Sunday, July 29, 2012

London 2012

Last night was a crazy ride. Danny Boyle reinvented the game by shunning the generic, synchronized Olympic-opening-ceremony, and creating a zany combination of cinema, theatre and music in a tumultuously British extravaganza.

And I was there for it! Well, almost. 

My sister-in-law's parents had bought a flat 12 years ago in this part of East London where the Olympics are being held. At the time the place was mainly a dump. Then came the Olympics announcement and a regeneration of this area. Uncle and Aunty were hoping to rent out the flat to tourists coming in for the games but that did not materialize, and so it came to be that we ended up on the eve of the Olympics on a balcony which faced the Olympic Arena. There were several flats in the same building that had no view of the stadium, so ours was a double stroke of luck.

We set off from our house in Hainault at around 6pm and got off the tube at Stratford Station from where the walk to the flat building was about 15 minutes. My Londoner sister-in-law exclaimed at every turn over the transformation the area had undergone as we walked our way to the flat.
Strings of light balls along the way
Spanking new block of flats. Dig the black and purple design.
A view of the Olympic Park on our way to the flat

For us the games began (as we raced against time to set up the television in the empty flat) with a noisy tri-coloured jet salute right above our heads at 20:12

The television was set up a few minutes into the the show and placed out on the balcony with the Olympic stadium as backdrop. 

Taken from our balcony this picture shows a Pakistani flag on the left of the picture.
The ceremony, clunky and odd at first had me sold by the time the Industrial Revolution rolled around. A lot has been written about the ceremony, but no one's mentioned the reference that first came to my mind when I saw them erecting those giant chimneys: William Blake's bleak London of little chimney sweeping boys doomed to a future of lung diseases and death. 

Here are his 'Chimney Sweeper' poems, the first from the Songs of Innocence and the Second from Songs of Experience:
"The Chimney Sweeper," from Songs of Innocence
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!' "
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear

 "The Chimney Sweeper," from Songs of Experience
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying " 'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother? say?"—
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.
"Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
"And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."

At least for me, the haunting pain of these poems seemed to loom over the chimneys in the Olympic Stadium.  As the chimneys started morphing into furnaces powering the Industrial Revolution with an army of men pouring forth from the bleak environment, I was reminded of Dickens' Coketown from Hard Times:

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

These attributes of Coketown were in the main inseparable from the work by which it was sustained; against them were to be set off comforts of life which found their way all over the world, and elegancies of life which made, we will not ask how much of the fine lady, who could scarcely bear to hear the place mentioned. 

While we are on literature, the immense joy of seeing Rowling, and the fallout of holding an opening ceremony party, meant I really couldn't catch any of what she said. Nonetheless her placement within the NHS/bed segment seemed very smart to me, not just because that segment was intrinsically tied up with children, storytelling and the battle between good and evil but also because Rowling's own charity (now called Lumos) helps in taking institutionalized Eastern European kids who sleep on caged beds out of their miserable circumstances. 

As for the rest. There isn't much that hasn't been covered by many of the brilliant reviews that have been published since yesterday. One bit of of one of these reviews (by Chinese artist Ai-Weiwei) left me staring into space for a long while:

A nation that has no music and no fairytales is a tragedy


A lot of social media debate was generated over why the Pakistani contingent did not smile as they marched around the stadium. Having spent the past month in London and the past 33 years in Lahore, I think I can tell why. First of all, in the international arena right now Pakistan is probably one of the most reviled places in the world. Just to be a Pakistani is to be guilty of some unknown crime you haven't committed but are still accountable for. That places people who have done nothing wrong under a great deal of pressure. When the only images that are beamed out of your country are of bomb blasts, terrorists and donkey carts, then marching down that track does not remain as simple and joyous as it does for countries with lesser burdens to bear. Suddenly that 15 seconds of camera time becomes your only face to the world. In cricket we know we will do well, will have the opportunity to show our mettle on the field; there will be enough time to reveal ourselves as real people and allow crowds to be part of our narrative. In the Olympics we haven't won a medal since 1992. That means there is little chance of Pakistan managing to project its complexity by involving crowds in its narrative through noteworthy success on the playing field. That 15-second march is everything. Imagine yourself in that position and then try doing the bhangra. Also, think of the nation's general make up. Most people belonging to middle class families believe that the 'decent' way to behave when the world is watching you is to look respectful and deferential. Ours is not a country that smiles in the face of cameras, we pat down our hair and stand up straight. Relaxed smiles and knowing how to work the camera are traits that spring from lifestyles replete with opportunity and confidence. That is not the strata most of our athletes or most of our nation belongs to. 
I was proud of them, especially the flag bearer, one of the greatest hockey players Pakistan has produced in its recent history and of Anum Bandey who despite not being able to qualify for the next round broke the Pakistan record in a swimming event today. Salute to their courage and resilience. It can't be easy to do it against all odds.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


First impressions of 'London' were of a city that looked more English than Londonish. Quaint, small English houses, and kids walking back home from school. More like the suburbs of a medium sized town than a busy, bursting cosmopolitan. But I guess it is typical of big cities to have different parts form distinct towns unto themselves--the residential suburbs on the outskirts of the dense corporate centre. On the car ride from Heathrow to my brother's place I saw more desis than Caucasians, which was oddly unsettling. Always takes a while to get used to diversity when you hail from homogenous Lahore. Looking at so many women in shalwar kameezes and dupattas roaming the streets of London made me think of the opposite scenario--non-Muslim, non-Asian women walking the streets of Lahore in their local dresses. The thought made me laugh at its ludicrousness.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Getting There

I hate airplanes. The putrid smell, the cramped seats (strictly economy) and having to be stationary for hours. Yet with childlike glee (but mostly blissful ignorance of scientific mechanics) I often marvel at how an object so heavy can soar thousands of miles through the air without coming down. Although with a couple of Pakistani planes having crashed in the last few years, even that assurance has somewhat waned. Each little lurch can be an instinctive prompt for long memorized (and now long forgotten) Quranic verses.  

There is certainly a lot of truth to the reported deterioration of PIA. The whole experience seems just so much inferior to Etihad or Emirates. Decaying interiors, sour hosts (mostly) and dull in-flight entertainment (playing Bollywood songs under 'Pakistani songs', for one). I am just glad this flight isn't as excruciatingly long as the one to the US. 
Flying over Kiev and other such exotic-sounding Eastern European cities the plane finally started descending over the green English hills. From above it looked a bit like Punjab, lush green clearly marked fields, but with small cottages with sloping roofs instead of mud houses. *cue your footsteps will always fall here along England's greenest hills*. Suddenly I felt a bit queasy at the prospect of a long holiday in a country where people from mine have a special slur word reserved for them. That was the thought foremost on my mind as I stared at the immaculately clean tarmac of Heathrow Airport. 

The immigration at Heathrow, however, was nice and orderly and surprisingly pleasant to one attuned to passing through UAE immigration. The lines were long but full of smiling faces, unlike Dubai where a sense of fear pervades even the airport queues. Last time it took me 6 hours to pass through Dubai immigration with the menacing policemen and the dour immigration officials all chipping in to provide a glimpse into Arab 'hospitality'. 

One of the first things I noticed in the line was an Accenture ad featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company, underscoring the merging of the arts with profit making. A bit like Coke Studio one would think, but without the necessity of 'fusion' to sell it to contemporary audiences.

The line moved quickly and I was waved off to the other side with a cheery 'Enjoy your stay!' by the immigration official. And so there I was, in London.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The visa

Getting the visa was such a huge issue. They plaster larger than life posters of those red telephone booths and verdant green hills in your face as you go through the humiliation of applying through Gerry's. Then they refuse you the visa and laugh all the way to the bank. I had been refused two years back so I had worried myself sick over it this year. I don't know why it mattered so much that I get it. I guess it is the sense of being shut out, of not being 'allowed' to do something. To be refused was an ignominy that was hard to live down. I who teach our former masters' language every single day and have grown up on their literature. Getting that visa had become a sort of personal Holy Grail.

This time around the odds were better as I had received a British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship to study for a short course at King's College, London. The CWT doesn't normally sponsor short courses but decided to be a truly charitable charity by bestowing half a grant to the most desperate. And so three interrogatory telephonic interviews, a few faxes and a month later I had my stamped passport back in my hands. Stamped with a visa this time instead of just a rejection date.

My last trip to the English speaking world was 14 years ago, back when I was twenty--a three-week whirlwind trip to the US East Coast. That had been mostly zipping through cities and shuffling from the family circle to married desis' apartments. Not exactly my idea of a swinging time at 20, even if one of those apartments involved a breathtaking view of The Hudson. *cue New York State of Mind* There were also the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and The Niagara Falls. But the drift is that my exposure has generally been limited. So, here I am all set a decade and a half later to get 'exposure', one of the stated aims of the Charles Wallace Trust fellowship, except I hear the perpetually cold English weather makes that kind of difficult ;)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

London Calling. Alone.

The following is the first part of my England blogposts, a personal diary of sorts upon visiting England for the first time. I hope to keep updating them while I am here. They are mainly for me, but feel free to come back and read them if, for some reason, these disjointed personal thoughts interest you too.


I guess the journey begins now. Converted the rupees into pounds yesterday. Bigger than any currency notes I have ever seen. Pretty too with that airbrushed picture of a youthful Queen Elizabeth.

So, off to London in a couple of hours. Without Talha.

Hamesha dayr kar dayta hooN mayN. People i knew used to go to London on family vacations when i was in school. Now that people around me are taking their kids on these vacations, I have finally managed to scrape together my bags and baggage (and scrip and scrippage) to visit England for the first time in my ripe old middle age. Alone. I usually like alone. Alone allows space, freedom and maneuverability, but 11-year-olds can breathe new life into jaded 34 year-old spirits. A frustrated theme park dream can unleash itself safely in the guise of showing it to the kid. Accompanying nausea, dizziness and a general feeling of being let-down upon grasping at a childhood dream in middle age can be diminished by the authentic excitement of the young. But no Alton Towers for me. Not this time.

But there are fancies that have managed to retain meaning even with age. There is a curiosity about the gap between fictional and everyday reality. An imagination pieced together with Peterswood, Daffodils, Baker Street and the Tabard. I am grateful to have an opportunity to try and grasp this difference and fuse my imagination with (my version of) the real England. So, here goes.