I remember making my mom cry last to last year.
It’s the absolute worst thing I’ve ever done, and like a permanent boil on the floor of my foot, it still pricks me to this day.
“I hate you. I hate it here. I want to go back,” I screamed at her in frustration after she reminded me to do some small chore that I thought was annoying.
The pandemic had flushed me out, back to my home country India. I’d spent the last four years in Malaysia, first as a student and then as an expatriate employee.
A photo of me at the T2 Mumbai airport in 2016 shows a cautious chubby Manik, nervous about stepping into an unknown country with no family, and no contact person to call for help.
Little did he know he would soon be exposed to a cosmic amalgamation of unique people from all kinds of faiths, cultures, countries, and backgrounds.
When I entered Kuala Lumpur, it felt like an alien city, but I quickly grew attached to it as if it was my puppy. The place gave me a blank slate to draw on – no one to judge, scold, or order me around. It accepted me as I was but challenged me to rethink everything.
Like every puppy parent, I thought it would be part of my life forever – although I was warned it was going to be tough to survive in a country that isn’t visa-friendly.
Even then, with the support of friends, I fought it out, becoming one of the very few international grads to get a job there while others had to cancel their student visas & go back.
Soon after, the first wave hit, and I was locked alone in a 3BHK with no roommate (they left to be with their families). Within a few months, I was physically & mentally on fire, and I knew I had to run away ASAP.
So I quit the job & reluctantly stepped on the first rescue flight back to Mumbai – this was all in the middle of the first wave’s peak.
After coming back, none of the few employers who were still hiring at that time showed any interest in my CV. Which was probably because I looked like a foreigner without any local education or experience.
To make it worse, the lockdown weight I had gained came back to bite me (I was a morbid 108kgs), and I suffered a health crisis that forced me to stay back at home for six whole months.
All my five years of hard work. All my close friends. Everything went down the drain. And I took it out on the only person who was still rooting for me and treated mum like a punching bag.
After getting the wake-up call, I slowly started working on myself. It took me some time but I recovered enough to step out again.
I accepted a boring job just to restart my CV. After spending a year in exile, I muscled my way into the industry by landing a gig at my dream agency last month.
I feel like I am THREE YEARS BEHIND EVERYBODY.
My friends have already started their Master’s or MBAs in rich countries like the UK, Canada, USA, and Australia/NZ, where they will probably settle. Many others have moved into management positions.
And all this caused me to hate myself. So I wandered around the city looking for answers.
Re-adjusting to Mumbai was difficult.
The jam-packed locals. The noise. The pace.
The unforgiving rains, which mess everything up.
The inconveniences & injustices everyone quietly accepts because they’re too caught up trying to just survive the month, paycheck after paycheck.
There are so many things that started stinging only because I’d seen how cooler life is overseas.
But something changed. Some people in my colony approached me to help with taking care of the stray dogs in the neighbourhood. A friend had told them that I had a background in the field.
It’s true that I was deeply devoted to this cause. I used to treat, vaccinate, and feed the strays in my locality before I went away. But Malaysia was a foreign country, and I didn’t want to get into trouble for breaking any laws, so I’d lost touch with the service.
This was a chance to do what I really loved. And I threw myself into it at a moment’s notice. Now my weekends go by doing whatever I can to help the stray dogs, whether it’s transporting them to the municipality pound for neutering (so that there are no more poor puppies), or tending to their wounds.
I made new friends in the process and now my schedule has been pretty much filled up.
When I’m home & not working, I try to help mum & dad, who are growing older faster than I’m prepared to accept.
This weekend I helped my old guy set up his new tablet – like a toddler getting a toy, he was so happy to learn about the voice transcribing feature and he promised he’ll use it to scribble the book he’s always dreamed of writing.
I’m reconnecting with my younger brother, a person I lost in the hustle of time, so it’ll need some practice for us to bond again.
Above all, I’m taking myself out.
Eating at iconic places, but also discover new hidden spots on my own. Learning to sing bhajans (hymns) with the office-going uncles on the train.
Rediscovering Mumbai is like seeing an ex-friend you broke up with in school days many years ago.
What happened, happened. But there’s a huge chance you both have something new to offer each other.
Both the city & I have changed.
So like an awkward arranged marriage slowly growing fonder over years, we are also adjusting to each other, closer every day.
For those of us who are still in our home countries, watching others fly out, it can feel unfair (remember how people lashed out at the Humans of Bombay girl who asked public support to fund her Harvard degree?)
But I think I’m the right authority to tell you that life overseas isn’t all rosy per se. It’s very much filled with loneliness unless you’re shifting with family.
There’s rising racism, bias, harsh weather, and a constant struggle to keep up with the local competition.
And everything’s SO PRICEY. Like x4 or x5 the cost in India. Although the salaries are much higher, the cost of living really shoots up too. And very often you may find that not many people are available or ready to help out.
Mumbai is nothing like that. You’ll get everything if you just step down your house. The people don’t actually care what you wear or do or say. But they will be happy to help out in emergencies, no questions asked.
Like the red chutney in our vada pav, there’s a sweetness absorbed in the spice of our struggles. And this is the most important skill I’m trying to pick up – appreciating what life has given me. It has taken me two years to come to terms with what happened. But I’m finally making peace.
The art of acceptance.
Accepting where you are in life. Making full use of it. And more importantly, finding happiness where you’re standing instead of where you want to reach.
Because many times as an adult, your plans won’t pan out as you envisioned them. Often putting out fires will light two more. Things will always be uncomfortable. But you’ll need to make do, or else you’ll always feel irritated & wronged.
Life has a funny way of putting you in places where it knows you have something to learn. These environments might feel uncomfortable but they’re essential to your growth.
And being back to square one has taught me humility. It has actually given me so many things I didn’t even know I was missing…
Like cherishing time with family. Working with a team I like. Finding time for animals – it’s a rekindled passion that really keeps me sane. Eating food I love. Loving going to the gym because I don’t have to worry about preparing my own dinner – thanks ma.
Above all, this little detour has taught me to let go. I let go of some friends who no longer vibe with me. Let go of bad habits. Let go of the fear of failing.
And I’m starting fresh. Which is fine, considering the unique story I’ve got to tell.
I don’t know if I’ll get to go back abroad. Or I’ll settle in India. There are upsides & risks to both options but I’m not thinking about it right now at all.
Because one thing that moving places teaches you is that you can make a home wherever you go.
Those doors will open again, I promise, but you must learn to keep yourself open first.