Flicking through the channels on a TV set, I tried to rid my mind of all the homesick thoughts. Having checked in an hour ago in this plush Sydney hotel, I was sitting idle, feeling lonely. It was just a couple of years into my job, and this was my first visit to the country for an assignment. Though I was full of excitement for the new country, new city, my stomach was craving some food now. Any food.
Excitement is for the unknown future. Even fear is for that unseen that lies ahead. Hunger is for real in the present, though. And I was fricking hungry.
It was an early Sunday evening, and it wasn’t time for dinner yet. But my body clock hadn’t adjusted itself to the timezone yet. It was lunchtime at my place home, and my body wanted food. Local time be damned.
Where I had checked in, they didn’t serve any food, either. Weird. The place wasn’t just a room but a studio apartment with a bedroom and a compact kitchen in the corner of the living room. Why call this a kitchen and not a living room with a stove? My hunger was talking now.
Plus, there was nothing of interest for me on the television. It played terribly, poorly made advertisements and news shows where hosts chattered amongst themselves. Back home, I would find at least a dozen movies or sports channels by now. My first impression of Aussies’ choice of entertainment wasn’t positive. Why call this television and not just a list of numbers 1, 7, 9? That number song would be more fun than this. My hunger was getting grumpy.
I scavenged for anything that resembled food in the kitchen, but all it had was empty utensils. I gave up. I wanted to go outside now, but I was petrified deep down.
It was 2009, with abounding reports of racially motivated crime against Indians in Australia. My family back home was already against my travel. But my excitement didn’t let me care then. Nevertheless, I was slightly worried now. It’s a weekend evening in the big city, you moron. What can go wrong? My hunger was pissed. I locked the room and stepped outside the hotel.
It had rained while I was driving from the Airport. The cover of clouds overhead made the evening appear darker than it was. For a Sunday evening, the wet street in the centre of Sydney was pretty deserted. Except for a couple of taxis plying along, there was hardly any person in the vicinity. There was a faint sound of the party music from a pub nearby. The crowd, though, wasn’t visible.
I stood uncertain at the entrance gate, unable to decide what to do next. I badly wanted to eat something but preferred not to walk onto a dozy street in this foreign land either. With my stomach grumbling again, I walked around the corner to look for an eatery serving something.
With most of the shops closed, I turned towards what looked like a road going to a busy street. These were the pre-maps days — iPhones hadn’t made smartphones everyday devices yet. You couldn’t type in “food” on your smartphone and toddle along to the place. I felt it would be better not to talk to strangers – there weren't many around me anyway.
The faint party noise I had heard earlier was getting closer. I paused again at the turn, contemplating whether to stroll further into the darkness. An unearthly yell decided for me. A jeep on the road ahead was surrounded by five or six young boys chatting. Even in the dark, I could feel they were looking, laughing at me. I couldn’t see or hear them clearly, but I knew they were yelling something. And then someone from the group flicked a finger and laughed loudly again. This can’t be happening, a stunning fear overcame my hunger.
As I quickly started walking back to the hotel, I could still hear guffaws behind me. I have never dashed off a street, into the lift and back to my room so quickly. To this day, I don’t know whether the jeering was pointed at me. Was I just being unnecessarily paranoid? Had the news reports impacted my sense of judgement? I had no intention of finding out.
In that fleeting moment of uncertain fear, the loneliness and alienness widened their hold over me. More than food, it was my homeland that I craved for now. I sat on the couch panting heavily, tears wailing down my cheeks. The darkness around me engulfed them. I wanted to talk to someone, but I had neither the courage nor the means to do that.
I did have my dinner that day once I gathered the courage to stumble onto the street again and go the other way. I found a small eatery serving Chinese food and had some food parcelled.
Back in the apartment and with cutlery around the stove in my hands, I gulped the blandest noodles I have ever tasted in my life. It was a scrumptious course of a meal for my terrified mind and eyes crowded with tears.