I’m walking along High Holborn towards Covent Garden with a friend. She’s in a hurry – the shop closes in ten minutes – and I with my short legs struggle to keep up with her. A group of three people walks in front of me – just a mass of bodies in my way – and as I’m trying to navigate my way past them, one of them looks at me and says, “Please.” First, I think he’s asking me to go ahead, but a more desperate “Please!” comes my way again. I stop. The three bodies belong to a middle-aged man and woman and a young boy. The man has a slight limp, the boy is holding his hand. Anxious as I am to catch up with my friend, I wait for them to speak. “Is this the way to Piccadilly Circus?” is all that’s asked. The man has an Italian accent. By their clothes, they don’t look touristy, at least not the rich tourist variety. And in that moment, for some strange incomprehensible reason, I feel a wave of affection towards these three strangers. “Yes, you’re going the right way” I reply, hastening to add that I’m a student who’s also new but can look it up on my phone. “No, that’s not necessary” they say. They thank me for my help, and I hurry ahead to meet my friend.
I cannot fathom why and how and whereabouts this feeling of affection for random strangers has emerged. But it has stayed with me, a rich and engaging – if slightly disconcerting – emotion. But I speak of this exchange because it encapsulates so much of what it has meant to live in London, of which I complete exactly a month today. Being a little lost. Friendly and extremely helpful (and better at giving directions than I was!) strangers. An obsession with Piccadilly Circus. Struggling to keep up. A touristy family of three. But not the rich we’ve-been-here-before kind. More the we’re-not-from-here kind. Discovering London on foot. Limping. Unwillingness to rely on technology. Parents. And then the sheer exhilaration and sheer exhaustion of being alone, alone, alone…
…and yet, not being alone. London has been, surprisingly, accommodating. Before coming here, I was really worried about feeling alienated in a European city full of White people. One of my formative experiences of being culturally ‘othered’ happened when I travelled to Europe and the US as a child, where I became painfully aware for the first time in my life that I was different from everybody and not in a good way. And that this difference was marked upon my body and my person – the colour of my skin, the way I spoke English, the clothes I wore, made people look at me in a particular way. The worst privilege is the one that is self-deceptive, which insidiously hides itself within the ‘normal’, the ‘general’, the ‘standard’. In India, I never had to think about my identity precisely because I belonged to identity groups that were in power – ‘upper’ caste, religious majority, middle class, urban – the same groups that form the subjectivity of the normative, unmarked ‘Indian’ (perhaps also male, but gender is something I will not get into for now!). But step out of those boundaries, and suddenly the fact that I am ‘brown’ (not ‘one of us’), poor (wealth is so relative!), non-native English speaker (even though I’ve been thinking in English since I can remember) and fat (hello culture-specific beauty standards!) becomes painfully obvious.
This feeling of being marked in a particularly disempowering way was something I had dreaded about moving to the West. But amazingly, I have not felt that way in London. London prides itself on being the most international city in the world – apparently, all of the world’s nationalities are said to be living here. And that diversity – of bodies and faces, of colour, of language, of ethnicity, of religion – is very visible here in the city. There are times when on the Tube, I hardly hear any British-accented English, or even any English at all! The diversity makes it easy to feel belonged – to feel part of this amalgamation of difference. The gaze is different too – you’re not so much an outsider as you are another inhabitant going about their business in this big, big city. The very fact that I – a brown-skinned, kurta-and-bindi-wearing (on that particular day), very-un-English-looking person – was asked by a White European family if I knew the way to Piccadilly Circus as if I was a born and bred Londoner itself indicates how easily diversity is understood and accepted around here.
Of course, this diversity is not free of hierarchy. Which bodies occupy which spaces, which bodies do what kinds of work, is quite clearly visible. For example, most behind-the-counter and cleaning staff in LSE as well as at Goodenough College (my residence hall), are (like me) non-White and immigrant. As most of my interactions, especially at Goodenough, are with them, this ‘outsider’ likeness gives me a sense of connection to them, which is nice, but also leaves behind a disconcerting subsidiary of the Imposter Syndrome (…what am I even doing here? …do I have the right to be here?), which I am trying to make sense of and explore further.
But largely, the feeling has been of accommodation. Of falling in step with the crowd. Which brings me to a side note I must say about the crowd. People had warned me that London is crowded (ha!) and the tube sometimes resembles the Mumbai locals (haha!), but that is just a gross overstatement. Yes, London is peopled, and there are crowds on the Underground at times, but even the crowds are accommodating. People wait to see if anyone else would like to claim an empty seat before sitting. People make way for you and try not to get in your way. There is a sense of detached politeness that’s really rare in India. Or, as a friend remarked, back home we are taught (conditioned) to fight for space, to fight for everything, basically. Here, that frenzied win-or-die attitude isn’t on display, at least not in public spaces. Perhaps, same friend remarks further, a couple of beers later the politeness will recede, and the inner xenophobia will be revealed. Perhaps. But for now, I’m happy with the stiff upper lip. It makes me look at my own learnt behaviours (I need to grab that seat before someone else takes it!) with a more critical eye, and pushes me to be more considerate, more polite. Maybe it’s a dikhawa, but even that’s a good thing when we’re navigating the public space together, I suppose.
More than the public space, navigating the private space has been interesting. As this is the first time I’m living literally on my own, without the support systems of family or close friends or boyfriend, it is a learning curve. It also makes me aware of how much time and energy is consumed for routine tasks that were either taken for granted (read: not recognised as the domestic, reproductive, and emotional labour done mostly by women) or shared at home. Even decision-making takes such a long time – like whether to do laundry today. Or planning to cook. And what to wear – London weather is so famously unpredictable that I feel I am dressing for different seasons in the same week! The hardest is to do the emotional labour for and by yourself – to comfort, to cajole, or even to convince your own self is un-easy. There is nobody I can be grumpy, crabby, and whiny around! Sulking or crying on the phone isn’t the same as sulking and crying to people in front of you. I really miss the physical presence of loved ones who know me and love me as I am.
Another painful realisation is the lack of touch, and how much we take touch for granted. What really hits me sometimes, especially when I come back to a cold, dark, empty room after an exhausting day, is the realisation that I have not felt human touch at all during the day. Maybe because it’s just the first month – friendships are still being forged, personal space is still being negotiated, and while there are people I’ve become great friends with here, and those who are available to (occasionally) get some nice hugs from, it’s still not the same as a parent’s touch, or a lover’s touch.
I’ve been repeating to myself what a friend described as the ‘Chosen One’ hypothesis, which consists of the following premises: 1. I only have a year here. 2. There’s so much to do in London! 3. I should consider myself lucky to be here, and hence 4. I cannot waste any time moping. Thus, I convince myself – and everyone else – that I’m doing great, that amazing things have been happening to me. Which they have. And I am really doing great (ha!). London has been generous in its offerings (even weather-wise), and apart from certain days from hell (if hell were a rain-sodden desert of gloom) which I can count on the fingers of one hand, I’ve been having a fantastic time.
But coming back to an empty room, with no one to cry to but your pillows, kind of majorly sucks.
Alright, enough moping. Let’s move on to the more than good enough time I’m having at Goodenough College. Goodenough College is a quintessentially British establishment (the Queen is their patron!) which houses international postgraduate students in London. It’s a lovely place – Georgian style buildings, manicured lawns, quaint furniture, and a Great Hall straight out of Hogwarts. They really emphasise on community living, which is great because it means you’re constantly around people. And yet, you have your own space to retreat to, if so desired. The community also becomes a resource pool – there’s always someone to ask for help, or anything else. After spending a month living here, it has already started to feel like home. It’s also just nice to meet so many people from different parts of the world and hear their stories. Made me realise how little I know about the rest of the world, and how what we hear or know about other cultures is so different from the lived experiences of someone who is actually from that culture or location. And how, because of the sharing, it makes it easier to build a more nuanced understanding of the lives and realities of those who are not like us, and hence also of our own lives.
It has been interesting, in this background, to talk about India. A random man I played table tennis with one day was very interested in knowing about ‘Indian culture’ and its various trappings, including the notion of ‘arranged marriages’. He asked me if families in India continue to coerce their daughters into marriage with a person chosen by the family. The easy answer to that question was yes, as I was thinking about the girls and young women I was working with prior to coming here, and their struggle against early and forced marriage. However, as soon as I responded, the man asked, “So even you will have to marry the person your parents choose for you?” which made me laugh. Except, he was genuinely confused. I tried to explain that 1. India is not homogenous and 2. Not all families think this way, and 3. Fortunately I belong to one that is very liberal, but the exchange left me feeling uneasy. Full of questions such as how to represent one’s culture responsibly, while being mindful of the relations of power that exist between as well as within cultures, which not only create partial understandings about certain (especially non-Western) cultures, but also accord different positions of privilege within them. Could I, as a person with considerable privilege in my culture, accurately and authentically describe it to someone completely unfamiliar to it? Could I be informative and yet acknowledge the confusion, the bias, the partiality, the contestations within my narrative?
A few weeks ago, I visited the Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace, a free tour organised by (who other than) Goodenough for its new members. As someone with a major postcolonial hangover, it was dreamy to see the House of Commons and House of Lords and the opulence and splendour of it all – the tradition, the ceremonial frills, the rules of etiquette. But I had very mixed feelings on the tour. At one level, it was thrilling to be in the birthplace of the parliamentary system, and to historicise it – to see it as a site of contestations and struggle which made it possible to refine and further strengthen its conceptualisations of democracy and representation. Despite that, it was also unsettling to think that this was the very space, these were the very seats of power, that produced and legitimised so much violence and destruction in so many parts of the world, including the part I call home. But do I then blame the current British government or people for it? Do I hate them? No! Thinking of ways to engage more critically with these feelings, and to take the dialogue forward with people from both sides of the ‘Commonwealth’.
Speaking of dialogue, something I really like about my course at LSE is the emphasis given to dialogue as a pedagogical tool – as a way to make better sense of this world. I am really inspired by the way in which my professors and classmates at the School respond to and are responsible to diversity. In the beginning, having only heard of LSE at this academy of global renown, I was (more than) a little worried that the teaching here would be pedantic and impersonal, and how it would juxtapose with the teaching of gender studies as itself a subject of radical study. However, I have been (more than) pleasantly surprised at how participatory and inclusive (and warm!) the classroom space is, particularly in my (Gender Studies) department but in the School overall. And how there is a strong emphasis on diversity, not just of access (almost 70% students here are international) but also in terms of classroom engagement. Among my classmates too, instead of competition, there is a shared commitment to learning together. As we come from very different backgrounds (academically, culturally, socio-politically, geographically) it is much more fun to attempt to make collective (but perhaps not always coherent) sense of it all than to determine who knows best. (Also because as gender studies students we challenge the very idea of knowing something ‘objectively’ and in its entirety – how can an individual claim to know anything when what they know and can know is so rooted in their subjective locations and located subjectivities? But more about that some other time!)
Of course, the niceties are also within an academic structure that is not unlike academia elsewhere (and in India). Teaching is still informed by power – in my first gender studies class, I found out that out of nearly twenty thousand professor-level positions in the UK academia, only nineteen (19!) are held by women of colour and ethnic minorities. And that the professors in my department continue to struggle against pay gaps as well as increased marginalisation of and attacks on gender studies as an academic discipline. So, same storms brewing in different teacups.
That brings me (thankfully) to the end of some very rambling reflections of this first month in London. As I’ve already spent a day and a half of my precious weekend time on this (with still-unread readings for next week’s classes haunting me) and as you also must have spent enough time reading this (good enough? Not good enough? Also this phrase has forever lost its semantic purpose for me), I shall take pause.
Just want to end with a small riff: the leaves have already started turning yellow/brown and falling; soon all the trees will be bare-boned and sad-looking. While autumn continues its ‘mellow fruitfulness’, we are reminded constantly that Winter is Coming. And that this is going to be the worst winter London has witnessed in a hundred years. So, as I enjoy the last bits of sunshine on this sunny Sunday and try not to worry about falling leaves and the (sheer amount of) homework left to do, here’s a verse by Frost (the name, too!) that says it ever so much better:
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?