Short Cuts

Iqbal Ahmed

It was sunny when the boat left Hamburg at four in the afternoon, but I don’t remember what the weather was like in Harwich at noon the day after. I found it difficult to pronounce the name of the port of my arrival. The immigration officer asked me about the address in London where I intended to stay. I showed him the business card of someone I had met in New Delhi a few months earlier. The officer read ‘Harley Street’ written on the card and asked me if the person I knew was a doctor. I did not know the association of Harley Street in London with doctors. The man who sold me a train ticket to Liverpool Street looked a bit eccentric, but he was kind. I headed towards the nearest Youth Hostel after arriving in Central London and phoned Jane two days later at her Harley Street address. She said that it was not a good time to call her. I felt I could never phone her again despite my languishing memory of our dinner in Hauz Khas.

I arrived in the British Isles only with a copy of A House for Mr Biswas. Yet I had all the time on my hands without work. I frequented a local library in Haringey in the mornings. It was a dismal place used by exiles like me to read newspapers in different languages. One day a Sinhalese man told me in the library that reading was the only useful thing we could undertake in this wasteland. I needed food for the body more than food for thought. I was living on one meal for two days and I roamed the streets in search of wretched work. I finally found some afternoon work in a corner shop at the south end of Hampstead Heath. I worked like a deaf mute during my first year due to my false comprehension of the insincere English language. I became aware of my circumstances in the melancholy neighbourhood of Hampstead.

As the time went by, I began to recognise the locals who came into the corner shop. Among the civilised people, there were a few odd ones who baffled me for a long time, such as a man who looked like a tramp but who would browse all the newspapers for share prices, or the man who wore a trenchcoat and always carried a copy of the Financial Times in his armpit. There was no dearth of tarot card readers and spiritual healers in the area. I found the Conservatives and Socialists of Hampstead the same – impossible to strike up an acquaintance with. In fact, the small talk one heard in a corner shop was absurd for me. When the selfsame people asked me in the evenings if I was going home, I had no reply for them: it took me years to reconcile myself to the idea of calling the attic I was living in a home. In December I was asked a bizarre question – what was I doing during Christmas. I was hoping the corner shop would remain open on Christmas Day for me to come to work. I took a long walk across North London to brave the cold on Hampstead Heath. The Heath was covered in snow like a layer of dust. I was surprised to find many people on the Heath wearing wellingtons and gloves. When I reached the Leg of Mutton pond, I came across an American whom I had seen a few times in the corner shop. He said Merry Christmas to me. It was like meeting a fellow-traveller in a far-off country.

Two years later, I moved to Hampstead in the sanguine hope of finding a milieu among the English. It occurred to me after eight years that the English have no neighbours and the English homes are those forbidden castles to which outsiders have no right of entry. I found it impossible, while working for a hotel, to enter a hotel room of the English folks when I took up the bags for them. They open the door just halfway, never let you in and say thank you in the hallway. Then these country folks switch on their kettle for an afternoon cup of tea. Sometimes, they are very generous and give the hall porter a pound coin as gratuity. I have met many Asians for whom, after living for a lifetime in London, an English home remains a curiosity. At least I succeeded in building friendships with one or two very old English people in my new neighbourhood.

I felt insulted when a long-bearded Englishman working for Her Majesty’s Government asked me three times at Becket House why I came to this country. After many years, I ask myself the same question: why did I come to this country? A country which has lost its predominance in the world and now plays a second fiddle in world affairs; whose inhabitants are very insular and uptight; an island which is so small that one can travel from one end to another in a few hours and come back to London for afternoon tea. I have chosen a Devil’s Island for myself. I am a stateless person living in a no man’s land. The benevolent British Government has refused to accept me as her subject even after spending ten years here. Sometimes, I think: why didn’t I go elsewhere?

Where I come from, people believe that every Englishman is an intellectual. I was shocked and demoralised to find the intellect of the same Englishmen feeding on tabloids. I hadn’t thought that intellectual activities meant a quiz night in the pub or a quiz show on the television. Englishness means self-centredness and unsociability. They would do a crossword rather than engage in a conversation with someone. It is not the weather which has made me feel cold in the Englishman’s country after ten years, but the indifference shown by its citizens. I am waiting for the day when I am free to leave this small island for mainland Europe. It is all right for an English person to say ‘Oh to be in England’ after travelling around the welcoming world as a guest of honour. To be in England is to be a castaway or to live a quarantined life like a pariah dog. I have seen the streets of London aflower with English beauties, but like an onlooker in an art gallery, I have resigned myself only to looking at a Burne-Jones.

It bothered me in the beginning to see the second generation of Asians living in Britain become colour-conscious, whereas I saw myself as colour-blind. But what I found disconcerting at the outset has made sense to me in the end. I sometimes feel as if I had no other wish than to see Kashmir again and to die in peace. To be an émigré is to live an abject life.