Monday, August 13, 2012

Some early thoughts

London is enormous. It is a living and evolving city, which makes it very different from the city of my romantic imagination. I think I exoticized London in a way many Westerners are accused of exoticizing the East. I expected it to be a quaintly preserved slice of ancient history, but it turned out to be a complex and sprawling modern mass that is impossible to make sense of if time is scarce. Probably the reason why it took me nearly a month to warm up to it.

It may also have been because my first month was spent going up and down the Strand, mainly in constantly rainy weather that didn't let up for a minute. I didn't even know that The Thames and the Southbank were right behind me every single day that I got off at Holborn station and walked to the King's College Campus. So a small section of Holborn and the Strand became my London. The times I did venture out, I took the tube, which blinded me to any sense of real direction. Then one day a couple of course mates suggested a sojourn to that haven for the broke--Primark. They simply came out of King's, kept walking down the road, and much to my surprise hit Oxford Circus in no time. I had no clue Oxford Circus was that near. I would always dutifully walk back to Holborn and get on the Central Line to reach what I considered 'the real Central London'. Turns out I was in it to begin with.

These trips to Oxford Circus, Piccadilly and thereabouts shaped my first impressions of the city, and their massive celebration of Capitalism left me mostly alienated and bemused. Street upon street of all the big brands that you find in Dubai Malls, with not a local boutique or business in sight. It made me marvel at the glib hypocrisy with which Western media outlets condescend to Dubai's commercialism. The shopping districts of London are no less crass or frenzied. But of course there is a London beyond the quadrangle of Bond, Regent, Oxford and Piccadilly, and thank Heavens for that.

My sister-in-law, who is a Londoner, took me to King's a couple of days before classes were to start so I could get a hang of the London underground. Once there she took my little niece for a nappy change to a loo within the campus building. We went up and down the whole place without anyone bothering about who we were and what we were doing. This liberty to so freely wander an educational institution triggered a mixture of bitterness and nostalgia. Having seen LUMS become an impregnable fortress right before my eyes I marvelled at the unchanged way of life for people in the West compared to the manner in which Lahore has been totally crippled post 9/11. Hanging there all easy-like at the Strand Campus, the irony of the twin towers' ghosts coming to haunt Lahore more long-term than NY or London seemed inescapable. Despite the recession they continue unabated as the great cities of the world, while crippled Lahore has just gone from bad to worse.


  1. Reminds me of the first time I landed in London. It wasn't tough to get around but also took me time to get accustomed to it. I miss how easy it was to travel everywhere and the freedom I had over there.