Sunday, February 16, 2014

Conversing with familiar strangers...

After weeks of poring over books and journal articles in my dingy room (without actually registering what I am reading), I decided to step outside for a change. With a few books I headed to the Trafalgar Square. It was a sunny morning so I decided to grab a cuppa coffee and a scone and sit outside the square café. My intention was to get to the reading material right away but I couldn't help but lean back and soak in the sun and the life around. It's funny because in India and Malaysia I used to hide from the sun. Here I've come to appreciate that wonderful sensation that is the sun on skin. 

So there I was, out on a wooden bench, for once my mind off what I need to be doing or haven't done. I felt happy and let the laughter around me drown my internal deadlines. The square is a nice place to sit by yourself on a clear Sunday. You'll see families walking around, young couples with prams, harrowed mothers chasing their kids, couples lost in each others eyes and, of course,  noisy teenagers goofing around. There were two twin boys running around as their parents filmed them, the mother occasionally stepping in as one twin pushed the other on to the floor or pulled at his hair. A middle aged couple sat in front of me, holding hands, looking across the square,  occasionally leaning into each other for a quick kiss.

After a while I spot three ladies walking towards the café, their arms interlinked, and sit down next to me. As I try to focus on the book, I can't help but overhear their conversation. As one of them goes inside to get them drinks the two ladies next to me begin to talk about their grandchildren. 
"What are your grandchildren doing Helen?"
"Your grandchildren, Helen, where are they?"
"Timothy is teaching English. Somewhere in South America. I think he can speak English."

I smile at that and look on at the children chasing around pigeons. One boy in particular was intently following one pigeon, till the pigeon stopped and this boy tried to jump on it. As the scared pigeon flew away, the boy looked around for his next target. 

"Helen, don't you remember coming to the square for the demonstrations?"
"I don't remember much, dear. Why are we here?"
"We are just here to look around. Then we'll meet Philip. He'll take you out for dinner."
"Philip is coming? Do you know where? Because I don't know."
"It happens, Helen, we are old now."
"We have lived for too long. I thought I'd be dead by now."
"But I'm too young to die."

As the third lady comes back with their drinks I decide to start a conversation with them. I've been here long enough to realize that talking about the weather is a good place to start off. 
"It's a good day, isn't it?"
"Oh it's lovely! The sun is just wonderful. Hard to believe we had strong gales a few days ago. Well, I think it's global warming. Why can't people understand that? We are doing so much harm to the planet that the earth is trying to shake us off."

And there begins what would turn out to be the most interesting conversation I've had in a while, with Helen, Maisie and Ann. 
"Have you three known each other for long?"
"Oh yes dear we are very old." says Maisie with a laugh. 
"We have been coming here together for years. We used to demonstrate for peace here. You remember the protests in 2003? Against the Iraq war? We were here for that"
"Tony Blair and George Bush, they are the real terrorists." chips in Ann.
"We came here for the demonstration to free Nelson Mandela too. The place was thronging with people. And the next day when I went to my class I was elated to hear a teacher in the next class play songs of African freedom."
"David. David Cameron, he is a hypocrite. As a young Tory he used to walk around with badges saying 'Hang Mandela' and he went to South Africa to support the apartheid, what right does he have now to go to Mandela's funeral?"
"I came here for the memorial services with my grandson, I was so excited for him. He has never been to anything like this."
"We are always campaigning. Have you heard of Wool against Weapons? This wonderful lady, Jaine, started this by herself and now it has spread all over the UK. We are knitting a 7 mile long pink scarf to protest against government spending on nuclear warheads."
"What are we doing here?"asks Helen.
"We are waiting for Phillip, Helen. He should be here in 5 minutes."

The conversation then shifts back to Helen as the other two try to see if she remembers anything. 
"You remember us, right, Helen?"
"Just about'" and then Helen turns to me and says with a wide smile "I used to be clever."
"You used to be very clever, Helen" says Ann. 
"You are young, aren't you" Helen asks me.
"Oh she is very young, Helen"

"You make use of your time, darling. Old age will come before you realize. Every decade in your life will go faster than the one before." And with that Ann sets me thinking.

The lovely ladies- from right to left- Maisie, Ann, Helen.

We are quiet for a while as we sip on our tea and coffee. The square is more crowded now as the sun shines even brighter on us. I laugh as I see three brothers, all under 6, chase each other and when one stops all topple over each other. The youngest one sits on the older ones face as the father just stands there with a pram, a look of resignation on his face. A little girl dressed in red and white polka dots with pink fairy wings hops along and Ann exclaims 'She looks like a lady bird!" 
Helen looks down and greets a pigeon next to her "Hello there!"

They get excited when they find out I am from Kerala. 
"I've heard that's the best place in India! The women there are very strong. It is sad that in some other parts of India women are not valued as much. I heard a case where a woman aborted four fetuses when she found out they were females. That is horrible. Especially because I think women are superior than men. Even logically, we are the ones who procreate so nature favours us over men. Nature doesn't need very many men to progress." That is some food for thought. 
"I've been to a nice restaurant which has Kerala food. I can't have the spices though."
"When is Phillip coming?"

Ann says to me she has always wanted to go to Kerala but somehow it never worked out. "I've travelled to some other places, though. I've been to Egypt and Greece...and Istanbul. That was wonderful. The first time I went I saw these beautiful murals and in their souks, they sold these handmade art. But the last time I went the markets were selling these trashy items that we can get here as well. That is really sad."

At one point I mention that I have a blog and I write about being 'Brown in Britain'. Maisie gets excited and tells me about a poet friend of hers-James Berry- who writes about race. And then she surprises me by quoting from memory snippets of a poem that he wrote, to comfort a young girl who complained to him that she was being bullied for being a different colour. I came back and looked it up. The poem is called Okay, Brown Girl Okay. This is the para she quoted from- 

Josie, Josie, I am okay
being brown. I remember,
all the time bright-sky and brown-earth
work together, like married
making forests and food and flowers and rain.
        And they would like to say to you:
        grow and grow brightly, brown girl.
        Write and read and play and work.
        Ride bus or train or boat or airplane
        like thousands and thousands and thousands
        of people, who are brown and white
        and black and pale-lemon color.
        All the time, brown girl Josie is okay.

As Maisie notes down my blog address, Ann confesses that she hasn't kept up with technology or 'anything new'. 
"The world is changing too fast. In my childhood change happened at a slower pace, and there was stability because of that. Now it is scary how fast things are moving. It is not good for human beings because we are now working under so much pressure. Even when you are in the tube you see people looking at their screens and not noticing anything going on around them. Nothing remains the same."
Helen smiles at me again and says "I used to be clever."

And so our conversation flowed from global warming to empowerment of women to nuclear warhead to the African National Congress. These three ladies made a lovely Sunday even lovelier and more meaningful. Soon it was time for them to leave. Helen was surprised to find out they are going to meet Phillip. 'He is coming?". They wished me luck and  we went our different ways. 

People around us are walking stories, just waiting to be heard. I am thankful I was there when these beautiful ladies decided to draw me into their lives for that short while we were together, sharing a beautiful day. I may never meet them again, but their words and warm smiles will always remain with me. 


  1. This is honestly the most beautiful thing I've ever read on your blog. Loved it so much. Especially the thoughts on nature favouring women and the remark on change/stability.

    How on earth do you strike up such meaningful conversations with random strangers??!

    1. Thank you, meri jaan! <3
      It's all thanks to these beautiful souls. They just kept dropping wise nuggets left, right and center! I am so glad something made me talk to them. Would have been such a loss otherwise.

  2. Nazreen, you write beautifully!
    Brings back memories of my lazy after noons near Trafalgar Square, 20 years ago when I was living walking distance from the square.
    Come back with conversations with more walking stories; you will see history, culture, philosophy and sociology unfold in front of you and this is more enriching that volumes of books in the nearby British Library.
    Keep writing! - Josy

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I agree fully with your sentiment on conversations, they are capable of introducing to us another world unknown.

  3. This is a great read!
    You've written this to perfection, It's just as if they are talking!
    It has made me even more proud of my Nana and her fight for equality (Macy) !!

    1. Thank you so much for taking time out to read this Daniel! Please convey my regards to your nana. And also let her know that she has inspired a lot of people in my family and friends! :)

    2. Nana Macy definitely has a fan club :)

  4. You have captured the atmosphere of that sunny morning brilliantly, Nazreen. It was a real pleasure to meet you. Keep writing and hopefully you will inspire more people to speak out and take action against all the injustices in the world. Just one correction - the poet is James, not Richard Berry. So glad I was able to introduce you to his poetry, I do hope you will read more of his work. I wish you success in all you do. Macy (one of the old ladies).

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Maisie! I can't tell you how happy it makes me! And I'm sorry for misspelling your name!

      So many of my friends were inspired by your energy and your will to help others. Thank you again for talking to me and sharing with me your experiences!

  5. Really impressive.....simply put, the aspect of striking a positive chord irrespective of the situation, connecting humanely with strangers........and not to miss out on the that's recall par excellence.....good reading this one.