The drunken Turk mirrored my movements as I leaned first to the left and then the right, trying to avoid him as he approached. But he had me in some kind of arak-soaked-force-field. Before I knew it his substantially muscled arms had embraced me. For a moment I thought I was being mugged…
It’s quite the move back to the UK after 26 years away, and six and half of those years in India. A sort of retrospective de-blending of the ingredients of my cultural history. But I’ve found, to my relief, that I don’t have to ‘de-blend’ too much. For one thing, it’s almost unrecognizable from the place I left in the late 80s; though the psychological profile is only too familiar.
My neighborhood in North London, is mostly Caribbean/Turkish/ Greek with a little Kurdish/Ugandan thrown in for good measure. The Turk and Greek Cypriots have been here for decades. I hear that after Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974, they used to run into each other’s restaurants wielding steak knives and kebab skewers (okay, I added the skewers, but it probably happened), but things seem to have calmed down a bit since then. I thought I would miss India’s colours, but I find boldly printed Jamaican wraps instead of saris. Pita bread instead of chapatis. I rarely hear English spoken on West Green Lane. English is used the same way it is in India – to communicate across communities, not between them. Animated exchanges that spill easily (and generally amicably) onto the street. Men in woolen rainbow Rasta hats sucking at barely concealed joints outside shops selling incense and hair extensions – none of them blonde.
The drunken Turk now had me in a bear-hug. In the middle of a bustling street at 11 am on a Saturday morning. He was over six foot, so my cheek was squashed into his breastplate as he swayed gently. He smelled strongly of liquor and filterless cigarettes, and faintly of pickles.
Most people walk with eyes glued to the pavement. On the buses and tubes, 80% are wearing headphones. They seem, if not entirely switched off, then turned down so low they may as well be. Tuned in to an interior world where they control the soundtrack, but removed from any sensorial immediacy. But I walk with my head high still. I look and listen. In India, if you don’t use your senses you die (or at least break some bones). Here, in the land of Health & Safety, the dangers have been managed by higher powers.
I smile at people when they catch my eye. Some of them smile back. Some of them wonder what I’m after. But I’ve noticed occasional moments of kindness also. People making way for the elder ones on buses. Giving up their seats for pregnant mothers. Most are too wired up to notice. You could get a lot by these people, one can’t help thinking. They’re literally not paying attention.
I didn’t want to push him away, in case he became agitated. But somehow I knew he was harmless. I patted him on the back. “You take care now,” I said. He didn’t say a word, but moved on with a surprising grace down West Green Rd., while I carried on to the Seven Sisters underground feeling surprisingly unflustered.
The only two people with our heads held high had collided, simply because we were paying attention….and one of us was drunk. Perhaps this is one reason why everyone is wearing headphones. To avoid merging those leftover interstices of humanity, where we have no choice but to smell the pickles.