There is one thing that I have learnt very well from living in London – talking to strangers is enlightening, funny and never fails to liven the day.
If I am at University I like to have the Hare Rama Hare Krishna lunch. It is hot, healthy and free. It is difficult to eves drop on conversations when standing by yourself in a que – even if you were to take a book with you for while you wait your turn!
But the uniqueness of the Hare Rama Hare Krishna que is that it is usually a que for strangers. Although it is right outside three Universities people who stand in these ques are usually not with a big band of friends and are there by themselves. And because it is right at the entrance of the University, there is a constant flow of people which means that the chances of meeting the same people twice is very rare. Very different from a college canteen where meals are served for longer and since it is within the premises you will often bump into a friend.
This makes for wonderful conversations. It starts with a silent nod of the head or a smile. So there I was. I saw a South Asian women in front of me and thought “Ah! Finally I am not the only big haired girl in line.” This is usually the case. For a University that teaches South Asian and Oriental Studies very few South Asians find the food to their liking. Mama’s cooking, if a reference point, is hard to duplicate! Thankfully my mama never took the kitchen and I am now accustomed to “Indian Cuisine in the UK”.
After some time I heard someone ask the man standing behind me what this que was all about. “Free Hare Rama Hare Krishna food he said.” She sounded a very friendly person and both of them started talking about the courses they were pursuing. With nothing to do and not thinking about anything in particular got me listening to their conversation. Then I thought to myself that I would rather be a part of the conversation than eves-drop. But how? Should I think of a question or refer to something I heard them talking about? And when? Now? Or by the time the que moves to where the blue bicycle is parked. This went on for a few minutes.I kept passing by the physical milestones that were to signal to me the auspicious time begin! I turned around I smiled and turned back. Not a word. And then finally without a thought about what or when I turned around and said ” I have been listening to your conversation for some time now and I thought it better to be a part of it rather than continuing to over hear.” And there! They smiled back and through subtle movements and words acknowledged that that would indeed be lovely.
They were students. One is doing her a PhD on democracy and the other is studying a master’s in linguistics. The conversation was about language and how it is used. The PhD student was of the opinion that language can compartmentalise and be condescending. The linguistics student was of the opinion that the manner in which language is used is not it’s fault , rather the fault of the users. Language on its own in innocent of distinctions. This seemed a new area for me and I could really think of was how over the past couple of years new words have been invented and used, especially in the media. I was thinking about the evolution of words like ‘Kickbacks’ that in 2009 were very commonly used by the Indian media to describe corrupt practices.
Later as the que seemed to move us closer to our warm paper plates the conversation moved to what it was I was doing in University because by now my two quemates had sufficiently talked about what their journeys have been thus far. From classroom to que. This next moment was priceless. After I narrated the usual, the PhD student told me, ” You are exactly where I was three years ago!” The fact that she was back in SOAS and pursuing her ambitions I took as a sign from the Universe that the next couple of months and my plans for them will stand me in good stead. I took this conversation as a sign that my plan is worthwhile. All I need to do is PERSIST. I asked her where she was three years ago and realised it is exactly where I am at this very moment. The urge to stay in the UK because opportunities seemed more worthwhile than in the Subcontinent. But she did give me a healthy perspective. The time she spent working in Pakistan provided her fodder for a more mature and context rich PhD proposal. I am hopeful that I if I make use of every opportunity and every experience in India, I too will be able to say the same in some time. I must admit three years is too long! A shorter time frame for me please.
The que now seemed to move faster. Conversations help with the wait, for lunch and life! A messenger in a black hoodie and on a cycle rode passed and said, ” Sorry guys there is not Hare Krishna today!” Strange how we take everyday things for granted. All of us saw the usual afternoon que, took for granted that our Eastern European pandit friend was parked ahead and dishing out lentils and rice. Not once did we consider looking out to check out if he really was there! I am not sure if he came at all that afternoon. In hindsight, I didn’t see the students in front of me walk past with their free lunch. The que was moving ahead because people were leaving!!
I suggested that if its ok with the other two we go for lunch somewhere else and we settled for the ‘Cafe in the Garden’ in Russel Square. This is my regular haunt when I get sick of Pret, one of London’s chain cafes. We ordered and sat by the French windows. We spoke of books, politics, religion, partition and football.
TED Videos were often referred to in this afternoon meeting of strangers turning friends. I am a huge fan of TEDx (as you can tell from my blog!) and it was wonderful to meet a fellow fan. I learnt how among some folks its viewed as an elitist initiative, very contrary to how it is marketed but put into perspective considering the high ticket prices for some of their best known events. But the collection of videos is very accessible so I won’t base take that argument for it being too elitist.
If you are a TEDx fan then that afternoon was a perfect example of taking ‘The Other to Lunch’. We were all very different people. One was politically Right and two from countries at constant war with each other and very little people to people interaction.Two born and raised in peaceful democracies (yes, taking into consideration that democracies are of different kinds and its imperfections) and one from a violent democracy/dictatorship depending on who is in power. It was one very charged table. We were truly being conversational, curious, real and listening. And I learnt a few very valuable things.
1. There are different degrees to being on the ‘Right’ in politics. Not all of them are bad. The manner in which the message is put across is important. Rather than being portrayed as unabashedly after profits, the point of view becomes a lot more palatable and debatable if spoken in the context of cutting out waste that can be better used elsewhere. Religion in some circles of the Right is left to the individual. What you should be wary of is how far the belief will influence decisions.
Members of the Right are glad that Obama is the President of the USA rather than Romney. I am saying this not to state the obvious fact but as an attempt to show that not all of the Right are money thirsty conservatives. They have a middle ground too, if we are willing to conversational and not confrontational.
2. Imran Khan and his politics in Pakistan beyond the usual rhetoric is pro-Taliban, Unfortunately. in difficult times you see the forest for the trees.
3. The story of the South Asian partition is taught for politicians, not for students. Read outside your syllabus and when you are older to understand what really happened. It was interesting to be told that the older generation of Pakistanis, who were directly affected by the partition think of India more fondly as opposed to the younger generation. I always believed it would the other way around.
4. The Waterloo Bridge was built by women during the war. I am proud to walk over it everyday.
5. Some words in English are coming back. Some words we still have trouble using objectively e.g. black, yiddish and cunt.
6. The Taiwanese Health Insurance scheme is good, even for expats.
7. Books – We exchanged the names of books that are good reads.
Another TEDx talk that I was reminded of during the conversation was ‘choices’. Often it is said and proven by studies (in case you are a hard core positivist) that the less choice you have in something the more easily you accept it as the best choice. We discussed this especially in the context of healthcare. My two student friends were of the opinion that asking for a little payment helps people ‘value’ the service and prevents their misuse. My prospective student self agrees, so long as these amounts are not exorbitant. But this issue is so much more than just paying for a service. This is for a whole other blog!
After two hours we exchanged contact details, decided we will all meet once again for coffee in January and said our goodbyes.