Monday, March 28, 2011

Empire of the Mind

‘Empire of the Mind’ is a book written by a Kashmiri immigrant to London named Iqbal Ahmed. I have two reason for giving you a brief review and a recommendation of this book: firstly because it is an interesting and worthwhile read for its own sake; and secondly because so far this blog has dwelt on English things like red buses, The British Museum, theatre and opera, Buckingham Palace, Victoria and Albert and so on, and I would like to redress the balance a little. London – indeed, England – is much more polyglot than those subjects would suggest.

Out on Euston Road, about a block from St Pancras, is a mighty billboard advertising the availability of advertising space. It says: “Welcome to Central London. You are one of 1,600,000 people who pass this corner every fortnight.” You don’t actually need the sign to understand that this is a BIG city. I have been rather intrigued by how London’s inhabitants cope with the thickly-peopled streets. If you are uncomfortable in crowds, don’t come here; but I must say that there is very little aggression in a London crowd, even at those times of the day when they close off the Euston Road access to the Piccadilly Line platform, and funnel us all down to the other end, so they can control the number of people pouring into the Underground. There is a general sense of stoic-ness in the face of it all; and that thing you may have heard about London commuters never catching each others’ eyes is perfectly true. It is quite an art to spend time in a thick crowd without ever looking at anyone else, except in the most superficial and I-am not-really-looking-at-you-it’s-just-that-my-eyes-have to pass-over-you-to-read-this-highly-interesting-looking-advertisement-over-here kind of way. Ever since the War Department told Londoners in 1941 to ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’, they have been.

All of which is a slightly tangential lead-in to telling you about Iqbal Ahmed’s book, by way of emphasising the very large and varied population of London. Amongst the spoils of Empire is England’s influx of immigrants from its far-flung ex-colonies: Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Caribbeans. Er, Australians. And courtesy of the UK being part of the cosy EU conglomerate an added influx of Polish, Bulgarians, Romanians, Turks, Russians. In fact, that advertisement you were just looking at on the Tube is likely showing a picture of a smiling Pakistani lady with her daughter, or a blond Polish mama and her son, advertising cheaper rates to ‘call home’.

So for me Iqbal’s book was fascinating, moving as I do each day through this melting pot but understanding much more about Victoria and Albert than about the Pakistanis who fixed my phone or the Romanian who cleans the corridors, or the Polish girl serving in the Cafe Nero. Iqbal was born in Kashmir in 1968 and has lived in London since 1994. His first book, which I have not read (yet) is about his move from Srinagar to London. It is called “Sorrows of the Moon” if you want to chase it up. It was awarded various literary prizes when it was first published. ‘Empire of the Mind’ was published in 2006, and is Iqbal’s story of his exploration further afield, to various regional cities in Britain, through trips made intermittently over a number of years. The quiet and laconic telling of his experiences is touching and eye-opening, especially the revelations about the immigrant communities finding quiet corners of the UK in which to settle. One of the reviews described the book as ‘fascinating, humorous and poignant’ and I agree.

Iqbal sets off for places like Oxford, which he knew of through the proud ownership of an Oxford English Dictionary. In Oxford he meets his friend Hashim, a scion of a wealthy Omani family. Hashim was the youngest of fourteen children and his father had always wanted one of his sons to go to Oxford. But it was beyond Hashim to gain entry to any of the Colleges of Oxford University, so he attended a private college in Oxford. His father was satisfied.

In Cambridge, Iqbal finds Auntie’s Teashop, which endeared me to him, because I found it too, last year. There he meets Tao Yang from Shanghai, who was studying English Literature at Cambridge, in between working in a bar evenings to pay for her accommodation and food. She said she would be able to get a teaching job back in Shanghai after her degree, but would never make enough money to pay back her parents for the tuition fees. “However, she enjoyed the study of Literature. It gave her consolation.”

Iqbal goes to see ‘Hamlet’ at the Barbican (“It was the location of the Barbican and not the length of the play that I found daunting.”) This inspires a visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon. The bookshops of Charing Cross Road inspire a visit to Hay-on-Wye at the tail end of the book festival. In Hay he meets a Canadian who is working in a book shop and trying to write a novel. “He said perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to work as a bookseller and aspire to be a novelist. He had found it dispiriting to sell second-hand books to people who were always price-conscious.”

To find a community of Kashmiri people, he travels to Birmingham, where there is a large community of people from Mirpur in Pakistan (who don’t actually speak the same language as people from Srinagar). But Birmingham is famous for Balti cuisine, as served in Indian restaurants in London. Iqbal also visited his friend Zaffer who had been a student at UCL in London. He was from Hyderabad in India and had fallen in love with Naseema, a Mirpuri woman. “Naseema’s mother didn’t like her son-in-law to be darker than her own people.”

In Bournemouth Iqbal finds Kumara from Colombo in Sri Lanka, who had moved to Bournemouth because he was afraid of the Sri Lankan youth gangs in London. Kumara was Singhalese whereas many other were Tamils. There was also an unfortunate incident with a girl and a forbidden marriage back in Colombo. “It was a small world when it came to Sri Lankans living in London. Most of the men worked at petrol stations and the gossip spread from one patrol station to another very quickly.”

Iqbal Ahmed
And in Sheffield – which immigrant community did he find there? Yemeni. Zeinab was born in Aden in the mid 1960s and moved to Sheffield with her parent in the 1970s. She said there were about 5,000 Yemenis living there, many of whom had moved there when Aden was a British colony, to work in the Sheffield steel industry. Zeinab “said it was her responsibility as a voluntary worker to give advice to Yemeni men living in Sheffield, but whenever she went to Yemen she was not expected to express her opinion in front of men. Her years at the School of Oriental and African Studies had given her a deeper understanding of her own culture, she felt.”

I hope I am giving you a feeling for the understated, dry tone of Iqbal’s writing. On the subject of Glasgow, he tells us that “It is certainly a mistake to ask a newspaper vendor for directions when one is not familiar with the Glaswegian tongue.” In Glasgow he visits Jaspal, a Sikh man from the Punjab who had been working for his uncle until he found out he was receiving only half the minimum wage. Jaspal has been too embarrassed to send home a photograph of himself for the past two years, because in Glasgow he has cut his hair short and given up wearing a turban, because he felt out of place. “He intended to grow his hair again before returning to his village as he wouldn’t feel comfortable there without wearing a turban.” Such a story told in so few words.

In Edinburgh Iqbal’s acquaintance was a white South African named Peter, who had moved north from London because there he shared with spendthrift friends who partied every night and he couldn’t save any money. He wanted to save enough to buy a pick-up van back in Cape Town. “He missed nothing more than the barbecues at his family home.”

Doorman at The Imperial Hotel
Iqbal himself views London through the eyes of the colonial experiences of the Indian subcontinent, and reminisces about how the tailors back home in Srinagar would imitate Saville Row. He says he feels uneasy at businesses in India using the word ‘Imperial’ in their company name. “I was surprised to find a hotel in Bloomsbury called The Imperial, which reminded me of its namesake in New Delhi. The Imperial Hotel in London was ugly but the one in Delhi was quite pleasing to the eye.” In an echo which resonates with me he comments “I was thrilled when I reached the voting age in Kashmir, but in London found to my dismay that only half the electorate cast their vote in parliamentary elections....I was puzzled to find that one of the Houses of Parliament was undemocratic in a country which is regarded as the mother of parliamentary democracy in the world.”

Iqbal has more to say on his impressions of Britain, but I’ll leave you with one small anecdote which, perhaps, says it all:

“For many years, I had found London too full of distractions to undertake any writing. day I met an author in my neighbourhood [of Hampstead heath] who told me that it is the indifference of Londoners that I might find useful as a writer.”

And we’ll leave Iqbal there, in the Empire of the Mind, having learnt a great deal about a hidden side of England today.

Here is a very good review of the book.

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