Friday, March 30, 2012

My London Year- To My Children Series – 28

From the window of that aircraft I looked out with a pair of eyes which seemed to have forgotten the concept of sleep. How many hours had I been looking out of that window? I wanted to ask the person who was sitting next to me. I did not know him. Nor did he know me. Now he was sleeping. Had I seen him at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi? No idea. How I could have noticed him or anybody else in that sense? Had I not been in an ecstatic mood? Or was I delirious due to anxiety? Mrinal had come to drop me at the airport. She had asked me several times whether my traveller’s cheques and passport were in place. I had nodded like a meek child. I knew that I was leaving her alone in Delhi for a year and I did not know what was going to happen to me once I reach London. It was my first trip abroad and I was seriously anxious.

Out there it was a vast expanse of molten bronze which I had seen a few days before at Aaya Nagar, where K.S.Radhakrishnan’s foundry was located. One of his sculptures was getting casted. Vidhan, the trustworthy assistant of KSR was sprinkling water at the sides of the furnace and from the sizzling sound an experienced sculptor could tell whether the metal was melted enough. When KSR nodded, three of the assistants came forward to lift the crucible and pour into the mouth of the cast. I saw the molten metal flowing into the mouth of the cast gaping up from the earth. I looked at KSR and he gave me a smile of satisfaction. I had gone there to say good bye to him. I was going to London. At the age of thirty three once again I was going to be a student. I felt like bending in front of him and seeking blessings. He knew my body going down. Before I could embarrass him, he touched my shoulders and told him in his hallmark style, ‘blessings are always with the blessed.’ And his touch was full of reassurance about my blessedness.

The burnt orange hue of the sky seemed to touch the horizon where I could see a peculiar blue that one saw at the neck of a peacock. It was glistening with a sense of sadness. I could not explain the blue to myself and I was wondering why the expression sadness came to my mind when I watched that hazy blue line of the horizon where the illusionary sea of molten bronze touched an ethereal ocean of blueness. The precarious embracing of the two had formed that illusion of horizon that looked like the neck of a peacock. My eyes ached, neck pained and something started spinning inside my head. I looked at the screen in front of me. After a few clicks of the button on the remote control fitted on the hand rest of my seat, I landed upon the channel that showed the location of the flight at that moment. It was somewhere above Europe. I started counting the countries that I had crossed during the last seven hours of flight. Now after one hour I was going to land at the famous Heathrow Airport in London.

I looked at the man who was sleeping next to me again. He smiled in his sleep. His eyes were covered with an appendage given to the travellers by the flight attendants. You could cover your eyes, ears and whichever pores possible with the stuff that the British Airways attendants give to you. They are truly multicultural when it comes to the selection of flight attendants. When I was flying there were a couple of Indian girls, a few middle aged Afro-British men and a few typical British women. While British airhostesses behaved like matrons, the Indian girls were extra polite. The Afro-British guys asked for drinks with such dignified politeness that you suppressed your desire to ask for a second round of free drinks. And I knew well that the moment the flight had taken off from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, I did not have any choice other than obeying the orders of the flight attendants.

Before I land, I have one more hour to go. And let me take that hour to tell you what has brought me in this flight to London. I was working in Delhi as a special correspondent to the New Indian Express. I was doing a lot of freelancing also at the same time. As I was writing a lot in Malayalam, I had gained a considerable reputation back in Kerala as a new age journalist and cultural writer. But such reputations in fact did not help me to quench my thirst for a kind of spiritual satisfaction which I had been craving for ever since I chugged into the land of Delhi in 1995 along with Mrinal. Then I got the job of a senior correspondent in the I will be devoting the penultimate chapter of this series for narrating the kinds of jobs that I had done almost a decade since my arrival in Delhi. Tehelka also failed to satisfy me. I was restless always. And one fine morning in 2001 June I decided to leave Tehelka and become a full time art professional. I did not know how I was going to survive without a job. It was a hard but bold decision. However it was made easy by the fact that we did not have any children to worry about.

When I was in Kerala, for some odd reason, I had taken this vow that I would never apply for a job. Looking back, I could see that it was a very romantic decision. I was too sure about my abilities as god alone knows what. I thought I could survive by giving tuitions to semi witted kids in the village. Then I had imaged that I could become an IAS officer. There was no limit to imagination. But sending an application form for a job was the last thing I could think about. Now I feel it was out of sheer laziness and lethargy that would generally affect a young man in his early twenties. I did not want to send applications because it was a very tedious job. Then it became a habit. To make any habit politically correct and romantically feasible one should declare it as a part of one’s ideological stance in life. So I must have declared it so at that point of time in my life. Then later even during the dire circumstances I did not feel like sending out applications to get a job.

However, when some friends insisted that I should apply for the Charles Wallace India Trust scholarship, an annual grant given to potential professionals to do further studies in London, I had no reason to object. And above all it was not for a job. After all it was for a grant. To make an application for the scholarship, I made my own justification and easily deviated from my formerly declared path of abstinence from applications. I applied and there was no reply from the office. During those days, as it was the only popular scholarship after INLAKS scholarship, everyone was very keen and curious about it. People made speculations about the applications and even some of them predicted who got what kind of grants that year even before the formal declaration of the results. Hence, I applied for it. I remember there was a triplicate application format and I filled in all the columns and submitted it duly.

Those were the pre-cell phone days. But thanks to a friend of mine I had this rare chance of having an MTNL connection before I had a ration card. I should say even today I do not have a ration card in Delhi or Faridabad. This telephone story is an interesting one. I used to cover all the political parties during my term as a political correspondent with the New Indian Express. In one of my visits at the 24 Akbar Road, which is the head quarter of the Indian National Congress, I met a tall young man with a thick moustache. From no angle he looked like a Malayali. Both of us were sitting in front of the room of Oscar Fernandes, one of the secretaries of the national party. Oscar Fernandes was a very friendly man and he used to entertain correspondents like me even if we were not reporting for the big newspapers published from Delhi. The young man in Khadar clothes was also waiting for his turn to meet Oscar Fernandes. As I was looking like a hopeless Malayali, he shifted to a vacant chair next to mine and extended his hand in friendship. He told me his name and said that he was a member of the MTNL advisory committee. We chatted up and after meeting the leader, while going out, this young man caught up with me in one of the corridors in the building and asked me for my telephone number.

He was shocked to know that even after working as a special correspondent to a reputed paper published from South India, I did not have a landline connection. With studied but quick movements he opened his bag and took out a form and asked me to fill in the blanks. I put my details such as name, age, address, occupation and so on down on the paper. Within a few days guys from the MTNL came home with a landline connection and I remember the first instrument that we got from them was an olive green one. It was square in shape so we thought it was a modern one as the old ones were black in colour and round in shape. The arrival of the telephone helped me to trust that young man and we became thick friends for some time. He was an aspiring politician and he wanted my services as a journalists. When he came to know that I was not averse to give public speeches he took me to public functions and I gave some public speeches organized by the Malayali communities living in various pockets of Delhi.

The talk about the scholarship was quite thick and ripe in the air during those days. But I was not even given a receipt regarding the acceptance of my application form. Things happened through the British Council at the Kasturba Gandhi Marg near Connaught Place. People said that they called for interviews by the month of April ( I remember it was the beginning of summer). T.S.Eliot had said in his illustrious poem, Wasteland, that April was the cruellest of months. If I had really wanted to get that scholarship, then it would have been horrible month of expectation and waiting for me. But I just brushed all such ideas of getting an interview call from the British Council. I took this attitude mainly because I knew that I was a black listed person in the Delhi art scene and none would like to give me a very valuable scholarship. Another factor that dissuaded me from thinking positively about the scholarship was simple; I knew there was some kind of nepotism and favouritism as far as conferring such grants were concerned. I was not a good boy. So I was not in anybody’s favourites list. Hence as expected when many of my contemporaries were getting interview calls for their respective fields, I did not get a call from the British Council.

Mrinal and myself were planning to go somewhere. And on the previous night around eight o clock the phone rang. I picked up the receiver thinking that it would be one of the drunken friends at the other end wanting to vent his frustrations to a patient listener like me. But it was not the usual blabbering of a spirited friend. Instead, it was a sophisticated female voice and the voice told be to be present at the British Council on the next morning 10 o clock. There should have been happiness surging out of me. On the contrary I felt an uncontrollable rage. I barked at the voice asking how she could call me on the previous night of the interview. Had I been out of station, had I been out for dinner or buying vegetables or simply in the bathroom? Or had I been just outside the house and was unlocking the door before the bell died out? I threw a flurry of questions at the voice and the voice kept on saying sorry and it insisted that I should be there at the British Council.

(Geeta Kapur)

I did not take any of my credential along with me to the British Council on the next morning. I was in a confrontational attitude and I was going to question the jury and the authorities for being so callous and indifferent to my application. At the reception lobby I saw Prima Kurien, then a gallerist and art consultant in Delhi. She was in her white sari with golden stripes. I had heard that Prima too was an applicant for the same Curatorial MA program at the Goldsmiths College and the moment I saw here there at the lobby, I made it sure that the interview was going to be a farce and the winner was already there in front of me in Prima’s shape. Prima smiled at me and I gave her a weak smile. She is a very tall woman with a very deep voice. One of the pioneering gallerists in India, it was Prima who introduced most of the internationally established artists today in the art scene. They all were strugglers of that time. Prima had a gallery at the Shahpur Jat in South Delhi. Most of the youngsters of that time used to hang out at her place as Prima loved to treat her guests with ample amount of Old Monk Rum and a never ending stream of snacks. She was a great influence on many but she was not a great entrepreneur herself. Her problem was she loved art and artists more than money. In due course, she lost out in the game. After a hiatus that lasted for almost a decade, Prima came back to the scene not only as a consultant but also as an exhibition designer. She runs a catering service from her home at Greater Kailash II and her culinary skills are known amongst the cream of Delhiites.

Prima was a friend of all and I was sure Prima would get take the scholarship away from me. I was sitting in one of the sofas in the British Council lobby and Prima came and sat next to me. “Johny, this scholarship is for you. They are offering it for a year to do a post graduation. I am not interested to go away for a year. I have a son to look after,” Prima told me. I was so surprised to see her sense of resignation. I smiled at her. I did not know what to say. She was called in first. After half an hour or so I was called in. A stream of apologies followed from Sushma Bahl who was the head of cultural affairs in the British Council that time. I looked at the people in the jury. I knew Geeta Kapur, Sanjana Kapur (theatre personality) and a senior representative of the Charles Wallace India Trust. I forgot his name (I should not have). Someone told me that I could introduce myself as they failed to locate my application forms. I was furious this time. I asked them how they could misplace my application form and then call me for the interview on the previous night. It was easy to make out that someone had already interfered to remove my name from the list of interviewees.

They all smiled at me. Sanjana Kapur asked me to introduce myself. Keeping my indignation under check, I started talking about myself. I told her that I was a blacklisted person in the Indian art criticism and I knew why my application form had been removed. Geeta Kapur asked me a few questions regarding curatorial practice as I had applied for doing a post graduation in creative curating at the Goldsmiths College, University of London. I talked a bit in detail about the kind of curatorial practice prevalent in Indian during those days and how as Baroda pass outs we had tried our best to introduce a different kind of practice in the scene of exhibition production in India. I talked about my efforts like Small but Significant, HEAT and CAN all shows with young artists and a series of slide shows and lectures at Arpana Caur’s Academy of Fine Arts and Literature in Siri Fort. Geeta Kapur knew what I had been doing all those years and she asked me one crucial question by the end of the interview session. She asked me, “What are you going to do once you come back after doing your post graduation in Creative Curating?” I did not have much to think. Without batting an eyelid I told her that I had been critiquing her and her activities all these years and I was going to continue the same with more vigour once I came back from London. She looked at me through her thick glasses, initially with some kind of shock and then with a smile. She knew my character and I knew I was not going to get the scholarship so why mince my words, that was my attitude.

(Prima Kurien)

After a couple of days the result came. I was selected. I knew, Geeta Kapur was the person who worked behind the scene, I was told. She was instrumental in calling me for the interview. She came to know about my application and when she was invited as the jury member she asked about the number of applicants. When she came to know that my name was not mentioned, she grew curious and insisted that I should be called for the interview. It was because of her I was called by night on the previous day of the interview. Despite my continued criticism she wanted me to get the scholarship. She was shocked to see me lashing out at her in the interview but she was matured enough to consider my rage and give me the scholarship. I express my gratitude to her for this at this moment though there was no bonding developed between us even after I came back after my studies in London. It is like that some people are not destined to work together or feel together. They are supposed to be at loggerheads with each other all the time, with or without reason. Personal chemistry must be the reason behind it. Who knows?

Sleep had absolutely left me. It was merciless and I waited for the pilot to make the announcement and finally it happened. He said we were starting the climb down then. I looked out through the window. Now the molten bronze colour had vanished. In its place I saw an endless sea of fluffy clouds. Descending where? I asked myself. I thought the aircraft was held afloat thanks to these fluffy snow white clouds. I thought I would see a few angels going out for a morning walk amongst the clouds. I trained my eyes to see something ethereal happening out there. But nothing happened during those moments that lasted for ages. Then piercing through the thicket of clouds our flight descended to a hazy space. It was almost like opening a fairy tale book with deceiving cover. It was like a fairy tale. Right down there I saw chimneys and brick buildings. The plane glided right to left and then the other way round giving me sights of the landscape below from different perspectives. I was thrilled to see things what I had seen only in the picture books and television. The buildings and the surrounding greenery looked exactly like the fairy tale illustrations. I thought a fox would come out now to catch a young girl who was going to meet her grandmother through a small wood. I imagined all those Grimm Brothers’ stories getting acted out down there.

I was more or less like a somnambulist once I got down at the Heathrow airport, though sleep was the last thing to walk with me. The airport was the biggest one I had ever seen in my life. I saw hoards of flights parked along the bay. I collected my baggage and the Mr.Taylor of the Charles Wallace Trust India had clear instructions about how the airport in London worked. Also the Goldsmiths College authorities have been in touch with me over continuous posts and emails. They had even sent me the hostel accommodation details, first day party passes at the college pub and everything. I bought a ticket for the New Cross Station (underground metro line) and got into a train as instructed by one of the airport attendants. There is an integrated system at the airports in London. Not only the airport is connected with the rail systems but also the officials are informed of the students, visitors and tourists. They know how to behave properly to people according to their needs and mental state. They all were helpful to me. The train reached New Cross station around ten thirty in the morning. I hauled my luggage and came out of the station. The map told me exactly where the college was. I walked towards my future, my destination for a year.

(Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Goldsmiths College has a pretty big campus and on the road side itself one could see the huge library building. Out there along the streets one could see a city hall, a punk’s shop, a few pubs, a couple of eateries, some food stores, some corner shops, a series of other business establishments, a super store and a community centre where anybody could walk in to read a book or listen some music. While walking towards the college I had my first cultural shock from London. I saw a group of young black and white men working at the roadside. They were mending some underground wiring system or something. A guy who was digging the pavement suddenly stopped shovelling earth and took out a mobile phone from his pocket and started talking. Another mobile was hanging from a pouch from his waist belt. It was really a shock for me mainly because back in India only a very few people had mobile phone at that time. K.S.Radhakrishnan was one of the first few people in the art scene who possessed a mobile phone. It was a Nokia handset which almost sized and weighed up to a brick. Sumedh Rajendran was the other amongst the young artists who flaunted a mobile phone. The working class never had a mobile in India. Here I was seeing the road workers with mobile phones in their hands.

Peter was a young white boy in his early twenties. Though he was white he had waist long dreadlocks. As I was walking with a confused look in my eyes, he walked up to me and said he was Peter and was a students’ union chairman of the Goldsmiths College. He asked me whether I needed any help. I told him that I was facing problem to find the office. He took me there. I was humbled by his act of taking my trolley bag away from me and rolling it all the way to the office, walking and chatting up with me as if we were friends for a long time. The office people were helpful. They did the formalities in no time and handed over the key of the hostel in my hands. The hostel was right across the road and was called Batavia Muse. Batavia Muse was a series of buildings on the first and second floors opening from behind the main street. I got into one of the Batavia Muse buildings and put my luggage in the room number allotted to me. I came out after keeping my luggage. Suddenly I felt I forgot something in the room. I tried to open it and it was not opening. All my travel documents, money and everything were inside the room and now I was standing out with a key which was useless for the time being. I rushed to the college office across the road and an assistant came with me to see whether something had seriously gone wrong with this student from India. And with a wide grin he informed me that the problem was that I was in Batavia Muse but building number one. So I was in the right number in a wrong section. He used his spare keys to open the room. I took out my luggage and we walked to the next building and it was the right section with the right room number.

There were six inmates in a hostel. I had one Indian girl who was trying to be more British than the British themselves. One Lee from Korea, another guy from Japan, Sam from another part of Britain and Greg from the US. Sam always had a Brazilian or Colombian girl friend with him so he was always busy. Greg took interest in watching television in the common kitchen located at the top floor of the building where we all congregated to make our breakfast and dinner. Lee and the Japan guy were always fighting; they had various reasons to fight as silly as a fart to as grave as nuclear arsenals possessed by their respective countries. One day police visited our hostel because the Japanese guy had called the Police as he could not stand Lee farting from the next room. As I was the eldest amongst (or was I younger to Lee) group, they all respected and loved me. Above all I was the only one who was cooking regularly and at times I used to invite them to have a bite from my food. They liked my cooking.

(from Left to Right Yuu and Yoshiko Nagai)

It was not just my hostel mates who liked my cooking. All my classmates liked my cooking. Before I get into that let me tell to you how lucky and unlucky I was at the Goldsmiths from the very first day. After freshening up myself (sleep was still a stranger to me) I decided to go for a walk. It was the month of September and according to me it was very cold. Apart from a couple of coats, Radhakrishan had given me a red sweat shirt. Like any other time I was wearing only blue jeans. I went out in my blue jeans and red shirt, surveyed the area, came back and waited for the night to fall so that I could meet others at the college pub. By evening I took out differently coloured coupons sent to me by the college and went to the pub. For the pink slip, the first drink was free. And for the yellow slip it was half rate and third drink was to be bought by my own money. I had not changed my travellers’ cheques into cash. A few pounds were there in my pocket and I did not want to spend that on drinks as I was depending my life on those few notes till I got my travellers’ cheques encashed. However, I could not resist the temptation to smoke. Peter came around and tapped on my shoulders. I mustered up all my courage, walked up to the counter and bought a packet of cigarette and it had dented my pocket completely.

To add insult to injury, a beautiful girl came around and offered something in a wicker basket. The basket was filled with toffees and condoms. I picked up both. The grip was so wide and strong the number of condoms was more than the number of toffees came into my hand. Now I was in a dilemma. I asked whether it was an invitation for a night of frolicking or a just a warning. I could not make out anything. A couple of girls befriended me and they turned out to be my would be classmates. After a couple of hours, hanging out there without hope I walked back to the hostel thinking how I was going to use these condoms. The moment I fell on the bed I was asleep. I knew sleep was hiding in the room like a thug. It hit me from behind and I was dead sleep on the bed on the next moment.

I was and am an early riser. I cannot extend my sleep beyond five o clock in the morning. Though my body clock was not yet adjusted to the time of London, I got up five o clock in the morning. I looked out of the window that opened above the street down there. Across the street I could see my college. That was the day of my enrolment. On the opposite side there was the town hall of New Cross. The thugs of yester years now rechristened as explorers and founding fathers of colonialism stood in their regalia as frozen sculptures. The huge tower clock was like an eye ever present in my life during all those three hundred and sixty five days. I went out for a walk. Came back. The time was lying vacant before me. I went into the bathroom and wanted to have a shower. There was a huge bath tub. It was very difficult for me to waste such a huge amount of water. Initially I resisted taking bath in the tub. Slowly I got used to it. Whenever I felt tired and frustrated I filled lukewarm water in the tub and lied inside it for endless hours. So was the case with washing machines. There was a college laundry. One could put pound coins and get the stuff washed and dried. My first experiment with the washing machine that worked only on bribing with pound coins was disastrous. The machine ate away my five pounds and never after that, I tried to wash my clothes in a machine. I washed my clothes in that tiny bathroom of my hostel room and dried the clothes at my window for the whole year. Later I came to know that washing clothes in the room was a legal offence. Perhaps, it was my sweet revenge against colonialism.

I was lucky to have fifteen girls from all over the world as my classmates. I don’t remember all the names. My only male classmate was Mathieu Copeland from France. He did not come to the class quite regularly. He was already an established artist there or he thought so. He had outlandish ideas about art and curatorial practice. He spoke in a very French accent and I never understood a bit of what he said. So it was difficult to develop friendship with him. Naturally, girls became my friends. They were comfortable with me because they considered me like an older brother. Julia Hoener from Germany was my closest friend. Yoshiko Nagain comes second in the list. Then Zoe Gray. There was Ceclia, Lucia and so on. I remember all their faces. But I don’t remember their names. Julia was my best friend and she liked me a lot. Her boy friend visited her from Germany once in a while and they used to have terrible fights. Whenever Julia got frustrated she called me to go for a ride. We took day passes and got into the double deck buses. The buses took us to wherever it went. We sat on the first seat of the upper deck, often she leaning on my shoulder, shedding silent tears.

(New Cross Station)

Anna Harding was our course leader. And we had Sunil Gupta as our visiting tutor. Irit Rogoff also visited us as tutor. There were couple of other British teachers and I forgot their names. I remember one of them asking me how I knew all the Euro-British and American theories. I told her that we lived in a country which was open to the world. She was not convinced and she treated me as an opponent rather than as a foreign student. Anna Harding was very lenient to me and she was patient enough to listen to my arguments. She taught us from her British and European experience. There were funding agencies in London and in other European countries. In India we did not have any funding agencies. Harding was teaching us to write fund raising applications, writing concept notes, press releases and so on. I told her that these things were absolutely useless in our country. She compassionately treated my comments and always encouraged me to do things the way I wanted. We were supposed to do a final project and mine was an absolutely conceptual one with no fund raising at all. Julia did a huge project in an old church in London. She could raise funds from the local bodies. Though I did not do any huge project I was one of the toppers in that academic year.

Coming to my cooking skills: It was Yoshiko who spread the word about my cooking. As I did not have much money I always went to the Deptford market where the Sri Lankans and Pakistanis sold Indian spices, vegetables and chicken and got them in large quantities. I stuffed the fridge with these things and cooked my food quite regularly. One day Yoshiko happened to visit me for some reason and I invited her to have some chicken curry and daal with rice. She liked them and she said it was really tasty. I was not doing any wonder in my cooking. It was the basic stuff. But when you are hungry you make the tastiest of food in the world. You just need to measure the intensity of your hunger to know the taste of the food that you make. So my food was always tasty. Yoshiko told about my food to many other friends and they started asking me to invite them for food which I did a few occasions. But Yoshiko and Julia were welcome any time without invitation or warning.

I was living a very Spartan life mainly because I did not have any money to spend on other than the stipend that the Charles Wallace Trust deposited in my bank account on a monthly basis. I bought my clothes from the ‘One Pounder Charity Shop’. At times when Shibu Natesan visited me as he is settled there, he took me out for dinner. We walked endlessly, talking about art and life. Whenever I felt loneliness I went to Barbican centre to catch up with some cultural programs. I visited exhibitions and whenever I could gather enough money I went for blockbuster shows at the huge museums there. Sitting at Trafalgar Square and watching people was another interesting pastime for me. And I did not have much time to pass there as one year was too short a time, I spent my time in museums, galleries and book stalls. The Waterstone Book stalls were very famous. And these multi storied book store was a pleasure garden for a book lover. I used to spend several hours in those books stalls and whenever I could manage money to buy some books I collected books.

Almost after six months of my stay in London, Mrinal visited me. She had worked hard to save enough money to pay a visit. Also I had saved a bit to help her in the travel. And it was then on the day of her arrival I remembered the condoms I had collected on the first day in London. I need not say in detail that I could use all of them and more once Mrinal was there with me for a month. Mrinal used to make sandwiches and pack them in containers. We travelled all over London visiting places, gardens, galleries, museums, historical sites and so on. All those thirty days of her stay in London, not a single day we sat back in the hostel. We travelled every day, eating always home cooked packed food. The most memorable visits were there in Tate Modern, Serpentine Gallery, Hide Park, Greenwich Village and so on. Mrinal had brought a pair of Churidar for Julia which she wore on that Easter day and after a few minutes she changed into her pair of jeans as she found the tying system quite uncomfortable. When Mrinal was around Yoshiko and Julia came quite regularly to our kitchen and we all had dinner together.

Before I close this chapter I should ask myself what exactly I had learnt from my education at the Goldsmiths College in London. I have my answer and let me narrate it here for you. The biggest education I had got from London was not from the classroom. It was from the library of the Goldsmiths College. If you don’t say that I am exaggerating let me tell you that I literally spent my three hundred and sixty five days inside this fabulous library. The opening time was eight in the morning and the closing time was ten at night. I used to wait for the front gate to open and along with the staff I entered the library and along with them I came out of it. I had some beautiful friends as my friends in the library. One was Elizabeth, a Afro-British girl who was pursuing a doctoral degree in one of the London Universities and was working as a library assistant at the Goldsmiths Library. We developed a good friendship and even now we occasionally write to each other.

This library was a revelation. I remember a woman clutching on her vanity bag the moment I went and sat near her in the tube. That was the first jolt of apartheid that I got in London. It happened during the initial days of my stay and it triggered my thoughts to study more about the history of black movements all over the world. I poured myself over the works of Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Bell Hooks, Kobena Mercer and many others. I studied the 1980s Afro-British uprising in London. I studied the black history in America. I read deep into the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. I studied Nelson Mandela deeply. My art historical and critical perspective was radically changed in that library. I watched movies done by black directors, and I studied the movies and photographs created by the Gay and black activists. Sunil Gupta helped me to understand the black movement in London in 1980s. I was so passionate about these studies that I even used to skip my lunch. Perhaps I could write a whole book on the studies that I had done sitting in that wonderful library. If I have another chance in my life, I would like to sit there again for another year. But now I am on my way to develop my own archives and research centre and waiting for the day of my retirement so that I could apply myself completely into studies.

(Prof.Paul Gilroy)

That does not mean that I was a very disciplined student in London. I had my moments of frustration too. I had craved for women’s company. I had craved for sex. I wanted to fall in love. But then I knew that those were not escape routes and my mission in London was not to fall in love or to have random sex. So I did not look around for such things. I found out that there was a karate class going on in our college. I had learnt karate years back. I went to the class and enrolled myself. I practiced karate (shoto-kan style) till I left Goldsmiths in late 2003. I gained a few belts, which I later improved in the dojos in NOIDA and Sarita Vihar. When the frustration was at its heights, I used to walk down the streets alone looking for a corner shop so that I could purchase a pornography magazine. Each shop I found an Indian woman sitting at the counter because most of the corner shops were run by Indians, Pakistanis or Srilankans. And invariably women sat at the counter. It was impossible to buy a pornography magazine from an Indian woman. I don’t know why. But I felt it humiliating for both the parties. And I could buy one magazine from one of the corner shops kilometres away from my hostel where I found a European manning the counter. I had never visited even the SOHO street till Mrinal came. I knew that there were sex shops and out of curiosity we visited the shops and found there were not too many wares that we could employ in our lives or we have already tried the home made versions of many already.

My London life ended in 2003 September. I was offered a couple of jobs there and they told me that I could get work permit. Somehow I thought it was abominable to stay back and ‘work’. I wanted to come back to the heat and dust of Delhi. Somewhere in my mind I had this feeling that I would be welcomed by the art scene here. But things were not so cool once I came back. I had to get back to journalism once again before I could get back to art completely. Those were the humiliating years. But I don’t have any regrets. Not even once I had thought I could have stayed back in London and tried my luck there. I was always happy to be in India not because I am a nationalist but because it is a beautiful country with beautiful people. And I consider myself one among them.


Somu Desai said...

excellent and outstanding power of writing. so expressive it keeps one occupied till you finish it. congratulations Johny.

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