Saturday, October 19, 2013

Who is London?

In Trafalgar Square a crowd of hundreds buzzed around me. There were lights and music so loud that it normally would have made thinking impossible. Yet in that moment, in the heart of the city, I found my bubble. I drifted around with no aim in mind, just wanting someplace to sit down and write. And not just anywhere, but someplace which feels like home. So I found myself in an Indian restaurant for dinner. It soon became apparent that I was the only Indian in the vicinity. The waiters and chefs were Bangladeshis, the diners were Americans and Britons, all engulfed in conversation and laughter. And I- I was alone. I have heard the phrase ‘Alone in a crowd’ before,  Many times in fact, but I never thought I could experience it. Well, I did. Intensely. By day and by night London enthralls me and scares me in turns. At times it welcomes me in with both arms open and at times it shuts me out.

So I find myself overwhelmed as she sheds all pretense and reveals herself, one layer at a time. Which face do I embrace?

Is it the one in the morning as I walk to my college through the Strand? Is it the coffee holding professional hands belonging to suited bodies navigating the bustling street? Is it the shoulders which constantly bump each other as ambitious men and women walk with purpose to realize their dreams. Is London then a metonym for ambition, drive and success? Should I then just join this race and climb the proverbial ladder?

But then I am forced to look at the other face. The one which reveals itself in the unacknowledged cracks and corners of this city. Cracks which are inhabited by the homeless populace. On cold nights this face attempts to mask itself with newspapers to keep warm. Flimsy masks which hide nothing. And if you look long enough, you are forced to confront your own indifference in walking by. And as your head sinks into a warm pillow, you just feel the cold, hard floor, wondering- Is London’s famed openness and tolerance to difference just an apathy which is colour blind? Is this melting pot just a black hole which sucks in ones identity? I have liked the feeling of being lost in the crowd, of not having the pressure to stand out always. And yet at times I yearn to be recognised, to be acknowledge. To be stopped in the rush and asked who I am. 

Day after day, as I make my way through this amazingly complex city, I can’t help but wonder- Is London then just irony herself? 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Bubbles, Beatles and Matthew Valentine

Trafalgar Square, 3pm.

While casually walking along my usual route back to Northumberland avenue, I see a crowd gathered around the National Gallery. Standing in the middle of  a half circle is a tall man with messy mad-scientist-like blonde hair talking through a microphone and and making people laugh with his witty humor. And the best part, I arrive just in time to hear him announce the removal of his shirt, confidently stating "you are about to see the best specimen to walk on this earth." After much anticipation, neither me nor the crowd gathered could help laughing when finally he took of his shirt to expose a pot belly and a tattoo across his back that said "showbusiness".

Who is this strange entertainer you might wonder? He is Matthew Valentine, a street performer and one of the many acts stationed outside the Galley.But everyone knew that Matthew wasn't out merely to show off his flexibility (he stuck his whole body through a tennis racket); he was there to make people happy, and he made sure of it.

And that's the beauty of it. In a city where entertainment comes at a cost, with elaborate theaters and expensive shows, London will find a way to bring a smile to people's faces. Kids, lovers, tourists, locals- everyone is invited. A few feet away, a young musician was singing and playing covers of hit songs on his guitar. No one was gathered around him unlike the other performers, but I shyly walked over to him and dropped a few coins into his guitar case. He was in mid-song but he managed to squeeze a "thank you very much" into his verse, flashing a smile as I walked away.

Bubbles. Gigantic life sized bubbles floating in the wind and bursting into nothing. I heard a character once say in a movie that he wished he could love anything as much as kids loved bubbles. That was what I felt at that exact moment as I watched little kids (and adults) run around to catch the bubbles, being blown by a guy with a bucket of soap and a string attached to two sticks. The music, the laughter, the sun reflecting off the bubbles; all happening separately but affecting the same people as they walked from one end of the square to the other. It was a man made symphony.

And now as I'm seated writing on the steps facing the fountain, the musician's voice drifts through the air, even though he is now out of my sight. And to put the cherry on top of a perfect afternoon, a line from one of my favorite Beatles songs catches my ear- "come together, right now, over me."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The student tourist

My first night at my new student residence was everything I expected it to be. After unpacking like a ninja to put away my entire luggage, my room-mate and partner in crime Nazreen suggested a stroll through the city to do some grocery shopping. Stepping out into the crisp autumn day and walking among students, tourists, workers and children felt like a scene straight from a movie. They say television hardly portrays reality and we end up believing in cliches that aren't true- but London has stereotypes and clich├ęs at every corner. The red double deckers and telephone booths are reminders that some things never change. With the promise of discovering galleries, cafes, and book shops at every corner, getting lost is merely a guarantee of another adventure.

And now, three weeks later, London has grown on me and I find myself walking through the city with the confidence of a local and the childish amusement of a tourist. The excitement that comes with new places has not worn off, and I hope it never will. There are stories and histories everywhere. I find myself listening to strangers’ conversations while waiting for the lights to change (I always was a bit of an eavesdropper) and wondering who they really are, where they are from and what their stories are. I find myself crawling into book shops, just to pass time or keep warm when it’s raining. The best I've come across are the cozy second hand stores, with grey-haired men behind the counter and the musky smell of old books.

I am a stranger in this new city and yet there are nooks and corners that make me feel more at home than I ever thought was possible. With the unexpected smiles from strangers on the train and cashiers at supermarkets I can’t help but wonder if everything I had done up until now has lead me here.  That I wasn't completely crazy to leave the warm sunshine of my home to come all the way here in an attempt to find myself, to continue growing.

Three weeks down, a million memories to go.

London Revisited

So here I am, on a cloudy Monday, seated on an old wooden bench facing the Thames. I feel different things- excited, exhilarated, nervous, scared, happy. I am all of these now.

This is my second time in London. I came here last year, but as a tourist. This time, I am a student. And what a difference it makes! My last visit to London was experienced through the camera lens. Like any other tourist, I walked around constantly capturing anything and everything I saw. Old buildings, the iconic black taxis, the bright red telephone booths..even lamp posts! I did what a tourist in London is supposed to do- go to the millennium bridge, see the national gallery, walk through Hyde park, take pictures in front of the Big Ben and London eye. And of course wait in a crowd of hundreds to take blurry pictures of the change of guard at the Buckingham palace. I did all those things and I really enjoyed it too.
But this time, I'm FEELING London. I can feel the fast pulse of the city, I can see its colourful diversity, I can smell ambition around me. A lot of things which I didn't notice in my first visit are revealing themselves to me now.

Today morning I walked out with plans of buying some stuff for my room and then changed my mind and decided to just walk around. I didn't have any place in mind so I just..walked. If certain streets seemed interesting then I explored them. I got into random buildings, did a lot of people watching. Followed some around when I wasn't sure where I was going. Heard interesting snippets of bankers contemplating on whether to eat couscous or not…
At one point I was caught in an oncoming rush of people in suits. Smart bankers and investors in greys and blacks and blues. Women, ready to take on the world, rushing to their offices in their nikes and Adidas with the heels stuffed into their bags. Steaming coffee from Costa in one hand and sandwich in the other, they marched on to the face the gloomy Monday. And I came back to my cozy room.

I think I like this city. Maybe because I blend in here. I can be one of the many walking around, without explaining why.

How it all started...

Chalani and I have known each other for three years. We did the same course,with the same specialism AND the same language together so naturally we became thick friends over the years. It was then with heavy hearts that we approached our third year. It felt horrible knowing we might never see each other again.
But guess what, life had other plans! In our last semester in Uni we both applied to LSE and got accepted.
Long story short, we came, we saw and we became room mates.
The next step then seemed to be starting a blog together! This blog will be about our experience of London in particular and the UK in general as South Asians. Both of us are very interested in the discourse on race, immigration and identity, so, many of our posts will be about our position as 'brown people'. That said, this is not the only thing we will cover! We are both passionate foodies and can kill for a couple of gooey brownies! However, since both of us are in the throes of student poverty, we have to resort to cooking to avoid starvation. So we shall document our culinary exploits for the amusement of the general public!

So grab a cuppa tea, stick your pinky out and follow the adventures of two brown girls in this big city!