Sunday, February 16, 2014

Conversing with familiar strangers...

After weeks of poring over books and journal articles in my dingy room (without actually registering what I am reading), I decided to step outside for a change. With a few books I headed to the Trafalgar Square. It was a sunny morning so I decided to grab a cuppa coffee and a scone and sit outside the square café. My intention was to get to the reading material right away but I couldn't help but lean back and soak in the sun and the life around. It's funny because in India and Malaysia I used to hide from the sun. Here I've come to appreciate that wonderful sensation that is the sun on skin. 

So there I was, out on a wooden bench, for once my mind off what I need to be doing or haven't done. I felt happy and let the laughter around me drown my internal deadlines. The square is a nice place to sit by yourself on a clear Sunday. You'll see families walking around, young couples with prams, harrowed mothers chasing their kids, couples lost in each others eyes and, of course,  noisy teenagers goofing around. There were two twin boys running around as their parents filmed them, the mother occasionally stepping in as one twin pushed the other on to the floor or pulled at his hair. A middle aged couple sat in front of me, holding hands, looking across the square,  occasionally leaning into each other for a quick kiss.

After a while I spot three ladies walking towards the café, their arms interlinked, and sit down next to me. As I try to focus on the book, I can't help but overhear their conversation. As one of them goes inside to get them drinks the two ladies next to me begin to talk about their grandchildren. 
"What are your grandchildren doing Helen?"
"Your grandchildren, Helen, where are they?"
"Timothy is teaching English. Somewhere in South America. I think he can speak English."

I smile at that and look on at the children chasing around pigeons. One boy in particular was intently following one pigeon, till the pigeon stopped and this boy tried to jump on it. As the scared pigeon flew away, the boy looked around for his next target. 

"Helen, don't you remember coming to the square for the demonstrations?"
"I don't remember much, dear. Why are we here?"
"We are just here to look around. Then we'll meet Philip. He'll take you out for dinner."
"Philip is coming? Do you know where? Because I don't know."
"It happens, Helen, we are old now."
"We have lived for too long. I thought I'd be dead by now."
"But I'm too young to die."

As the third lady comes back with their drinks I decide to start a conversation with them. I've been here long enough to realize that talking about the weather is a good place to start off. 
"It's a good day, isn't it?"
"Oh it's lovely! The sun is just wonderful. Hard to believe we had strong gales a few days ago. Well, I think it's global warming. Why can't people understand that? We are doing so much harm to the planet that the earth is trying to shake us off."

And there begins what would turn out to be the most interesting conversation I've had in a while, with Helen, Maisie and Ann. 
"Have you three known each other for long?"
"Oh yes dear we are very old." says Maisie with a laugh. 
"We have been coming here together for years. We used to demonstrate for peace here. You remember the protests in 2003? Against the Iraq war? We were here for that"
"Tony Blair and George Bush, they are the real terrorists." chips in Ann.
"We came here for the demonstration to free Nelson Mandela too. The place was thronging with people. And the next day when I went to my class I was elated to hear a teacher in the next class play songs of African freedom."
"David. David Cameron, he is a hypocrite. As a young Tory he used to walk around with badges saying 'Hang Mandela' and he went to South Africa to support the apartheid, what right does he have now to go to Mandela's funeral?"
"I came here for the memorial services with my grandson, I was so excited for him. He has never been to anything like this."
"We are always campaigning. Have you heard of Wool against Weapons? This wonderful lady, Jaine, started this by herself and now it has spread all over the UK. We are knitting a 7 mile long pink scarf to protest against government spending on nuclear warheads."
"What are we doing here?"asks Helen.
"We are waiting for Phillip, Helen. He should be here in 5 minutes."

The conversation then shifts back to Helen as the other two try to see if she remembers anything. 
"You remember us, right, Helen?"
"Just about'" and then Helen turns to me and says with a wide smile "I used to be clever."
"You used to be very clever, Helen" says Ann. 
"You are young, aren't you" Helen asks me.
"Oh she is very young, Helen"

"You make use of your time, darling. Old age will come before you realize. Every decade in your life will go faster than the one before." And with that Ann sets me thinking.

The lovely ladies- from right to left- Maisie, Ann, Helen.

We are quiet for a while as we sip on our tea and coffee. The square is more crowded now as the sun shines even brighter on us. I laugh as I see three brothers, all under 6, chase each other and when one stops all topple over each other. The youngest one sits on the older ones face as the father just stands there with a pram, a look of resignation on his face. A little girl dressed in red and white polka dots with pink fairy wings hops along and Ann exclaims 'She looks like a lady bird!" 
Helen looks down and greets a pigeon next to her "Hello there!"

They get excited when they find out I am from Kerala. 
"I've heard that's the best place in India! The women there are very strong. It is sad that in some other parts of India women are not valued as much. I heard a case where a woman aborted four fetuses when she found out they were females. That is horrible. Especially because I think women are superior than men. Even logically, we are the ones who procreate so nature favours us over men. Nature doesn't need very many men to progress." That is some food for thought. 
"I've been to a nice restaurant which has Kerala food. I can't have the spices though."
"When is Phillip coming?"

Ann says to me she has always wanted to go to Kerala but somehow it never worked out. "I've travelled to some other places, though. I've been to Egypt and Greece...and Istanbul. That was wonderful. The first time I went I saw these beautiful murals and in their souks, they sold these handmade art. But the last time I went the markets were selling these trashy items that we can get here as well. That is really sad."

At one point I mention that I have a blog and I write about being 'Brown in Britain'. Maisie gets excited and tells me about a poet friend of hers-James Berry- who writes about race. And then she surprises me by quoting from memory snippets of a poem that he wrote, to comfort a young girl who complained to him that she was being bullied for being a different colour. I came back and looked it up. The poem is called Okay, Brown Girl Okay. This is the para she quoted from- 

Josie, Josie, I am okay
being brown. I remember,
all the time bright-sky and brown-earth
work together, like married
making forests and food and flowers and rain.
        And they would like to say to you:
        grow and grow brightly, brown girl.
        Write and read and play and work.
        Ride bus or train or boat or airplane
        like thousands and thousands and thousands
        of people, who are brown and white
        and black and pale-lemon color.
        All the time, brown girl Josie is okay.

As Maisie notes down my blog address, Ann confesses that she hasn't kept up with technology or 'anything new'. 
"The world is changing too fast. In my childhood change happened at a slower pace, and there was stability because of that. Now it is scary how fast things are moving. It is not good for human beings because we are now working under so much pressure. Even when you are in the tube you see people looking at their screens and not noticing anything going on around them. Nothing remains the same."
Helen smiles at me again and says "I used to be clever."

And so our conversation flowed from global warming to empowerment of women to nuclear warhead to the African National Congress. These three ladies made a lovely Sunday even lovelier and more meaningful. Soon it was time for them to leave. Helen was surprised to find out they are going to meet Phillip. 'He is coming?". They wished me luck and  we went our different ways. 

People around us are walking stories, just waiting to be heard. I am thankful I was there when these beautiful ladies decided to draw me into their lives for that short while we were together, sharing a beautiful day. I may never meet them again, but their words and warm smiles will always remain with me. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Walls of East London

East London has been on my list of places to see in London for a long time. When I finally got the opportunity to take an ‘art tour’ in Brick Lane, the timing was perfect as the usual gloomy skies of London went away and I was blessed with the most amazing day. East London is probably the most culturally diverse part of London. It saw three waves of immigration; French, Jewish and Bangladeshi. The last one is the most prominent in terms of the culture and the community present there, but if you look closer you can see that the lives and work of its previous inhabitants were never erased. So with a jolly and passionate Scottish tour guide, my friend Anjanaa and a group of tourists who all share an interest in art, the journey began.

I have always loved street art, but have never had the opportunity to see it up close. I even tried (and failed) to use an online graffiti application to make normal images look like they were drawn on a wall with spray paint. But East London's street art and graffiti was better than anything I had seen before in pictures. What made them even more special was the history of the community that lived in East London as well as the individual stories of artists who spilled their imaginations and dreams onto blank walls to create blueprints and many will follow in years to come

The Crane by artist Roa- completed in 8 hrs
All forms of street art and graffiti are illegal in the eyes of the law. To me, this makes these types of art all the more exciting; it is opportunity combined with passion, love, rage, torment, defiance and every other emotion an artist goes through to create his or her masterpiece. Many pieces, like the crane and the cowboy, were created in just a couple of hours. The immaculate detail seen in such drawings is often missed. As a spectator I find there to be two different stages of admiring art. The first is when we glance at it, stare at it as it comes into sight and we are drawn to the scale, colour and subject of the drawing. The second is when we look closer, come up close to it to admire the detail and realize that our first impression of it is the least of what the image actually represents; a stamp of identity.

Street art is never permanent. You can create a masterpiece one day and have it covered up with spray paint the next day by another artist who just wanted to create something new. The best part is, nobody would blame them. It's a fight for space, and and a fight for expression. Most people would say that there is a blurred line between graffiti and vandalism but I would disagree. Unless it is the names of boys’ schools during cricket matches and unflattering terms for girls sprawled on my school wall in Colombo (a bit of school pride kicking in here, so yes, that was vandalism), graffiti represents a story, an outburst of emotion that needed an outlet. And what better canvas than a street wall?

As I stopped to stare at all the colourful walls in Brick Lane and its surrounding streets, I realized that the drawings and words before me were a tribute to the culture and history of East London. With different waves of immigration came constant change, adaptation and a fusion of ideas and histories. And with change comes the guarantee that what you create today can be something complete different in ten years, or cease to exist all together. Hence the street art in East London is a tribute to a community and a culture that celebrates and thrives on change. And no matter what technique, language or medium the artist uses, while it lasts, their art will always share a common message: I was here, this is who I am.

This is what makes me fall in love with London over and over again: fusion. So my advice to you- go see the places no one tells you to look for.  And scribbled on a wall down a lonely alley, you will find something that will make you smile.