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Rochelle D’Silva is a free-spirited travelling poet who explores her feelings of displacement through the written word.
The life and trials of a travelling poet

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The life and trials of a travelling poet

10 May 2018
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Rochelle D’Silva is a freelance writer, poet and event curator. She runs Mumbai’s poetry event “Words Tell Stories” that stages local and international poets and musicians. 

I meet Rochelle on an autumn day that has enough sunshine to match her endless enthusiasm for life. Though she is expressive and optimistic, she is never verbose or pretentious. Like her poetry, she is honest but she chooses her sentences carefully to meditate our conversation. Her experiences are out of the ordinary, full of spontaneity and romance. 

Pictured: Rochelle D'Silva.
Pictured: Rochelle D'Silva.

All throughout her life, Rochelle felt in a state of limbo. Her parents moved her from Mumbai to Bahrain at a young age. She then completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Bangalore. For her Masters, she moved to Brisbane and moved once again to Melbourne for work. After the end of her Australian visa, she chose Mumbai as her next destination. 

Constant movement made Rochelle feel “displaced”. Rochelle has reinterpreted the term to capture a particular emotion she has felt since her youth. 

The movement from house to house at a young age impacted her deeply. For her “to be displaced” is to feel dislocated – to be in a perpetual state of alienation – to never really call any place “home”. Though she never felt rooted to a single place, the feelings produced by constant motion took root in her and initiated a deep unrest in stillness. 

Rochelle feels the need to constantly be on the move. 

 “If I am in a city, 10 days at a stretch is too much, after that I shall get on a bus or get on a plane and go someplace else” Rochelle said. 

Pictured: Rochelle D'Silva.
Pictured: Rochelle D'Silva.

She feels her “true” self emerges once she travels. 

Rochelle stripped her life of convention and is currently a self-described “travelling poet”. Like the old bards that travelled through villages making money through their poetry and stories, Rochelle makes money from poetry gigs held across a variety of international locations. 

Three days after the launch of her poetry book “When Home is an Idea” she took off to Himachal Pradesh and stayed for a month. She had no pre-made plans or even a return ticket. She improvised at each stretch of the journey and stayed in little villages. Sometimes, she dropped a copy of her book and a note in a café. 

Rochelle began her solo travelling in Australia. 

 “I travelled here alone. I used to go to Sydney. I used to go Byron Bay. I used to go by myself” Rochelle says. “I travel because I like solace.” 

Travelling through South Asia alone and as a female is no easy task and Rochelle has mastered it. 

 “I find it very easy. I have become very good at looking after myself.” Rochelle said. 

Even in places that she stayed in temporarily, Rochelle developed routines. She repeated actions to structure the chaos and unfamiliarity of foreign locations. 

She also consciously seeks connections and builds friendships. 

 “I have found that if you give people an opportunity, they are nice. They might seem reserved but a smile and kindness go a long way,” Rochelle says.

On top of this, she loves cafes and makes sure to talk to floor staff at all times. She also lets chance play out its tricks. 

She happily recollects the friendship and hospitality she had received from a farmer and his family at one point in her travels. 

“We could not speak the same language but we would try with very broken Hindi. His wife would cook for me, I would look after her. I would go to the farm with them.” says Rochelle. 

Pictured: Rochelle D'Silva.
Pictured: Rochelle D'Silva.

Another story consisted of a journey through the beautiful Himalayas accompanied by a Nepali poetry troupe. She calls them “My Nepali poetry family”. 

Rochelle says that the troupe, the “Word Warriors”, was responsible for a poetry revolution in Nepal. They held poetry events that featured performers from a variety of ages and remembers feeling astounded by 8th graders that excelled at poetry, so much so, that they outperformed their 20 year old competitors. These poets blended English and Nepali together – a mixture of languages that is commonly found in postcolonial countries. 

Rochelle talks about cities like she might about relationships, her descriptions exude the same intimacy, transformation and nostalgia that only relationships have. 

She remembers her arrival in Mumbai, India’s “City of Dreams” at the age of 30 and feeling completely at odds. She found it to be “noisy, polluted, chaotic and insane”. For the first 2 years, she remembers feeling sick and resentment at everyone’s “hustle” attitude. 

She recalls Mumbai’s trains at peak hour, packed to the brim of people. Public transport in India does not have a cut-off point. Everyone rushes inside, makes space for themselves and holds onto it. Some people sit on top of the train or hang on the rails. Personal space and safety are never considered. 

Rochelle recounts some people that made space on her for the train based on their observation of her quiet and unobtrusive behaviour day after day. She finds the moment to be memorable. 

After sometime Rochelle came to recognise the endless possibilities present in the city’s manic vibe.  She noticed a hunger for “alternative” events and set up her poetry event “Words Tell Stories”. To begin, she talked to some cafes, attached some flyers and invited some of her friends. Eventually, the event exploded and is currently in its 4th year. 

Mumbai is not especially rule-driven or heavily institutionalised, so Rochelle found it easier to get things done. She calls it the “magic of Bombay”. 

Rochelle’s surname is D’Silva. You can catch the traces of her Portuguese ancestry in it. Funnily enough, she holds Goa – an area colonised by the Portuguese close to her heart. 

 “I’ll never forget the first time I got off the bus from my mom’s lap and the landscape changed from these lush green fields to palm trees and blue skies,” Rochelle says. 

Goa is like no other place in India – think beaches and palm trees. The lifestyle moves at a relaxed and subdued pace. Influenced by the Portuguese, Goa has a “siesta” lifestyle – shops close in the afternoon and open later on in the evening. The food includes jaggery, fermented fruit and local chorizo. 

Rochelle cites Bangalore as the city that hosted her leap into adulthood. 

“I literally had all my firsts there – first salary, first house, first drink, first eviction. I remember how safe I used to feel in Bangalore. I feel more comfortable there than Bombay.” Rochelle says. 

Bangalore has changed since Rochelle’s years as a university student. The city is more densely populated, has rising levels of crime and is heralded as an international hub for STEM. 

South Asians like Rochelle are travelling increasingly. India’s highly skilled middle class has more disposable income than ever and they choose to spend it on travel. 

 “I am very happy to see a lot more Indians travel,” Rochelle says. 

She feels that the increase in travel is not a rebellion against culture but against strict parental supervision that is paramount in India’s culture. 

As a child, she remembers her personal mobility being limited. 

 “I had no sense of independence,” Rochelle says. 

For her solo trips, her parents provided little to no encouragement. 

 “Our parents’ generation was all about safety, security and stability. People were in the same job for life. I feel like the younger generation are moving every year, at least every 2 years,” Rochelle says. 

She finds that though movement patterns have evolved throughout the years, language has not caught up. 

She particularly hates the ‘where are you from?’ question. 

 “I hate that question” Rochelle says. “Can you ask me that without asking me that?”

For Rochelle, “Where are you from?” is the start of a deep and intense interrogation. She hates conversations that appear to run on autopilot fuelled by the same, stereotypical questions. 

“I think people should have more conversations and less questions,” Rochelle says. 

She finds questions such as “Are you married?”, “How old are you?” and “How much money do you make?” to be redundant. If she encounters “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” on a dating app, she instantly un-matches the person. If she encounters these questions in real life encounters, she makes a point to politely criticise the questions and change the direction of the conversation. 

She also says that conversation should be a non-verbal exchange that includes a close observation of body language and micro movement. 

She finds conversations punctuated by questions to be out dated because they do not capture the complexity of a person. Increasingly, identity has become defined by the movement of people through actions such as collective diaspora, migration, travel and digital nomadism. Conversations should seek to understand that people are defined by a collective sense of disruption and dislocation. 

I ask Rochelle if she could ever settle for “stillness”. She had a clear vision that included a juxtaposition of landscapes: the mountains and the sea. Perhaps in Goa, she says. 

At the end of our conversation, Rochelle looks for free postcards in the Library. She finds a rack almost instantly and happily runs to collect some for herself. The conversation ends, and her spontaneity, skill for improvisation and unabashed free spirit breaks free. 


Catch Rochelle D’Silva at the opening night of the Melbourne Spoken Word and Poetry Festival on May 17.

Devana Senanayake

About Devana Senanayake

Devana Senanayake is currently based in Melbourne, Victoria. She is a multimedia journalist and radio producer. She focuses on race, gender, colonisation, diasporas and food.

She has been featured on SBS, Meanjin, Why Not, Ascension Magazine and Writers Magazine.

More from Devana Senanayake

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Minority Voices
Melbourne VIC, Australia
10th May 2018

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