Wednesday, September 28, 2011

England: First Impressions

I am in England, and I’d be purple all over if I tried to pinch myself into belief. It’ll take a while to sink in. In the short span of time since leaving Bangalore, I’ve seen a look-alike of Freddie Flintoff and one of Frederick Algernon Trotteville, tried shortbread and cheese-and-pickle, and drunk water purportedly from Scottish and Welsh springs. One of the items on today's agenda is finding some gingerbeer.

My journey started in the usual klutzy manner, with a briefly scary moment on the escalator when my cabin bag almost went tumbling down; it took me a while to recover, because I was obviously not in my senses when I next went crashing into a benign Englishman. He accepted my apology with a gentle smile, and if I thought I’d seen the last of him then, I was wrong; he came up behind me as I waited for the security check, and told me politely that the ladies’ queue was “over there”. I was beyond feeling sheepish at having joined the wrong queue. This wasn’t the first time I’d done it, after all.

The flight was rather uneventful. Though I did feel like we were packed sardine-style into the aircraft, I knew I was lucky not to have been squashed between rotund people. To my left sat the aforementioned clone of Freddie Flintoff, bringing out his Kindle occasionally to read a business manual. He and the Indian man to my right took it in turns to guffaw at the movies they were watching. I tried to lose myself in my copy of ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’, but for once Murakami failed to rise to the occasion- lack of sleep mingled with excitement suppressed to sobriety had made me delirious.

However, the real flavour of England made itself felt in the drive from Heathrow to Gatwick. Gentle mounds emerged abruptly out of flat stretches of land, smooth and populated by little copses. The trees by the roadside broke into autumn colours at intervals, flashes of magenta appearing in the otherwise uniform green cover. Horses grazed in distant meadows, swishing their tails as they cropped the grass hungrily. We passed some pretty, quaint cottages with creepers climbing up their walls, and it wasn’t quite difficult to imagine a highwayman go clattering up one of their driveways, wanting to see his Bess at the casement window.

As the coach made its way into Brighton, rows of neat brick houses, rather alike one another, came into sight. The winding streets of the town were quiet; as we approached the Brighton Marina, the roads seemed to come to life. People scurried to and fro laden with bags, or took a calm walk down by the Brighton Pavilion (an absurdly Moorish structure, but I need to find something out about it before I condemn it as an incongruity). I caught a brief glimpse of the sea, a nice sleepy blue, glinting in the rays of the waning sun.

The vagaries of the English weather have been slow in making themselves felt, but I know it shan’t be long before I’m talking of constant rain and the perennial absence of sunshine. With a not-too-pleasant summer having been replaced by autumn already, a snowy winter can’t be too far behind!

Distant Shores

I don't wake up soaked in perspiration any longer; at half past seven in the morning, a thick mist envelopes the trees and the highway, and a soft rain falls steadily. It doesn’t sting or hurt or drum down forcefully like tropical rain, but falls as if it was always there, a constant fixture like the air or the sky.

This is England, and I’m actually here; in a different continent for the first time, but in a coastal city as usual.

I didn’t have a first ‘memorable’ glimpse of England, closeted that I was close to the middle of the aircraft, as far away as possible from a window. I don’t know if majestic buildings rose into the sky, their spires and domes getting larger by degrees, or if a lake-dotted landscape came into view. Never mind, though: there is plenty I can do and see, and I intend to make full use of my year here at Brighton.

September is just coming to a close, but autumn seems to be here already; on the road leading away from Heathrow, the leaves are breaking into a riot of vibrant colours, the more staid greens complementing them beautifully. On walks through the campus, my new Malaysian flat mate and I are amused to note how the English girls walk around in short skirts and flimsy tops, while we bundle ourselves up in our warmest coats and prepare for a year in jeans. A brief glimpse of the sun and its soft warmth on our skin feels heavenly; it doesn’t take long for a nippy wind to arise from nowhere and chill us to the bone if we’re caught without our jackets.

My room looks out at a little brick cottage whose purpose I’m unaware of; beside it is a clump of trees at whose feet are strewn dead leaves. The slightest gust of wind sends the dry leaves floating from one of the trees. Another of its kind has already been stripped bare, and stands up like a toothless old man, robbed but proud. The trees absorb the noise from the highway and turn the roar of engines into distant swishes; I owe it to them that I don’t toss and turn in bed all night, but sleep like the dead.

Being thrown in with five new people in an apartment is an interesting experience. We’re all Asian- Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Lebanese and Pakistani, with Turkey providing a partial European flavour. (Four of these countries are on the F1 calendar- digression.) It has been an interesting experience this far, and the abandon with which we are able to mingle with one another and talk politics and religion has almost surprised me.

The sky is turning a deep, inky blue, without the rose-coloured splendours of a tropical twilight. There is much to see, much to do, and a whole year of learning ahead.

Monday, September 19, 2011

When I first arrived at this house in Vizag, I couldn’t stand the sight of it. I longed desperately to be back in Durgapur, not because I was fond of the town, but because I was familiar with it and the house we lived in there. Vizag wasn’t new by any stretch of imagination: I had lived here for twelve years before work took me away in 2008. However, returning here involved yet another process of forgetting and learning; it might sound silly, but those who have moved frequently and lived in several houses will perhaps understand what it means to get used to new shadows, to leaking taps and trees rustling against window-panes, unusually bright streetlamps or sunlight spilling into the bedroom in the morning at an angle they’re not accustomed to.

I’d visited this house atleast thrice earlier, when I was a schoolgirl, visiting people who lived here. It felt very strange as we moved in, though; without the vaguely familiar dining-table, the elderly Bengali lady in her starched white saree, the senior from my school, this house could have been meant for just about anybody. Thin beams of light fell across the undulating floor from unexpected chinks in the windows, and a sudden movement caught in the corner of my eye would eventually prove to be a branch set in motion by a breeze. The knowledge that a snake lurked in the straggly undergrowth outside wasn’t very comforting. A sudden spell of heavy rain had set the weeds growing, and now the wildflowers ran riot amongst the carefully planted bushes of the previous occupants of the house.

Funny then, that with so many forebodings and misgivings, it took me just about a month to get used to living in this house. The nightly concerts of the insects are a treat, and I like to watch for grey clouds on the verandah, sitting on the sun-warmed steps and waiting for the rain to fall. Butterflies flit busily through the bushes, barely settling on one flower before they’re off seeking the next: how do they ever make a living at this rate? The garden is a riot of colour, and just as old flowers begin to wilt and wither, new ones take their place- it pulsates with life and verve.

I don’t know if it was all in the mind. I don’t miss Durgapur one bit now, and wonder how I could ever have thought I’d be nostalgic for it, notwithstanding its mishti and simple life. Despite having been quite a nomad, I’m in the habit of visiting every little nook and corner I know ‘one last time’, but I also know that I almost always have to move just when I begin to get too attached to a place or a person. I don’t know if it is a universal law: but it does put me on my guard, and I’m learning to enjoy life without letting the strings of attachment burden me.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Passing the Buck Forever

One more attack has come and gone, and all too familiar scenes are replaying themselves. The buck is being generously passed around, no party is willing to admit a lapse of any sort, and the miscreants are willingly claiming responsibility for the hideous act, perhaps secure in the knowledge that there are few chances of their being at the receiving end of any sort of punishment. We keep the accused in prisons, nourish them on taxpayers’ money, debate death sentences, and promptly return to the starting point.

This time, the group claiming responsibility for the blasts is one from Bangladesh. The Prime Minister has just returned from a trip to the country, and of course several pacts would have been signed. Who loves their neighbours better than we do? The sharing of the waters of the river Teesta was the point of contention between the PM and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee; it was cited as the reason for her withdrawal from the Bangladesh trip. But she isn’t the only unhappy person. The agreement on the waiver of tax duties on the import of certain kinds of textiles from Bangladesh has small-scale clothing manufacturers in India up in arms. They worry that goods from Bangladesh will flood the Indian market, and the costs of their production being lower than those here spell tough times for small Indian manufacturers.

While we persist in our efforts to appease our neighbours, why can’t we simultaneously adopt a tough stance on issues of national security? The lack of CCTVs and functioning metal detectors is just one visible lapse; using the excuse of the blast having taken place in a public area and not on the premises of the High Court is a sign of weakness. Is security supposed to be restricted only to the anointed? The verbal slugfests that immediately follow any major incident only worsen the situation, and VIPs ought to know that people are no longer taken in by the hand-holding and sympathising. Patience is running low. That no lessons have been learnt from recent incidents is extremely evident; we continue to worry about our image on the world stage and the signals we send out in the way we treat the accused. The damning statements in Wikileaks on how David Coleman Headley’s extradition was viewed only as an attempt to placate the Indian public show just how serious we are about bringing criminals to book.

India needs a drastic image change. This will not come from mere speeches condemning terrorism, but from action that accompanies and justifies the words. It’s high time we stopped being just impressive orators.