Flight Papers

feminism and creativity, art, madness, and play

2. arrival

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For the first hour we were in London, I felt like little pieces of me were being dragged across the Atlantic, waiting to catch up. That was the first hour. Then my soul snapped back, and I discovered that London felt more like home than any place I’d been.

Manhattan is almost entirely a planned grid, an grand imposition of human order onto what was at one point a forest with rolling hills. London is not. London is an old collection of knotted streets and footpaths growing out of the Thames. Where Manhattan is linear, London is looping, branching, circular. Where Manhattan will kip on ahead, London waits patiently for you to catch up. Where Manhattan was the planned destruction of growth, London is, itself, grown, growing, alive.

London was also the centre of an old colonial empire. It’s touched with people and food and shops that seem to have been imported from India, Singapore, China, South Africa. Manhattan is presently such a center, but it’s a different kind of colonialism, one that doesn’t lend itself nearly as well to having three curry shops on every block.

Katie picks the closest such (there are three within a few meters of the hostel), and head inside. It’s a bit dark, but not particularly stuffy, and it smells incredible. Like home.

Katie grins at me as we pour over a single menu. I interpret the menu items for her.

“Aloo Saag?”

“Um, potatoes and spinach. Spicy. That one has sweet potatoes.”

We order, talking quietly while nursing sweet mango juice. I notice the proprietors glancing at us. I wonder if he’s read us as a couple; I wonder if the look of disdain is in my imagination, or if it’s not in my imagination, if it’s because we’re both girls, or because Katie is white and I am not.

“Do your parents make food like this? Or is it better?” she asks.

“This is all food from the North, mostly. South Indian cooking is pretty different. We have more lentil flours and crepe-like dishes. Also, it’s pretty difficult to find, in restaurants at least.”

“Why’s that?”

I pause.

“The North is wealthier, I think, so North Indians are more able to emigrate. They just bring their food with them.”

Katie change the topic to sight-seeing—she wants to go up on the Eye, and so do I, but the line seems pretty imposing. I’m secretly grateful. I don’t want to talk about Indian politics or caste dynamics, pre- or post-colonial. I don’t want my ignorance to mark me, fundamentally, as a westerner. I don’t want my knowledge to mark me as Indian. My third-culture worries, this fear falling in-between—they aren’t unfounded. For reasons beyond my parents’ immigration status and current residences, I am unlikely to ever call India home. And, at the same time, I’m unlikely to see it as a beautiful, place of spiritual growth and revelations amidst squalor. It holds no such mystique; going there holds no such draw. It is, simply, a matted knot of blood ties and social strictures, none of which, precisely, are designed for me.

The food I order is, miraculously, too spicy. It burns my tongue and throat and makes me cough. Just occasionally, I taste sweet potato and mango edging out from under a heavy veil of cayenne, mustard seed, and green chili. I have to pack up half of it for lunch tomorrow, simply because my tongue and lips and throat can’t take any more. The pain is glorious.

We wind our way around the corner, back to the hostel. The hostel itself is a bit of a curiosity. Its design seems a bit inspired by Vegas, or maybe perhaps 1970s glam rock. The sign is small, but it’s neon and pink and glows in the early evening night. The entrance is actually tucked into a little courtyard. Katie tells me the design is fairly common. In this case, it seems done to keep young backpackers from lingering in the street, which is prohibited. Lingering in the courtyard is also prohibited, according to the signs, but this rule seems to be quite poorly enforced.

We stand in the courtyard, talking to the other guests, who are predominantly Kiwis—that is, they’re from New Zealand, not that they’re small, brown, fuzzy fruits. After a tired and unhappy-looking manager tells us to get out of the courtyard, we head into the hostel’s bar, which serves beer and any well drink for two pounds. I’m the only Indian there. At least the Brits were considerate enough to let enough cooks come over to run the curry shops.

The next day, Katie and I walk down to the Thames, take a spectacular flight on the Eye, then ride the Underground up to Camden Town. We’ve gotten tired of talking, just a little, so we’re mostly quiet, holding hands, trying on clothes (I purchase a black short dress with an unusually-slated zipper. She purchases a similar red number with no zipper, only a gash), watching the city go by.

The Underground seems to have its own separate, parallel existence. As we make our way down and up and across tubes, I find myself recalling bits of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere—the book in which the Underground is literally another world, with its own kings and fiefdoms, its own citizens and its own monsters. But that book was primarily about the invisibility of this world and its homeless, rag-wearing inhabitants. How they prop up London Above, and yet remain utterly ignored by it. Just like the streets, the tunnels, the metal struts and concrete pillars, the colonized peoples.

And yet, walking down here, with Katie, this feels like somewhere I could live. Somewhere I could call home until I was old and gray and had one of those funny half-British, half-Canadian, half-American accents (and if that seems like a few too many halves, well, there you go).

I tell Katie this, as we’re walking up from the Underground station, exhausted.

She smiles at me. “I know.”

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