn’t help that Covid is always lurking round the corner. What if I am not able to come back? The guilt of being the first one amongst us to visit home is crushing. But H, in her typical H-fashion assures me that there’s no need to catastrophize. And so with her reassurance, I embark on my visit home.

To say that I am in the best frame of mind on the flight back home would be a lie. My excitement about meeting my partner and going home is marred by a vicious argument days before my departure. And so it weighs on me heavily as I try to distract myself with movies and cups of coffee on board. I write a sombre note on my phone that is addressed to him, and to us. But I’m going to cut the suspense and jump a few days ahead – we meet for lunch where I manage to convey what’s been plaguing my mind, and hear him out as well. I feel understood for the first time in a long time.

The first time I see my father’s familiar figure outside the airport, a wave of relief washes over me. It feels surreal to be back home. The instant cortisol drop makes me gorge on the sandwiches and Lays wafers my mother has thoughtfully packed for me – washed down with two packs of Frooti. I can barely stop filming videos on our drive back to Pune. Seeing my mother at our doorstop proves to be the final force against the dread that has resided in my mind all these months. I am truly elated.

Needless to say, being home makes a massive difference to my mental health. I don’t recall being this relaxed in a long time. I realize that I was either anxious about my relationship falling apart or about having my parents fall sick. I am grateful. The familiarity of being home isn’t as overwhelming as I had catastrophized it to be. The city is eerily identical to what it looked like in Jan 2020, save for a couple of new buildings and the lack of two distinct flyovers near the university. The cat I used to play with in our compound remembers me even now! She’s hale and hearty despite having evidently aged. I am warmed and pleasantly surprised when almost all my friends make time to meet me despite their busy schedules. S flies down to Pune for a week and we spend our time together talking about everything under the sun, catching up with what had gone down in the past two years.

Meanwhile, my partner and I have several conversations about our future, calmly for the most part. I realize how brutal distance can actually get, because the man I know isn’t this villainous character that he transforms into – in my head – when he is away. It isn’t always hunky-dory though – there are days when I regress to being irate and upset due to certain plans not materializing. This includes a trip to Goa. Not only does it deeply disappoint me, but also leads me to project my disappointment on him. Gradually, things resolve as we make the most of the time we have at our disposal.

As July looms, I realize I am not ready to go back yet. Luckily, I manage to extend my visit by another week. I get a health check up to rule out fibroids and other menstrual cycle issues. My blood-work and other reports are normal save for abysmally low levels of Vitamin D and B12. I schedule a consult with a psychiatrist – known to our family – to get an opinion on my anxious moods. On her recommendation, I trial a cocktail of medications for barely three days until I realize that I am not ready yet. I am not entirely satisfied with her diagnosis which is further subtly confirmed by my long time therapist. On the latter’s advice, I decide to take a second opinion in December (when I’d be home again). In the meantime, I am put on a vitamin supplement course to be on track.

July further instills a sense of calm and gratitude in me as I spend quality time with my family and indulge in activities that give me great satisfaction. Upon invitation, I give an informal talk on my PhD journey to my old research group at NCL. I am warmly welcomed by my ex-supervisor and ex co-workers. I embrace the ordinariness of my home that I had once taken for granted until I moved out. I indulge in my favourite vegetarian dishes. I stroll around MG road. I witness Pune rains and deeply breathe in the petrichor, the lack of which is conspicuous in Auckland. I binge watch Reply 1988 with my mother.

As my visit draws to a close, it is understandably bittersweet. But I leave home with a sense of wonderment.

I have no idea why I felt like home wouldn’t feel like home. If anything, I’m relieved.

April: The bad and the good C

I wake up without an alarm at 7:30am to a beautiful April morning with pleasant weather. April has always been one of my favourite months in New Zealand. April is about pristine blue skies, wearing shades of red, clicking pictures at The Domain, bidding farewell to beaches, resuming the use of my thermos coffee mug after months, listening to Sid Sriram’s songs on loop, and the list goes on.

However, the first few days of the month are mired in gloom – a prescient warning from the last week of March. The tension brewing between my partner and I reaches a crescendo and almost makes me lose my voice. Cruel words are thrown around carelessly – no, I will not elaborate – but the damage is done. I tell him I need space. We don’t speak for over a day which is a lot given we converse everyday without fail. This simple act of self-preservation is enough to elicit an apology and the self-accountability he owes me. We continue to tread on unstable ground over subsequent weeks, but he seems to realize that I won’t put up with him lashing out at me.

Meanwhile, H and I say goodbye to daylight savings which automatically translates to waking up “early” and decent mealtimes. It means familiar sunsets at 6pm that I am accustomed to. But April weather keeps us bamboozled by oscillating between migraine-inducing hot afternoons to breezy evenings. We also begin to experiment with HelloFresh: a service that delivers a set of meal-kits spanning a week at our doorstep. Not only are their recipes refreshingly different, but also delicious enough to have us temporarily suspend our takeaway habits.

As for consuming content, my sister and I watch a film adaptation of Sachin Kundelkar’s Cobalt Blue on Netflix, which disappoints us deeply given its one of our favourite books. Soon after, I end up returning a borrowed copy of The Sapiens (by Yuval Noah Harari) to the library after having struggled to keep a reading schedule. I purchase a Kindle version with hopes that I’ll eventually catch up.

Teaching gains momentum; I diligently make up for lost research hours by working over the weekend. As I skim through the material provided for the quantitative biology labs, I find myself getting genuinely fascinated with the subject. Moreover, I begin proof-reading another manuscript from the research group I was previously a part of only to get frustrated with typos and a general lack of referencing. Overall, I realize that I thrive when my schedule is packed, despite bad weather and period cramps.

Easter arrives and brings with it a much deserved respite from work. H and I take a ferry to Waiheke Island where we beach hop. Unfortunately we end up not indulging in the one thing the island is renowned for – wine. Most vineyards are either completely booked or closed due to staff shortage. Nonetheless, we have a great day and click tons of pics. To top this, we successfully manage to tick some items off our Easter itinerary – a fun photo-shoot at The Domain and a live in-home recording session.

Two days later I wake up with an alarming tickle in my throat. And that’s when our April mood transitions into something that we least expect. The tickle snowballs into a dry cough, spells of mild fever, exhaustion and body ache over the next day. I suspect it’s The Dreaded C but the RAT kit says otherwise. Needless to say, H’s health takes a downturn along with mine. I jot down my symptoms to keep track of my health and promptly inform Healthline. Following another night of disturbed sleep with chills and high fever, I finally test positive for Covid with H following me hot on the heels.

We are thankful for each other’s company and for friends who deliver groceries and medicines at our doorstep. We gradually recover over the next eight to ten days. There are two noticeable side-effects of the virus, one being repulsion to coffee – which turns out to be temporary, thankfully – and an aversion to Instagram. Over the course of my illness, I consume a lot of garbage content on the interwebz that is for the most part, pointless Bollywood gossip from one of my favourite subreddits. One of my guilty pleasures involves following up on Indian celeb gossip. I watch Tanmay Bhat’s silly vlogs and reaction videos on YouTube. I binge on old episodes from Koffee with Karan to distract myself. H and I binge on a zombie apocalypse centered K-drama – All Of Us Are Dead. Memes keep me going through my sickness and I’m ever so grateful to them for lightening up my otherwise bleak days.

On the day our isolation period is over – which almost coincides with the end of this eventful month – we wake up to exciting news: SPCA has an adult cat up for fostering. The pleasant timing of the opportunity makes us take up their offer to bring home a gorgeous black beauty named Hannah. We are besotted by her. She’s everything you would want your cat to be – cuddly, sweet and absolutely adorable!

And so the good C brings April to a close.

Grounding myself: March

It’s the second day of March and I wake up freezing in bed. There’s a definite drop in temperature. Is autumn on the threshold, I wonder. Because if so, I’m pleasantly surprised. I realize that Kiwi summers aren’t my thing. Yes, there are beaches and a couple of months of wearing less clothes but in terms of my mood and mental health – NAH. I now understand the hype around autumn, especially since it isn’t a thing for us folks back home. It’s the pleasant kinda cold, just enough to make you wear light shrugs and an occasional beanie. I think to myself that maybe this is a sign that better days are coming, given how tumultuous February had been.

March begins with frequent therapy sessions. I figure I have some exploring and inner chronicling to do understand myself better. I realize sleep is paramount. However, there are days when I wake up feeling tired despite having slept for around 8 hours – from 11pm to 8am. This worries me as consider myself to be a morning person.

Meanwhile, I successfully completely my fifteen-day goal to bring down my usage of Instagram. I realize that on an average I spend between 40 to 60 minutes on the platform, which isn’t terrible given how crazy my usage times were in the beginning. I decide to extend the goal to another month, where I would limit my usage to 60 minutes in the first half and then reduce it to 50 minutes in the second. This doesn’t go as planned; I find myself lapsing back into unhealthy scrolling habits. On the days I stick to my goal, I notice my overall screen-time shooting up as I fill the void left by the gram with other apps such as YouTube and Twitter. But I am patient. Deep-rooted habits don’t die overnight.

I use this month to recuperate from my ill mental health. I resume an illustrative journaling course by Kate Sutton on Domestika that I had signed up for last October. This exercise proves to deeply therapeutic as I throw caution to the winds and draw from memory, illustrating a day from my life, my favourite things, the food I love, the walks I have gone on, etc. I toy with the idea of buying myself a pack of Posca markers but hold back as they are expensive. I finally resolve to make use of materials I already own before giving into impulses.

I manage to read one book – Anxious People by Fredrick Backman – that steals my heart. The plot is delightful, funny, wholesome yet thrilling. Backman’s quirky prose makes me chuckle (when I am not being choked up with emotions). I love the feminist undertone to the storyline. I find myself gushing about his book for days to come and send a copy to S as a birthday present. In the meantime, I get back to almost binging on K-dramas after what seems like a year. I complete watching the first season of Hospital Playlist, Doctor John, and follow up with a new show titled Thirty-Nine. There are days when H and I watch episodes from Keeping Up With The Kardashians as the content is asinine; it is fun to watch rich white people doing Rich White People Things.

March doesn’t fly by without its share of downs. There are days when I’m bogged down by homesickness. The last week is marred by tense conversations with my partner about our future that trigger my anxiety. After one such conversation, I sleep poorly and wake up with a pit in my stomach. I am immobilized by gloom which leads me to swap my teaching shift with another tutor on the pretext of a migraine. I end up binging on some episodes from the second season of Hospital Playlist. I order myself a breakfast takeaway to lift up my spirits but the meal turns out to be disappointing. I let myself crash up until around late afternoon, after which I force myself to shower and get out for a cup of coffee. I drain a cup of flat white at a nearby cafe – it is delicious – and walk towards the Ferry Building. I sit on one of the stone benches overlooking the water front with a newly curated playlist playing in my ears. As I watch the waves bob up and down, a sense of calm washes over me. I breathe deeply and watch the sky gradually change hues from sepia yellow to pastel pink. I love this city, I think to myself. I silently vow to focus on my goals and not get bogged down by what the future may hold.

April, bring it on.

Of mental turbulence : February

A little late to document what went down last month. Oh, well.

The title says its all. If January was kind to me, February chose to be the opposite.

I begin the month with an overwhelming yet familiar feeling of unease. But the one thing that keeps me grounded is indoor bouldering. I focus on training with Alex who offers to coach me professionally at an affordable rate. I begin to look forward to these sessions and I notice that I climb way better under her supervision.

Meanwhile, I sense my anxiety shooting up in anticipation of the official announcement regarding phased border reopening. Fortunately, the news brings me relief as it appears that eligible student visa holders can indeed travel internationally from April onwards. While I’m glad to have the choice to visit home and return, I’m extremely anxious about international travel. Though the idea of visiting home sounds great theoretically, it appears to be quite daunting in real. I am plagued with doubts and questions. Do I want to visit home? Or do I want to stay here until my PhD gets done? I know my fears are well founded but acknowledging them only helps to an extent.

I schedule sessions with my therapist to sort out my head. I describe my emotions, that are a potpourri of guilt, intense anxiety and homesickness. Guilt for being the only one out of H and I, who gets to visit home after two years. Anxiety about traveling, of being overwhelmed by familiarity – family and friends, my old haunts, the streets, the dogs, the food, you name it – and then the crushing sadness of once again leaving all that and returning to Auckland. My therapist says my defenses have kicked in – they form a shield around me so much so that the idea of visiting home doesn’t make me ecstatic. This shield doesn’t want me to expose my vulnerabilities. It doesn’t want me to acknowledge that I’ve stayed away from home for over two years and that I will have to face change. A part of me believes that I have gotten used to being independent and living alone, and that I don’t want to be reminded of the version of myself I left behind. Add to this a real possibility of being stranded in India due to some new variant popping up and having to do my PhD at home. Hell, no.

As if this mental conflict weren’t enough, I end up in a bad space with my partner. Though things seem okay on the surface, I find my pent up frustration spraying through the cracks of this facade. We have our arguments and debates, which get partially resolved through therapy (from my end) and long conversations. We realize that distance is draining us of our optimism. This is compounded by the kind of loneliness that arises when you are deprived of romantic intimacy. One night, I have a soul crushing realization: I can’t think of a single person from my old circle who would actually want to hear me out when I needed to talk. I find myself getting overtly nostalgic – going through old pictures of my friends, digging into my Facebook timeline – the only tangible proof of these memories I keep replaying in my head. There seems to be no end to this bout of depression.

By the time I wade half way through this month, I realize that it has been progressing identically to February of 2021. I am burnt out emotionally, thanks to extreme PMS. My research work hits a slump, I second-guess my methodology and get immensely frustrated. However, there is a silver lining – call it telepathy – I have a close friend reach out to me when I seem to have hit rock bottom. He hears me out without offering solutions which is exactly what I need. I am grateful for his concern and feel my spirits rise. Soon after, I have a few other friends who call and check up on me. I am pleasantly surprised to receive a call from my maternal uncle who is extremely comforting as he reassures me that things would get better. To top this, I notice my partner making an effort to self-reflect and course correct. We communicate better and I am solaced by our conversations.

On the lighter side, I watch a mediocre Bollywood film that has recently released with my sister and H. We have a good time trashing it. My biggest takeaway from this film is that I just don’t understand how Bollywood assumes that being a struggling author or a yoga instructor will let you run a decent house in BOMBAY of all places.

Despite my mental turbulence, I manage to read two books – Side Effects of Living: An Anthology of Voices on Mental Health and Sapiens A Graphic History, Volume 1. The first one doesn’t impact me as much as I expected it to despite its intent. I find some essays and stories to be searing whilst some fail by virtue of being too abstract, or due to poor writing, vocabulary etc. The second book, on the other hand, makes for an insightful and visually pleasant read – a good successor to the original novel.

On a positive note, things start moving in a good, definite direction for H. There’s tons of paperwork involved, but she finally gets a new masters project and a lovely supervisor. Somehow, seeing her busy makes me happy. We also find ourselves giving into food cravings and ordering takeaways frequently. It is easier for me to be a little indulgent as I am financially more stable given a rise in my pay. Moreover, we finally visit A and his wife who has bought a new place at Hillsborough. Overall we have a good time despite a tropical cyclone raging in the background!

As the month draws to a close, I begin to seriously consider my phone habits that aggravate my existing mental health issues. The tips I picked up from Newport’s self-help book seem to be unrealistic and vague. I spend a day chronicling my motivation behind using the gram and other social media platforms. I note that the primary aim of developing healthy phone habits is to regain control over my attention and time. Setting smart boundaries to gradually decrease social media usage would triumph over blanket bans. I also make a note of my emotional triggers that make me engage in endless scrolling loops. The main point, I realize, is to bring my intention – to use a particular app – into awareness. Finally, I chalk a reasonable fifteen-day goal to bring down my usage of Instagram.

I feel no regret in bidding farewell to February. If anything, I am happy to let go off my bad days.

Gone in a flash: January

I’ve chalked a plan to keep up my now nearly dormant blogging habits. It’s specifically an attempt to journal regularly as I’ve realized that this activity is indeed self-enlightening and helps me organize my thoughts quite well. To add to this, since the pandemic appears to be blurring days at this juncture, I’d like to sharpen them by summing each month that goes by this year.

2022 starts off on a neutral foot in this island country, though the rest of the world is rife with Omicron, the new variant to join the Covid party. Unbeknownst to many, the new year is welcomed modestly this time and we are fortunate to not be standing next to a very dark Sky Tower that does not burst into a brilliant display of fireworks. I almost miss the countdown and suddenly it’s no longer 2021. H and I get home after hanging out with a few other friends, eager to get into our comfy beds.

Barely a week passes by and I am consumed by listlessness in the absence of an agenda. I can’t wait to get back to work; it becomes increasingly clear that WFH isn’t my cup of tea and I can’t deal with more lock-downs. Thankfully, my supervisor gets in touch with me soon after to inform that I can move my workstation back to campus. Meanwhile, H and I voraciously consume K-dramas over dinner each night, and we contemplate on buying a Chromecast for the supposedly defunct TV in our living room (we do end up buying one).

I get a haircut from a new salon after downloading several reference pictures for the look I am excited to sport. Disappointingly, the style doesn’t live up to my standards besides making my hair look sleek and tamed. I am aggravated for having shelled out 75 bucks.

The very next day, H and I get our booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine. It reassures us to know that we are ready to take on Omicron when it invariably breaks into the community here. We are lucky to not have major symptoms post shot. My sore arm recovers within a couple of days.

While I resolve to not set unrealistic goals for the year, I toy with the idea of settling into a daily, simple skincare routine. I can’t remember – for the life of me – what fuels this thought, but it is definitely to do with my dark circles and the fact that I’ll be hitting 30 next year. I watch a bunch of YouTube videos tailored for beginners like me. I am attracted to K-beauty products, thanks to rave reviews and positive results from folks who’ve used them regularly. I look up a few sites that sell these products and voila! there’s a store close to my place. So I officially dip my legs into the Sea Of Skincare Routines and order myself an oil cleanser (I already own a water based one), a toner, an exfoliating essence for white head removal (to be used sparingly), moisturizer and an eye cream (because why not). After waiting impatiently for over a week, a package arrives. That night, I massage these products onto my face and pamper myself. I wonder why I waited for this long to care for my skin. Overall, my skin reacts well to them and I’m satisfied.

Meanwhile, I am eager to remain consistent with my reading habits. I download a few books from Libgen and wait for a copy of Sapiens A Graphic History, Volume 1: The Birth of Humankind to arrive at the library. I read a warm, comforting novel by Toshikazu Kawaguchi – Before the Coffee Gets Cold – that makes me crave coffee more than I usually do. Then, I switch to Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism – Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World as it has been a while since I’ve got my hands on a meaty work of non-fiction. I doubt my decision immediately; I feel like I’m channeling an IIT/Pilani techbro whose reading palette primarily comprises mainstream self-help books. Nevertheless, I attempt to be open-minded. In fact, I jot down notes in the hope that Newport’s tips will help me wean off my unhealthy digital habits. Half-way through, I begin to notice the lack of intersectionality in his strategies, served with a heavy dose of ableism and privilege. My notes eventually transform into a rough review of sorts, that I trim later and post on Goodreads. What stays with me the most is the advice to value my time and be aware of how smartphones and social media are designed to sabotage my attention.

By mid January, I’ve moved back to campus. I observe my productivity increase in leaps and bounds, and work hard at setting this massive MD simulation which naturally comes with its share of aggravating errors. I devote a big chunk of my leisure time to indoor bouldering and buy myself a ten-pass at the new boulder gym situated in west Auckland. I feel myself grow stronger with each session and notice myself get more into the sport. It’s a big deal as until now I’ve always berated myself for not having had an athletic bone in me. I bombard Alex (my coach/cool friend/ex-co-worker) – who is currently climbing hard in South Island – with my progress videos and she is stoked! On the flip side, I get aggravated with my other friends – who are a part of our bouldering group – for bailing on me all the time. While I rant to Alex about this, I spend hours at the gym on my own, projecting new problems, and drink delicious smoothies post workout. So I guess it isn’t too bad.

Moving onto food – H and I discover a chaat house down Queen Street that serves excellent pani puri, dahi puri and tikki chaat which make me ecstatic. Meanwhile at home, we experiment with Korean food. We stock up on food essentials at Lim Chour which is an Asian supermarket on K-road (goodbye Tai Ping on Beach Road, you shall be missed!) We are pleasantly surprised with our bill – we get stuff at half the rate as compared to Countdown. H cooks up a storm – doenjang-jjigae with rice, kimchi fried rice and fried chicken (from Chimac), and Philippine adobo. On the other hand, I am not too content with my chinese beef stir-fry and pad-thai, but oh well.

As the month draws to a close, community transmission of the virus appears to worsen, thanks to tens and hundreds of callous folks walking around without masks. After two years of being coddled by this government, it does seem scary to normalize these circumstances. Besides, it upsets me to watch H stagnate in the house with no solid news regarding her dissertation from the university. One drunk night she talks about moving out to a cheap hostel if things don’t look up which stresses me out quite badly. Of course, I don’t express my anxiety but I mentally prepare myself for the worst. Lately, I find myself getting nostalgic about her kind gestures – it doesn’t make sense – as though I know that these moments are short-lived and a future me – living alone – is already looking onto them wistfully. I try to bottle up these waves of melancholy that wash over me on bad days but I reckon that’s an unhealthy way to go about things.

To end on a positive note, I record a cover of Silk Sonic’s Smokin’ Out The Window. I pay 4 bucks on Patreon to get hold of this excellent karaoke track of the song scaled to my key. I spend a day and an almost sleepless night, recording harmonies and mixing tracks. I try to not be overly critical of my voice and for once I am successful. The mix sounds great, thanks to a free trial version of Pro Tools.

January has been good but has also whooshed past me. It’s time to ensure that I don’t make typos while writing dates. 2021 22 has begun for real.

F and G are for Friendship and Gratitude

While I wouldn’t call myself an out-and-out extrovert, I do like having good company. I like being around folks who are easy-going and unproblematic.

Perhaps one of the aspects of moving out that flooded me with dread was the scenario of not being able to find a reliable circle. At the time, pandemics did not feature in my list of worst-case scenarios. Yet, I opted for an expensive studio instead of a shared flat as the idea of living with a stranger in a new country made me anxious. Little did I know that I was about to meet a motley bunch of strangers at my university accommodation – who like me were in the process of figuring out their new lives – would become my friends for keeps.

The universe has been very kind to me. I keep repeating myself because these scenarios – getting settled fairly soon in a new city, having good coworkers and finding a lovely friend and flatmate – were mostly left to fate. I’d like to think of it as a combination of my privilege, good fortune, as well as the vibes I send out to the universe, sub-consciously. Back in 2019, these were wishful thoughts.

Despite the good stuff that has come my way throughout my life, there has always been a niggling thought – a faint voice – trying to convince me that I am, perhaps, not deserving of these things. I tend to downplay my struggles – three years of having been in limbo, in a job that didn’t completely satisfy me whilst dealing with poor mental health stemming from extreme indecisiveness about my future. I have been afraid of happiness even though I spent a long time chasing it.

Gratitude has become a fixture in my life ever since I moved to Auckland. To have someone who reminds me to carry my house-keys, phone and wallet before leaving the house maybe be a small but a meaningful gesture for which I am immensely thankful. Home isn’t just a place but a potpourri of such gestures that convey intimacy, comfort, warmth and ease.

I assumed I was destined to stay in my shoe-box studio for the entirety of my program until I met H. We have solaced each other since the beginning of our friendship, weathered homesickness and several lockdowns together; there were no doubts regarding sharing a home together.

As much as I wanted to limit interactions with my coworkers to our workspace, it turned out that we did make great buddies. I have learnt a new hobby – bouldering! – courtesy my awesome friend/coach/coworker A. I have had another lovely coworker-now-friend, stitch a Halloween costume for me from scratch. We’ve hung out together, confided in and comforted each other during rough times. I couldn’t have asked for more. I feel overwhelmed at times.

I tell myself that I deserve the good stuff. Cliched as it sounds, everything comes in waves – the great and the ugly – that you gotta ride.

D is for discovering a new city

Whilst I spent the first eight years of my life in Bombay, I spent the rest of it – until the age of twenty-six – in Pune. The latter saw me awkwardly transition from a preteen to an under-confident teenager but subsequently step out of it gracefully into my early-twenties. Before Auckland, it is safe to say that I had only known one city to a reasonable extent; reasonable since I only began exploring the city interiors as a graduate student. I am ashamed to confess that I would still require Google Maps to navigate through significant parts of Pune.

My therapist assured me that over time my homesickness would be replaced by appreciation towards Auckland, undoubtedly so as one of my reasons for moving here was the charm it held over me even when I was miles away in my room in Pune filling out doctoral application forms. And boy, she was right.

“this is how I’ll remember the end of my first week alone in a city that is slowly growing on me – the sea, a lovely evening breeze, a smile, my John Mayer tee, Shamoon Ismail and a playlist that seemed to have been made for this place, not to mention meeting a lovely stranger who offered to click my pictures. I feel good!

an excerpt from my caption on Instagram

In my first post, I fleetingly mentioned some of my favourite haunts such as the park with the friendly trees aka Cornwall Park and the Ferry Building. For today’s post, I’ll let my pictures do the talking.

These are a few pictures from an astronomical collection that continues to grow with each passing day.

Bombay watched me grow into a carefree child doted on by her grandparents.

Pune witnessed me brave adolescence – my first bout of period cramps, my first heartbreak, my first panic attack, the grief of losing my grandparents, the heartache associated with losing your loved ones to distance or/and irreconcilable differences – and my metamorphosis into an anxious young adult who found love by serendipity , a post-grad degree (in a course she truly enjoyed) and her first job unexpectedly. Pune watched me endure a flurry of disappointing circumstances coupled with the intense anxiety of having overstayed in one place for too long. Finally, she watched me arrive at a solution – the resolve to leave the comforts of a home life and carve a new one for myself.

Auckland observes me navigate adulthood, easing me into it with her quiet charm.

B is for buying groceries

Now it may seem like I have been spoilt rotten by my parents or led a bougie lifestyle up until I moved here – this is partially true – but I found it overwhelming to aisle-shop or go to huge supermarkets or departmental stores on my own during my first week in Auckland.

Back home, the most economical way to shop for produce is to walk down to your nearest street-side vendors – sabzi mandis – with their huge carts displaying arrays of vegetables and fruits. “Bhaiya aadha kilo tamatar ka kitna hua?” which translates to “Brother, how much does half a kilogram of tomatoes cost? If you were good at bargaining, chances were you would come home with a good haul.

If you were lost in a supermarket back home or were unable to find an item of your choice, immediate help would be assured. You could ask a fellow shopper – “Excuse me, do you know where the paneer section is?” – and in all probability they would know. To top this, you would always have an over-eager shop assistant hovering over you at any store.

In my case, my parents have kept up with the times and transitioned to online shopping. My working mother orders almost everything, including perishables, from Big Basket – an online grocery shopping platform in India. To me this translated to lesser errands and greater screen time.

Fast-forward to my foray into adulthood where the mere thought of walking into Countdown, the local NZ supermarket, flooded me with anxiety. I had to forgo the comfort of mandis to further my research endeavour in a first-world country. In the months leading up to my departure, I had YouTubed tutorials for using self-checkout machines. My worst case scenarios featured shoppers in queue, impatiently watching me fumble with the options – I imagined there to be several – on these machines and flustered cashiers giving up on me as I struggled to swipe my card. Grocery shopping, in my head, appeared to be an intimidating activity. Whilst online shopping was an option, the overall cost including the delivery overheads would easily deplete a poor student of their savings over time.

Whilst my worst fears did not thankfully manifest, I did have a rough time navigating through the aisles. Common sense deserted me and instead of noticing the information displayed for each aisle, I ran around like a headless chicken, desperately looking for the items on my grocery list. Towards the end I was almost in tears as all that remained on my list were paneer and frozen peas. It seemed as though the staff had been swallowed by this gargantuan supermarket – it took me over twenty minutes to locate an assistant! The rest of my stint at Countdown went down without any further incident. I sensibly stayed away from the self-checkout machines, and tried to appear relaxed before the cashier who was quite friendly. Finally, I clumsily packed my purchases in a bag and raced out of the doors.

Fortunately, I had bounced back by the next round of grocery shopping. Armed with a more efficient list, I marched confidently through the aisles of Countdown – which seemed a tad familiar – keeping my eyes peeled for the ingredients I required. At the end of it, I casually walked over to the self-checkout machine and breezed through the whole process. It wasn’t as complicated as I thought it would be. The words that reassured me throughout this trip were – as Ford Prefect had put it – don’t panic.

A is for Auckland

Auckland. Five years ago, if you had told me that I’d be pursuing my doctoral studies in an island country that is conveniently neglected in world maps owing to its negligible land size, I would have scoffed at you. Laughed in disbelief if anything. But disbelief is what I felt when I first walked the streets of this city alone, after having wallowed in homesickness and the anxiety of having being left to fend for myself in a new city. The pandemic has been a cherry on the cake. That I have managed to live alone in this city – that seems more like home to me than home back in India – for over a year with a novel virus on a rampage seems surreal. These were dreams, wishful thoughts – not the virus of course – circa 2016. But the Universe is a wondrous entity. And you may laugh, but I seriously believe in it.

Since over a year, I have been gradually discovering and savoring the bittersweet joys of adulthood, something that has come to me quite late in life (as I’d like to think) as many things have in the past. I have taken my time to arrive here, and I don’t regret it. The transition from a comfortable home life to one that involves self-discipline and independence wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. During my last in-person session with my therapist, I recall voicing the fact that my mind was a blank slate with regards to moving to New Zealand. It had been too overwhelming to imagine and account for worst-case scenarios in a place where I couldn’t visualize my life yet. But it worked out for me eventually, bit by bit, like the pieces of a puzzle that fall into place, and for that I am infinitely grateful.

What I love about Auckland is its laid-back, cheery vibe. While it is harder – in general – to find friends here, I have been blessed with a sweet circle that has been a constant source of solace to me during these rough times. I had visited New Zealand back in 2018, during a family vacation, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how the place kept calling out to me. I remember visiting the University of Auckland – it is where I study I now – and being in awe of the place. Undulating roads, a chill breeze, a beautiful green park with blooms in season, students in chic winter-wear, and the smell of fresh caffeine pervading the air – these are my memories of that evening.

There is a park we visited back then, when my parents, sister and I clicked selfies under a beautiful tree next to a fountain. The April sun was kind to us whilst a chill breeze fanned our faces. Fast forward to last year, my lovely friend and now flatmate helped me find that park with the very same tree, courtesy Google Maps. We clicked pictures again and contrasted them with those clicked two years prior. I felt an absurd joy in recreating those moments.

One of my favourite haunts in the city is the waterfront near the Ferry Building. It was and continues to be my refuge on days I feel low, and my happy place on good days. I have always had a soft corner for the sea. As fortune would have it, as of December 2020, I have been living in an apartment rental that faces the peaceful waterfront. To sip on hot coffee while gazing out at the still waters dotted occasionally with yachts is a quiet joy in itself.

I could probably write endlessly about the joy and satisfaction I have experienced while exploring this city so far. The strongest emotion I have felt after having adjusted to my new home is that of contentment despite the chaos around me. The government works painstakingly to ensure normalcy in the country while a pandemic rages across the rest of the globe. Mentally, it has been years since I have felt as grounded in the present as I do when I walk the streets of Auckland city. I take time to observe the architecture, the lights, the sounds and the smells that make this city. I wake up each morning to be greeted by the majestic Sky Tower which is visible from my balcony.

I’ve come to realize that home is a feeling. New homes can be created again in new countries amidst new found company and friends who care. After having moved here, the constant feeling of incompetency has gradually vanished. I am confident. I like myself a lot. And to say that I’m proud of myself is an understatement.