I was an impressionable high school student and I thought law would be interesting and give me a chance to make a change. I wanted to be a rock star or a lawyer. I can’t sing. I can’t play an instrument. So I’m a lawyer…
To qualify as a lawyer you have to do volunteer placement. And I was very keen to do human rights work. I started volunteering at the HIV/AIDS Legal Center about 10 years ago.
In school I studied a lot of English. My major passion was literature. I also did software engineering, I loved coding. I thought coding was functional poetry because it was words but it did something. I was doing English and coding in India and then I won a scholarship to ANU in Canberra to do law. The law seemed to be a functional way to do English. You like arguing, you like words, and it will be more likely to get you a job.
My family are originally from Calcutta, West Bengal, but they moved down south of the Blue Mountains in India.
It is called the Blue Mountains because the Brits planted Eucalypts there — the same reason as the Blue Mountains here. It’s a strange colonial era place built by the Brits … and it looks like Edinburgh. All the houses are very English. They built a lake there to look like the Lake District in Scotland.
It is a very unusual part of India. It’s still got a lot of clubs. You have to be a member and wear a jacket after six in the evening. Children aren’t allowed in the smoking room. In fact there is a smoking room where women aren’t allowed. There is a gun bar where women aren’t allowed. There are dead animals. It is very, very turn of the last century.
It is a small town, quite insular, and everyone knows everyone. But every summer there is a massive rush of a very different set of people, who would come in and leave. I meet kids in Australia who are from smaller regional areas and it’s much the same, drinking in car parking lots and driving dad’s car. It’s a town that people either settle in for life or leave. So, a lot of people left because there’s just not that much to do.
I went off to boarding school at 12. School was not pleasant. It was physically violent. School in India is far behind school here, there is lots of bullying and physical discipline and caning was common. Violence was normalised and that’s not good for the person receiving it or giving it. For a longtime I hated authority. It was not a good place for anyone.
My parents brought me up to view integrity as important. My granddad was a cop, a very honest cop. He was the chief police officer for the state. My mum and dad were more radical, and early feminists. They grew up during very turbulent times in the 70s. West Bengal has a long tradition of communism. It had until recently a democratically elected communist government for 52 years — from independence up until the mid-2000s.
Bengal had a history of radical activism. There are historically connections with art and culture. There is a strong crossover between Ireland and Bengal. From 1910-1920, when Yeats was leading the Irish renaissance of literature and literature as a tool against cultural oppression and identity, the same thing was happening in India. Tagore who won a Nobel Prize through translations of his work.
There was a lot of dialogue and travel between Ireland and India and a similar sort of violent insurgency movement going on that was young kids, highly impassioned. Calcutta went through something again like that in the 70s with clashes in the streets between police and a lot of kids of the universities… there were shootings in the streets, armed confrontations, bombs being thrown – it was a very volatile place.
My parents came of age during that, and their feminism comes from the principle of equality. Their integrity was about pure principles against corruption; that it doesn’t necessarily matter what you’re doing, what matters is how you’re doing it. Living your life with integrity.
I ended up studying at ANU because Australian universities were marketed where I lived. Studying in Australia was not that big in India in those days. At that point Australian universities were still trying to reach out to the Indian market and it was a cheaper option — that was predominantly why people came here as opposed to go going to the UK or the US.
There was a marketing agency for a whole bunch of Australian universities close to where I lived and had an air-conditioned office. It was very hot and I had nothing to do. My friends and I would go and just look at all these mini-brochures and think ‘Oh, that’s nice’.
I had done surprisingly well in high school, and so they encouraged me to apply for a scholarship, which I got! It was a shock. And it was still going to cost a lot of money. It was sort of a gamble, my mum and dad didn’t know if they could afford it all the way through.
The scholarship covered my tuition fees, but I had to pay living costs. My parents covered those costs, for that I am very grateful.
Despite being a scholarship student, I did very poorly at university. I pulled out of university and went back home, took a couple of months off, then I went back. Without my parents funding me, I wouldn’t have made it through.
I was just going through a lot of stuff. I had mental health issues through university and struggled. It was a complicated journey that was a confronting experience. I was a fair way down the track before it was diagnosed, so it took me some time to work out what was going on.
I was suicidal. I can no longer ever listen to System of a Down. I love metal. But System of a Down brings back memories of a particular incident. It’s one of the things that stopped me from killing myself, because I just couldn’t bear to be a teenager who was found with a metal album on the stereo and have people think — ‘Oh, he was listening to them and then he tucked himself’! That whole period was both terrifying and hilarious in its bizarreness.
My drug use at the time was just a thing that was happening in the background. I was with a lot of people who were doing a lot of drugs.
I was very much a social user. And my personal headspace was so mad that I really didn’t need anything else in my life. It was a very immersive experience. I remember the first time I did acid — I was very comfortable with it because that was what was happening to me when I wasn’t on drugs.
Once I was diagnosed, I had to be plugged into services. That was a critical period, and those services were life sustaining. Medications at the time felt like the difference between life and death. It was all the jargon that went along with it because you are medicating yourself, you’re treating yourself, you are trying to understand what’s happening to you. It’s both very disempowering and empowering, because you have a beast that you can deal with, but you’ve also lost the power to deal with it because now you are taking these things and you’re dependent on these externalities to keep you going.
There is a constant fear of ‘What if I don’t take my meds? What if I fall off the horse?’ And there was a visceral fear to it all; what if I kill myself? You fear that you’d get to that point.
What helped me get past that was time. The medication helped a great deal. I met a lot of people who were very helpful — professionals — and I had great support from parents and my partner. I was lucky. I was in a very safe environment. I could fall off things and there were nets that caught me.
And I was lucky that I was very open about what I was going through.
It could have been a completely different story. If you do any sort of community work, you realise that there are critical junctures where something can be fixed and it doesn’t take much money, and there are plenty of people who want to do the work. And you can fix it there, or else the consequences can be catastrophic.
The service needs to be available for when people reach out and it needs to be able to deal with them when they reach out. They need to feel like they can talk to someone. It makes a tremendous difference if the person you are talking to has some idea of what you are talking about and can relate to you.
The legal profession genuinely struggles with mental health and alcohol and drugs. And it is something the profession generally is trying to deal with. And I am personally very aware of how much alcohol is part of my life – it’s just part of responding to stress.
It’s a profession that has quite high levels of burn outs. It’s literally an adversarial profession. It’s not uncommon to be in a situation where you have someone looking at your work and actively trying to find holes in it. It’s a profession where you are responsible for someone else because you are trying to get someone’s kid back, trying to fight for them in a criminal matter, in a civil matter. It carries a level of responsibility that can be stressful. My work as a manager of the HIV/AIDS Legal Centre (HALC) opened my eyes to that.
HALC provides legal services to people with an HIV related legal problem. What that means is fighting discrimination and unemployment (the two most obvious things). Migration is also a big issue – there are a lot of restrictions on people with HIV entering, staying and obtaining residence in Australia. When you realise HIV remains a death sentence for many people in many countries then there is a significant humanitarian component. There are some limited pathways, they are very difficult and require a lot of external things to click into play. It’s very difficult. It’s an exhausting process, and we try and help them through it.
It’s a very long journey. This is my 10th year doing it. The work’s remarkable. And the people you work with are amazing. Your colleagues and the clients that you get to work with are some of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. And the resilience and humour that they demonstrate is beyond belief.