Behold the fat, glistening tear-drop of Peter Hitchens’ that spells the demise of male privilege. The fall of Harvey Weinsten and now the Westminster sexual harassment scandal has prompted a deluge of tears from men mourning the loss of their power. “With great power comes great responsibility”, said Uncle Ben from Spider-man. That poignant chunk of wisdom appears to have sailed straight over the heads of some men in power, who instead have abused that responsibility as a vehicle to grope women.
Pre- Harvey Weinstein, it probably never occurred to these men in power sat on their thrones built on the cloudy plumes of their egos, that they would have to think twice about staying their wandering hands. But now the question rattling the minds of every Harvey Weinstein, seedy politician and average misogynistic Joe of the world is: “To grope, or not to grope?” That is indeed the question. It’s this thought that is eating away at the minds of the likes of Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens, whose article published yesterday is the perfect example in which to see the unfurling of male egos at the mere thought of emboldened women owning the narrative and speaking out against their abusers. As the Arabic adage goes, ‘A woman’s voice is a revolution’, and it’s this voice, bold and resolute, that is right now the mother of all male crocodile tears and crumbling male egos.
The unfathomable leap Hitchens makes in his article from the Westinster sexual harassment scandal to the Niqab is almost as absurd as Daily Mail readers going red-faced over Nadiya Hussain celebrating Christmas: It’s just downright bonkers. Apparently, if you’re a modern liberal calling out sexual harassment, you have something in common with a ‘militant Islamist’ who wants to gender segregate and cover the entire planet with a Niqab (face veil). On the one hand Hitchens’ ‘old fashioned’ and ‘prudish Victorian’ sensibilities are incensed by the seediness that has gripped gender relations in our country, a direct result of the big bogey-woman that is equality and the F-word that is feminism. On the other, he lambasts the ‘Islamic world’ (as if Islam functioned on an entirely different planet), a world where the merry mixing of the sexes without black shrouds, physical contact and (God forbid) handshakes, is not permitted. He laments the demise of the ‘old code’ of the Victorian world where women were made to wear excruciating corsets, every Mrs Bennet was eagerly seeking a suitable arranged marriage for her daughters, and romantic sophistry in public went as far as talking about the weather as a kind of sexual innuendo or exchanging longing, smouldering glances with your intended in-between synchronised dances. That society was sexual repression incarnate. Brits weren’t exactly blasting the Victorian equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ on the streets. If you’re struggling to visualise all this, you need only watch a Jane Austen period drama to get a sense of what I’m saying.
The sheer irony is that it’s inflammatory views like Hitchens’ that are on par with that of this phantom ‘militant Islamist’ (a multi-syllabic word which sounds more like it is supposed to confuse and stoke fear than it sheds light on the situation). Like many, Hitchens has jumped onto the very modish bandwagon of misogyny combined with big, bad Islamophobia. There’s nothing quite like killing two squawking birds with one stone now, is there? His joking suggestion that the Niqab is a panacea to the plague of sexual assaults that have been a reality of women’s lives since time immemorial, sounds like the plot-line to a far-right dystopian novel which involves a Muslim Freddie Kruger as the anti-protagonist and terrified men fleeing into the night. Why throw women under the bus when you can throw visibly Muslim women who wear the Niqab under the victim-blaming bus as well? Hitchens need only speak to an actual rape victim or a visibly Muslim woman who has also been subject to sexual assault to know it’s not clothing that draws in a perpetrator, it’s the perpetrator. Period. Of course this will be a shock to his prudish Victorian ways, but there’s no time like the present to break that Islamophobia fortified, misogynistic echo-chamber. As for the image, how Orientalist – I mean original. Never mind it’s a stock-image that looks more like a screenshot from a makeup tutorial promoting a cosmetic brand to get the smoky, kohl-lined eyes of Angelina Jolie. It’s the same tiresome conveyor belt of click-bait stereotypes and images used to feed the hungry masses who internalise these narrow conceptions of Muslim women and project them onto living, breathing human beings.
With so much mansplaining from men advising how and if women should speak out about sexual assault, to quote Nigel Farage’s favourite adjective, what exactly is the ‘proper’ way for women to make it obvious that we don’t give consent to a man’s roving hands drawn into the sanctuary of our bodies? If we were to shout “YOUR GROPING HAND SHALL NOT PASS!” with the baritone gusto of Gandalf the Grey, or better yet clobber the fool square in the face, (the mantra ‘fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ comes to mind), I’ll wager we would get accused of being bullish and manly faster than you can say ‘Margaret Thatcher’. In short, there is no easy way to avoid treading on frail male egos erected on a foundation of making women feel inferior. So stampede we must.
Hitchens is not alone in his diatribe against the growing number of women who are becoming emboldened to speak out. Telegraph columnist Charles Moore, who by-and-by is “praying women share power with men, not crush us”, is male privilege incarnate. I can imagine his hands clasped tightly, a glistening halo circling above his head as he fervently prays an army of Boudicca’s and Amazonian warriors don’t crush the patriarchy with their iron fist of egalitarian justice. I hope he never comes across Beyoncé’s ‘Who Run The World Girls’. He might just have a cardiac arrest envisaging the matriarchal world she created in that music video.
Now a revolution is afoot, led by the women who bravely came forward, the Tamara Burkes and the Rose McGowans of the world, not forgetting the many, many women who haven’t come forward. In the title of his article, Hitchens asks ‘What will women gain from all this ‘squawking’ about sex pests?’ Well Peter, for one thing, accountability. For too long men have lived with impunity, assaulting women as they see fit for little than a fleeting gain of sadistic pleasure on their part, and a life-time of trauma inflicted on their victims. Speaking out won’t stop sex assaults to be sure, but if the shocking number of women coming forward signals the death-rattle of the toxic culture of victim-blaming that has silenced women for so long, I for one will happily lend myself to the cause. You say the future generations will laugh at us as we lose ourselves in the kerfuffle. I say they will glower with pride as they look back at how hard we fought to create a world where no means no, and your actions have consequences, no matter your status in the world.
The entrance to the old people’s residential home on Goldhawk Road in west London is like a fish-tank. Large glass panes separated by plastic rims painted a duck-egg blue like those graph lines in school maths books, face visitors waiting to be buzzed into the human aquarium. The soft blue is a soothing colour, the colour of retirement. There’s a poster of Sadiq Khan and Andy Slaughter firmly clasping hands, grinning that promising politicians smile from on top of the notice board next to the elevator. They peer out at visitors, the goldfish, the small fish, waiting to be let in. A smell hangs in the corridor, neither foul nor pleasant. It’s the smell of old age and cooking, a hint of fried onions, that sits on the threadbare carpet like a layer of dust. This olfactory memory of the place has been there from when I used to visit as a child over twenty years ago.
A residential home sounds like an odd place for a young woman of twenty-something to visit. But it had become tradition for my entire family and I to make a mini-pilgrimage there to pay our respects to one of its oldest residents, Muhammad Zarin, or Babajee (Grandfather) as he was affectionately known by all.
At a grand ninety-four years old, Babajee was a formidable man over six foot tall, with a booming voice and a well-groomed white philosopher’s beard. With his traditional Pakol hat encircling his shaven head, and a crisp, magnolia coloured shalwar kameez, he had the air of a proud Pashtun King who commanded authority, the gentle kind, from on top of the cream leather sofa he sat on in his living room. He would sit with his hands crossed over his walking stick in the manner of a man who knew his place in the world, his swollen feet laid out in front of him as part of his daily ritual since he stopped walking. It was his luminous faith in Allah and his Yoda-like wisdom that were one of the many reasons why young people like me gravitated towards his stationary orbit.
Like many elders, Babajee had a gift for telling stories forever imbibed with a moral lesson for the wayward young ones to learn from. He was a tall man who told tall tales, all of them true. When he was twenty-four years old, India was torn in two like a child’s play-thing in 1947. Back then he worked as a train conductor for the Pakistan Railway which to this day, is used by tens of millions of passengers who pass through it’s tin-can interiors, human cargo crammed inside rusty carriages packed like sardines. This particular story stuck in my mind not just because he had vivid recollections of travelling through Burma without travel documents, through pre-partition India where Hindu, Sikh and Muslim lived side by side; it was the way he laughed at how the English often mistook him for a white man.
His granddaughter, Sabah, told me once how ‘gassed’ he got when you asked him how good looking he was back in the day. To prove her point, she bellowed into his ear in Pashto one day, “BABAJEE, WERE’NT YOU REALLY GOOD LOOKING WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG?”
With a small twinkle in his eye, he replied very matter-of-factly, “Bacchae, zu DEERA khkolle wam!”
“Child, I was REALLY beautiful!”
You could still hear the remnants of his youth in the raspy boom of his voice and in the way his eyes lit up when he spoke with conviction, which was almost all the time. It was easy to see the young Muhammad Zarin in the green and blue hues of his pupils who emerged out of hiding every-time he spoke of the past until the pearly white of his cataracts, brought with it a vast cloud of old age over the surface of his small eyes, and with it the realisation that here was indeed an old man.
Babajee lived to see many things. He saw six of his newborn children die, his wife and his closest friends pass away. He raised one daughter, sending her to university in 1960s Pakistan at a time when this was completely unheard of. A man in his twilight years, he spent his days surrounded by shoals of young people. Sometimes I wonder if those years were ones of solitude since he was the last of his generation, a generation at dusk.
Education to Babajee was absolutely zurree, important, and he never let us forget it. After dropping out of school in Pakistan at the age of thirteen, his father brought him two cows to keep as a punishment. Curfew wasn’t an adequate disciplining technique.
“If you’re not going to school, then you can keep these cows for the rest of your life”, he said to his son. But the life of a cattle-herder wasn’t for Babajee. He ended up joining the Pakistani army, conning them into enlisting him despite the fact he was partially blind in his left eye after he accidentally stabbed himself when he was playing with knives as a child. He ended up operating canons, with the hands I often noticed were dotted with age spots, markers of a life lived under the sun of the motherland. In the end he almost got crushed by a tank he was operating after his foot got trapped until his chappal, the very same weapon that has been used to beat generations of south Asian children, miraculously tore, sending him sprawling onto the ground, saving his life.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in Babajee’s flat wringing my hands, hunched over with bad posture, the result of years of rocking back and forth on chairs at school despite exasperated sighs from teachers warning me I’d turn into a hunch-back. In those moments life weighed heavy on my mind, but Babajee had a way only elders know how, of driving away the darkness. He didn’t have a Freudian chair or a psychology degree to dissect my problems. Just that hoarse, booming voice, which chased away hardships in a dialect of Pashto I often struggled to understand. One piece of advice he gave me always comes to my mind whenever I think of him:
“Bacchae! Chi spee ghaapi, tu walle ghappe?”
“Child! If a dog barks, why bark back?”
He would screw his eyes shut with emphasis as he talked, as if it would drill the message in deeper, the way my mother kneads dough with her knuckles for chappattis. It always makes me smile, when elders speak in riddles, verbally dancing between what’s obviously being said, and what they really mean. What Babajee was saying to me that day was to pick my battles. As the recklessness of my young adult years slowly begin to subside, it’s only now I’m beginning to see the wisdom in his words, but then Babajee always knew that it would take time.
My earliest memory of Babajee was from when I was six years old. I was on my way out from Shepherd’s Bush mosque clutching at my grandmother’s hand as the green man on the traffic light beckoned us to cross towards Damas Gate, the most famous Arab super-market in west London. And there he was, Babajee, this giant of a man. It always surprised me how young my grandmother was compared to Babajee; she looked like a child next to him. I thought my grandmother was old, but Babajee, he was like the mountain, always there, looking very much the same with each passing year.
He turned to me eventually, asked after my mum and how I was doing at school. Then he reached into a pocket inside his gilet, and handed me a small paper bag which to my delight, contained a few glistening sugar-coated boiled sweets inside. You’d think Babajee had a corner-shop hidden in his jacket, a Marry Poppins invention of endless pockets with bags of sweets at the ready for dewey-eyed six-year-olds. There was a certain level of fear I used to feel in the presence of elders. But Babajee only ever emanated a gentleness like the soft flicker of a flame. Whenever I think back to my childhood, that small, seemingly inconsequential memory always comes in front of me. Babajee became the lighthouse of my childhood, all because of a few penny sweets.
The elders in my community say that when a good person dies, the world grieves for that person. Even the skies weep. ‘Pathetic fallacy’ we used to call it in English lessons, when the weather mirrors the mood of a character. It was one of those pompous words I used with relish, thinking it would rake in extra marks during exams. It’s easy to dismiss some of these sayings as old maid’s tales. But on the day of Babajee’s funeral, the rain fell as if a monsoon had swept into the island. There was a perpetual gloom clouding the skies and the faces of all those who were there to say goodbye, the kind that comes suddenly and goes just as quick when death comes knocking. The rain had metastasised with our grief.
The emerald green cloth embroidered with the shahada, the declaration of faith, was draped over Babajee’s coffin, a custom of some Muslim funerals. “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger” it declared sombrely. Many found themselves praying the funeral prayer at Shepherds Bush mosque for another departed soul they didn’t know, just another old man whose time had come. But to the young men and women like me who were utterly privileged to have known him, Babajee was a grandfather to the grandfatherless, a father to the fatherless, a voice of reason steadying the masts of our adolescent ships. He was the wise elder we were starving for. There was no one more true, more just. If Babajee said you messed up, then boy you had messed up. His steady moral compass guided those of us caught in the storms of our young, reckless lives.
A century is a long time to be on this earth. But it always felt as though Babajee had lived many lives. He had lived through the good times, the bad, through war, through elation, and through sorrow. All of this was marked on the age spots, the wrinkles, and the scars that sat on his skin and on his face.
There are two kinds of ‘coming of age’. The first, when you go from adolescence into adulthood. The second, when young adults step into the footprints left behind by their elders. It’s a terrifying thing, to ascend into this real adulthood. Not the kind defined by the number of years or the silvery hairs that spring out with each passing year on our scalps, or the kind sat in the fault-lines of age and experience that have now started to erupt on my forehead, but the kind where you now have to navigate through life alone, a rootless tree without the gentle guidance of elders who have passed on. In life, Babajee taught us many lessons. But with his passing, he perhaps taught us the hardest lesson of all: That he couldn’t protect us under his shade forever.
In the ninety-four years that he walked this earth, Muhammad Zarin, was a post-man, a soldier, a shop owner, a restaurant owner, a railway conductor, a radio telegrapher, a familiar face at the local mosque. But to the legions of young and old who loved him deeply, even after spending only an hour in conversation with him, he was simply Babajee. He was the grandfather of us all who sheltered us under his vast canopy. In Persian, ‘Zarin’ means gold. We knew it then when he was alive and we know it now in the wake of his death, that Babajee was our mountain of gold, if only for a short while.
There’s a beautiful saying in my mother tongue I learned from Babajee, which he used whenever we said goodbye:
“Pa makha di ranaa!” which roughly translates as, “May you have light on your face.”
In death, he has gone where none can follow. But in life, he cast a light so bright on the lives of all who met him, we can only hope and pray that someday, we will meet again.
May you forever have light on your face, Babajee.
I’ve had enough of bland Weetabix breakfasts laced with honey drizzled from a plastic bottle that looks more appetising than the Weetabix itself. I want some real food, some greasy Desi kaana to oil up my throbbing joints aching from vitamin d deficiency. So I’ve decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, abide by the hedonistic mantra of YOLO (you only live once), and give a calorific, flavoursome Desi breakfast a go.
The Sweet Centre is located in the infamous Lumb Lane. By day, the road is an artery for cars and buses driving into the city centre. The ghost of Drummond Mills which used to stand across the road behind metal gates guarded by a security guard with a moustache that bristled like a toothbrush, hovers like dust from the debris. The faintest smell of charred concrete and paint still lingers after the raging fire that brought it down. The only shadow the mills casts now is from the chimney which escaped unscathed, a giant overturned cigar standing alone on a flat desert expanse of brown coloured soil speckled with neat mountains of rubble. By night, the red light district kicks its nocturnal sleeping habits and readies itself for the men who come scavenging with an appetite for more than just food.
The astronomical choices available on the menu, typical of any south Asian restaurant, splurge out infinitely like a never-ending Bollywood script. Thankfully, there are only a handful of things to choose from for breakfast:
Seekh kebabs. Samosas. Channa. Pakoras.
But what Sweet Centre serves up best for breakfast is halwa-puri. Halwa is a sweet dish made from carrots or semolina cooked with a copious amount of butter and sugar. The puri served with it is basically a deep fried roti. If you want to be really unorthodox, you can order a side dish of channa, a chickpea curry, to give it that savoury kick (and some protein) to balance out the grease and sugar.
There’s more than just the smell of fried samosas wafting through the air right now. The taste of cardamom and pistachio swirling in large hundis, steel drums filled with pink Kashmiri chai, is almost palpable on my tongue, taking me back to summer holidays in my grandparent’s home in Girlington where my grandmother used to boil milk in the mornings for breakfast.
On visits to Bradford from London as a child, I always heard about Sweet Centre’s halwa-puri from the elders in my family, only ever managing to gobble a few precious bites on special occasions like Eid. For me, halwa-puri has almost a mythological status as the Kohi-noor of south Asian breakfasts. But considering how legendary the halwa-puri is here, the small font on the menu is a modest tribute to its popularity. There are no huge shiny pictures manspreading themselves over the menu, declaring the superiority of halwa-puri over the samosas photoshopped to look like magnificent fried pyramids. The modesty of the halwa-puri is endearing.
It doesn’t take long before the heavy odour of fried food simmering away in steel pans filled with oil starts to sit on my shalwar kameez. My choice of traditional clothing was intentional. Instead of pre-emptively unbuttoning my jeans, the rubber in my shalwar allows room for my stomach to expand three times over. My mouth involuntarily opens like a goldfish to take in the taste of familiarity, the taste of nostalgia. Everything is sparkling with the glossy veneer of a Coca Cola advertisement.
There are two queues: One for takeaways, one for customers eating in. Luckily for me, I’m standing in the eat-in queue with only one person ahead of me. The takeaway cue trails all the way to the back of the restaurant. Regulars nod their heads at each other in acknowledgement, muttering “Theek hai?” Everyone appears to be half asleep, but there is a discernible gleam in their eyes as they, like me, wait expectantly to order their food. You see, the halwa-puri is served in a frighteningly short time window between 8am-12pm. I say frighteningly short because, well, Asian Standard Timing (AST.) We couldn’t make it on time anywhere if our lives depended on it, that is, unless we’re talking about halwa-puri.
I’m up. I suddenly feel like Charlie when he discovers the golden ticket wrapped around a bar of Wonka’s chocolate, except my Willy Wonka is an Asian man with a six-inch beard, a bogey-green polo top, and small square glasses which give him the air of a businessman. I order one portion of halwa-puri and channa, enough to feed two. All for a bargain buy of £5.00.
A young guy working in the back wraps seekh kebabs, samosas and pakoras in grease-proof paper with lightning speed. His hands move fluidly, wrap on, wrap off, Miyagi-style. He hands me my breakfast in plastic bowls placed on a matching plastic tray printed with those common floral designs you see on china, the kind of fancy cutlery my grandmother stores away for guests. I order a cup of Kashmiri chai, “without sugar!” I tell him emphatically. “How can you have Kashmiri chai without sugar?” he says in awe. It’s penance for eating breakfast loaded with butter, oil, and sugar. Every little less sugar helps, I think…
Here, there’s no Michelin star presentation, no pretense in the food. The devil is not in the detail, it’s in the time taken to knead and set the dough for the puri, the time taken to boil and drain fresh chickpeas for the channa curry and for the semolina of the halwa to soak in the yellow of melting butter, all prepared from 5am in the morning.
The puri, a vehicle for the channa and halwa, is round but not flat unlike normal roti. It starts off thin in the centre, thickening slightly on the edges in slight bulges because it has been hand stretched. I eagerly tear a piece off. It doesn’t look like it’s dripping with oil, but just the slightest touch of the puri, and my hands are shimmering like a belly-dancer.
An elderly Bengali man sat in front of me, channeling his inner Jinnah-Nehru with the karakul hat on his head embroidered with magnolia coloured vines and flowers, expertly rips a piece of puri, spoons channa on top of it, and pops it into his mouth with the concise movements of a conductor. Unlike this seasoned old-timer, I have the manual dexterity of a four-year old. I’m momentarily tempted to surrender using my fingers and use a knife and fork instead. But no. “They’re colonial instruments seeking to civilise your fingers” my naani-jee once scolded me about using knives and forks. Eating with my fingers is the proper way to do it, so I toss my spoon aside. There’s a decolonial culinary and cutlery rebellion going down today. Puri in hand, I jump straight into the channa, fingers first.
My fingers wade in the murkiness, skinny-dip in the warm ocean of brown, trying to land some of the chickpeas and cumin seeds bobbing on the surface. Captain Ahab went hunting for Moby Dick. I’m hunting me some chickpeas. I manage to catch two, and the skin off some potato. I shovel some of the halwa on top, and in it goes inside my mouth.
The subtle taste of masaala and chilli washes over my tongue. The channa is not sinfully bland, so much so it’s worthy of a Goodness Gravious Me sketch. It’s perfectly seasoned, a balance struck only by recipes that have been tried and tested for decades. Fearful for our stomach linings, my health-conscious mother brought my siblings and I up on a diet of the occasional, mildly spiced curry. So the mild spice agrees with my Pakistani stomach, diluted by the British sensibilities of my mother.
The sweet butteriness of the halwa is almost sinful. It beautifully balances the savoury flavour of the channa. I’ve never been one to have sweet and savoury at the same time. But all of a sudden my senses are tingling, my tastebuds are roaring like raucious football hooligans in approval at the soft texture of the halwa and the perfect marriage between spice and sugar. Suddenly there’s a High School Musical erupting in my tastebuds. They’re soaring, they’re flying. My fillings and cavities of course, are not.
It’s time for some chai to dislodge the grease accumulating in my throat. I take one sip and place the cup down; it needs sugar. I capitulate, stir a little in, and as my eyes follow the train of ground pistachios floating in a boat of milky froth, swirling round and round, ripples begin to erupt on the surface of my chai, a result of the Tyrannosaur footfall of customers leaving the restaurant considerably heavier than when they first arrived. I can already feel a double chin emerging under my hijab, peeping out like one half of a builder’s bum. I might have to forgo eating for an entire week.
Illuminated under the summer sunlight, I can almost imagine the flowers on the Bengali uncle’s karakul hat blooming with satisfaction as he feasts on his halwa-puri, a serene look set on his face as his taste-buds are flooded with the flavours of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The golden, messianic glow of my puri reminds me that if ever there was a culinary Jannah (heaven), this must be it, right here, right now. It’s Sunday breakfast hedonism at its very finest.
I’m on a train to London, and the train guard is making his announcements in a trusty broad Yorkshire accent.
It’s the usual rehearsed script of where the train is due to stop, the estimated time of arrival, the shameless promotion of overly priced food and beverages before informing parents, lovers and friends saying goodbye to loved ones that unless they want to be charged an arm and a leg for an unintentional trip to London, could they kindly get off the damn train before the automatic doors slide shut, thank you very much.
He pauses for what feels like a few seconds, and proceeds to advise passengers not to hesitate to report anything suspicious.
“Remember, see it, say it, sorted.”
There is a noticeable change in his diction as he emphasises the last few words, the formulaic drone in his voice giving way to a grim seriousness.
On hearing this I feel myself squirming incriminatingly in my seat like a misbehaving child sent head-hanging and red-faced to the headmistress’ office. Nobody has said a word to me, nobody has cut me with a rueful side glance to suggest they aren’t happy with my being there. But today I am overly cautious of the fact that the hijab on my head might bring unwanted attention. I should have worn a turban, but in the mad rush to the train station, an overfilled Ted Baker shopping bag weighing me down in one hand, cracked iPhone in the other, the hijab I flung over my head went from being wrapped acceptably in my trademark Iranian Elvis Presley style, to a monstrous rag with tufts of static hair pointing out front like a mohican. People might take me for an anarchic, hijabi punk-rocker or worse, a Tina Turner impersonator with a hijab. So you can imagine why I am feeling slightly paranoid.
Two hours later, the train pulls into Kings Cross. I still have a few hours before I need to head off to watch a play in the evening. I don’t want to leave without playing on one of the pianos inside St Pancras station next door, a small rite of passage whenever I pass through. My heart is set on one particular piano, a black, sleek beauty gifted by Elton John. It’s like the holy piano of all public pianos, and it’s never not being played. But for once, there’s nobody on it. With nothing between us, I rush towards it to claim my prize. Out of nowhere a woman brushes past, her arms thrust purposefully back and forth, eyes magnified like those pestilent bottle-flies by the oversized Jackie O sunglasses she wears shutting out the sun blazing outside and the world with it, a Mulberry bag looped elegantly around her arm. She wrinkles her nose at me as if she just touched a leper. She’s bad and bougie. Fortunately for her and for my bruised ego, my musical bae is waiting, and nothing can dent this sunny disposition of mine.
So there I am, poking and prodding at the keys of the piano like a fool out of a Morecombe and Wise sketch. Commuters headed from Paris to Nottingham, pull their hand luggage behind them with wheels whirring and spinning over the smooth floor, shooting past on either side of me as I play. I feel like the prophet Moses parting travellers and commuters with the celestial power of my music, but the few bum notes I hit are a humbling reminder I am no bloody Alicia Keys. The tannoid sounds again, this time in the station:
“The threat level has been raised to critical. If you see anything suspicious, please do not hesitate to inform a member of staff or contact the police. Remember, see it, say it, sorted.”
The country’s terror threat has been raised to the highest possible level, but the way the faceless man on the tannoid says it, is in such a matter-of-fact way, you’d think he were an employee at a supermarket announcing a spillage on an aisle after a screaming child smashes a jar of baby food that splatters on the floor like a Jackson Pollack painting, in protest at being refused sweets before dinner. They don’t say “Keep calm and carry on” for nothing; such is the British way. But there creeps that gnawing sense of vulnerability again. Big Brother might be watching…
At this point a woman with long, flowing braids and a green hat perched on her head stops to listen to me play. After a minute or so, she asks if she can film me.
“Feel free, but just to warn you my fingers have a habit of freezing up when the camera is on.”
“I’ll just pretend I’m not here” she says, sitting on the metal railing snaking around the glass elevator the piano is placed in front of.
I’m not being modest. My fingers freeze and the notes stop melding together as I become conscious of her watching me play. After a few minutes, I give up and insist she has a go. She sits on the stool and plays a few songs, all her own compositions which she modestly says are a combination of chords she mixed together. I’m not one who gets emotional very easily, but all of a sudden I’m having to swallow a lump in my throat. Her face is radiating so much joy, so much soul as her fingers dance gracefully over the keys. As she slides off the stool to let on two guys watching on the side, we sit down and talk for a while.
Her name is Sophia, and she is visiting from Chicago. She’s been pining to play the piano for a few weeks since coming to the UK, but couldn’t find one until today. Anyone who loves to play will know that feeling of piano withdrawal which sets in when you haven’t played for a while. We talk about her stay in London so far, about our shared love for theatre and period dramas. The subject of period dramas opens up a whole discussion about how Colin Firth made the best Darcy (apologies to anyone who is camp Macfadyen), and how period dramas are so translatable to south-Asian family politics.
We pause for a moment to glance over at the two guys who went on to play earlier; they’re now playing a duet. Observing how friendly we are with each other, all four of us exchange confused glances.
“Do you guys know each other?”
“No we just met. Do you know each other?”
“No, we just met too!”
That’s when the St Pancras piano gang of two suddenly becomes a gang of four.
Our other fellow piano lovers are Luis and Tawanda. From John Legend, Ludovico Einaudi, Adele, to Alicia Keys, they drop song after song for the next hour. Luis casually flicks his hair to the side, his skateboard tucked under the piano as he plays a song we all recognise with lightning speed. Then Tawanda gets on and blows us away with his cover of John Legend’s ‘All Of Me.’ The sun is blazing, Tawanda and Luis are jamming away, Sophia is now singing like a songbird, and I’m stood here awkwardly squawking the odd words, swaying like a palm tree. I’m not sure what the armed policemen briskly walking up and down in their high visibility jackets make of us, but we’re the most unlikely band going. Here we are, an American, a Zimbabwean, a Londoner, and a hybrid Londoner-Bradfordian, four complete strangers united by our love for music.
What happened to those legendary stone-faced London commuters who don’t stop for anything, I don’t know. All of a sudden, strangers are approaching us, thanking us for playing such beautiful music. I’ve spent a lot of time at St Pancras, but today it feels like there has been some kind of unburdening, almost a heavy sigh of relief as people stop by longer than usual to soak in the sound of the music. Even as sirens howl like wolves in this city, I’m so thankful for the small moments of beauty that float up unexpectedly out of the sand storm enveloping us right now.
Here’s to random encounters. Here’s to strangers who light up your horizon as they come streaking into your life for a moment like flaming comets. And here’s to the day when I’ll finally be able to wrap my hijab like a YouTube blogger.
My connection with Manchester happened purely by accident.
I initially started out my undergraduate degree in London. But after a family crisis sent my family and I into a domestic violence refuge, push came to shove and we were eventually forced to relocate to my mother’s home town of Bradford. My university degree, something I had spent so long planning towards, almost went down in flames because no university would take a last-minute transfer. But the University of Manchester tossed me a life-line when I needed it most.
At first, Manchester and I didn’t start out on the best of terms. I almost had a dramatic meltdown on my first day of university after I got lost and couldn’t find my way to Manchester Victoria train station. But for the following three years that I was there, it became a home away from home. It was a smaller version of London with the hustle and bustle of a concrete jungle, and Mancunians imbued with that generous northern spirit we southerners sometimes lack (and envy) at the helm of the city.
On the one hand, I’m grieving for Manchester, a city where I’ve embarrassingly danced the night away, escaped the demands of adult life for a few hours in concerts at Manchester Arena and other venues, just as the victims did last night. I’m grieving for the families who won’t hold their loved ones again, for the people being treated in hospital, and for those who will carry the memories of what happened last night for the rest of their lives. I’m grieving over the fact that as unfathomable as it might be, there are people in this world who can somehow justify detonating a bomb of shrapnel and nails in a crowd of concert-goers who never expected they wouldn’t return home.
On the other, I’m worried sick about the retaliation that some communities will face off the back of this attack. I’m worried someone will scream at visibly Muslim women as they walk down the street, that they need to go back to “f*cking ISIS” because of the cloth on their head as I’ve experienced before. I’m worried about the brown or black kids, the Muslim kids going to school who will mark this day as their premature coming of age because their classmates thought they were related to the big bad terrorist, just because of their name or the amount of melanin in their skin. I’m worried that the kind of corrosive words spouted by the likes of Katie Hopkins will become more palatable to fellow Brits, tired of the fact she hides behind the Union Jack as if she has more claim to this country than I do because whiteness is a barometer for Britishness. I’m worried that despite feeling in absolute turmoil, despite feeling an unbounded rage at what has happened, I’ll have to paint a smile on my face when I see people glance at me uncomfortably, just to show that underneath the folds of cloth on my head, I am not a threat. I feel exhausted, and I know the sickness I’ve been feeling all day today isn’t just anemia dragging me down. It’s a weight that has been dragging down everyone across the country today.
How can we possibly understand the logic of someone who justifies killing innocent people, no less children? There is no making sense of thoughts and ideologies woven out of chaos, no matter how much politicians, pundits and the like theorise and pontificate. The least we can do, whatever our faith, whatever our alliances, is to channel our grief and rage into something good, something useful. The worst thing we could do now is to turn on each other.
I hate that it takes for events like these to mobilise people into action when we’re collectively reeling from the heavy blow of what happened last night. Our country is already hurtling down a rabbit hole of political and social chaos as it is. But if we aren’t calm and measured in our responses, if we don’t show love and solidarity to those who have suffered directly or indirectly and to those who will need it in the coming weeks, then the impact of yesterday’s attacks will be generational.
On my way home from a vigil for Manchester at Bradford Cathedral earlier, I walked past a gravestone specialist shop in Manningham. “IN LOVING MEMORY”, the sign read in rusted gold capital letters. It made me wonder, when we die, what impact, what legacy will we leave? Big or small, we all have a part to play in shaping this world of ours. Whether we choose to use our hands or our words as a hammer for good or bad, is entirely up to us.
Watching the candles burn in the cathedral, and whispering hurried prayers in the darkness of my room, something Dylan Thomas wrote popped into my mind:
‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
From the doctors, the taxi drivers, the police, fire and ambulance workers, the hotel and restaurant owners, the homeless man who held a dying woman in his arms, the concerned people who opened the doors to their homes, to the Mancunians who ousted the EDL from the streets of Manchester, each and everyone of these people have shown that as hard as it is to focus on the positives tonight, there is hope. There is unity and resilience. There are forces of good at work. Don’t you dare forget that.