Trip: London. June to July 2010.
Summer of 2010. Our forty-second day in London. Pushkin’s graduation ceremony at the AA School of Architecture and Planning was over, most of our ‘walks’ to explore the real London were done, all stores on Oxford Street and the ones adjoining this place were visited, food in lots of eateries tasted, hundreds of photographs clicked… and yet, the charm of a walk on the banks of the Thames was still beckoning. So we started the day with walking to the Tower Bridge as this place was barely half a kilometre from where we stayed.
‘Can the city still surprise us?’ I asked Specky, my wife.
‘Well, I’ve always felt that the unexpected isn’t over for anyone,’ she said, and after a pause, added, ‘ever.’
‘Let me ready myself then.’ I stopped and took my Nikon D5000 out. I always felt like a commando about to launch into some ultra-vital mission whenever I had my camera in my hands. Adrenalin pumped harder, my vision became sharper, the senses perked up, and the index finger of my right hand itched to press the trigger… oops, the shutter!
Just then I sensed that I was at a spot where I noticed this reflection… a strange collection of lines on a building and the frame that I saw looked like a convergence of fact and fiction.
‘This is going to be a picture that says a lot,’ I said.
‘Hmmm…’ said Specky, ‘the cyclic nature of events in 2D, or so it seems.’
We just stood there for a while looking at this façade and must’ve looked rather odd staring at something that had no place in the tourist brochures! Truth is that we were actually having all the time in the world that day as we had to meet my son Pushkin only in the evening at the Barbican Centre to see a play.
Unknown to us, the day was destined to take us on a wonderful inward journey and this was probably the reason why we had to begin with that wonderfully eclectic photo opportunity that I just mentioned. As we walked by the river (Thames), I suddenly noticed that the railing had something written on it. We must have passed this way so many times but it was only today that I noticed this wonderful creation. The first part was embossed in capital letters in brass and the second part was written in small letters and cut into the metal so that one could see the flowing waters of the river clearly:
MEN’S EVIL MANNERS LIVE IN BRASS: Their virtues we write in water
The day, I told myself again, is going to be one memorable one and is surely going to unfold a lot of other secrets that we had yet not stumbled upon during this visit to London.
We then decided to walk all the way to Oxford Street and on the way we simply wavered between reverence and irreverence in our conversation that day. We talked about the Indian store attendant in Boots near the London Bridge who forgot to remove the security tag on the pair of trousers we had bought from there… and then how the alarm went off as we went out but for some strange reason the store security simply did not react, nor did we realise that the alarm was for us! Even when we went again to get the tag removed, the alarm went ting-a-ling as we entered and, quite unexpectedly, the security guys missed that one too!
‘It could’ve been embarrassing that day.’
‘Yes, but destiny doesn’t really have anything against us.’
And so time ambled by as we slowly made our way to the famed Oxford Street. We were barely a few stores into the street when I noticed this big one where the window display had changed. This was one reason why I loved the stores of London. They were neither unimaginative about their displays nor were they boring enough to go on with the same one for months together. We had admired the ones that Harrods and Harvey Nicols had in Knightsbridge… or the ones that were there on Oxford Street, for instance, House of Fraser, John Lewis, M&S, Selfridges, or Debenhams.
‘The window display is different today!’ I said, pointing towards it while struggling to take my camera out.
‘Yes, indeed,’ answered my wife, ‘the artist seems to be in a rather philosophical mood, it seems.’
So it was, because the displays were titled ‘COVET. LUST. WISH. DESIRE. ENVY.’
‘Well,’ I said as I shook my head in disbelief, ‘the Gods seem to be bent upon selling spiritualism today. They’ve been dropping hints as if they need to complete their sales target before we leave the shores of this Nation.’
‘You haven’t noticed that none of these words have a DON’T added to them,’ observed Specky, and then turned to add, ‘standing here looking at all the wonderful worldly things it is such a relief to hear God tell you to go ahead and desire, covet, and lust!’
‘But I wish to eat now.’
‘Let’s buy a take-away meal from M&S here and search for a nice place to sit.’
We bought sandwiches and two bottles of blackcurrant juice, boarded the first bus that came and got down at a spot where we could see a park with a lot of trees. This park was at the entrance of an old church and seemed a good enough place to eat our sandwiches in peace. It was here, after we had finished our sandwiches, that I noticed a cigarette butt stuck precariously between two slabs of stone. This appeared unusual and I focussed my camera to take a shot when I heard a voice…
‘Hello, you’re from India?’
I slowly raised myself from my crouched position and turned to find myself looking straight into the eyes of a Sikh.
‘Hello. Yes, we’re in London for a few days.’
‘Sounds predictable but yes, we’re from Delhi.’
‘I have a gift from God and can tell you what you do not know,’ saying this he indicated that he wanted to see my right palm. This sort of thing makes me restless and I told him that did not have any faith in palmistry. This did not seem to dislodge him a bit and he continued, ‘I’m not here to make money. I’m not here to misguide or misdirect or cheat you in any way. I simply stop when my intuition asks me to stop and then I speak about what I see in the distant future.’
Future,’ I mused, ‘is something that is anyway going to be there sooner than anyone expects. Why try to unravel it before its time has come?’ After a pause, I added, ‘Can I take your picture?’
‘Well said,’ he replied, ‘I see the same spark in your eyes. I see it all even on the back of your hands. And no pictures please.’ I had this sudden urge to put my hands in my pocket but couldn’t as I was holding the camera too. My wife, however, suddenly said, ‘What is it that you see and have stopped to tell us?’
‘A brilliant future. You’re both at the doorstep of a future that is going to be full of all the glories that existence is all about. The best times of your life have just begun to enter your life stream and this is going to go on for the remaining years. It will get stronger. You,’ he was now looking at me, ‘are going to make a name for yourself.’
‘Name in…’ I started to ask him, when another Sikh suddenly appeared.
‘Ah! I see that Baba ji has decided to bless you,’ he said without any preliminaries, and then walked a few steps to stand. Could this be a gang attack, I thought. No, it can’t be as there were people around… and then I got up to look and found that the place was almost deserted now. But I just smiled at the Sikh baba ji and said, ‘Thank you for your blessings. It is time for us to move now as we have an appointment with a few friends.’
He was unperturbed by any of the escape moves that I was devising, and simply asked me to think of any number. He explained to me that he would point out that number to me without speaking it and then hand over to me God’s blessings in a unique form. He then opened the notebook he was carrying and started pointing out numbers written there… and his third attempt was correct. He had asked me my date of birth and then built up on that number, connected it to a few other tangible and intangible things and then had asked me to think of a number. That number was nine and so was his first guess. Truth is that I did select nine but then forced myself to choose a different number… maybe this ploy made his prediction err.
He then opened his notebook, took out a one square inch yellow coloured piece of paper, asked me write the number I had thought of and he had ultimately guessed, folded it twice, closed his eyes, muttered something, and then asked me to keep it safely with me.
‘A small donation from you. Just place some money anywhere in the notebook,’ saying this he opened the notebook, looked at me and added, ‘ten, twenty pounds… or more for a new Gurudwara that we’re constructing in India.’
‘I don’t carry any cash with me,’ I stuttered, as I am bad at dealing with such moments, ‘but don’t worry; we’ll surely donate once we’re back in Delhi.’
What he said next is what transported this very forgettable encounter into a different dimension. Without as much as a blink, he said, ‘No problem. There is an ATM just across the road and we can go there together.’
This was getting murkier now and I was about to ask him to just shut up and be on his way. However, I said something that he never expected:
‘Allow me to take a picture and I’ll make sure the world knows about you and your construction plans.’
He looked at me distraught and then suddenly there was a discrete call from his crony who was now a good twenty feet away. The Baba ji too suddenly got up, said, ‘Doesn’t matter.’ and hurried away.
‘Great escape,’ murmured Specky, after he and his friend had disappeared from view.
‘But I’ve missed clicking him,’ I said, ‘he went round the bend too fast.’
‘Forget the fortune teller of London,’ joked Specky, ‘and click some nice pics before it is time to move to the Barbican to meet Pushkin.’
There were just three more pics that I clicked that day, and even I was surprised that the pictures reflected life in London beautifully. It was as if God had decided to finally let me dive deep into the spirituality of aesthetics!
03 March 2012