by Yagnya Valkya Misra
I was programmed to look back. I always did. Wherever I went by bus, train, riding a horse, or flying in an aircraft, I always tried to look back. When walking I would turn my head again and again to track the path more often than I’d watch where I was going. Believe me. Likewise, I do glance considerably more at my Ford rear-view mirror than I do at the road ahead. I never had an accident. I have been ok so far.
It’s no surprise, then, that History happened to be my favourite subject throughout my academic career.
Looking back is so much easier than looking ahead. At least you know it won’t change. The past, they say, is dead like a corpse, gone forever, never to come back again. Physically, yes, it is true. The past will not come back again. However, no one says the past won’t mean anything anymore or we can altogether forget it, forever. We have always been part of the past—our past, our civilization’s past, our country’s past and the past of whatever we may belong to. You try to be in the present, the past holds you back; you try to move forward, relieved in the false belief that you have escaped the shackles of the past, there it stands, like a mirror in front of you as you try to escape to the unknown future.
When I first arrived in Newcastle upon Tyne, I thought I had escaped my mediocre past into the sparkling present and future of the city. Except for the airport, everything was spectacular here— the exquisite architectural buildings in the centre of the city, valley-like setting, with the City Centre acting as the valley and the surrounding environs as the mountains; amazing locals, who bravely resist the cold by wearing as little as they can, surprising outsiders like me wrapped up in cotton upon cotton; teeming International student population, great shopping and a vibrant night life. But mostly, it’s an inexpensive city, if you compare with the likes of London and Manchester.
I knew England was a cold country, that’s why I kept myself wrapped up with as much cotton as possible to tackle the terrible gale winds that welcomed me upon my arrival, sending a chill down my spine whenever one hit me. Nevertheless, it was the strange, cold look of the strangers that was even more spine chilling. A look of anathema and detest for my past, as it couldn’t be for me, they don’t know me. It could only be for something I cannot escape—my origins.
Back home, I have my own identities—a student, someone from a respected family, a person with a bright future, etc. Here, it’s just ‘Asian.’ All other abilities, qualifications and talents of mine have been squeezed into that word—‘Asian.’ I wouldn’t have minded being generalised with the generic name of where I come from, if people out here didn’t greet the appearance of an ‘Asian’ with scowls.
You grow up admiring Whites and the West, with the belief they are better than the rest and then come here to be among the best only to take the detest in the chest.
But, I’m not really bothered by this cold reception or rather animosity towards me. Well, is it towards me personally? How can anyone hate me when they don’t really know me? They assume they know everything about me by looking at the way I look. That dislike is a reminder of what I belong to, what I always will be and to be even more specific, a reflection of the limited understanding about what I can only become – an Asian. Therefore, I’m not agitated or surprised, for this is all part of history, part of looking back at life, humanity and myself. That is why I like to look back more than I look ahead.
Looking back, I wonder where have I come and why? If in this earlier imagined ‘paradise’ my happiness is not sustained, where else it will be. The England I dreamt of from India was much better than the England I experienced. The beauty of the country eulogised by the poets, writers and shown in Bollywood and Hollywood movies was more real than reality.
It is the same beautiful landscape everywhere, the unmissable greenery of the wavy land all over the island. Then you realise how haunting it is only after you have been here for a while. Now I understand why people out here adore alcohol. Maybe you need it to escape the perfection of the life here. Because life is so ideal, the system, the society engrossed in itself, you sometimes believe you are living inside one of those mystical paintings you see in the Laing Art Gallery, where everything seemed perfect for everyone else, only you didn’t belong there.
When I arrived, I came like other foreigners, full of foreignness; foreign emotions, thoughts, desires, expectations, ambitions – the list is endless. I knew I came to a better place. Yet, I had no idea every so often I would be reminded of home by strangers. Every time I got the nod of fellow feeling from the Asians on the streets and just the opposite reaction from the natives, who shook their heads with disapproval at my presence in the sanctuary of their country, I understood that my place was amongst the people who looked more or less like me. Just as you are sometimes shown your place upon entering an aircraft, I too had been shown my place here amongst my group. You are only what you look like.
I remember the day I landed in Newcastle, more than any other day here, as my heart brimmed with expectation to experience the surreal life I had imagined hitherto. As soon as the small monitor in front my seat informed me we were crossing the English Channel, I sat glued to the British Airways windowpane next to my seat, watching the vast expanse of blue below, slightly darker from the blue sky above. I didn’t want to blink my eyelids. My eyes drank the spectacular sight of our aircraft entering the famed island. We were entering England! At last! My heart whispered inside me. The sparkling dark blue waters of the Channel leading to the land we were about to fly over. The thin outline of the white beach, sandwiched between the water and the land, appeared like a halo of the land, affirming its importance.
Everything was like a dream; walking in the airport, taking one of those famed black taxis to my new residence—Albert House, the grey sky, damp, misty air, taking the bus to the City Centre, new university, new faces, new life.
You can see through the familiar smile among university authorities upon seeing a new ‘International’ student, akin to a farmer’s who had just bought a fresh ‘stock’ of cattle. Even though they said nice things there was always something unpleasant there. That thin, surface deep smile was always there. I wanted to say ‘moo’ every time I saw that clichéd smile.
‘Where do you stay?’ my tutor Dr. Boyle asked me after we had exchanged pleasantries.
I told him it was an old Gothic building, an erstwhile church that has been refurbished into a live-in guesthouse for those who would pay.
‘Where is it?’
‘Hmm! I don’t know much about Benwell. But there are some areas you should avoid.’ He explained in a matter-of-fact manner, tapping his finger on the photograph of Alan Shearer that dominated the front page of the Evening Chronicle that lay on his desk.
I was eager to hear more. Somebody had told me once, how when learning a new language you learn the slangs first. Likewise when in a new city, I guess, I need to know the bad areas first. My concentration was one hundred percent.
‘Byker, Denton, Kenton, Scotswood, Wallsend, Walker…’ he went on.
I wondered if he was mentioning in an alphabetical order until he said the last name.
‘And Fenham is the worst of them all. Only thugs live there.’ He asserted.
‘The only places suitable for student accommodation are Heaton, Gosforth and Jesmond. The latter is slightly more expensive than the other two.’ He said squinting at me. ‘But, if I were you I would stay in Heaton—reasonable prices, lots of fellow students and corner shops around and, most importantly, it is a safe area.’ He said and removed his glasses.
Initially, I avoided Fenham. Yet, the need for spicy stuff and Indian food forced me to often tread into that ‘dangerous’ area. However, I was surprised to find many Asians living there. For some days, I eyed these thugs, mostly immigrants – the hefty Pakistanis in their traditional suits, the skinny Sri Lankans, the gentle-looking Bangladeshis, the Indians scurrying to the Hindu temple on Sundays, the motivation for which was worship or free meals, I’m not sure. Moreover, not to mention the odd English yobs, the countless burkha clad women and other eastern European, African, Chinese and middle eastern people—a real multi-ethnic boiling pot. Observing their traditional attires, I understood why Dr. Boyle didn’t want me to stay here. He did not want me to be like them. He wanted me to learn from the local culture and not pollute it by putting ingredients of my culture into that. He believed that I should explore other possibilities. Most Asian students staying in areas like Heaton, Gosforth and Jesmond had a better record than their counterparts living in Fenham and Benwell in going back — most of them never forgot to book the final flight back to all those beautiful places they had come from.
One day, I was on my way to University for my module test, sitting in one of the raised seats at the back of the Stagecoach bus. As the bus sloped downhill from Rye Hill rolling towards Newcastle City Centre, meandering towards the Universities, I continued to gape out of window, ogling at everything. When the bus was cornering the bend opposite Grey’s Monument, my eyes fell on a young lad in a black hooded cardigan and track pants. Very rarely people are aware of being watched from buses, still less do they stare back, if by any chance they are conscious of it. However, the yob could sense me watching him in the bus immediately, his head turning with the bus, he wished me good luck with a victory sign. Ignoring him, I turned to look back on hearing a snigger from the seats behind me from a couple of skinny pink vest and black leggings clad girls, probably in their early teens, who had seen the gesture from one of their peers.
Before coming here, I don’t know whether to call it a fortune or misfortune, I had watched a Bollywood movie, which showed Asians being thrashed by skinheads in England. I forgot many things after landing here, but not that scene from that movie. One evening as I boarded a near empty bus home from the bus stop opposite my university, the bus doors swished open letting in a big, hulky skinhead.
Almost instinctively and immediately I searched for ‘The Metro,’ couldn’t find one. I become innovative, tried to retie my bootlaces. From underneath the seats I could see him come my way. He sat in the seat in front of mine, the ends of his denims trailing under his canvas. I popped my head up to see what he was doing—bad idea, as at the same time he turned around by chance to look at me, surprising me with his pink, fleshy face and crystal blue eyes that conveyed a lack of interest in me. However, I was not taking any chances and soon found myself admiring the ceiling of the bus and then the views outside. Although if you ask me what I saw outside I would have said I don’t remember anything.
My next bus journey, the following day was less stressful. As the bus approached City Centre, I left my seat in the back and waited in the aisle, close to a baby’s buggy. While I waited to get off at the next stop, the beautiful baby in the buggy, all in pink from head to toe, smiled at me. She blushed, when I smiled back, giggled, and wriggled at my attention. I waved her goodbye and eyed her mother who looked away not appreciating my gesture. As I walked uphill on the pavement on Grainger Street towards the monument of Earl Grey, with the bus trundling past me on the right, I wondered whether ten years later, the same baby would still smile at me. The sudden screech of a sea gull above me bought my muse to an abrupt end. I observed as the bird struggled to fly in the direction it wanted to fly, blown away in the opposite direction by the wind.
The whole of the Newcastle City Centre seemed to be leaning towards the Tyne like a lover resting her head on her beloved’s shoulders. Grey’s monument, Grey Street, the grey sky and the grey power everywhere, made strong impressions on my grey matter.
In India, while adventuring in the jungles many a time, I had seen the shed skin of a cobra. I never understood the necessity for that, but I do now. I envy a cobra now. What a wonderful creature, isn’t it? One that can get a new skin for itself at will, just to suit the environment. Though in our species we had Michael Jackson, he too was one of the best our kind had produced. Maybe only the best have the ability to do so. They knew with a new skin you get a new life, possibly a more honourable one— the brighter, the better.
I had asked Dr. Boyle the other day, if there were snakes in the UK. He said there were not many. Though, he joked that quite a few chameleons could be found further down south.
Soon the year whizzed away, the course finished, food digested, and now the time for belching. If you went to the ‘Student Services’ anytime to consult about renewing your Visa, you always got the parrot rant, ‘I think you should go back…I think you should go back,’ as a common answer for any question, with that familiar smile and puppetry nod.
I know I will go back, to save my back, I have to, but before I do that all I am doing now is simply looking back.
This story was shortlisted for the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts International Student Short Story Competition 2012.