The Days Toppled Over is about isolation and bonds forged through non-familial companionship. Vidya Madabushi’s protagonist, Malli, is reticent, as if she were conceived during the restrictions of the pandemic. Her world is confined to the Vanavas Retirement Village in Bangalore, India, where she lives nearby her mother’s friend, Mrs Munshi. She is unable to speak outside her home; only her brother Surya and deceased parents have heard her utter a word. When Surya – who’s studying in Sydney – misses their regular call, Malli gets worried. Fearing the worst, she fights the reclusiveness that has governed her life and heads to Australia in search of him.
The narrative is told from the points of view of both Surya and Malli, enhancing the disparity between perception and reality. Malli’s real-life existence feels suffocating, leaving us craving the experiences of a newly opened up, post-lockdown world. Madabushi details the mundanity with such precision that it takes time to warm to the plot. With Malli’s job as a remote medical record transcriber, there is little opportunity for her to build genuine connections outside the residents of the complex in which she lives. However, once she encounters Nayan – a stranger she meets in an online missing persons forum – intrigue is piqued and the novel hits its rhythm.
Surya’s life in Australia demonstrates the exclusion of newly arrived migrants. Staff at the restaurant where he’s employed provide him with kinship and advice on surviving in unfamiliar foreign streets. The precarity of his casual employment while on a student visa and his cramped living situation above the restaurant where he works puncture the liminality of moving overseas with the realities of student life. He also falls in unrequited love with his co-worker Bobby – a romantic interest that feels trite – who is in a controlling relationship with his boss, Narsing.
Loneliness follows Malli and Surya as they traverse Sydney’s inner city: Malli as she searches for her brother and Surya as he seeks a different life. Comparable to Malli’s life in India, the smallness of both of their existences in big cities looms large.
This novel, Vidya Madabushi’s second, was created through the Writing NSW Grant for Fiction; her debut novel, Bystanders, was published in India. The Days Toppled Over flows easily but can feel saccharine, particularly in Malli’s more earnest interactions. Even so, it’s an eye-opening read that encourages reflection on the lives of international students and the chasm that develops between them and the family they leave behind.
Vintage Australia, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "The Days Toppled Over".
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