Saturday 7 October 2023

The Train From King's Cross

For the audio version of this story, click here (YouTube) or here (Spotify) or here (all other podcast platforms).

* * *

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice

Let's say, by some off chance, having nothing better to do with your time, you find yourself in London for a day. 

Let's also say, for argument's sake, having nothing definitively better to do with your time, you decide to spend that day at St. Paul's Cathedral. Let's say you plan to walk there from Tower Hill. But you naively underestimate how much time you will spend gaping at Tower Bridge on the way, then the Monument, and then the Bank of England.

Let's say (and we're still obviously, clearly, undoubtedly dealing with hypotheticals here, of course, certainly, because who could be that stupid) you finally reach St. Paul's. But now there's only an hour before it closes for the day. Let's say you suffer from a chronic fear of missing out, so you decide to rush through every spot marked on the guide map, on the realistic fear that it might be years till you return, if ever. 

In a hasty, stressful hour, you sprint headfirst from one point to another, intermittently marvelling at the cathedral's famed peristyle dome, its hypnotic nave and its astonishing apse. You find out that the top of the dome will close in fifteen minutes, earlier than the rest, so you decide, foolishly, stupidly, hypothetically, obviously hypothetically, to clamber 528 steps to the top. Ten minutes later, you reach the top of the dome, utterly spent, bent over, panting like a steam engine, and you wonder why it's always like this with you. 

After you spend an embarrassing eternity hunched over, you straighten up and raise your head. 

You see London, the big smoke, in all its glory, in its magnificence, in its overcast, romantic serenity sprawling before you. 

For a moment, a very brief moment, as every screaming joint in your body pauses for a breath, you look up, you look around, you look far, and you think, and you know, that it was all worth it.

Then, the madness begins again. 

You crouch and get on your mark. You take one last look, way on down south at London town. You get set. A deep breath, and you are zooming off again like you've been shot from a cannon.

With fifteen minutes to close, you sprint down those 528 steps again, skipping every alternate step. You pause for a minute at the nave to take it all in again, and then you continue running. This time, you run around and dash through a door leading into the Crypts. 

The Crypts of St. Paul's are home to the remains of many eminent people in British history: Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and Alexander Fleming, to name a few, but you whiz past them like a bullet, trying to find the one you came for.

Finally, in a corner, you find the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren, the builder of St. Paul's Cathedral, architect magnifique. The man who merged English Baroque, Renaissance and Neoclassical styles into this architectural masterpiece. The man who, hundreds of years after his death, still sends hypothetical people like you on harebrained sprints across the cathedral. 

As you stand there, next to the tomb of this superhuman who conceived this structural singularity, your eyes flit to the inscription just above his tomb to find the Latin words:

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice

which translates to

If you seek his monument, look around you.

And it makes you wonder.

* * *

"Are you watching closely?"

* * *

Every so often, I'm plagued with a question that is as pointless as it is important: what is the purpose of life?

What is the purpose of my life? 

If, in a hundred years, a hypothetical bloke who didn't know better went sprinting around to seek my monument, with clearly nothing better to do, where would he look?

Where exactly, and how exactly, and what exactly is the monument I am building in my life, if at all?

It's easy to find Wren's monument. The inscription on his tomb, a glaring medieval 'enough said', is a pointer that his work, and through it his legacy, his imprint, his shadow, his genius is so blatant, so obvious that it's out there for the world to see.

I, on the other hand, have nothing to show. For one, I am undeniably unexceptional in tangible artistry. The skill of sculpting, painting, building or even music has clearly eluded me. For another, by no choice of my own, my life coincided with the rise of the digital age. All my professional work is on emails, spreadsheets and coding terminals. All my (hopefully) creative work is on blogs and streaming platforms. These words I write, those videos I create, and these stories I tell are all ensconced in the digital realm, composites of imaginary 1s and 0s. 

Not just my work but even my past is now virtual. I have no childhood home to speak of, as they were apartments that have now been renovated and refitted to the whims of their new owners. The streets I used to walk on have changed. Personal belongings have been flippantly thrown away. The places I visited have been demolished. People I once knew have either moved on or will at some point. My pictures, videos and journals, any and all proof of my existence, are now digital. It's here today, but it'll take one cataclysmic event, like an asteroid or a super volcano or an Ice Age, to destroy servers and wipe out hard drive memory, and I will have nothing to show for the last thirty years. 

If the internet was wiped clean tomorrow, it would effectively mean that I was never here, never born, never dead, the man who never lived.

If you seek my monument, where do you look?

london merchant navy memorial

* * * 

"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". 

The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. 

But of course... it probably isn't."

* * *

I have a complicated relationship with the United Kingdom.

I have my reasons, many of them, so let's tackle the colonial elephant in the room first: the British are the enemy. 

That's what I was taught growing up. All countries I attempt to call home, whether India, UAE or Oman, were set back centuries by the looting, raping, murdering and plundering of the British Empire. They are the reason that I'm still considered from a backward country and that I'm never paid enough. They are responsible for this lingering perception of my people that fuels racism, whether a hundred years ago, whether nine years ago when a white man on Oxford Road stood in my path, looked me dead in the eye, and ordered that I walk around him since it was his country or whether last month in Manchester when this lad snickered "India or Pakistan?" before yelling "Paki!" and chortling off.

Fairly or unfairly, I've been told that the British are the reason for all my problems. In history books, movies, conversations, jokes, and pop culture, that's what I was taught: the British are the enemy. 

Second, it's a weird little country. Smaller than Oregon, less populated than Uttar Pradesh, it still has the audacity to walk around with the self-important air of a person who clearly doesn't realize nobody cares anymore. 

With its nose up in the air, Britain pontificates that people are dying to move to this tiny, dreary country. It's oblivious that people do so not because they want to but because they have to.

Twirling its top hat, it insists that Europe is holding it back from being great again. With a smug little smirk, it makes visas difficult and expensive, openly endorses anti-immigration, and treats all non-white citizens like outsiders. 

Adjusting its pince-nez, Britain talks pompously about royalty, tradition, culture, treaties, nobilities, manners, lords, dukes, members, kings, queens, and princes, pointedly ignoring the fact that no one, and I mean positively no one, gives a f*ck anymore.

Third, despite that vitriol above, as much as I hate to admit it, their influence is inescapable. This little island's contribution to music, philosophy, sport, poetry, science and technology is momentous. I grew up reading British literature, from Enid Blyton to Tolkein to Kipling to Dahl to Rowling to Ladybird classics. The list of British luminaries (people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Roger Penrose, Florence Nightingale, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and so on) is so long that you'll always miss someone.

If you want physical proof of this sentiment, I beseech you to visit Westminster Abbey. Every inch is covered with tombs, memorials and tributes to influential British people. 'Every inch' is not an exaggeration. If you manage to find Isaac Newton's grave in the panoply, you might step aside to take a picture. A moment later, you look down and realize that you are now standing on the grave of Michael Faraday. You jump aside in horror, but now you're trampling the grave of Paul Dirac. You leap to the other end with a yelp, but alas, you are now violating the grave of James Maxwell. You spring up five feet, like scorched by hot iron, and land rudely, in blatant desecration, on a black tile that says, "Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking."

It's inescapable.

I'm surrounded by relics of the empire that still positively affect my life, from cricket to tea to even the Oxford Dictionary or the Oxford Printing Press. The language I speak most fluently, that gives me comfort, that makes me think, that makes me feel, this terribly stupid language that I'm using to write today is theirs. 

When I first got to London, it was like I knew it already. I had explored every street on my 101 Dalmations PC game. I had a fair idea of the prestige of every neighbourhood and the difference between Mayfair and Whitechapel Road. I took pride in formulating optimal routes on the London Underground without opening Google Maps. 

Slowly, as I went from one street to another and started putting a face to the name, my Monopoly board started coming to life.

Fourth, despite everything I wrote earlier about them being the enemy, it is also true that the United Kingdom was where I first found myself. 

christopher wren tomb st. paul's cathedral

"We are in King's Cross station, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to... let's say... board a train."

In university, in Manchester, in Cambridge, faced with freedom and autonomy for the first time, I discovered who I was at my core. It's where I chanced upon my first pad thai, khachapuri, pho, bubble tea and torta. It's where, through meticulous trial and error, I found my perfect Subway sandwich (which can tell you more about a person than you can imagine). 

It's where I was bewitched into a world of David Bowie, Queen, Oasis, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. It's where, on an unsuspecting trip to a museum in Liverpool, I walked into a white room with a white piano playing Imagine. I spotted John Lennon's round glasses on top of the piano and felt goosebumps from music, just music, for the first time. That moment sparked a phase I like to call The Spring Break of Beatlemania, a memory that still makes me feel giddy, where I spent sunny afternoons lying on the grass, discovering songs like Yellow Submarine and Please Please Me.

It's where I first learned the power of a good name, from Tottenham Hale to John o'Groats to Bullyhole Bottom to Betws Bledrws. It's where I first opened my eyes to architecture and history. In Manchester, I first got used to the British style. I watched in awe how that same style rearranged itself to form other cities in patterns I never thought possible.

It's where I learned what I like and dislike and not what the adults told me I should. It's where I met people from other countries and learned about their cultures and curse words. It's where I learned to make friends from scratch every year. It's where I learned to find my tribe. 

It's where I learned to love. It's where I fell in love for the first time, fell out of it, and then back again. 

How do I separate it?

I had dispassionately applied to the University of Manchester as a backup option. How would I know something as inconsequential as that would lead to the coupling of so many destinies: of mine and the people I met, of mine and the cities I lived in, of mine and this country's soul. 

This weird little island, this kingdom, is forever entwined with my cultural awakening, twisted together like knots on a rope.

Enemy or not, I can never change that.

* * *

"The second act is called 'The Turn'. 

The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary."

* * *

sackville street building manchester

Every morning in Manchester, for three years on the trot, I made an extremely stupid decision. 

Every morning, I decided to walk from Hulme Hall, my accommodation, to Sackville Street Building, my school. 

There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glitters is gold

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

There are multiple reasons why this was dumb. 

Firstly, this 1.6-mile, 40-minute journey was utterly unnecessary. I had a student bus pass, which granted unlimited access to at least eight frequent buses on the same route. They would've gotten me there in fifteen minutes on most days.

Secondly, Manchester is notorious for its terrible weather. At 7 AM, it was particularly unkind. I often found myself trudging through persistent rain, heavy winds, snow and hail.

Thirdly, I was a student who needed all the time and energy I could get. I had lectures to skip, deadlines to miss, events to attend, nights to stay up unnecessarily, pub quizzes to lose, dance practices to worship, snooker tournaments to endure, and ping-pong rivalries to maintain. I could've benefited from extra sleep in the morning and extra energy at Sankeys or Ritz at night.

It was so dumb. 

When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed

With a word she can get what she came for

I used to joke that this was my struggle story. Next time an uncle dared to sermonise me about how he trekked miles to school every day, I would clasp my hands together in delight and puff my chest. I would sit him down with a glare and harangue him on my daily odyssey. Finally, I had earned my place among those patronizing adults; I was no longer a young boy of the modern generation who had it easy in modern times with modern technology.

Oh, it was so dumb, it was brilliant, it was just plain dumb.

In his book Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson observed (accurately) that the city of Manchester has no central motif. London has Big Ben, London Eye or Tower Bridge, depending on the age of the person you ask. Liverpool has the docks, Birmingham has the Bull Ring, Brighton has the pier, Blackpool has the never-ending depression, and Bradford has Mahmoods.

Manchester, the world's first industrial city, the birthplace of the Madchester phenomenon, now less popular than its own football teams, still has none. None of its landmarks, not Piccadilly Gardens, not Albert Square, not Old Trafford, not even Curry Mile (and yes, not even Dubai Cafe), are singularly emblematic of this place. 

Unwittingly, I had solved that problem by manufacturing my own motif for this city. 

Today, returning to Manchester after seven years, it's the walk on Oxford Road that I remember the most. 

I remember every bit of it. How I went through the same routines day after day. I remember the songs I used to play. Assiduously, I retraced my steps this time, timing Hit 'Em Up by 2Pac when I reached Old St. Mary's Hospital and Eazy E when I got to The Whitworth. I remember the bravado with which I bopped to the beats, a wet and wimpy teenager throwing gang signs and poppin' imaginary glocks every morning in the rain.

As I walk this route today, nearly a decade later, I get flashes from my past, memories I didn't know I had. 

There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure

'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings

Every small thing is making me nostalgic. I had always remembered that big park, that big church, and the Tin Can, of course I had. But what about the little things I never thought about once over the last decade, that are now greeting me like old friends? What about this grocery, this falafel spot, this barber shop, this pub that all have poignant memories? What about the spiral staircase on each double-decker Stagecoach, the absurd pattern on each seat cover, those memorable bus journeys? What about this ordinary fence, where we sat once and laughed for days? 

I'm starting to act a bit daft. 

I'm taking pictures of everything: curbs, bus stops, shops, and an open space where we once orchestrated a flash mob. The lady at the counter eyes me suspiciously as I deliriously snap pictures of this ordinary Post Office. But she doesn't understand, how could she, that this is where I learned to send a letter with a stamp. This is where I collected a birthday gift from my brother for the first (and last) time, and now I always associate this Post Office with an oversized Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt.

In a tree by a brook, there's a songbird who sings

Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven

I'm visiting on an early Saturday morning. Everyone has gone home for the summer break. This means there is no one in sight. Many of the old halls are being demolished. My nostalgic delirium is further worsened by my campus looking like a ghost town. 

The weather, typically gloomy and overcast, isn't helping either.

I remember the diversity I witnessed on Oxford Road. How I walked under auburn leaves doomed to fall, staring past the leafy curtain at people dressed like goths, road warriors and bikers. People with mohawks, tattoos, piercings and dyed hair. This unqualified celebration of individuality that was so alien to me.

I remember how I used to step away from Oxford Road under the shadow of the Palace Hotel, taking a right onto Charles Street. I used to time it perfectly with my daily rendition of Stairway to Heaven

And it makes me wonder.

I remember how I used to make another dumb decision at the junction of Joshua Brooks. Instead of walking down Charles Street, I would sneak into a shaded alleyway under an old railway bridge. This alley, the home of creatures of the night, used to be littered with syringes, beer cans, liquor bottles, and cigarette butts. It was peppered with graffiti that changed every week. One week, I walked past this graffiti that said, 'Home is where the hate is' and wondered about their story. By the following week, it had been vandalised with the words 'you make it' painted over 'hate'.

This was just one of the many well-kept secrets in Manchester.

manchester united kingdom

There's a feeling I get when I look to the West

And my spirit is crying for leaving

I remember emerging from the alleyway to face the Sackville Street Building. This monstrous French Renaissance castle was a former Vimto factory, a former technology institute, and presently still haunted, so naturally, it was chosen to be an engineering school. 

Back in the day, it was the heart of the engineering campus, teeming with students from morning to late night.

I walk up to it today and find it boarded up, defunct, desolate, no longer in use. 

I can't take it anymore. 

In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees

And the voices of those who stand looking

Earlier at Hulme Hall, I had dawdled around longer than I should have. I had lingered around the old common room, snooker room, ping-pong room, and the musty dining hall. It reminded me that this city has a smell, both in the old halls and the new ones. No picture will ever capture it. You have to be there; when you smell it, it'll unlock something in you.

I had walked up to Houldsworth, still ominous, still haunting. As I eyed that mysterious building, I was reminded of the day I saw a ghost...


Even if they didn't believe in ghosts, everyone agreed that something strange was afoot at Houldsworth, Hulme Hall.

Constructed in 1907, it was the oldest block in our residence hall. Every so often, you would hear a new myth. Many students swore by their lives that it had operated temporarily as a mental asylum earlier in the century until it was converted into a student accommodation. It was hard not to believe them. It's not always easy to assign an emotion to buildings, but it was child's play in this case: Houldsworth was drab and doleful, perfect for the deranged. 

Every corridor had a large cabinet directly opposite each room, which had been nailed shut. These students swore by their lives that these cabinets were used to permanently incarcerate the most deranged inhabitants of the asylum. They pointed out the slits in the door for passing food trays and the breathing holes on the side walls as proof. They insisted many of those inmates died in these cabinets.

Even if you didn't believe this old wives' tale, you had to admit, there was no way around it, that something strange was afoot in Houldsworth. Corridor lights flickered at whim like they sensed you. Every section echoed, often with sounds you had never made. You always felt like you were being watched. You always had a prickly feeling that there were others in the room, even when it was just you. 

The third floor was padlocked shut, completely out of bounds. Every student who does not wish to die a very painful death wished to stay enrolled was forbidden from entering it. It was rumoured to be haunted, and even if you didn't believe in ghosts, you had to concede that every so often, you could definitively hear footsteps, creaking staircases, moving furniture and whispers late at night, right above you, on the third floor where no human was ever allowed.

As you can imagine, it was a perfectly conducive environment for student safety and well-being.

As you can also imagine, I resolved to get to the bottom of it.

This would explain why, on a restless night in April, when the entire hall was hauntingly empty since all the students had gone home for spring break barring a few, I was to be found creaking up a wooden spiral staircase at 2 AM, making my way to the abandoned third floor.

Earlier that day, my friend Dorin, a fellow brave adventurer, a fellow champion of curiosity, had informed me that the third floor had been left unlocked for the night. That evening, he had heard the rustlings and whispers above him again. 

So, a plan was hatched. 

We waited till it was well past midnight so we wouldn't be bothered. 

Then, in the darkness, we set out to exorcise the phantom of Houldsworth.

Armed with a flashlight, we tiptoed up the staircase to arrive at the famed giant wooden door on the third floor. We had heard about this door but never seen it in person. The padlock had been set aside, and the door left slightly ajar. We gulped and pushed it open. 

We stepped into the third-floor corridor, where no student had set foot for decades.

I will never forget what I saw.

It was like an explosion had taken place. The corridor, a long stretch of alcoves, was covered with letters, parchments, quills, smashed ink pots, pens, and books half-open, half-torn, askew. Pages fluttering around, stained dark, half-bitten, half-folded. The floor was fully covered. We did our best to step around the detritus, hopping from one foot to another. I bent down to pick up some of the envelopes, many of them half-open. They were handwritten letters from students, dated to the 1950s. These were original letters, in their own writing, relics of history. For some reason, the ink felt fresh, but the paper felt old. It had the quality of having just been held. We made our way across the corridor, reading as many letters as we could find, prying into the thoughts of those forgotten students nearly sixty years ago.

We hopped across the last alcove, careful not to step on the broken glass of a portrait that had clearly just been smashed in anger. We had reached the room at the end. This had to be The Room, a Hulme Hall legend. Many had speculated about its existence but without any proof. Until now.

We were the first students in many years inside the mythical third-floor common room. 

We walked into one of the strangest sights I have ever witnessed.

The room was small, half the size of other common rooms, with a fireplace in the corner. A large wooden table stood by the hearth. Lying on top of it was an open magazine. 

I walked up to it. 

It was a 1973 issue of Men's Health, with Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing at the cover. A cup of tea was right next to it, half-full, still simmering.

This time, it was unmistakable: someone had just been sitting here, flipping through this magazine.

We both felt the prickling feeling that we were being watched.

At that exact moment, the lights went out.

We whipped out our flashlights and swung them around. We saw a glint in the corner and stepped forward.

As our flashlights illuminated the scene, we stepped back in horror. 

In a corner, placed perfectly so it could oversee the entire room, was an armchair, creaking slowly even though there was no wind, no air, and the windows boarded shut.

On that armchair sat a teddy bear, arms outstretched for eternity, its red eyes glinting in the flashlight.

hulme hall manchester


"Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course, you're not really looking. 

You don't really want to know. 

You want to be fooled."


I break out of my reverie to find myself back in Hulme Hall in 2023. 

For some reason, all my memories now are painted with vanilla skies. 

I'm standing outside the window of my old room. I can almost see my room with its juvenile posters, just as I left it. I can almost see a younger me bustling around. At the same time, I can see my present older self reflected in the glass window. This window separated me from who I used to be, who I will never be again, lost forever to the past. 

A past that almost feels like a figment of my imagination.

Beyond my weakening insistence that it must have happened, there's nothing.

Everyone had warned me that I wouldn't recognize Manchester; it had changed so much, grown so fast, spread so far. 

"Has it really changed?"

That night, I brought up my concerns with my friend Taabish, a resident of this city for his entire life. He gazed into the distance and sighed:

"It has, and it hasn't."

Everyone had warned me that I wouldn't recognize my city. They didn't realize that it hurt more that my city didn't recognize me.

Today, if you seek a monument to my life, you will find none in Manchester. 

* * * 

kings college cambridge

Are you watching closely?

It is a misty Sunday morning in 2014, but as always with Cambridge: does the time really matter?

I'm standing at Market Square under the shadow of the Great St. Mary's. I'm staring at a street magician posturing in front of Guildhall. He does a little jig, throws a little quip, and bursts into a limerick to summon the crowd. Once he is satisfied with the size of the mob, he puts on his top hat and spreads his arms wide. 

The show is ready to begin.

He holds up an ordinary object, his hands in this instance. He turns them around to reveal that he hides nothing in his palms. 

He tugs at his cuffs, revealing bare wrists. He asks the mob whether it's possible to hide anything here. The mob affirms that it's impossible, yes sir, it is. 

But of course, he knows, and we know, and that's the thrill of it all, it probably isn't. We're not really looking. We want to be fooled.

He drapes a black cloth over one hand. He looks at us and winks.

A little count to three. 

A snap of his fingers, and the cloth is pulled off.


A fluttering white dove is perched on the tip of his finger.


"You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through.

But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder. 

Then you... then you got to see something really special." 

In 2014, I moved to Cambridge with the intention of hating it.

How could I not? I had just completed my sophomore year in Manchester. I had a great group of friends. I was on good terms with many people in my class, residence hall and student societies. I loved my accommodation to such a degree that I was an unofficial brand ambassador for Hulme Hall. I was comfortable. I was happy. I knew exactly what to expect. I had the blank canvas of my final year right in front of me, and all I had to do was paint. I had so many more incredible memories to make. It was inevitable. I had just lived the best year of my student life, and I knew how to take it one step further.

Inexplicably, I gave it all up. I did not go back to Manchester. 

Probably because I thought I had peaked, probably because of a self-destructive streak, probably because I wanted to disrupt my story, I decided to take a gap year and applied for a year-long internship. 

But these were hard to get. It was a massive shot in the dark, and a part of me hoped I wouldn't get it. Just like how I didn't hope to get admission in Manchester in 2012 or land a job in London in 2016. I just wanted to say that I had tried. Then, I could relax because the burden of not knowing was off my shoulders. Clearly, fate had something else in store for me. 

I hoped to not get it because I did not want to deal with the consequences of actually getting it. 

For months, I chased these limited vacancies in the country. I filled out numerous application forms. I prepared for scores of online assessments and interviews. After countless rejections, I relented on my search. I felt a certain happiness at failing at this task. 

One night in late spring, after hours of playing video games with my closest friends, I went to bed and had the most pleasant dream. I saw a joyous vision of my third year with these friends. I woke up that morning knowing it was not just a dream but an omen. I knew, I just knew, that I'd get a phone call that day.

I did.

I got a call at noon, which I immediately rejected. They called again an hour later. I had secured a placement in Cambridge. The HR lady was noticeably surprised at my indifference to the news. I didn't tell her why.

Consequently, a few months later, my best friends returned to university for their final year. For another full year of having fun and making memories, a perfect year of painting that canvas, the last year we could've done it all together before we all went our ways, never to meet again. 

I, on the other hand, boarded a train from King's Cross, bitterly headed to Cambridge for a lonely exile.

I didn't want to blame myself. Having eliminated the only source of the problem, I latched onto the nearest scapegoat: this stupid little town. 

A stance was taken from the onset: Cambridge had taken my life away. 

I hated it.

bridge of sighs cambridge

There could be no better place than Cambridge for Stephen Hawking to study time.

For all that big talk earlier about finding myself in the UK, it was really my stint in Cambridge that was pivotal. You see, self-discovery is difficult when you are constantly surrounded by friends and family. You don't have to think much when your schedule is packed to the brim. When you're firmly in the passenger seat, and life just takes you from one place to another.

In Cambridge, my ride came to a screeching halt. No places to go, no friends to visit, no new food to eat, nothing. 

After twenty years, there was silence. 

In this small old city, which would still be recognizable by people who lived here a hundred years ago, time came to a stop. 

Suddenly, I had to think about what I wanted to do with my time. Days had always seemed short before. Time had been fleeting, never enough, always racing past. Now, it was painfully stagnant. Hours rolled at much slower rates, and days trickled by sluggishly.

The city knew. I lived a block away from the Corpus Clock, a large sculptural clock unveiled by Stephen Hawking. It depicted a metal creature, the Chronophage ('time eater'), turning gold-plated discs around, counting down time. The clock is only accurate every fifth minute. The inaccurate phases are meant to represent the irregularity of life. Below the clock is the inscription:

the world passeth away, and the lust thereof

The Chronophage's eyes glowed with malice. Perhaps it sensed my confusion. It was almost like it was laughing at me, mocking me, sadistically relishing my disbelief that time as a dimension, as a continuum, didn't exist in Cambridge. 

Suddenly, I had to think about how I wanted to spend each day. What appealed to me, and not what I went along with just because it was happening. For the first time, I went on solo trips and stumbled into the idea of my perfect day out. I went to the movies alone. I learned to enjoy a meal in a restaurant on my own. I learned to spend days at museums, cathedrals, cricket matches and parks. I learned to listen to music, really listen to it, and not play it in the background.

I learned to sit, just sit, sit still and found that I should've stopped running long ago.

A part of me cringes as I type this. It's undeniable that I must've become insufferable, become what I hate. But it's also undeniable that it started to grow on me over time. I began to notice beauty in the little things and depth in the facade. 

It's undeniable that I was starting to change.


The hands of the magician, splayed for the world to see.

I stayed at Peterhouse for a few months. Constructed in 1284, it was the oldest college in the university. There, I first learned to identify that mysterious heaviness that resides in every historic building. I learned to not just see a building's age, but feel it, sense it. 

My solo expeditions took me to unusual places you will not find on any bucket list. I used to gawk at the Bridge of Sighs, weighed down by the million sighs of students trudging to exam halls. I used to scoff at Newton's Apple Tree, smirking at tourists snapping pictures in delight. 

I used to walk down Parker's Piece on some evenings. It's reputed to be the birthplace of soccer football. This 25-acre park once held a historic feast celebrating Queen Victoria's coronation. But that's not why I liked it. If you approach the centre, you will notice the two diagonal paths converge at a single lamppost. This large cast-iron lamppost stands out like a sailor's mast in the middle of the ocean of green. 

If you walk up to it, you will find the base vandalised, scratched and scribbled all over. Right in the middle, etched in crude white, are the words:

Reality Checkpoint

There are many theories about its meaning. Some say this lamp serves as a glass wall for students in their bubble and the real world beyond. Others say it was often used as a beacon for wayfarers lost in the sprawling fogs of the British moors. 

Spotting the lamppost meant that they had made it to safety, to reality, back from the foggy depths of fantasy.

For me, it served as a reminder.

A little turn of the magician's hands.

It is time to reveal to you a little parallelism. A little bit of my own chicanery, if you will. That I did meet a street magician on Market Square is true (or is it?). But for all intents and purposes, that magician and the city of Cambridge are one and the same.

From the day I moved to Cambridgeshire, I became witness to a year-long magic trick.

Initially, this city came forward with fingers splayed as well, convincing me there was nothing to this place. It invited me to enter with scepticism and hatred. 

With a mischievous smile, it turned its hands around to solidify my belief that I had moved to the most unexciting place in the world.

With a wink, it tugged its cuffs, baring its wrists to cement the belief that I had made the worst decision of my life.

It draped a black cloth over one hand.

A little count to three. 

A snap of the fingers, and the cloth was pulled off.

I can't say much. I still don't get it.

All I can say is that one day, I found myself in Coe Fen, staring at the haughty Lombardy Poplar trees. The River Cam, the mysterious stream that glides beneath, green as a dream and deep as death, a magic trick in its own right, is murmuring by.

I can hear the whispers in the wind. 

These were the British moors I grew up reading about in my childhood. It was like the wind was a caressing hand, beckoning me to step into the foliage and become one with my past.

I take a step forward.

"You really don't know? 

It was... it was the looks on their faces."

I hear a car pass by, and I'm jolted into my senses. This is silly. I'm romanticizing a temporary infatuation. This newfound lust for the countryside will not last. I'm an offspring of big cities, of large towering metropolises. 

This is a fling, a hiatus, a discontinuity. 

Nothing more.


Now you're looking for the secret.


Years later in Dubai, a seedling thought planted itself firmly in my mind. A thought that congealed in the vestiges of nostalgia. I had returned to my towering metropolises. I had returned to apparent normalcy. 

But I spotted a certain restlessness.

I think about that parallel life I lost often. How, if I had just gone back to Manchester, I would've lived one of the greatest years of my life. The memories I could've made, the king's life I could've lived, the masterpiece I could've painted. 

But I didn't. 

Cambridge will always be an aberration in the story, an unexpected turn that doesn't fit the narrative. But it happened, I would do it again, and yet I won't. 

I regret it, and yet I don't.

That year upended everything I took for granted. It probed me to look deep into my preferred world, and I started to see the cracks. The fraudulence, frivolity and fabrication started to unravel.

On my last day, I left Cambridge physically unchanged. But as I boarded a train to King's Cross, the sorcery in the air slashed its final scar inside me.

Many years later, it's still here. 


A thought, an abstraction, latched onto my soul that this world around me, this towering city life, is not the normalcy I craved but rather the real discontinuity. 

There, in Cambridge, in the British countryside, my reality.

coe fen cambridge united kingdom


"Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

* * *

I've never liked revisiting places. I've always believed in travelling to a different spot, in experiencing something new. 

But my return to the United Kingdom taught me some new things. 

One, there's a certain melancholy seeped in British culture. Maybe I'm imagining it. But I feel all their old songs, all their literature and poetry, even the happy ones, have a certain malaise. 

I sense this duality even when I play upbeat music like Hey Jude, Start Me Up, Radio Ga Ga, Moonage Daydream, Wonderwall or Sultans Of Swing. If I had to guess, I'd say the British ambience, the weather, the aesthetic, the vibe, all dripping with melancholy, is so overpowering, so strong, so poignant that you can't help but imbibe it in your work. 

Maybe I'm projecting it. I don't know. 

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul

Two, there's still a life out there for me in that country. If I move back tomorrow, I will seamlessly slot back in. I can picture a routine where I meet old friends, visit old haunts and walk through the same streets every week.

Three, I'm hesitant to say never, and maybe this is another thing I don't know for sure, but a part of me feels like that chapter is closed. 

It's pretty hard to miss something that you know you won't go chasing.

I boarded my train from King's Cross and never looked back, so to speak. 

There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold

This is what I wrote in a similar blog post when I left Manchester in 2016:

To clandestine Manchester, amidst the ocean of raindrops, I thank you for being the beautiful and homely place you wished to be. No place is ever the same, and no amount of future visits can bring back the life you once lived. Buildings vanish, streets get revamped, and the people, for it is the people who truly make a place, move on. The man at Spice Kitchen who enjoyed our banter has disappeared, taking away my inclination to delve into lahori channa. The walk to the Wilmslow Park bus stop, five years down the line, will be just that, compared to the guarantee of a couple of conversations with people on the streets it was up till now. There shall be faces as always, but their names unknown. 
All that matters is the time we live in, here and now. 

Today, the fact that I predicted it gives me no satisfaction. It leaves me resigned. Helpless, the only thing I can do is take pictures of every single thing from that previous life, that fantasy world, trying to gather proof that it was real, that I didn't imagine it, that it happened, that it wasn't a fever dream.

And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last  

This visit reminded me how I was so frivolous with my time, my actions, my choices, and my relationships, not realizing that every memory I make will become a permanent notch on my soul. 

Maybe I need to put more weight on my experiences in New York. Who knows?  This inconsequential visit to this park today, that pier tomorrow might become a wistful memory I latch onto. Every casual step I take today might become a memento. I may revisit this place ten years later and try to retrace this path once again.

I don't know. It's too big an ask. It's overwhelming. 

Clearly, despite these new insights, I still don't know much.

All I know is that sometimes, especially on the days I hear Yellow Submarine, I'm struck by a vivid memory.

For a moment, for a brief moment, I am back there, lying on the grass, in that fateful spring. 

The enigmatic sun has revealed itself for a minute. In a rare moment, as those golden rays imbue my surroundings, I see the beauty in my city. 

These moments, because they were so rare, showed me that it was worth the rain, worth the gloom, worth the melancholy, worth the wait.

A part of me is still there, lying on that grass, clearly not in the present, questionable if it was ever the past, out in limbo, no, in paradise, and it will always be there.

For a brief moment, I am back there again, and there's no place in the world I would rather be.

When all are one, and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

* * *

Now, if you seek my monument, look inside you.

* * *

trafalgar square london

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Friday 9 December 2022

The Lost Kingdom Of New York

New York City skyline with Empire State

For the audio version of this story, click here (YouTube) or here (Spotify) or here (Anchor).

* * *

He emerged from Grand Central and walked steadily.

Rockefeller Center is not Greek, but it suggests the balance of Greek architecture. It is not Babylonian, but it retains the flavour of Babylon’s magnificence. It is not Roman, yet it has Rome’s enduring qualities of mass and strength.

He did not know where, but he had to go. 

Summoned by a longing beyond his reach, he let it control him. Hurriedly, he circled past bystanders marvelling at a towering sight behind him. He shot a cursory glance at that art deco steeple impatiently. A moment later, he turned and continued walking. 

Despite its impudence, despite its audacity, the Chrysler would have to wait.

Nor is it of the Taj Mahal, which it resembles in mass composition, though in it has been caught the spirit of the Taj — aloof, generous in space, quieting in its serenity.

He shuffled north on 5th Avenue, picking up pace with each step. He pushed past pedestrians, drawn to his purpose, delirious with desire.

There is no easy way from the earth to the stars. 

The Taj Mahal lies in solitary grandeur on the shimmering bank of the Jumna River. Rockefeller Center will stand in the midstream rush of New York. The Taj is like an oasis in the jungle, its whiteness tense against the gloomy greenness of the forest. 

He started jogging. He did not stop or apologise when he crashed into a group of people. The St. Patrick's Cathedral loomed ahead, but he kept up the pace. He didn't deem the Cathedral worthy of even a cursory glance. It can wait too. 

He broke into a sprint. 

He swerved left midway through the block, almost like he had to, almost like there was no other option, no other choice, no other purpose.

Rockefeller Center will be a beautiful entity in the swirling life of a great metropolis — its cool heights standing out against an agitated man-made skyline. And yet the two, far apart in site and surroundings, are akin in spirit.

Finally, he saw it, looming like a monolith, framed by the Channel Gardens. 

"The King of New York?" he whispered, fixated on the Rockefeller, fiery in the sunset.

* * *

 "Somehow, from the beginning, mujhe badhe shehron se dar lagta tha."

(I used to be afraid of big cities)

A month before I left Dubai, I decided to interview my parents. 

Frankly, this 'interview' was just a front to probe them about their lives and decisions.  

When I left for university in 2012, I departed as their son, the youngest in the house. When I returned four years later, I gradually matured into an equal, a friend (or so I think). 

It was new territory for me. 

In my entire childhood and teens, the idea of 'home', of 'family', had lapped around a parent-child dynamic. Now it was three adults under one roof. For the first time, I addressed my parents like an adult. For a change, our conversations started to be about them. I asked them countless questions about their childhood. I made them recount memories of their parents, days in school and college, relationships and friends. Spurred with bravado, I poked them to reflect on significant decisions, parenting or otherwise. 

I probed their fears. 

They had always been 'parents': omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. They had spent two decades diligently moulding me into a barely acceptable human. Now, I was back to find the human in them. On a whim, a month before I left, I decided to interview them formally. But it wasn't just an interview for me. I considered it an encapsulation, no, an immortalisation of the last five years.

On a sultry July afternoon, I sat across from my father at our rustic coffee table, 'interviewing' him. In the middle of a story I had heard a couple of times before, he added:

"Mujhe badhe shehron se dar lagta tha."

I looked up in surprise.

My father, fearless, a pillar of strength and composure, my unfailing backbone in distress... 


The man who uprooted a comfortable life twice, once from Agra to Muscat, and then from Muscat to Dubai, each time to get into a bigger city, a bada sheher. The man who did it with solidity on both occasions. With determination and courage, lots and lots of courage. All driven by a desire to give his family a better life. That it was all built on fear, and the desire to avoid ceding the same fear in his sons, needed more courage than I had ever imagined. 

I found it hard to believe. It was so un-parent. It was so undeniably, indisputably human that I got caught off guard. As I collected my thoughts, he resumed narrating his original story. Sensing a brief window, I interrupted him.

"Can I ask, what was this fear?" I asked, watching him intently.

"Bade sheher ka?"


"I used to feel lost."

* * *

Museum Of The Future Dubai UAE

It's 3 AM, but Dubai will never betray the time. 

I'm sitting on a sidewalk at Sheikh Zayed Road. 

The road of kings must be a golden blur of trailing lights. The air in front of me must be rent with the whoosh of cars flying past at speed. Mouths yakking in Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog or Bengali must be puncturing the air behind me. The sidewalk must be swarming with pedestrians and shisha cafes. No matter how deep into the night we go, the Dubai stretch of the E11 is always alive. 

I have consciously picked a spot where I can see the Emirates Towers. But they must be partially blocked by the fluidic, glistening Museum Of The Future. If I look to the right, I should be able to spot the Burj Khalifa in the distance. 

But I don't spot it. I don't see the towers, museum or the highway. I don't hear the cafe patrons or the soaring cars. I don't see any of it. The Sheikh Zayed Road, the promenade of mighty sentinels, had always evoked feelings of wonder, awe and ambition in me. But tonight, I don't feel it.

Because I'm crying.

Tu bin bataye, mujhe le chal kahi

Jahaan tu muskaraye, meri manzil hai wahi

It's the night before I leave Dubai. I hate the night for it. 

I have to leave. I hate time for its stubbornness. 

One of my closest friends scribbled on a farewell card, "Sometimes the places we love become too small to hold our dreams." I hate that it is true, every bit of it.

I hate that I feel helpless. I feel alone, but I hate that this city, the city that truly never sleeps, is alive around me. 

I feel hollow, but I hate that Dubai will never betray my darkness.

bheeg jaye mere, khwabon ka kafila

jise tu gungunaye, meri dhun hai wahin

* * * 

I landed at JFK Airport, and I was born again. 

All my life, I've just been reacting to the mise-en-scène. I didn't miss Oman, the place or the people, after I left it. Or Dubai when I escaped for the first time. Or Manchester. Or Cambridge.

I thought this time would be different. How could it not be? I had never not wanted to leave, the place or the people, so strongly. I had never felt regret and sorrow like this before. It had to be different this time. The richness of my memories, the novelty of my love, and the depth of my grief would engrave this landmark breakthrough in my emotional maturity. For a person who never cared before, this time, it would be impossible to not care...

...and yet, I didn't.

Just fourteen hours later, as I sat on my suitcase at JFK, watching taxis roll by, I realised I had relapsed into apathy once again.

A Sikh driver got out of his yellow cab, aviators glinting in the sunlight as he strutted towards me.

I landed at JFK, and I never looked back. In the months to come, I spoke of Dubai and thought of it often but never wished that life back, as perfect as it was. It was no longer a part of me. A month later, I tried to remember, relive, and wallow in the richness of my memories. I tried to dive back into the depths of my love and grief. 

But in just a month, I couldn't feel a thing. 

It was dead. 

Gradually, a single thought, pernicious and pervasive, started crawling like dark tendrils in my mind. It snaked through like a vine, accelerating in speed and coagulating in thickness. It took hold, grasping tighter and tighter over the months, and never let go.

That it was inhuman to be so cold, so indifferent, so apathetic.

* * *

I'm lugging up my suitcase in a pre-war walk-up in Upper West. As I stop at a landing to catch my breath, a diminutive wizened man steps out of his apartment. 'I Voted For' stickers pepper his door. A keychain with at least twenty keys jangles at his buckle. 

"You moving in, guy?" he rasps. I nod, still bent over, panting heavily. He asks me my name and apartment and grunts in response. I flash him a smile in between deep breaths, trying to befriend my new neighbour. 

He doesn't smile back. 

He shuffles across and starts descending. As he leaves, I try to slink in some last-minute questions punctuated by my exaggerated panting.

"What's your name?" I huff.

"Everyone calls me Lefty," he barks as he continues descending.

"Where are you from?" 

"Puerto Rico."

I ask no more. He stops, turns around and locks eyes.

"But I've been around New York seventy-three years, guy."

* * *

Woke up today and the sun was shining

I said Mr Sun

Where have you been?

It's my first morning in the city, and I'm out to get a bagel. A line stretches across the block for Absolute Bagels, and I join the rear. I resist the urge to Google the best bagel on the menu. Now that I'm in NYC, I've committed to striking up random conversations with strangers. I tap the lady in front of me.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but have you been here before?"

She's a middle-aged woman with short hair, bright eyes, a pleasant smile and round glasses. She's delighted to hear that it's my first day in New York. She peppers me with questions about Dubai. I struggle to find an opening to question her instead, and I finally get one.

"What about you? What do you do?"

"Oh, I'm just a personal assistant to an actor," she said dismissively, waving her hand nonchalantly. She launches into a question about Dubai's heat like her answer was anything but matter-of-fact. An actor? Is this normal, New York? Do people bump into entourages all the time? It was my first day out, my first encounter, and it was already unconventional by my standards.

"Which actor?" I feign casual interest. 

"Elliot Page."

I make a mental note that this is pushing it, even for my first story in the city. We continue talking about Dubai's heat, Brad Pitt's tweet and Columbia's feat. We reach the counter, and I mimic her suggestion: an everything bagel, butter and toasted, chives and garlic cream cheese. As I pull out my wallet, she taps my arm and says she wants to buy me my first bagel in the city. I resist, but she is adamant. She refuses flat, hands over the cash to the server and hands me my bagel. 

"Why?" I protest.

"I cannot explain it fully, but I had to get it for you. It just feels right, you know?"

* * *

That evening, I was walking outside Madison Square Garden. A neon blue Mustang pulled up on the road. The signal turned green, and the driver revved to make the exhaust sputter like a firecracker.

A black man across the street robotically dropped to the ground and covered his head. 

He hadn't seen the car. He had only heard what he thought were gunshots. A few seconds passed, and he got back up and continued walking like nothing had happened. 

Like it was normal. 

Just routine, duck when you hear a shot, cover your head, say a prayer and carry on with your day.

I got to show you the dark

So you can really feel the light

You know

In just a day, I had seen two different Americas.

* * *

"I have a lot of respect for this city. This city will make you respect her."

I said nothing in return to her. 

My university had launched a free nightly cab service for students around campus since getting shot is always a tangible possibility on any given night in this city. I used the cabs flippantly, spotting an opportunity to 'earn' back some of my investment into this vacuous degree. The campus and surrounding neighbourhoods were assigned a fixed number of cab drivers, so we knew them all. They were local celebrities. 

That is how I met Geneva, an older woman with the vivacity of a teenager. For a year, on many nights, often at the deathly hour of 3 AM, amid rain, snow, or other dangers of the night, she would slide up the street, unroll her window and give me a cheery greeting. Entering Geneva's cab meant that I was safe for the night. By the time I settled in, she was already telling me about her day. She always spoke at length, never unflustered by her passenger's response (or lack of it). 

I never saw her face. I don't know what she looks like, not enough to recognise her on the streets. I can only identify the back of her head, frizzled with grey hair, curls swaying around as she chatted animatedly. A giant surgical mask always concealed her face. The first night I met her, I asked her what New York used to be like decades ago. 

"She doesn't care if you love her," Geneva proclaims, almost lost in thought. "She has the tendency to take your love and throw it right back at you."  

I still said nothing. Geneva settled into rare silence as well. Her words still hung around, refusing to vaporise, sinking deeper and deeper. As the cab trundled down Morningside Drive, I stared blankly into the abyss of the park, pricked only by the distant lights of East Harlem. It was one of those pitch-dark nights in Manhattan, no wind, no cloud, no movement. Just eerie darkness, thick and resolute.

I gazed into the abyss, and the abyss was gazing back. 

* * *

I'm on the 1 train heading Upper West. It's midnight on a Saturday, so naturally, drunk students fill the carriage with their singing, giggling and fighting. It's your classic subway midnight pandemonium. To my left, a young man in a floral shirt and pair of shorts is sitting in silence. He's resting his legs on a giant suitcase, gazing into the distance, lost in wistful thought. 

"Are you flying somewhere tonight?" I ask.

"No." He sees me looking at the suitcase and adds, "I'm a magician. I'm coming back from a show."

Unprompted, he unzipped the front pocket of his suitcase and removed a deck of cards. He gave me an ace of spades and made it disappear. He asked me to look in my pocket, and it reappeared. I didn't tell him I was still marvelling at a better trick. That New York's ability to reveal a new life, marvellous in talent and origins, exotic in dimension, hitherto unimaginable that the 'man-next-to-me-on-the-subway' could be an artist, musician, actor, poet or magician. A new story just inches apart. I didn't come from places where this was common.

That was magic for me. No trick, no simple secret, no big giveaway. That wasn't just magic; it was real magic.

The train screeches to a halt at 110th. He lets me keep the card in my pocket. 

I step out and wave. 

"Wanna see the fastest trick in the world?" he shouts as the doors close. Through the window, I see him put a deck of cards in his mouth. He points to my pocket. I put my hand in to find nothing. As the train glides past, he sticks his tongue out, splaying all the cards against it. Only one card is facing up. 

It's the ace of spades.

* * *

Grief is the price we pay for love.

I first read those words on a pediment at the 9/11 Memorial Garden in London in 2014.

I thought of them again today, seven years later. That day, I read them. Today, I feel them.

As I sat on a slab at Ground Zero on the twentieth anniversary of the horrific attacks, for an hour, I knew the true meaning of poignancy. I could see families of victims standing by the pools, some openly weeping, some resting their heads and crying softly, some caressing the engraved names with eyes closed, some with their heads bowed. 

The 9/11 museum has audio tapes of victims calling their family one last time, reassuring them even though their voice betrays the inevitable. Leaving a message behind for everyone they ever loved as death crept closer and closer. The museum has a backpack that a mom painted for her child's first day of school that she never got home to hear about.

As I sat on a slab at Ground Zero, I felt their sorrow like it was mine. Their grief was so heartrending, so powerful, that it trickled out of them all and coalesced into a layer that permeated the hearts of every person there that day. It was that mother who wept inconsolably in that corner, but it was that crowd, that nation and that world that collectively mourned that day.

I walked up to the memorial. There, framed against the backdrop of the Memorial Pools and the Freedom Tower, I spotted a solitary rose wedged into the engraved name of a victim.

Beside it was a drop that couldn't be anything but a tear.

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hands to left or right,
And emptiness above –
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

9/11 Memorial New York

* * *

I thought you died alone

A long, long time ago

I went back to Dubai in the winter and right from the moment I landed, something was wrong. 

It was like I was playing a tape of my greatest hits. Everything was exactly how I left it, but I felt detached, mindful of my alienation. That entire month, I could not get rid of that feeling.

When you say goodbye to a place, you don't just say goodbye to that place. It's not just farewell till we meet again to the people, to the places, to the food, to the memories. It's really goodbye. It’s goodbye to the person you were at that time, at that moment, with those friends, at those places, in those memories. It's goodbye to the self you will never meet again.

Admitting it is hard, harder than leaving itself.

Oh no, not me

We never lost control

You come back, and it's not the same. The people remain, the places remain, the food remains, and the memories remain, but something’s different. It’s you. It’s you all along. You feel like you’re watching a video, a simulation, an imprint of what was. A shadow and a thought. Everything’s happening just like it should be, but you’re not there in the moment.

You’re shipwrecked, stranded at sea, lost to the present, detached from the past. 

On the night before I left, I leaned on her shoulder and stared at the skyline. 

You're face to face

With the man who sold the world

* * *

I came back to New York, and I had no memory of the place. 

I had felt misplaced in Dubai, but the city was still in my muscle memory. I had mindlessly slotted right back in. Not once did I think of my daily life in Upper West. The route to campus, the art store on the way, my room, the creaky staircase, the newel, the moulding. Those little things that surround you but never make it to primary thought when you're away.

I came back to New York, and I had no memory of the place. 

For years and years I roamed

I gazed a gazeless stare

It was like I had never lived here.

I went back to Dubai, but I wasn't home. I didn't live there anymore; the part of me that did was in the past, gone, if not dead. 

I came back to New York, but I wasn't home.

I must have died alone

A long, long time ago

Columbia University In New York City

* * *

I'm standing outside Carnegie Hall. I've just slipped out of a rendition of Franz Lizst. An elderly woman walks up to me and takes my elbow. We strike up a conversation. She starts talking about the music, her roots in Hungary, her rendezvous with spirituality, and her time in the Himalayas. Fascinated, I enquire further, my eyes getting wider and wider with interest. 

She seems to enjoy my incessant gaze. She says she feels something in it, something familiar. Like we've met before, if not now, then in a previous century. I smile, but she insists. 

She continues to talk about her date with the divine. She talks about belief and faith. After ten minutes, my friends beckon that it was time to leave. As we say goodbye, she pulls me closer and looks deep into my eyes.

"Very soon, something magical will happen. Something magical, to some people." 

She smiles at me knowingly and walks away.

* * *

How can you not love New York?

The first time I saw that skyline, I felt a surge. It was like a shock, an electric current, a jolt through my entire body.

Despite a year of wide-eyed stares at this city's spires and silhouettes, I still feel it. At sunrise, when a mist envelopes the stone and brick giants, to sunset, when the glass monoliths glisten pink with reflections of the setting sun, I still feel it. 

Despite a year of feeling it, I still struggle to voice it. 

It's a struggle so real, so frustrating, so annoying that I just want to grab the nearest person and share how I feel. How I really feel. I'm convinced even my best attempt would still not do justice, if not destroy the sanctity of this experience entirely. But I want to try, despite knowing that I will fail. I want to try, try, try and try again in hopes that one day someone will see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel.

I want to tell them that New York, not just the city but even the idea of it, is where I feel alive.

That the speed and ambition of New Yorkers is so palpable that you cannot help but imbibe it. That every street has a history so rich that I feel overwhelmed daily. That when I stand at the opposite shores of the Hudson or the East River, the Manhattan waterfront is as big a temptation to me as it was to a young, uncorrupted Robert Moses. That when I walk up the steps of the City Hall, I want to shake my fist at its white Georgian elegance and shout, "No more free lunch!" like Fiorello La Guardia. That when I hear stories of mafia wars in Little Italy, the lores of Hells Kitchen, Fort Clinton, Apollo Theatre, Madison Square Garden, or the tale of the Battle of Mothers against Tavern-On-The-Green, I'm as enchanted as I am inundated. 

That those who say Times Square is too crowded, too noisy, too dirty, too chaotic are missing the point. Amidst the kaleidoscope of digital screens, faces, languages, music and performances from across the globe, Times Square is not a standalone landmark, but at its core, just a mirror.  

That if you had to create a physical centre of the world, mildly representative of the richness of life, of its diversity, of its extremities, then one possible physical manifestation of that unattainable idea could be Times Square. Colours to chaos, cacophony to crowds, digital to dirt, everything good and bad about our world needs to be in Times Square to make it serve its purpose.

That when I crane my neck to look up at the Woolworth, Chrysler or the roof of the cavernous Grand Central, I feel as large as I feel small. That when I look at the Empire State, regal and imperious, I'm overcome by the dreams of people who truly grasped the full reality of human stature. 

That when I look at the skyline, particularly in the moments when I can't see the details but just the hazy silhouettes and the thoughts that made them, I feel shock, wonder and helplessness all in one. I feel like looking and kneeling like Howard Roark. I feel like throwing myself into space, over the city, over that skyline, over this scene.

Over the sky of New York and the will of man made visible.

I want to tell them that the thing I love most about this city is how much it humanises me. 

That this city's head start in architecture, history, food, fashion, theatre, comedy, music, dance or art is undeniable. That this city expands your perspective from Broadway to jazz to opera to comedy to television to pizzas to bagels to bialys is irrefutable. That you could spend every day of your life visiting a new gallery, museum, restaurant or theatre and still be left unsatisfied is inevitable. That from Koreatown to Little Italy to Washington Heights to Jackson Heights to Flushing, you could get a microcosm of hundreds of different countries and cultures in one dense region is insurmountable.

Geneva said this city doesn't care about anyone's love, and she's right. To claim ownership over this city, to call this city your home, is pointless. First, that statement would be ridiculously untrue. This city is unconquerable. It's wild, independent like Holly Golightly, untameable like Shadowfax. To call yourself a 'New Yorker' would mean the same as calling yourself the King of New York. Absolutely nothing.

Second, the city really doesn't care.

Maybe the allure of the unattainable makes the quest so enticing. It makes me restless. It makes me hold onto my angst, makes me want to preserve it, because I've realised I need it. That this city's intractable mysteries keep me sharp, on the edge, where I want to be. 

I want to grab this New Yorker, tell them everything, and still be mindful that I have barely scratched the surface. That I'm bursting at the seams to say what cannot be said, to grasp what cannot be grasped. 

I want to tell them that sometimes in the day I run. I run because I feel free. In a city that is the sublime personification of the furthest reach of the human spirit, I run to move the world. I run at moments when I could have walked, or not at all. I run to catch the train, to cross the sidewalk, to get that bagel, to attend that event, to board that ferry, to meet that person. To write my newest chapter. I run to give life meaning, to give it purpose.

That this is not just a city, but an institution, a dynasty. An empire state.

That sometimes in the day, I run, I run, and keep running as fast as I can, chasing what I cannot see.

I run for my destiny.

* * *

How can you not hate New York?

How can you not hate it with every fibre of your being, with hatred so deep, so putrid, so vile that your heart burns like an inferno?

I want to grab every proud 'New Yorker' and shake them. Shake them to wake them from this self-imposed trance, to make them see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel. 

Shake them till we shatter this grand illusion.

Shake them till they realise that New York is in a perpetual state of decadence, if not already dead. That the Big Apple is a fruit that decayed long ago. That this is Gotham in all the vices, and there's no Batman in sight to save us. That the city with the most 'woke' people is also the one with the most asleep. That this is no longer the city where dreams are made but rather hissed and spat on. 

I want to show them that they could all pack their bags and leave tomorrow, and nothing inherent in the city would ever bring them back. It is the world's most elaborate Ponzi scheme. That the only reason this city is considered the hub of arts, culture and humanity is because of the network effect of people believing it still is. Present-day New York sustains wholly on this self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, those most indispensable to any city, the ones that give it spirit, give it meaning, give it soul, are the ones it hates the most. 

I want to shake them till they realise that a city's primary objective is to facilitate living. To give people homes, communities and places of leisure. Yet, from stability to serenity to safety, this city gives you nothing. A home lacks everything a home should have. Houses are as unliveable in the summer as they are in the winter. Rents are unaffordable no matter where you go. The subway stations are still unable to withstand an hour of heavy rain. Getting a car is pointless. The subway will either deafen you or not show up at all, never in between. The parks are as suffocating as the streets, and as dangerous at night as unassuming they are in the day. 

That whenever I get an opportunity to get outside the city, whether in the valleys of the Hudson, the mountains of the Appalachian or even by the shores of the North Atlantic, I realise how much this city has changed me. How its personality has latched onto mine like a parasite, twisting and contorting, until we are one and the same. 

That in the moments I squirm out of this city's clinch, I feel a marked lightness, like a burden is off my shoulders. I realise how I never feel calm at night anymore. I realise I've stopped looking up at the blue sky when I walk. I realise I've stopped looking far into the horizon when I sit. How I've got so caught up in the energy, the madness, the chaos of this city that I've lost myself. 

That this city overwhelms you to always do more. To be everywhere, to eat everything, to see everything, to meet everyone. In seducing you to be someone it says you should be, it chips away at your former self. Under the lure of showing you the world, it eats up your soul.

That this city has an ego. It has pride, like an emperor, stubborn in denial, a shadow of its former self. 

That other cities don't strew their streets with filth. Other cities are not overrun by rats. Other cities don't contend with the constant smell of urine, vomit, weed and faeces. That residents of other cities don't function daily on a pulsating substrate of deep-rooted anger. Anger that is bubbling to erupt at the slightest inconvenience.

That the thing I hate the most about this city is how much it dehumanises me.

That I feel dirty within ten minutes of stepping outside, not just physically.  Other cities don't display the frivolity of life and its own cold apathy so blatantly. Other cities don't treat the dead and drugged, society's depraved, abandoned with insouciance, as an obstacle to step over for pedestrians.

That the cost of pursuing New York's depth in history, culture, fashion, technology or arts shouldn't come at a price so steep.

I want to shake them till they realise that a task as simple as walking on the streets shouldn't carry a chance of being shot, stabbed or mugged. I've walked at night in the empty streets of big cities of countries they might consider 'backward'. Cities that don't hold a candle in their eyes to New York. Not once, whether in Mumbai or Manchester, Tehran or Tbilisi, Dar Es Salaam or Doha, not once did I ever fear for my life. No other city serves its people so recklessly, so diabolically, so ruthlessly. That it took a brief trip back to Dubai to remember that stepping out at night didn't always come with lingering anxiety.

Shake them till they realise being a 'New Yorker' is not a badge of honour. It's a target on your back. 

That taking the train from Times Square shouldn't mean you might get pushed on the tracks. That walking in Downtown shouldn't mean you might get stabbed in the back. That people in other cities don't always say 'get home safe' during goodbyes, and mean it. That rape, murder, war and terror should only be a song lyric, not literally a shot away. 

That the value of a life should not be so meaningless, so inconsequential, so pointless.

I want to shake them till they know that I feel as lost in this city as my father did in Delhi forty years ago. That I feel unwelcome. That I feel dirty because this city stains my soul. That I fear this city, but I cannot turn back, spitting on the shoulders of the giants I stand on today. That I am the consequence of the power of an idea, a dream in motion, a thought in effect, decades in the making, generations in sacrifice.

That I hate this city the most at night. I hate it with a hatred so deep, so putrid, so vile that my heart burns like an inferno. I hate it because every night in New York, I'm afraid.

That sometimes, at night, I run. I run as I hear rustling at the corner of my eye, not knowing whether it's a rodent or a man with a knife. I run when I should've walked, or not at all. I run past lunatics, demented and deranged, the ones lost forever to the shadows, expecting a bullet to pierce my back at any second.

That sometimes at night, I run, I run, run as fast I can, afraid to look back, afraid to stop.

I run for my life.

* * *

I'm sitting in Washington Square Park.

On some nights, an unearthly haze descends on Manhattan. A plane of mist unravels over the city, dissecting all the towers neatly in half, their summits lost to sight beyond the fog. It feels surreal, bizarre, a world warped uncannily. 

Manhattan needs the sky.  

The sky is the anchor, a keystone for all these obelisks. It puts the end goal in sight. But on these unearthly nights, you can't see the sky. The towers are now headless stumps. There is no zenith, just an impregnable, suffocating sheet of haze, and the unknown beyond. It's one of those nights. 

Washington Square Park is privy to the ominous. After all, the park was built on a burial ground. The spots where the city congregates daily lie above the bodies of 20,000 souls. The elms under which picnickers sit were used for public lynchings. Paranormal sightings are common, whether at the flickering streetlight to the south, the weeping tree to the east or the bohemian dancing women on the arch. 

It's one of those nights.

You can almost hear the whispers in the wind if you're quiet enough. The whispers of the souls buried underneath the park.

A few months ago, a student was stabbed on campus. Last month, I was heading downtown when a friend called me to get off the train. There had been a shooting at the next stop. A week later, shots were fired in Chelsea when I was ten minutes away from getting there. 

I'm talking to a friend about my near escapes. I'm agitated. This city is playing with the law of averages on human lives.

A homeless man walks up to us. His face is shaded by the darkness, his eyes partially hooded. He leers at me.

A few seconds pass, maybe a minute, maybe an hour, maybe an eternity. I feel a prickle. 

I can hear the whispers again.

He tilts his head and rasps:

"Relax, you are already dead."

He leers at me, and I stare back at the void. I gazed into the abyss and the abyss was gazing back. 

He turns and walks off slowly. I turn to my friend, who is equally taken aback. I turn back at the man.

I had looked away for a second. He could've barely walked a couple of steps.

But when I looked back, he was gone.

* * *

New York was his town, and it always would be.

"The King Of New York?", he whispered, focusing on the Rockefeller, fiery in the sunset.

"By God, I am."

30 Rockefeller Center

* * *

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