VIDYA MADABUSHI The Days Toppled Over. Reviewed by Sanchana Venkatesh
Exploitative work and striving for a visa: Vidya Madabushi’s novel highlights the plight of international students in Australia.
Thirty-six-year-old Malli lives in a home for the elderly in Bangalore. Young and fit, unlike the other residents, her only ailment is her speech. Malli is unable to speak outside her home, or to anyone. She looks forward to weekly phone calls from her younger brother, Surya, living and studying in Sydney. Although they are one-sided, with Malli contributing by tapping on the phone when she is required to respond, these conversations are a highlight of her week. But when Surya misses their call for the first time, Malli’s quiet life is shaken. She connects with Nayan on a missing person’s forum online, and with his help, decides that she must travel to Australia to find out what has happened to her brother.
Vidya Madabushi’s debut Australian novel (she has previously published in India) The Days Toppled Over is set between Bangalore and Sydney and explores the hardships encountered by international students in Australia, sibling relationships, mental health, and the importance of connection.
The days had gone on accumulating, one on top of another. Losses on top of joys. Mistakes on top of victories. Unspoken words on top of the spoken. The days that had passed could not support the weight of the days that were to come. Her days had toppled over.
Through Malli, Madabushi also explores selective mutism, an anxiety disorder where the individual can only speak in front of select people. Malli communicates with most people using a whiteboard and a marker, the colour of which changes depending on her mood. Madabushi’s account of Malli’s mutism is compassionate and nuanced, and what we learn of Malli’s past helps to fill in the blanks of whether she has always struggled to speak and if she ever spoke to her loved ones. With great sensitivity, Madabushi writes about Malli’s childhood, her relationship with her anxious father, and his influence over her.
Her father felt they were failing her, that it was their duty as her parents to provide her with the support and the tools needed to overcome what he perceived as her disability. Whatever internal battles he struggled with, he imagined Malli struggling with them too.
Madabushi’s spotlight on the difficulties faced by international students in Australia has the biggest impact in this novel. Surya lives with five other students in a Newtown share house above the restaurant they work in. Due to the fragility of their visa status, the students are at the mercy of their boss, Narsing. Unable to stand up for themselves for fear of being without a job and a home, they put up with his unreasonable demands – including handing over their passports to him. There is also a competitiveness among the friends, because their survival in Australia depends on it. Can someone get a job that sponsors them? Can they move from a student visa to a 457 visa and feel more secure? Will their skills be recognised for permanent residency, or will the goalposts keep shifting?
Parts of this novel hit close to home for me as memories surfaced of being an international student myself in the early 2000s. While my experience of finding work as a student was more fortunate than Madabushi’s characters, I was restricted to only working 20 hours a week while also studying full-time. For a total of almost four years I had the lingering fear of not having permanency. It meant I had a very different experience during my early twenties to that of most Australians, who planned to travel or prioritised partying.
Madabushi explores the intersection between race, class, and gender through the struggles of her characters in Australia. There is the woman who plays the role of a white saviour and, well-meaning as she may be, does not realise the impact her actions have on Surya and his friends. One of the other students, Bobby, has to make more sacrifices than the male students, something the boys don’t realise, assuming she has an easy ride. And the difference having a secure visa makes is evidenced by how other South Asians treat Surya and his friends.
This is an Australian novel that has been missing for a long time. For Sydneysiders, the sense of place is likely to resonate. But most significantly, the novel provides a deeper understanding of those who work in the smaller restaurants of our hospitality sector. It highlights how uncertainty and the possibility of displacement can be used as a means to control individuals. But in the end, it is also about connection and love and the importance of a safe place.
Vidya Madabushi The Days Toppled Over Vintage 2023 PB $32.99
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