The church singing, part of Maundy Thursday services we just attended, still rings in my ears, despite the clanking of cutlery and the thrum of diners’ conversations. As I wait in the restaurant with our gracious hosts who are treating me and my friend, both new to you, I get asked that weary tourist-facing question I’ve come to dread.
“Is London what you expected it to be?”
I mumble in monosyllables, not to search for, but to evade an answer.
One had heard lots about a history-harvesting shiny city like you, yet, despite the information deluge, how could I expect anything of you before we actually met?
Our food arrives — shrimp pulao, paneer kofta, naan, butter chicken — flavoured more for the British palate than mine, I feel. But our waiter speaks a tongue that tastes intimately more delicious to me. When I find out that he’s a Bangladeshi, I don’t miss on the opportunity to chat him up in Bangla. It’s the first time I get to speak in my mother tongue since I came to see you two months ago.
He talks about working daily double shifts, the gruelling work that keeps him employed, the fact that he hasn’t been home in four and a half years…The way he adds the half to the four years tells me you make people count the hours (and minutes, as I’d learn the hard way) they spend with you, whether to fight you or fall in love with you.
Suddenly, I remember the face of one of the ladies in the church. She sang beautifully even as a lonely rivulet streamed down her face.
During the two months I get to spend in England, you would never be my refuge, only a sometimes lover. That would suit me fine as I’m still a bit cynical, refusing to fall for the notions of grandeur you’re royally accorded.
For our first tryst, I would use you as a conduit. To transport me to Bristol, where RMR, one of the foremost social reformers from my home country, remains buried. As a first-time solo traveler I’m still not sure what spot would work best for our date. An understanding friend suggests just the thing — the YMCA Indian student hostel in Fitzroy Square.
Amid the familiarity of Indian faces and safety of a students’ accommodation, you help me stay in my comfort zone. Especially at meal times — when I eat fish curry and rice with a fellow hosteler. He’s a medical doctor, who I can tell has come a long way, even as he momentarily narrows the distance created by my homesickness. He’s from Tamil Nadu and tells me about the long trek that took him to his school in the village where he grew up. He talks about the difficulties of transitioning into higher studies having studied in the Tamil language throughout his school life. It’s a bridge he has crossed and one I’ve never had to step on.
I admire his conviction, the proof of which I see in him eating with his fingers.
Like a good lover, you draw out all your magnets to impress me — the bookshops, the markets, the museums. And the people.
On the eve of my trip to Bristol, I decide to meet WR, a British man also known as Tagore’s best-known translator. I walk from the hostel to Russell Square, the location of the SOAS, the rather cadenced abbreviation for the School of Oriental and African Studies is located. WR teaches Bengali in SOAS and I feel fortunate to come in contact with him, thanks to the author of the Bengali book I’m translating.
As I set out to see him via Tottenham Court Road, you rob me. Of all my smugness. I quicken my pace — I’m in a hurry to reach the university. But you pull my hand and slow me down. To take in the beauty that you are — not because of your history or riveting nightlife, nor the grand museums or the royal palace. But because of your streets.
The way your streets intersect and flow into one another, Torrington Place to Malet Street, Torrington Square to Thornhaugh Street, suddenly reminds me of another sometimes lover, another one I’d been smug about, another one who converted me for life — Kolkata.
And so when I think I’ve got you all figured out and start falling for your charms, you turn around and play the tough lover. You strip me not only of my smugness but also my comfort. And all of my inhibitions, without mercy.
You would teach me how to live independently with a demanding partner like you, how to navigate the streets, get lost, ask nice-looking Londoners to help me find my way, only to be further led astray…
You would make me appreciate the essence of conceptual time — the type that runs clocks and a world based on those clocks.
My train to Bristol is scheduled for 11 AM so my future husband suggests I visit the British Library in the morning–as pilgrimage to his hero, Karl Marx, who spent his entire days at the library. The visit — a ten-minute walk from the hostel would yield little. As a non-member, I won’t be allowed to see or read any of the books. But it would cost me precious time as I would fail to account for the extra time it takes to walk back to the hostel in rush-hour traffic.
From the hostel, I would scurry to walk to the tube station in time to catch the train that would take me to my bus stop for Bristol…
At the station, as I stand motionless, you would mock me for my phobia of climbing escalators. Passengers would zip right past me even as I stand zapped at the sight of the escalators without an end in sight. You’ve no time to spare, you fool, you would say and give me a hard knock from behind to propel me ahead. I would be forced to put one foot, then the other, on the unstoppable flight of stairs, my right hand grabbing the railing for dear life.
I would board the train two minutes before departure time, the protocol being doors to be closed a minute before…
At our next meeting, you play host to a London Book Fair party. India is the theme country at the fair and you bring me to a glitzy evening flowing with fine liquor, fancy hors d’oeuvres, smooth-tongued literati and glamorous socialites. I flow about too, in my mother’s silk sari, past the journalist-turned-publisher-turned media outlet owner I worked with at the start of my career; past other bigwigs from the publishing world, before I find a corner to stand in and nibble on the smoked salmon and spinach quiche on my plate.
WR is there, too; he comes around and we have a brief exchange of words before we both drift away. I step out of the buzzing hive of small talk and licorice smiles to the open area outside the party hall — where pelicans float on an artificial pond along the wall. There, I get introduced to a BBC correspondent from Uzbekistan who, I learn, plays the rubab. Meeting him makes my coming to this party totally worthwhile.
I have to stand for the entire duration of my trip inside the train that would bring me back to Earl’s Court, the venue of the book fair close to which my hotel is located. Yet, despite being in a sari, I don’t feel self-conscious for a minute. I thank you for this unencumbered public transit experience in a crowded train — in the absence of groping eyes and the male flesh intentionally brushing against my skin.
On our last day together, a friend I’ve known only via emails offers to take me around London — though I have a train to catch at noon to take me back to my refuge — Norwich, I can’t ignore his offer.
During past visits, I have visited the British Museum where you’ve neatly stacked the loot plundered from the Empire’s colonies, my home country included; I’ve been to the Victoria and Albert museum and marvelled at the finest the world of art has had to offer through the centuries; to the Natural History museum to see the inner lives of planets and their moons.
It’s time to hang out with you in the wide open.
Our gallivanting begins at Piccadilly Square and becomes a whirlwind tour of the unmissable attractions — the Big Ben and the London Eye, Tate Modern…a walk along the Thames to take in the royal palace only to come to a stop at a traffic intersection blockaded by thousands of Tamil protesters who are out there to raise their voice against the civil war in Sri Lanka.
We plod on towards our last stop — St. Paul’s Cathedral. Parched and tired, I barely have time to soak in the spectacular beauty of the domes or the mosaics on the vaults. We have only ten minutes left until noon, the departure time of my train.
“Water,” I yelp as a grocery store comes into view, but my friend is sprinting ahead at a speed that makes it seem like he’s the one who has to catch a train, not I. There’s no time to buy water, he says. I try my best to make my unathletic limbs match his pace.
As I’m still running towards the train, sweat drenching my body, a scratchy drought gripping my throat, I see my co-traveller from London to Norwich, a fellow translator, holding the handlebars, looking out anxiously. When I’m about to board the train, she tells me they just announced the doors were closing in a minute’s time.
Twice I came to meet you, and both times you made me run faster than Lola when it was time to leave.
Years later, when I would come to live with your laidback namesake in Ontario, Canada, you would still make me pulsate with the throbbing of those “last-minute” affections.
London, you were a good lover. As the trusted Oyster card that transported me across the city, the inexorable escalators in your tube stations, the alluring red buses that I didn’t hop on or off, the desirable-in-hindsight walk during which I lost myself and landed in SOHO, as your must-show-a-face-every-day rain dance that forced me to buy a new umbrella from my meager fellowship budget.
And…as those stickler-for-schedule trains that finally, after years of reading and philosophizing on it, revealed to me the true meaning of Kipling’s verse:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…
This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol I., as part of the Coldnoon journal.