Recently, a statement by Indian journalist and tv commentator, Karan Thapar, caught my eye. Thapar was quoted as saying, “I go to London at the end of every year because I want to start the new year in a civilised country”. At the time of this statement, I had never been to London, and definitely not over the new year. I found the statement to be odd, disconnected, and perhaps even unpatriotic. After all, we South Asians are a civilised lot.Aren’t we? And culture? By God, we are oozing culture like Saudi oil.
As oft happens in such circumstances, where we take positions on matters we don’t know fully well about, the powers that be had a strange plan in mind. One that would take me to London.
And so it came to pass.
To be fair, I had been warned by family and friends who are aware of my general dislike of most of the human race –to be prepared son, to be greeted and smiled at, and to be helped by absolute strangers. Be prepared, child.
The trouble these days in most discourses is that we are unable to see things in isolation. It’s always a comparison, with other ideas, other people, other politics. Just because one thing about something is good, it does not in any way mean that it must be immediately diluted by propping by a bad thing. The best, recent example of this, is the PTI winning the elections, but for a master class on obfuscation, please tune into any tv news channel between 8pm and 11pm daily, Monday to Friday. The reason I’m saying this now will become apparent shortly.
In any event, I arrived in London, well-prepared for something I know nothing about, large-scale civility. Travelling as a family of three is very insulating, as you can cover great distances on public transport in each other’s company, and not be forced to make eye contact with strangers. But it’s bound to happen once in a while. And when it did, it was always followed by a smile, and maybe a cursory remark or a question, all said in good faith. Now don’t get me wrong, if a stranger approaches me here in Pakistan, especially with an Assalamualaikum, my first instinct is to wonder if I owe this person some money. Or whether he is about to ask me something or the other. That’s just how it is.
But nobody asked me for loose change. Or anything. They were just being polite. And the cultured and civil South Asian that I am, I had nowhere to run, and with my back against the wall, I smiled back. And then carried on with my business.
A few days later, at a crowded market in Camden, I managed to lose my glasses. How something like that can be done is a conversation for another day. But in a crowded market, I managed to lose the permanent glasses that I wear. To mourn my loss, I decided to step into a tavern, as it were. I tried to retrace the path that I had taken on the day, and when it finally came to me, I went back and ended up outside a public washroom. Because it was the weekend, the place was teeming with locals and tourists alike. I saw one official looking person and thought maybe she would be able to help. “Why yes, somebody did bring in some glasses a little while ago, are these yours?”
I was saved. Life returned. We carried on with our business and soon were on our way back home via the fantastic London tube network, which in itself, is a modern wonder. “I’ve lost my phone,” said my wife. “What?”“I’ve lost my phone!” she shouted without raising her voice. Again, we retraced our steps and decided that it was the tavern we had stopped in, to rue the day’s losses, which perhaps was the best bet. So I called them. And the barkeeper answered.
“Hi, we were a family of three that recently stopped by your fine establishment, and may have left a phone on the table.”
“Let me check” came the reply.
A few minutes later, the person, who I later found out, was Mandy from Dublin, came back online, and asked which phone is it, and when I correctly identified the phone model, she said, “Yup, it’s here, we’re keeping it in the safe, just come whenever you can and collect.”
And that was the end of that. I wondered if this would have happened back home, and the immediate answer was no way. Absolutely no way. The phone would have been shut down, the sim thrown away, and sold in Hafeez Centre within two hours. It would be with a new owner the same evening. That’s life, in civilised South Asia.
I had earlier spoken about looking at things in isolation, and not obfuscating them with comparisons. All this praise about London and Londoners must have some people straining at their leashes. “They’re murderers! They looted our lands and killed our people! They have bad hygiene!”
Indeed, they looted our lands. A quick stroll through the British Museum is enough to see that. But can you name me one empire, any empire, that was able to conquer countries far and wide by their wit alone? Or maybe by their poetry?
The hygiene bit, I’m not aware about, and don’t want to be either.
But civility. By George, they’ve got it down.