Between Space and Self: The Journey Back to Living Alone in Oxford
Ayushi Aruna Agarwal
Image description: An array of clothes hanging in a bedroom cupboard.
On my way back home to Delhi, I had three things on my mind: all the food I was going to enjoy, the question-fire I was going to face from family and friends about my future plans and my personal life, and most worryingly, the state of my cupboard.
The state of my cupboard is a great metaphor for my existence within my family home.
Every time I return from university, I find stacked on top of my own clothes a pile of my sister’s belongings that no longer fit in her cupboard(s) alongside my dog’s medical records, amongst other things. Bordering between the stack and the end of the shelf, ready to collapse into free fall at any given minute, there are bits and bobs of my mother’s erstwhile possessions which she never uses anymore but will also never have the heart to throw out. Only two years ago, I had an explosive fight with my mum about this phenomenon of such alien things colonising my room and cupboard. She was aghast that I could get so angry about something so commonplace in households like ours.
Surprisingly, when I opened my cupboard this time around, I found myself at relative ease.
Not because it was not full of my sister’s and dog’s and mother’s things, but because I knew that in three short weeks, I would be back to my own cupboard in my room in Oxford – full of things which were only mine. No one would have access to these cupboards, nor would they be able to keep their things inside without my initial permission. I would not have to say “okay, now I’m going to my room to work for an hour. I’ll be back soon”, or else, risk an untimely intervention without a knock on the door. In a household like mine, the concept of knocking is entirely foreign, (my dad was appalled when I suggested it many years ago) and going as far as locking said door, would be ultimately out of the question.
I got used to extremely sunny mornings, long afternoon naps with my dog’s snores as background music, and walks with my dad after dinner. There was little space for me to just sit alone with my thoughts, but there was also no dearth of caring, concerned ears to hear them out.
Over three weeks at home, I became used to starting my day with loud wake-up calls from either of my parents. Often, they would just nudge our dog into my room. Unfortunately, I happen to be his least favourite family member, and he would bark incredibly loudly so I had no choice but to wake up and let him out. A very effective alarm strategy.
I got used to having chai (real chai, please) three times a day, and communal family snack breaks twice a day. I got used to relatives dropping in, neighbours sending over their children to get studying advice from me, and became familiar with receiving parcels of food from aunties whom I knew only by association with their kids. I got used to extremely sunny mornings, long afternoon naps with my dog’s snores as background music, and walks with my dad after dinner. There was little space for me to just sit alone with my thoughts, but there was also no dearth of caring, concerned ears to hear them out.
As a result of climate change, Delhi has been getting heavy rains in January. One such rainy night, merely two days before my departure, I woke up to such loud thunder that it sounded almost like a cloudburst. Between sleep and wakefulness, it could have even sounded like it signalled the end of the world. My mum immediately ran into my room, and fussed over how my sleep must have been ruined. She slipped into my bed and told me she was going to sleep there, with me. I slowly fell back asleep with her reassuring presence.
Over three weeks at home, I became used to starting my day with loud wake-up calls from either of my parents. Often, they would just nudge our dog into my room. Unfortunately, I happen to be his least favourite family member, and he would bark incredibly loudly so I had no choice but to wake up and let him out.
A few days later, I sat somewhat melancholically throughout my flight back to the UK. I contemplated how merely a few weeks ago, I was consumed by anxiety on my way home, yet now, I was feeling even more anxious on my way back to Oxford. I have come to realise how the adjustment is needed on both sides. At the start of the vac, I had to learn how to re-adjust to the chaos of being surrounded by family and get used to having no time even to think, let alone work. Then, coming back here, I am learning how to get used to the silence again. The solitude. The mornings when it is just me and my alarm, and my cupboard with nothing but my own clothes. It is uncomfortable, to run towards silence from the noise, and then towards the noise again, from the silence. It seems that there is no in-between – and if there is, it is not a reality in either of my worlds.
Now that I am back in Oxford again, I have often been awoken in the middle of the night by students passing by my room on St. Giles. Last night, I had woken up to a particularly loud and rowdy group right outside my window – an experience not quite different from the sound of that cloudburst only a few nights ago in Delhi.
In a poignantly cinematic fashion, I reached across the sheets, and yearned to call out for my family – but then I realised how I had all the space to myself.