So here's another excerpt from that novel I'm writing, Exes and Sevens. I've been unable to do any writing these last few days because life has been fairly kind to yours truly. Isn't that silly? Writing is the only thing that makes me happy, and I can only write when I'm this close to reaching for the exit-pills. For those who didn't know, I'm writing another novel because the first one was such a roaring success. Not. You can read more excerpts here and here. Go on, you know you want to.
We took a train to Upton Park as directed by Hafiz, the landlord. We had arrived in London over a week ago and were staying at a hotel in Westminister at the time, overlooking Hyde park. The sun was out and the streets overflowed with bicyclists and tourists and cameras and mini-skirts and beautiful people. It wasn't ideal preparation for East London. It was altogether a different country, a different culture. The station was only a few metres from Boleyn Ground, home of West Ham Football Club. We could see the flags and hoardings from where we stood. The ticket-checker advised us that we would find taxis by the stadium if we didn't fancy walking the quarter-mile to what we soon come to call home.
The streets were filled with supporters of the club, but it wasn't their maroon jerseys or their alcohol-fueled outbursts that caught our attention. It was the shops. The shops were all little stand-alone stalls, selling vegetables and mobile phones and nick-knacks, all run by people of Asian or African origin. They stood outside their shopfronts, on the pavement, inviting us to go in, offering us bargains and discounts, in foreign tongues and stranger accents. The air was a mixture of smells and sounds- spices and laments, fried chicken wings and motor oil and running engines and urine. “This is like walking around in Egypt,” said well-traveled, semi-amused Leni. I thought to myself that it wasn't much unlike Anna Bazaar or Parys in Chennai.
The difference, I thought, was in the tone, the texture of poverty. The duty-free shops in Parys for instance sold pirated DVD's and contraband deodorants much like these shops. But in Chennai, there was a clear demarcation between the casual shopper and the people who lived and died on those streets, the men and women who cleaned toilets and stole from shop windows and sold their bodies. You could always make out who belonged where – the rich kids who swung by in their air-conditioned hatchbacks to rifle through stacks of ten rupee-pornography would leave as soon as it was dark. They weren't from there and they never would be. Even the locals -the poor bastards who lived there- had a tangible urgency. They weren't defeated, resigned-to-their-lot ghosts of their pasts; they believed they were fighting a class-war, one they would win by hook or by crook, if not for themselves then at least for their children.
In Upton Park however, there was no way to make such differentiations simply because they all belonged just where they were. This was the best it would ever be for them, this was better than anything they had ever had before. It wasn't so much the dirty, unplanned outskirts of a metropolitan city as it was a township, an area and law all unto itself, much like the forsaken rural blindspots in India where everybody knew everybody and nobody had ever ventured farther than the next village or gone to college. This was not the London I had dreamed of. This, I worried, was another third world ghetto in a white man's country where my degree or intellectual pretensions would be drowned out by the parenthetical, unifying echo of the colour of my skin. To Them, I thought, I may as well be another political refugee or economic immigrant from Bangladesh or Ethiopia or Pakistan or Sudan, somebody who had come to their country to escape the impossible misery of where I was from. This, to Them, these streets, this jamboree of sights and smells, was their gift to me, my redemption. And I wanted so much more.