The year 2006 saw me leave Pakistan for the cooler climes of London. It had been a long-cherished desire to revisit academia. Bound for the University of Warwick, I landed in London in the third week of September. The British experience began right away as I boarded the British Airways flight. Airlines are airborne extensions of the national culture, ethos and cuisine, not to mention the quenchers. The flight itself was inconsequential except that it left me with a sore back.
My younger brother received me at Heathrow and we left for Sudbury Hill, a leafy, middle class neighbourhood with mostly Eastern Europeans, 45 minutes from Central London. I had left Pakistan brimming with desires, fantasies, expectations and apprehensions, but most importantly, optimism. There is something about leaving your home when you are not sure if you’d ever come back. Taking off becomes an emotional experience as you feel the intense tug of gravity, no different from what a spaceship experiences when it finally crosses into the nothingness of space. Drained but lighter, uncertain but liberated, it floats unencumbered.
A light drizzle greeted me as I stepped out of the car. The air was nippy and had an unmistakable aura of purity about it. This was the beginning of my love affair with the English rain. Neither a cloudburst nor a dribble, it is mostly a perfect union of the two and can be unrelenting. Engelbert Humperdinck, the famous English singer, echoed my sentiments far better in that velvety voice of his when he sang, “Raindrops keep falling on my head”. And as Engelbert knew, I also knew, that the blues heavens send to meet me would not defeat me. People find the London rain, the darkened, misty mornings and evenings gloomy. I found them refreshing.
To be fair, my first tryst with London was arranged by the inimitable Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s priceless gift to Londoners and the rest of the world — 221 Baker Street, fog rolling in from Thames, the clop-clop of the carriages, men in bowler hats, the cobbled streets and how different parts of London had distinct coloured earth, the Napoleon of crime, the diabolical Professor Moriarty and of course, the beautiful Irene Adler from A Scandal in Bohemia. Holmes demanded a picture of Irene from the King of Bohemia as his fee, kept it in his drawer, always referring to her as The Woman.
I fell in love with the small houses right out of the story books, the old pubs with their dark interiors in wood, the rush of the Underground, Scotch Eggs, the blob of Tuna in jacket potato, the ravishingly green countryside, the lovingly warm sun, fish and chips and that crisp, indifferent air in which you seemed to disappear. English girls seem to hit pubescent age quicker than women in our part of the world. And it is pleasingly easy to spot nymphs painted alabaster with a generous tint of rose. The sun flirts with their cheeks and it is definitely not without consequence. Of the female form, nothing is prettier than the smoky, doe-eyed, emerald gaze. A distant second is the wicked ankle curve tinged pink. Hazel eyes, green eyes, blue eyes, all staring right back at you. Of the drugs, I find people to be most addictive. Not all of course. I generally believe in people without the customary pinch of salt. In any case, salt is not healthy. Trusting is easier and natural. And English came across as straight, honest, willing to trust and devastatingly charming conversationalists after a pint or two.
My classes at Warwick were scheduled to start in the first week of October. I had two weeks to myself and London. Lodged in a large bungalow with a scruffy garden, I felt at peace. My brother would come late in the evening and we would set about making dinner. Being a cook at heart, I took charge of the kitchen immediately. Cooking dinner and breakfast on weekends were almost rituals that we went about with great love and affection.
Summer was beckoning winters and the nip had already descended. I did not want to leave London and London also seemed to want to hold on to me. Those were days of absolute abandon, of wanton, deliciously ambiguous conversations, of looking forward to a future unshackled by the mundane worries, or as John Keats put it, “I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” I arrived at University of Warwick on October 2, 2006. But then that’s another story. Some other time.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2016.