Invisible Subjects is a series of anonymous interviews, conducted by me, with a member of the public. The purpose of this series was to find the extraordinary in strangers’ lives, to pull out the truth that we can learn from absolutely anyone. I believe the things that will drive us forward as a society are empathy and togetherness; people are all we’ve got, and I wanted to showcase people here. It’s important we do not take for granted the wealth of knowledge and experience that surrounds us each day – for in every face we pass on the street, there is an unbelievable story, something absolutely unique, that we can learn from them. To gain the riches of knowledge from others is fundamental to succeeding together. I have loved these conversations, the subjects and their subjects. I hope you do too. – Madeleine
CONTENT WARNING: Depression and anxiety.
We sit in her East London flat, overlooking Brick Lane, and it is freezing. In the window seat, she shuffles nervously, and asks, ‘Is there anything you want me to talk about?’ No, of course not. There never is a specific subject…
This is Invisible Subjects! We always start with a little about you, your life, where you grew up, and all that.
I grew up in Dubai. I’m originally from India, though, but I spent until the age of eighteen in Dubai, when I moved to England. I was in Egham for a year, and then London, then back to Dubai, now I’m back in London. So, all over the place. I’m studying at university, which is fun (sometimes).
Tell me a bit about growing up in Dubai.
Growing up in Dubai was… At the time, I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I do now. Having left Dubai, and hearing about other people’s experiences growing up in different countries and cities, it’s made me really love how I grew up. It was this very odd combination of not living in India, but being surrounded by Indians, so there wasn’t much of a divide between where I’m from and where I grew up. There are a lot of Indians in Dubai. All my parents’ friends were Indian, and the first school I went to was all Indians. I never really felt like an other.
Then I went to an international school, and that changed a lot for me. After, I ended up in a British school, and graduated from there. The schools I went to had a huge impact on the kind of person I was becoming, the kind of life I was living. When I went to international school, I had a stark contrast, between the people I was at school with and my family friends, the Indian people.
What changed for you, then? You said that going to different schools shaped you in many ways.
One of the biggest examples I have of this, is when I was in Year 8, around thirteen. I had a friend from school come over to my house. This is one of the first times I’d had a friend who wasn’t Indian come over to my house. She was British-Spanish, and she’d just moved to Dubai. When I was at international school, I had a sort-of American accent, like I do now. Some would call it American, some would say not at all, but it’s not either of those things. At the time, my aunt was home, and I said something to my friend and then something to my aunt, and switched to an intensely Indian accent. Both of them looked at me like, ‘What? That was so weird.’ That’s the first time I realised I was speaking in completely different ways. I did a project on code switching last year, and something I realised was that I associate different versions of myself with different accents. The person I am when I’m around my family, or people from home, there’s the Indian accent, which comes along with a different sense of humour. That was the first time I actively realised I was speaking so differently.
I do also have distinct memories of me actively working on changing how I spoke. In Hindi, there is no difference between ‘V’ and ‘W’. It’s interchangeable. I didn’t realise that until I went to international school, and people made fun of me for not being able to differentiate. So I would sit there and practice, ‘V’, ‘W’, ‘V’, ‘W’, and make sure I could do the different sounds. I still sometimes accidentally pronounce them wrongly, and I think, ‘Oh God, it’s coming back!’
Were you made to feel like it was important that you spoke “correctly”?
Absolutely. It wasn’t just the accent, it was the food too. There’s this dish that’s made out of cornflour, it’s quite thick and porridgy and yellow. It looks quite gross, if you haven’t had it before, and I’d eat it with yoghurt, mixing it in and making it look quite sludgy. It once went to school with it in my lunchbox, and people made fun of me because it looked like vomit. I went to the bathroom and ate it alone. After that, I asked my mom to stop sending me Indian food to school – I wanted carrot sticks and sandwiches, things that were “normal”.
Dubai is a place that has always fascinated me, because from the outside, it seems like a place of polar opposites. On one hand, it’s very trendy, very rich for British people to go on holiday, but on the other hand, it’s also known here as being a very strict country. But I may be very wrong with that interpretation.
That’s the overarching perception of Dubai, that it’s incredibly strict about alcohol and dress. In reality, I wouldn’t say it was so strict. I do remember, when I first came to the UK, there was alcohol everywhere and you could just buy it. I was totally giddy with the idea. In Dubai you have to have an alcohol licence to have it in your home. With dress, things have changed a lot in the last twenty years. It used to be more conservative. In the malls, they have posters that say, ‘Shoulders covered, knees covered’, etc. But nobody really listens to it, nobody really cares. I’ve seen people wearing short shorts and crop tops, and it’s not a problem. The thing with the laws like this in Dubai, is that they aren’t heavily enforced, but if there’s a cop who’s having a bad day and decides to fuck you over, he could get you in trouble and you couldn’t do anything about it. It’s really not acted on at all, though.
The one thing they are very strict about is PDA. That, I would never fuck with. I would wear shorts in public, but making out with someone in public – I’ve seen people do it, but why risk it?
Why is that?
The UAE is an Islamic country. A lot of the laws are very conservative. For example, during Ramadan, it’s much better now, but before, no restaurants would be open during daylight hours. To this day, you can’t eat or drink in public, unless you’re a child, pregnant or ill – unless there’s a serious reason – you can’t. You can’t eat or drink in your car, either. I’ve done it, and nothing happened, but if you do get caught, you can’t defend yourself.
Things are getting so much less conservative now. They’re having to a lot more for the Expats, because Dubai has lost a lot of money, they’re in huge debt to Saudi. A lot has changed, and tourists bring in the most money in Dubai. If you have things that ostracise tourists, you’re losing so much money. People have been leaving, too, schools are emptying out, and housing estates are standing empty. The economy is so terrible. They’ve always been so strict about Emiratis, the distinction between Emiratis and non-Emiratis, and what they can and can’t do. It used to be that non-Emiratis couldn’t own land. Now we can, so my parents own my house; however, if we were deported, we won’t get anything back. They have a significant amount of control. Still, to this day, if you own a company in the UAE as a non Emirati, you are only a 49% shareholder of your company, the other 51% has to be owned by an Emirati individual. They do now have free zones, certain areas in Dubai where that’s not the case. Things are changing, becoming more accessible to non-Emiratis.
Even though I was born there, and grew up there, I’ll never be eligible for an Emirati passport. Doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived there, or if my parents or grandparents had been born and brought up in Dubai, we wouldn’t be eligible, because we’re Indian. You have to be born to an Emirati. Unless one of my parents – my father – was an Emirati, I wouldn’t have that passport.
What about if just your mother was an Emirati?
I’m not sure on that. I want to say that I would be eligible, but again, I’m not sure. What I recently learned, which shocked me – I always knew that if I married an Emirati, my children would get an Emirati passport, and so would I. But, if an Emirati woman marries a non-Emirati man, the man is not allowed to get a passport. It’s only when the Emirati is a man, that their spouse gets a passport. Also, you can’t have dual citizenship, so you can’t legally have two passports, however, I have multiple friends who do have two passports. You just have to have it in secret.
When you moved here, other than the surprising alcohol freedom, what was your biggest surprise? What did you think of England?
I have an aunt and uncle who live in Leicester, so I’d been here – I moved here when I was eighteen, but I’d been here a handful of times before. Only London once. I moved to Egham when I came here. Egham was a shock, not in the best way. It’s such a tiny little place. It’s a little village, the high street is five shops, there’s barely anything – just university students, families with young children and elderly folk. There’s nothing to do except drink. When I first got there, I was drinking so much, because my friends and I had nothing else to do. I was miserable when I first got there.
I did an international foundation year. I think that had a huge effect on how I interacted with the university and the student body. Our building was separate to the undergraduate buildings, and everyone was international on my course; many of them didn’t speak English fluently. In terms of student union events, and the freshers fair, we weren’t involved in anything, because we were so distant from the rest of the university. I felt a bit ‘less than’, there was definitely a disparity in status. There was a hierarchy. When I first got here, I sobbed for five days straight. It was cold, it was gloomy, I was alone – I’d never lived alone before. It was so, so far away from anything I remotely understood.
I thought I’d be fine, because I thought, ‘I went to a British school!’ and I spoke English fluently. But it’s a very different thing, being in Dubai and being here alone. I had to drill into my brain to look right first when crossing the street, then left, I had to make sure because I was engrained in doing it the other way! It was difficult, but something I definitely needed, realising that I could do it, and gaining independence. That was when my mental health was at its worst. I was severely affected by seasonal affective disorder – I didn’t realise this until two years later – but it had a huge effect on me.
I have a lot of fond memories from there, but many moments where I think, I was so miserable and so depressed. Overall, I’m glad it happened. I learned so much. Originally, I was supposed to do my undergraduate there in Egham, but I hated it so much that I went through UCAS and applied to London. I realised after being in somewhere so small, that I can’t stay somewhere like that. Dubai isn’t as big as London, but it’s a busy, busy city. It’s nothing like London but I feel sometimes that London and Dubai remind me of each other, the business of it, and Egham was way too rural for me. I was not used to it, it was such a shock.
My diet, the food I was eating that first year, was so bad. My entire diet consisted of Subway, pizza and pasta. My period stopped while I was in Egham, because I ate carbs and literally nothing else. I had no movement in my life whatsoever, and I was drinking so much. My lifestyle wasn’t remotely healthy, and I was indulging in such unhealthy ways. I would go back to Dubai for a month over Christmas and get my period, then go back to England it would just stop. Eventually my parents took me to a nutritionist, who told me, ‘Yeah, duh, all you’re eating is carbs and alcohol.’ Drinking so much, my friends and I would always enable each other, we were all so miserable – my best friends were from Brazil, Qatar and Kenya, and these four people who came from hot places were in this fucking freezing place. None of us were used to it. If one of us was tired, we would convince each other to drink. I’m weirdly glad that I drank that much when I did. When I came to London, I wasn’t as into drinking as I was back then, and there’s so much more opportunity in London, if I’d been in the same mindset as I had been in Egham I’d have gone off the rails.
Drinking is such an engrained part of student culture in this country. I also did a foundation year in a tiny town, and all we did was have parties and go to the pub. But I was twenty and had done all that before. So, coming to London, how did you find it?
I don’t have a lot of memories of my first and second years in London. I spent a lot of it in a depressed fog. I would have depressive episodes that lasted months. My first and second years I missed a lot of uni. In first year, I lived alone. It was in student accommodation not on campus, which had a huge effect on feeling isolated in the beginning, not making friends and feeling left out. It wasn’t great. One time I was in this fog, I was lying in bed the entire day, not looking at my phone, and someone was trying to get in touch with me. I was involved in a production at uni, I was assistant directing. My friend Rebecca came to see me. They had been over to my house before, and they got my security guard at my accommodation, knocking and knocking, and I was lying there, not registering it. The security eventually had to open the door for Rebecca. That’s when I looked up, like, ‘Oh, hi!’
I didn’t realise how bad I was, or what was happening. I didn’t know what time it was, I didn’t know I was supposed to be anywhere. That was one of the scariest experiences of depression, not noticing time go by at all in my state. I also think back to the state of my room that I was living in. It was so messy. I don’t think I made my bed once. I would do laundry, then pile clean things on my bed, and end up with two piles of crumpled clothes, one dirty, one clean. I would just sleep, and everything was everywhere. The idea of cleaning up was laughable to me, I didn’t care about anything, so the idea of cleaning my room was… For me at that point, it was the last thing I would think to worry about. Now, I make my bed every single day, I fluff pillows, I take the trash out, I organise, I dust. It makes me feel better, and I know that having a clean room makes me feel better mentally. Occasionally I’m really shocked at the change in myself, from who I used to be, to who I am now.
It seems like you’re doing so much better. What’s different?
Okay. Different… I spent last year in Dubai. After my second year here in London I went back to Dubai for a year, and now I’m back here. The huge difference is that I’m not with the class I began with, it’s a new group of individuals. It’s a very odd experience to join a group that way. It’s a little lonely, because I don’t have many friends in my year group. I have a few, but they all have their own lives and groups, you know?
In terms of how I’m doing mentally, the difference is that Dubai is something I needed so much. I fully believe that it was some kind of divine intervention. I would never have chosen to go back to Dubai for a year, but it was what I needed. It’s where I healed – I healed so much. I was introduced to theta healing, which changed my life. I’ve done the courses, I’m technically a certified theta healer. It changed me so much. I wasn’t doing anything while I was in Dubai, so I had the time to do this, and fully immerse myself and make all the changes I felt I needed. My relationship with my parents became so much better because I was happier, I wasn’t eating like I used to. I used to overeat a lot, I’d eat when I was bored, when I was sad, it was my coping mechanism. I was able to work on that. I got my licence, I started going to the gym, not because I felt like I needed to, but because I enjoyed it. I made some friends, one of whom has become my best friend, who I now live with here! I got to spend amazing time with my dogs. I was helping a friend out with her website, I was doing so many things that were really nourishing for me, mentally, emotionally and physically.
I struggle to talk about this, but I failed second year. That’s why I didn’t come back to London for a year. I didn’t hand anything in during second year. I did the group performances, but I didn’t hand in a single essay. I got an extension on them, but even with that, I didn’t reach the credits needed to go into the next year. It was devastating. I remember getting the email, and locking myself in my room and crying for hours. Then September rolled around and all my friends were going back to uni, and Instagram and Snapchat became my own personal hell that I couldn’t stop looking at. I would feel absolutely shit every time I saw any of my friends posting things about being together and at uni. That was the path I was supposed to follow too, you know? Then I was introduced to theta healing, and was introduced to a whole group of people who helped me so much. I then had to start working on my essays.
I’ve had anxiety around academia since I was very young. It’s been a problem with me, having a fear of failure. I’m a perfectionist in the weirdest sense, in that, if I feel like it won’t be perfect, I just won’t do it. That’s where the fear of failure thing comes in, even in high school, then my foundation year, then my degree – if I didn’t understand something I just wouldn’t do it. Because then I’m failing on my own terms. It’s not that I’ve done something, and they have said it’s not good enough, in my mind it was safer for me to decide that I’ll fail. It’s not because I’m not smart enough, it’s because I chose not to do it. Which is a very unhealthy way to live, especially when you’re at university. In April and May in Dubai, it got really bad. I was so stressed, so anxious. I wasn’t eating, was barely sleeping… In the end, I only failed one module, but it was enough to get me through. That made me feel more confident about coming back here.
Also, I’m not on medication any more! From sixteen to twenty one, I’d been on medication, and when I was in Dubai I finally went off of it. So this is the first time in England without medication, which is huge. I’m realising as the days go on that this is something I can do, I just maybe need more support – well, I always needed the support before, I was just too scared to ask for it. I was never part of a big social group, and it always made me feel lacking. I’d see everyone go on picnics with their group of friends, they’d have dinner parties, or movie nights, or go out, and I was only ever involved when everyone was involved. There were certain groups of people who I remember really wanting to be a part of, but only ever being friends with one or two of them, and never being able to wriggle into those groups. That made me feel shit about myself. Now, I’m realising, you know what? If you have to force your friendship onto somebody, it’s probably not going to be a good friendship anyway. So it’s infinitely better not to… I feel like I’ve been speaking for a very long time.
That’s what you’re meant to do! That’s totally okay.
Okay! Living with my flatmate is really, really helping me too. We’re such good friends, we know each other really well, there’s a comfort there. I know I can rely on her for things. She helped me write my essays in Dubai, and she can handle it, and that’s a huge relief. I really love our area, our coffee shops, I like my room, and the business of this place. When I come back here, I feel like I’m coming home.