Friday, June 04, 2010

Being A Londoner: Random Reflections on A Chaotic Life

I am thrilled today. I know which compartment of my train from Moorgate stop right in front of the exit of Liverpool Street station. This meant I walked a little less, but may be not - because I had to walk those extra steps anyway while getting on to the train. But, still a small victory: I have saved about 30 seconds and the hassle of walking through the gathered crowd waiting to get into the train while I get off. That was surely smart!


But, may be, it is just my lucky day. I got onto the same train I get on to every day, at 8:26 from Croydon, a busy commuter suburb on the South of london, but today, amazingly, I got a seat. This was just lucky, someone got off at a station in the middle [they never get off, at least from this particular train] and the girl standing next to the seat did not want to take the vacant seat. That was so unusual! This almost looked tailor made to make this a happy day for me. As the departing passenger packed his bags and slided past me for the station, I lingered on a few seconds, resigned to the fact that the girl is standing closer to the unexpectedly vacant seat; finally, it dawned on me that she is not interested. This amazing realization suddenly threw my usually cultivated politeness out of the window, only for a few brief seconds, as I moved in to take the seat. Then, sense returned, along with a bit of shame, what did that girl really think of me, as I settled on the seat.


But, then, I forgive myself: This allowed me a full 15 minute seating time, which I could have used productively. I tried reading Rennie and Mason's E-Learning and Social Networking Handbook, which I have been trying to get my teeth into for a week now. But today was too lovely a day not to look out of the window, and feel happy momentarily. The book was, suddenly, too heavy and too depressing. I had to duly fold it back in my bag, and soon, was left with no option but to blankly stare at my un-busy blackberry lest the middle-aged woman sitting next to the window mistake my interest in the sunny outside for an interest in her.


Okay, nothing really transpired to make me think that. But this is a man thing: men always like to think that they are being noticed noticing a girl. Otherwise, the world will be a very dull place. All this, haggling for a seat, conniving to position myself in a crowded platform right in front of opening tube doors, or scoring brownie points in getting off near the exit, will be meaningless. This has to be punctuated by noticing the outrageous outfit the girl in Moorgate always wears to office [may be that's Friday only, but I need another week to tell], or the very young looking girl in the train who stand awkwardly clutching the very fat Law textbooks in the corner, among other things. I can plainly, freely amuse myself in thinking what's going on in their heads. It is a game, silly perhaps, that I can see myself in the mirrors of their thinking, clumsy sometimes, polite some other time, a touch arrogant, a bit rude, somewhat out of place, or may be not.


What about men? What about them? They are almost always the same. Suited ones punctured by few people in stained overalls, but always looking the same, like me, to the mirrored world of the girls' perceptions. I have noticed they read more books than free papers. Yes, free papers, one of the few joys of the commute is the free papers, Metro in the morning, and Evening Standard in the evening. Besides, as I step outside the Liverpool Street station, two Bangladeshi boys greet me in Bengali and hand over the magazine of the day, either a Stylist, or a Shortlist or a Sport on Friday. If I show interest, I will also get a City AM, a free business paper meant for people who work in the city, which primarily means the banks and insurance companies in a square mile wide area towards the eastern edge of London. But, those papers seem to attract women more than men. Men are interested in reading books, somewhat. Mostly the latest best-seller, except some busy types like me who would want to sport an e-Learning handbook. Possibly, it is like what women wear; for men, they want to be known by what they read, at least in the train.


Reading is compulsory here, because you never talk to anyone. Don't even say hello, even if you are seeing the same man in the train for last one week. That will be intrusive, who knows if he wants to talk to you. Except, of course, if there is a calamity. Like a train stuck in signal; or 'Severe Delays' on a tube line. Sometimes, for a person like me who came from another country, it is difficult to know what constitutes a calamity. For example, severe delay means the trains come every ten minutes rather than the usual two. I am used to trains coming 24 hours late, and sometimes, I find it amazing that people get ruffled so easily. But, then, that's fun: you hear things. For example, I learnt that there are Hours and Minutes, and there are Northern Line minutes, because the trains were taking much longer than the declared two minutes written ion the board. Supposedly, this is quite a well understood expression among Londoners.


Calamity, indeed! People start speaking to each other when such a thing happens. It is possible to treat this as an expression of kindness, or genuine comradeship. This is about the whole anti-establishment thing which is quite truly British, a quiet disregard which one learns at moments like this. This is a possible explanation why everyone start slating whatever is seen as authority - in the tunnelled world of tube stations, it is those who run the trains and chose to label delays as severe or minor - at the slightest possible excuse. This is slightly crazy, but this is probably what keeps everyone sane.


But then, friends are different. Someone you know, at work, or at the neighbourhood, who by some chance, takes the same train as you at precisely the same time. That's a draw of luck, but it happens. Other people get jealous when you have someone to talk to, and then, you can either keep the conversation in an unknown tongue to keep everyone irritated, or in English to keep everyone amused.


I can't stop comparing the experience to what happens in Calcutta, my home town. such conversations always create a trail, everyone joining in, earnestly, passionately, as if changing the interlocutor's point of view will be the start of changing the world. It often ends with angry break-ups, in some extreme cases after fist-fights, with vows of never engaging in conversation with same set of people again. Of course, this is a daily affair.


But, being a Londoner proper means switching on and off being conversations and codes, stepping in and out of the book-walls of self-image and the thousand mirror world of other people's perception, all to survive the world of crowded platforms and scarce seats, with the steady silence and politeness which is seen as the expression of culture. And, whatever the British National Party or its ilk may think of it, it is also about participating in the life of this City of Cities, a congregated whole of many micro cities that we carry around with us, submerged in the random trivialities of a chaotic life.

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