Sunday, December 10, 2017

Stranded in London, though only briefly.

Oxford_City_Birdseye.jpg  From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

One fine morning a long long time ago I decided to take a trip to Oxford. Not the street where all the top brands are found, but the place where the world famous university is located.
It had been one of  my childhood dreams to go study at either Oxford or Cambridge University one day. Among several high profile career plans that I dreamed about while growing up, the one held on to for the longest period of time was to become a  scientist, with maybe a Noble Prize or two under my belt as well.
Unfortunately my career plans did not actually unfold the way I had hoped they would and I never did get to attend the great universities of the world but since I was in London, I figured that the least I could do was to pay my dream place a visit, especially when I found out that the city of Oxford is about an hour's train ride away from London.
I was staying at Sloan Street with family friends and the nearest train to Oxford left from Paddington Station.
On the day of the journey I packed some sandwiches for myself  before heading out.
It was a beautiful sunny morning, the kind that brightens up London. Instead of taking the fast underground route, I walked all the way from Knightsbridge to Paddington, taking a short cut through Hyde park, even sitting down on a bench to feed the crumbs of my sandwich to the birds in the park. I was in no hurry. It was a lovely day and I was enjoying my walk.
The day went went reasonably well. I bought my ticket to Oxford at Paddington station and spent a leisurely day roaming around the streets of Oxford, taking in the beauty of its centuries old college buildings and lush green meadows.
Sometime in the afternoon before it started to grow dark I decided to conclude my exploration of the charming little town and head back to London. 
I have always felt that I have a bird's nature. I want to fly home as soon as it starts to grow dark. Something inside of me starts to pull me towards my nest.
Although the hour was not too late but it was dark by the time I got back to London. Luckily I knew enough of London to not feel uncomfortable navigating through it at night time all by myself. Knowing the efficiency of London's underground system, I figured, I would be home in less than an hour.
I could not have been more wrong.
Just as I reached my desired platform an announcement was made over the public speaking system which went something like "all trains to Knightsbride have been cancelled"
What was even more disappointing was that had I reached the platform even ten minutes earlier I would have been able to catch the last train that left from there.
"you are going to Knightsbridge?" That is when I heard a male voice beside me.
 I would have thought that was pretty obvious considering that I was standing on the platform from where the train left for Knightsbridge.
Whenever I go abroad I generally wear western attire but for some reason that day I was wearing a Shalwar Qameez. Judging from my eastern looks and choice of clothes it was not difficult for the young man standing next to me to correctly assume that I was not a regular Londoner.
"where are you from?
I am sometimes asked this questions when I am in eastern garb so I was not surprised by it.
I also readily tell people where I am from to keep them from assuming that I come from India which they do about 90% of the time.
"Really? How interesting. I am from Iraq, my name is Jasim. What is yours ?"
I tell him my name out of politeness as I ascend the multiple levels of the London underground transit system amongst a throng of equally disappointed commuters who will have to look for alternative means of getting to their destination now that their train had been cancelled. All the while, Jasim going up the stairs next to me is throwing a volley of questions my way.
His curiosity is not appeased by just knowing who I am and where I come from.
I am an extrovert person and fall into conversation easily but providing complete strangers with information like how I like London and how long is my stay going to last etc is making  me feel uncomfortable so I answer as vaguely as possible even evading a few with out being impolite.
Soon we were out in the open and before I had a chance to walk away he threw another question my way. This time a totally unexpected one.
"Do you want  to go to Disco ?"
I must confess that my mind was on trying to figure out how to get home since my most preferred and most convenient mode of transportation was no longer a viable option.  So to say that his offer at that point took me completely by surprise would be an understatement.
"I said I would like to take you to a Disco"
"No thanks. I don't go to Discos."
"Why not ? You think it is Haram ?
This question baffled me even more than the first one .
"I don't know. I have never actually thought about it as being either Haram or Halal."
"Then why won't you come?"
"Because it is getting late and the people I am staying with are expecting me to get back home on time and will be extremely worried if I don't."
I am making up excuses that  are sounding lame even to my ears. Surely he can sense that I am trying to shake him off.
"Tomorrow then?"
Apparently he can't.
"I am leaving London tomorrow."
I gave a reply which was partly true. I was planning to go to my uncle's place in Manchester, though not the next day but within the coming week. But I was not going to tell him that.
I decided to put an end to this chance meeting along with its conversation which was getting too lengthy and too awkward for my liking. I told him that it was very nice meeting him but now I was going go call my uncle and aunty, the people I am staying with, and ask them to pick me up from here.
Instead of bidding adieu as  I headed towards a red phone booth nearby he followed me instead. He also dug into his pocket and took out  coins for me to make the call.
"Thank you I have change for the call", I declined. Accepting money from strangers, even those who irritatingly latch on to me, is out of the question.
"No take these" . He insisted thrusting his palm forward.
I dug my own hand into my pocket and took out twice the amount of coins he had in his hand.
"I am leaving  London tomorrow and all these coins will go to waste if I don't use them so I might as well". I picked up my previous lie and built upon it by purposely implying that I was not just leaving London but England as well the next day.
He did not insist any further after looking at my palm full of change but did stand out side the phone booth as I made my call.
My uncle, at whose place I had been staying, was not only one of my father's colleague and close  friend but also, at that time, Pakistan's Defence Attache in London. My trip, unfortunately had coincided with the arrival of a very important delegation from Pakistan and both my uncle and his wife had their schedules overbooked to include playing host to the dignitaries and escorting them all over London.
One of the regrets that both of them expressed profusely almost every day was they had not been able to give me the attention or time that I deserved. I had assured them that I had been to London before and was perfectly capable of enjoying the city's delights on my own, hence the packed sandwiches and daily single excursions.
My phone call to their residence in  Sloan street only enlightened me to the fact they had still not returned home.
"They are coming to pick me up". I lied to Jasim as I came out of the booth.
It was time to get rid of him
"I will wait till they come"
"No need. They will be here soon. I am going to be fine. Just go."
"Are you sure"?
I felt a little guilty openly lying to him like this because he genuinely looked concerned.
To my utter relief he finally obliged and started to walk away.
I saw him cross the road and  walk around aimlessly for a minute or so, probably looking for someone else to take to the Disco.  Somebody who would be more willing to go.
He was a young man somewhere in his mid twenties, not too bad looking. Chances are he probably did find somebody.
Strangely enough, the possibility of him being a predator never occurred to me at the time or for many years afterwards for that matter.
I waited till he was out of sight before heading towards the next underground station. I  still had to figure out how to get back home.
There were a few traditional black London taxis standing nearby  but I did not want to ride them. Firstly, I was not comfortable going in a cab alone at night and secondly I figured they would be expensive, which they are. To be honest, the expense part weighed more heavily with me then the safety part. I guess I needed to have my priorities straightened out back then.
The route through Hyde park that I had used in the morning was equally impractical right now. I realized that the moment I came out of Paddington Station when I got back to London. The entrance to the park was right in front of the station exit and the same park which had appeared lovely and cheerful in the morning looked dark, gloomy and sinister at night.  To cap it off, on top of  the  Park gate there was a sign that warned people  to avoid going through the park after dark for their own safety.
I consider myself to be pretty gutsy most of the time but not gutsy enough to ignore that very clear warning sign. Going around the park was also not doable. Diagonally cutting across the park in the morning had not taken me too long but circumnavigating half of it from one corner to the other on foot was next to impossible. Anyone who is familiar with the length and breadth of Hyde park would know what I am talking about.
I entered the top level of the second underground station. It was full of hustle and bustle the way stations are. In one corner two railway worker wearing their workers' uniform were standing talking to each other. One of them was a slightly portly middle aged guy of Asian origin who looked at my Shalwar Qameez, and then at me, with interest. Though not with the same type of interest as Jasim.
I bee lined towards him.
I am also not a person who panics often and even when I do panic I don't let it show a lot but something akin to panic must have been on my face because I was greeted by the good natured Asian gentleman with a large smile a very jovial, "haan jee , kiy ho gaya"?
(what is the matter? what has happened ?)
Something about him speaking in the same language as my own made me instantly calm down. It made me feel like I was already half way home.
I told him my problem and he crushed all my hopes by informing me that all trains heading towards Knightsbridge and its adjoining areas were indeed suspended that night from not just one but all the stations.
So much for London's dependable and efficient underground railway system.
He then did something for which I will be eternally grateful. He took out a few brochures from a rack nearby which had London maps and bus routes printed on them and proceeded to tell me what number bus from which point will take me to my destination.
I could have kicked myself for not thinking of this excellent and not to mention economical mode of transportation earlier.
Needless to say I got home via bus service safe and sound that night, though with the heavy London traffic, even the bus journey took over a hour and a half .
I had started my return journey from Oxford a little before 5 p.m. figuring I would be back home by seven or eight at most. It was infect well past nine by the time I finally reached Sloan Street. My uncle and aunty making it back themselves almost at the same time.
We had a very nice and cosy dinner together during which my aunty asked me if I had bought anything for myself that day. I think I gave her a shock when I explained that the Oxford I had mentioned visiting in the morning was not Oxford street but the city of Oxford outside London. I doubt if she had been as comfortable letting me wander off on my own had she known in the morning that I had planned an out of city excursion .
Well I was back safe and sound so she could not say much. All is well that ends well.
I think I did tell her about the unfortunate cancellation of the underground train service but left the rest of the details out of it .

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ever since my elder daughter went off to university I am always being asked the inevitable question regarding whether I miss her or not. My answer to that is usually in the negative which comes as a surprise to some people and amuses others. But the honest truth is that I don't ALLOW myself to miss her .
I never think of her as not being around. I just think of her as being someplace else and soon to return home. But admittedly, there are moments that seep through the unseen cracks in my facade and play havoc with my emotions. Moments like when I pass through corridors of the university where she used to go, which feel strangely empty even though they are full of students, their constant chatter and activity. Same is the scenario in my younger ones case. Ever since she has been shifted to another branch I have avoided going to the turf area where she used to have her recess or the rooms where her classes were located because it tugs at my heart to know that I will not see her there. That is the biggest disadvantage of working in the same institution where your kids study or used to study. There are too many nooks and corners that remind you of their presence. (I cant even begin to think what places I am going to skip once my son goes to finish his studies. Mercifully he and I don't share the same educational institution so I am hoping that the list would be short).
My guilty confession is that I often skim through school boards to see if I can locate some old picture from any old event. And when I manage to find one of my kids, it is jack pot.
So, do I miss them?
If I allow myself to, yes.
But then I also miss the wonderful time when they were little babies and I used to rock them to sleep in my arms. I can no more turn the clock back to the time when they were dependent on me for fulfillment of every whim than keep them from moving ahead and advancing in life .
So yes, even though I do miss them and will continue to do so, the all important question is that will I ever show it and will I ever let it overpower me to the point where I will stand in the way of my children's progress?
Never in a million years.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A nation of careless people

We are a  nation of careless people. We take things lightly, a little too lightly for our  own good. Recently there has been an explosion in a commercial area near where I live. Contradictory statements are evolving on daily bases relating to the nature and cause of the explosion. Some say it was a pre-planned terrorist activity, others say, a gas leak. Although I am not ruling out the possibility of a terrorist attack, a gas based explosion also seems plausible.
Only a day prior to that tragic event on Thursday I happened to walk into the staff lounge at my work place with another colleague. Upon entering the room both of us immediately became aware of a very sharp hissing sound. Walking towards the source of  the noise we came upon a couple of exposed and open ended pipes near the back of the room.  Another second was enough to make us realize that it was the sound of gas coming out from the pipe at full pressure. I quickly turned the valve off but by then the whole room was already full of gas. We quickly exited, opening all windows and turning the fans full on. Apparently some idiot plumber had come into the room a few minutes earlier to check on the pipes. The fact that he had not even bothered to check whether the valves was completely turned off or not before going back out to turn the gas supply on from the main supply port just goes to shows his casual attitude towards the whole thing.
An attitude we have sadly inherited as a nation.
How often do we stop to check if all the safety measures are in place before attempting some thing risky?
How often do we not utter the words that everything will be fine when we are about to do something which we know is pretty stupid and dangerous.
I have done this myself. We all have. Countless times.
I keep thinking about those turned on valves in our staff lounge. Had the plumber's mistake or negligence to be more accurate not been discovered in time, the consequences could have been devastating.
Sometimes it takes a tiny mistake to make us realize the errors of our ways and mend them.
It is time we learned that being cautious is not the same as being a coward.
It is high time we turn our vigilance up a few notches and start being more careful and responsible in our day to day matters of life .

Monday, February 13, 2017

What really amuses me is when people entrust someone with their secrets starting with the line "DON'T TELL ANYONE"
And I am like "come on"
You are the one telling it.
How can you expect someone else to hold on to something that even you yourself could not?
If you really want something to remain unknown then don't go around telling anyone about it in the first place:-)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Camii Eyup Sultan

On a cold winter morning when it was drizzling outside, we decided to pay a visit to the tomb of Hazrat Abu Ayub Ansari. The tomb of this trusted and valued companion of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) is located somewhat in the north of Istanbul where the Bosporus strait starts to narrow down into a tighter channel.  It is approximately an hour‘s drive from the Sultanahmet district where we happened to be staying at that time and where most of Istanbul’s famous attractions are located. Since most of Istanbul’s mass transit links cover only the Fateh district plus a few areas beyond that, getting to the tomb meant you had to arrange for your own mode of transportation whether it is a bus, ferry or a privately hired taxi or car. It had been pre decided by us that no trip to Istanbul would be complete without paying our respects to this esteemed "Sahabi e Rasool”.  How we managed to get there is a long story, not to mention that by the time we did, the drizzle had changed to steady rain and we had lost two of our umbrellas on the way. We approached the burial place from the back side. Fortunately there was a huge sign indicating the entrance to Camii Eyup Sultan or the Ayub Sultan Mosque. We entered the alley under the sign and voila!!!!! For a moment everything came to a standstill…. including us. What we had entered was a beautiful cobble stone path sandwiched between walls on either side and beyond the walls the land rose and fell naturally giving us view of what lay on the other side. On either side beyond the walls was a cemetery all the way till the Mosque itself, which housed the grave of Hazrat Ayub Ansari.
 It was a cemetery the likes of which I had never seen before. The graves and the tombstones were so unusual and majestic that we were all spell bound by the impact they created. It was a cemetery that commanded respect and we all walked in silence forgetting the cold biting wind and the lost umbrellas. Miraculously it even stopped raining or to be more accurate the rain changed back to a drizzle.
I had wondered how this revered companion of the Prophet (PBUH) had ended up being buried so far away from his native land and from what I learned about it from my father, left me even more amazed and impressed.
Istanbul in the old days was called Constantinople. It was not only the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire but also the sparkling jewel in their crown. It was a city rich in heritage and culture and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century it became the main city and the center of the Christian power.
The Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (PBUH) had declared that whichever Islamic army conquered Constantinople will carve its own sure path to heaven. So many years after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) when the attack on Constantinople was planned Hazrat Ayub Ansari, enlisted in that army, despite being extremely advanced in age. He wanted to be part of the great army that conquered the last Christian stronghold.  Being an extremely old man Hazrat Ayub Anasari was not able to survive the expedition and expired before the army could take over Constantinople. But his final request was to be buried, if not inside Constantinople, then as close to Constantinople as possible. Urged by his last wish the Muslim soldiers pushed on till they reached the outskirts of the city where the finally laid the body of Hazrat Ayub to rest. They were unable to conquer Constantinople at that that time but they certainly put some serious fear of God into the hearts of those Byzantines. So much so that when they (the Muslim army) left, they did so with a warning that if the grave of the Prophet’s (PBUH) companion was desecrated in any way, they would come back and level the whole city (or something of the sort) .
It was not until 1453 that Constantinople was finally conquered by the Turks under the leader ship of the Ottoman Emperor Mehmet the conqueror (Sultan Mohammad Fateh) and remains under the control of the Muslim Turks to this very day. Over time Constantinople was renamed as Istanbul and it expanded as all thriving and prosperous cities expand. The grave of Hazrat Ayub Ansari which had initially been in the outskirts of Constantinople now lies in the midst of Istanbul. The Turks marked the grave by building a mosque over it and naming the area where it is located as EYUP which is basically Ayub in Turkish. The Turkish government and Ottoman Sultans before it did their best to protect and preserve this grave and over the centuries many members of the royal family chose to be buried as close the grave of the companion of the Prophet (PBUH) as possible hence giving rise to this magnificent and beautiful cemetery. Weather any other soldiers from the original campaign are also buried here alongside Hazrat Ayub or not and if they are, then whether their graves have survived over time or not is something I do not know. All I know is that if one gets the opportunity to pass through Istanbul even briefly, a visit to Camii Eyup Sultan and its neighboring graveyard to offer Fatiha is a must . 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

“To travel is to live”

Here is something I wrote for an online writing course a couple of months ago , thought I might add it here as well.

According to most dictionaries, “to travel” means, “to make a journey”. To most people this represents a physical journey and the distance covered is geographical only. But that is not the case. There is so much more to travelling then packing your bags and leaving the comfort of your home to get from one place to another. Travelling is about broadening your horizons, learning new things, testing the boundaries of your limits and occasionally crossing them. It is about meeting new people, finding new places and sometimes revisiting old ones from a new perspective.
Speaking from personal experience I have done some reasonable amount of travelling myself, not too much, but not too little either. Each trip has given me something new, whether that is insight into a strange and unique new culture or just cherished precious memories that stay with me forever. Each place I have visited has left its impact on me. Whether it is the barren hills of Balochistan or the lush green valleys of Kashmir, whether it is the centuries old architecture of a historically rich city like Istanbul or the contemporary wonders of any modern day metropolis. Each is beautiful and special in its own unique way. The joys of travelling lie in keeping an open mind and not being judgmental. Only then these places reveal their inner most secrets to one and only then, can one appreciate the exquisite magnificence of each individual location.
It is true that the world has shrunk to literally fit into the palm of one’s hand. Information about everything and everyone is available to one at the merest touch. You can learn about all these different places, different cultures and different people without even venturing out of your living room but none of this comes even close to immense degree of pleasure and sense of achievement that you get when you make the effort to go to them. An article on the internet can tell you the height of a hill or the splendours of the surrounding picturesque view but it cannot give you the crisp fresh air that tingles your lungs as you inhale it while standing at the top. A feature in a magazine can tell you about the length of a long country track, it cannot give you the comfort you experience when you sit down to rest your tired feet on top of a little boulder in the middle of the walk.
In the words of the great Hans Christian Anderson “to travel is to live”. He knew what he was talking about when he wrote that. Being alive is truly not just about being able to eat , sleep and breath, it is about experiencing all that life has to give you and one of the best ways to experience is to put aside your hesitations and fears and take that first step forward. It does not matter where to; anywhere is good enough as long as it is somewhere. And live life as it should be lived.

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.”
Hans Christian Andersen, The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography