Covent Garden! What a damned thing! (as Professor Higgins would say, and Nani and I would remember it differently).
It’s the business of buying and selling here. Glass panes run along the edges of the cobblestone square, flaunting disproportionate mannequins as if they were desirable. I’d like to own the muslin rag dangling off the waist of that plastic figurine. Or maybe I want to borrow it for the night, hold it against my cheek, want to feel for the softness of Nani’s blue muslin kurta she lent me for Bombay’s sticky nights. The tungsten boards of Dior, Chanel, best sounded in French accents I cannot fake, do not sell luxury but memory. One must walk in for the asking price.
In 1959 Nani boarded a ship at the Malabar Coast, and two weeks later found herself in England. The boat sauntered up the murky spine of this metropolis, fringed by long docks and leaden factories. Through the fog, Nani counted the vertebrae of bridges that ran along the river.
I have never known the lilt or nausea of a ship, or traced sea routes and seen the ocean change colour each day. When I arrived here, I did not see landscapes, just a continuum of white fluff. I assumed I flew over the generic blue, yellow, and pink printed between the Indian peninsula and this breadcrumb-shaped island in my pocket atlas. I descended into the skewed heart of the island, and I could barely decipher it. The plane cut open the thick of clouds to reveal a maze of mismatched squares and circles. I could have been anywhere, coming from anywhere. But I was inside a misshapen throbbing of the island, in London, fifty five years after my grandmother was here.
“Unlike you, I had no money”, Nani said, when I called her last night. “I hung around Covent Garden and tried to see plays for a shilling. I remember Ibsen’s Doll House.”
And I wanted to say, “Nani, nobody has money for Covent Garden”, but instead I complained about the English rain. “It never stops.”
Half a century earlier, Nani leans against a pillar outside the opera house at Covent Garden.
Opposite her, a man sells sweets from a cart, flanked on every side by children. “I want the pink one, no yellow. Maybe a caramel!”
Black taxis loop in and around the market, letting off people, then departing with a practised efficiency. Nani watches women in sparkling gowns emerge from the taxis and glide along the corridors of the market, their shoes hidden by a profusion of fabric. Click. Click-click. Click. The men all wear hats and long coats that flutter behind them as they rush to keep up with the women. Nani, even in her misplaced shalwar-kameez – the only imported vision for miles – remains unnoticed as they pass. From behind her, a flower seller calls, “Won’t you like some roses?”
The seller is talking to the hatted men, not to Nani, who only wants to see the show to which the men have tickets; she has no shillings for flowers. But she must wait until all the men and women disappear into the theater. And then maybe a man will come out and ring a bell. If he does, Nani will give him a shilling to stand at the farthest corner of the theater and watch the red curtain rise.
I lean against a pillar in Covent Garden. Flower sellers have become these mannequins, watching faux-cheetah-skin-cushioned rickshaws give tourist rides. Posh Londoners, in hats smaller than their heads and bags wider than their waists, walk toward the theater. It is opening night, and the twenty pound tickets have sold, and shillings no longer exist. I watch the busking violinists at the center of market, as they thump their feet and break their strings under the glass ceiling. Through it I can see a rare, blue London sky, and outside, a magician tossing pennies to the sun to make them disappear. The children around him are giggling. But Pietro is running across the square, away from his father trying to take his picture with the magician. “Pietro vieni qua!” his father calls, but Pietro is still running, past the French Brasserie and the restaurant of authentic Italian food manufactured in the British Isles, past the stalls of Tibetan beads and laughing Buddhas, and into the Apple Market that sells only paisley-printed tunics from India.
In front of the black board listing the day’s pasta special, four Turkish tourists angle their heads over an unfolded map. I am as lost as them, but home enough to know their map is useless—printed, too definite for discovery. I cannot tell them this, or lie down on the pavement like that man and woman who are kissing in public spectacle. They are a temporary landmark, now, mapmakers with their shifting bodies; I shall remember the market by them.
Nani will never know this performance. Or the magician who just tossed a coin to the lovers’ feet. Or the Turks who just entered the Japanese bar. Or Pietro’s father, who has caught hold of Pietro and is carrying him back to the magician for a picture; he must make a memory for Pietro.
It’s the business of breaking apart the world and putting it together, here, in tiny box-shaped shops—every flavour, and texture, and colour from almost the entire globe bottled or ribboned with an asking price. “Come now,” the market says, “you do not need a ship to travel—I give you the world.” And two teenage girls hold up a cell phone to photograph themselves on top of it.
This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol I., as part of the Coldnoon journal.