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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