‘I realised Ireland and India had similar experiences when it came to colonial suppression’

Vishaka Reddy arrived in Ireland from India in 2015

The first time Vishaka Reddy travelled through India by train, she was astonished by the vastness of her home country. The daughter of a mango farmer from the countryside outside the city of Bangalore, she grew up in a busy household filled with siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. Her childhood revolved around the orchards of the family farm where she climbed mango trees and played with animals. A smart student, she was awarded a scholarship to study architecture a few hundred kilometres away. However, she never travelled further than her home state of Karnataka — which is well over double the size of Ireland — until she reached university.

“My course gave me lots of exposure to the rest of India — our architectural study trips brought us to other parts of the country I never would have seen otherwise.

“The first time I experienced the size and vastness of the country was on a train journey from Bangalore to the north of India, so Delhi, Agra and Punjab. That journey took forever, I kept thinking, ‘how big is this country?’ It took about two days to reach the final destination and along the way you could see everything changing — the topography, the way people dressed. It was our first time as young adults to properly experience the subcontinent, that melting pot of cultures that make up India.”

Reddy started becoming interested in architecture in her early teens. She watched as her extended family — who once all lived under the same roof — started to break off into nuclear households as Indian infrastructure rapidly developed and changed. “People weren’t interested in farming any more, I saw the green surroundings disappear around me. Farming didn’t provide enough income so my uncles and dad decided to focus on property development, which would give them a steady income. It affected my family life drastically — we were split up and separated, people wanted to develop their own piece of land.

“The positive of having our own house was we got a lot more independence but I missed growing up with my cousins around me. Despite all the chaos and irritation of having lots of people there, it’s comforting to have people with you. Everyone needs space to relax and unwind but having a community around you means you know you can rely on them.

“Those changes shaped me entirely from a young age to live sustainably, to learn to appreciate my surroundings and the importance of urban design and planning.”

In 2010, aged 17, Vishaka moved to study at university in the city of Belgaum. After completing her degree, she started investigating master’s degrees abroad. Her first choice was London but she quickly discovered the cost of living and university fees in the British capital made moving there impossible. Then she met a UCD representative at an education fair.

I’d only seen airports in movies. I didn’t even know how to buckle my seatbelt. I was constantly looking at the girl next to me on the plane to see what she was doing

“In my limited knowledge, I assumed Ireland and the UK were the same country but I went home and researched Ireland and was blown away by how different it was. I realised Ireland and India had similar experiences when it came to colonial suppression and decided ‘this is where I want to go’. I even got a scholarship to help me fund my course.”

In August 2015, Reddy boarded a plane for the first time in her life and flew to Dubai en route to Dublin. “I felt so scared, I didn’t know what to do after checking in my bag, I’d only seen airports in movies. I didn’t even know how to buckle my seatbelt. I was constantly looking at the girl next to me on the plane to see what she was doing.”

Reddy spent her first few weeks in a Dublin city centre hostel. Finding a place to live was extremely difficult and eventually she had to settle on a shared room in a house with eight other people.

“My friend and I shared a double bed and there were two other girls in another double bed in the same room. We were all Indian in the household but we were strangers to each other at the start. Over time we became like a family unit — we were all immigrants in a country that was completely new to us. Having that group helped us through difficult times. The irritation of not having space sometimes crept in but at the end of the day, we were there for each other.”

Reddy loved studying for her master’s in sustainable design and building performance and decided to stay an extra year in Ireland after graduation to gain work experience. She was already working part-time in Eason to pay the bills and sent dozens of applications out to architecture firms across Ireland. Eventually, when her visa was close to expiring, she got a call from Cork offering an interview for a graduate role in sustainable design with a firm of construction technology consultants. The job, which she was offered, was in the village of Innishannon, a place she had never heard of.

She accepted the role and briefly moved to Bandon before relocating to Cork City. “The first month in Bandon was exciting but it was a sleepy town and I was young and wanted to meet people. So I moved to Cork City and I’ve been here ever since.”

A lover of outdoor activities, Reddy now loves sea swimming in around the southwest coast. She laughs when she sees the shock on people’s faces at an Indian girl swimming during winter in the cold Atlantic waters. “I love it, it’s so good for my body and my physical and mental health. The first time I went was just before Covid and I started just doing it in summer. But I’m now swimming year-round and I’ve even taken the step up to swim without a wetsuit in winter.”

While working in Innishannon, Reddy met her now-boyfriend Rob and the couple are planning a trip to India later this year. She is working as a sustainability consultant with an architecture firm in Cork City and says she loves the diversity within the company. “You’re sitting at the coffee table and there’s Irish, Mexicans and Italians around you.”

Reddy feels like she’s “grown up” during her seven years in Ireland. “I’ve gone through so many hardships but got myself a steady career and have grown to become part of the Irish community. I like how I can walk and cycle everywhere and the proximity to the mountains and sea. Given the chance, I would live here forever.”

While her parents previously hoped she would return to India after completing her master’s, Reddy knows they understand her reasons for staying in Ireland. “They can see how hard I’ve worked to find a job, there are better opportunities here and my work-life balance is better. They could see I was happy here, I’m very lucky with them.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast