Here I am, in the land of bending footballs, immaculately trousered legs and insanely expensive cigarettes.
In the words of Spielberg's Mr Gump, "It's strange what a young man recalls".
My impression of Britain, at least so far is not the one I have heard most people voice so far.
In fact most of the things that stand out in my mind about this country have never been mentioned to me, perhaps because most of them would be too insignificant to be noticed by most.
As a direct result of having a population that's too small even to crowd up a tiny little island, each person here has a value.
I'm yet to get used to not being asked to leave my rucksack at the security counter when entering a store.
Back home, we've become so accustomed to being mistrusted, that the minute one enters a store the first instinct is to shrug off the rucksack and look around for a security counter. In fact here, the only time I've been asked to remove my rucksack is while in a museum and even then the idea was that if I carry it on my back I may accidentally knock something over while turning. I was still allowed to carry it all over the place. In Britain, if you told someone to leave their bags at the security desk, they'd either refuse and never walk into the store again, or probably sue for emotional damages.
They say in India that the West has a hard and cold approach to life. I wonder how can it be concluded that a people who have time to consider emotional damages in courts of law are cold and unfeeling?
I was told by my uncle to avoid English pubs because they are rarely friendly. The very next day I walked into the Great White Lion, where I quickly made the acquaintance of a man who I know only as Roger, who drives trucks at the Bristol docks for a living. Among all the peopl present at the Great White Lion that afternoon, he appeared to be the "pub loudmouth". The others were all quiet and gentle folk, happy to sip their beers and feel happy about life.
Roger however seemed like a man fundamentally unhappy with his lot in life. As a result he was overly vivacious and ebullient. He had also had a tad too much to drink.
I was towards one end of the bar, with my pint of Guiness (which by the way merits a whole post dedicated to it....soon to follow), while Roger commanded the center of the bar, attempting to pick up a conversation with almost everyone in there, but mostly succeeding only in elliciting expressions ranging from strained politeness to mild disgust.
His soliloquy was concentrated on different British accents and how the Blacks and the Asians speaking flawless English was surprising.
After a while he turned his attention to me. He first though I was Pakistani, and so expressed surprise at the Guiness. He seemed to have the impression that Pakistanis don't drink. He also wanted to know what I did for a living. When I told him I was Indian and a geek at that, he seemed a tad surprised. Then he asked me if I had been born in Britain. I told him I had been here a week. This really bowled him over. He went back to his beer muttering someting about "fuck'n good English". A couple of minutes later, I asked him what he did. He told me to mind my own business. I told him I was happy to and went back to my drink. This seemed to take the wind out of his sails. I think he was hoping for a brawl. He asked me to guess what he did. I told him I was terrible at guesses. At which point he revealed that he was a truck driver and that he had been doing it for 20 years.
After a few more pleasantries, when my Guiness was all gone and I was leaving, he shook my hand and told me to take care of myself. And that my English was still "fuck'n good for just a week in England"
To any of the other Indians who live in England, at least the ones I know of, this would tantamount to an unpleasant experience. Which leaves me in doubt as to whether I am in wrong company, or am I just different?
As I see it Roger is just another guy, unsatisfied with his life, who would rather concentrate on other peoples lives than his own. I've seen Rogers in every place I have been in, encompassing every color of skin that exists.
Being here, I've learnt something about my countrymen too. A general apathy towards anyone who is not Indian is common.
The other night, a colleague and I stood on a sidewalk smoking. A child, no more that 12, pedalled up to us on a bicycle. He removed a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and asked us for a light.
I asked him if he wasnt too young to smoke. He gave me a very rude "yeah". Before I could give him a line about how starting off on tobacco at 12 was not particularly smart, the gentleman I was standing with handed the kid his cigarette lighter. The kid pedalled off leaving me in a state of extreme disgust at the man I was standing with. What compounded it was that after the child had left, my colleague's concern was for his lighter, which apparently still had 25p worth of gas left in it.
In India, this same person would probably have giver the kid an earful about not smoking.
How it can be dfferent in a foreign country, I cannot understand. A child is a child. Black, brown, white, doesn't really make a difference.
I started to smoke when I was 14. I know the attendant problems of starting that young. I would have been happy to have a discussion with the kid about this. hopefully, I would have been able to convince him not to start.
However, my gem of a colleague scuttled that completely.
Has living in a constant crowd left us with no regard for other people?
I have made four British friends so far, Norma, the Tesco checkout clerk, Jennie, the bank clerk, Roger, the truck driver and Maria, the second hand bookseller.
These are the common people of Britain. They are not that different from Indians. As I spend more and more time observing this place, I become surer and surer that the sense of being a stranger in a foreign land that Indians claim to feel here comes purely from within themselves.
Which is strange for a people who come from a land where it is said :
"Udaar charitraanaa tu, vasudhaiva kutumbakam"
To him who is generous by character, the whole world is family.