For almost a decade, I used to live within and breathe the soul of London. Today, it seems clear that she is beautiful only as a memory of an unfinished self. Lost, ambitious, capitalistic and incapable of true empathy. It’s sort of how I would describe myself as a teenager, and sort of how I experienced London in those days. When I first moved to this contradictory capital city, I was a few days shy of my 16th birthday and when I finally left her as a place to call home, I was a few months into my 24th birthday. I can’t imagine a more fragile age in one’s human life to absorb this European cosmopolitan of 8 million and in many ways I feel grateful I didn’t completely drown in her plethora of extremes.
It’s difficult to ascertain when the initial lionization of London began. Coming from one of the empire’s ex-colonies, it would be expected I guess that somewhere in the infrastructure of our society there would be relics of her identity lodged within us in some intangible form. Do we manifest it as a form of resistance, resentment, disdain, longing, affection or maybe all of these juxtapositions lumped together in an inexplicable gossamer? Who knows? We can never escape the past, it informs both our present and our future. Every episode of colonisation/ subjugation/ violation over an entity’s autonomy, especially lasting more than a century, never leaves the contemporary psychology of the colonised untouched by an intimate yet confused impression of the occupying power.
During my parents youth, in the 50’s and 60’s, they spoke of society’s uncomplicated infatuation. Every local household saw it as a sign of social elevation to have proximity with British society whether through the friends they keep, the school they educated their children in, the lifestyle they emulated etc. By the time my parents became parents to school-going children, nationalistic pride was awakened and there was a valiant effort to divorce one’s self from past domination. The national language, Asian values, Eastern identity was uplifted and Western patronisation was viewed with a little bit of contempt. Despite these sentiments however, a British education was still the coveted trophy for the worldly and ambitious. And worldly and ambitious, my father was.
As a child, I saw my elder siblings waltzing in and out of the airport decked in dark blazers and white shirts, leather bound travel wallets and smart suitcases and the fantasy of one day being grown up in a big, grand city far away from home began. I grew up pretty much reading books by British authors, stocking up on English teenage pop magazines, watching English movies (or at least movies about the English) and relishing every second of every trip to England. By the time I was in the plane to move and study there, I fancied myself as already part of the society.
I wanted to belong to her and tried all that I could to devour her best spirit. I studied at her revered institutions, I explored and ate in her best neighbourhoods, I lived within the holy triangle of her most renowned epicentres, I adored her consumerist offerings, I read her weekly updates, reflected on her current issues and inspected her social make-up.
Yet, try as I might, I never felt that the city was responding to my fullest self. When living in one of the most ubiquitous faces of Western culture, I remembered always waiting for a future place and a future time, when life would finally begin and I could be a full, whole being. I didn’t realise it then of course, as the daily noise of every day life in the capital kept me endlessly distracted but in retrospect, I could see that I was deeply depressed and lonely during those years. When visiting the city in recent years and after I had gone on to live in different parts of the world, I rapidly become suffocated by her external beauty and tepid dilemmas.
And yet, having expressed such disgruntled memories about this mega city that gave me so much intellectual knowledge and first world opportunities, I still feel strongly affiliated with her in some tender way. I was young and still not fully formed when my boots landed on her ground – I can’t deny that the city had in some way been part of the creation of my DNA. Indeed, even today, I feel London continues to lurk in various aspects of me. In the way I express some of my musings, in my lack of elegance (I have never identified London with innate sophistication), crippling self-depreciation, embarrassment at taking myself too seriously, and in my curiosity for the world. It was after all the city which exposed me to the diversity of language and culture spanning from Northern Europe, to Continental Europe, to Eastern Europe, to North Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, and the various Caribbean islands. I guess you could say that it was the city where I first began to fall very much in love with global culture.
Like most teenage crushes, London completely and utterly dominated my dreams and desires when I was living inside her and when I first left her. She was the very definition of what life should be – her way of thinking, the choreography of her streets, the entertainment she peddled and the history of her architecture. But as life takes you to different places to love and be loved, I began to see that London was significant only as a first chapter to my life… it sparked my interest for the rest of the world but it could never capture the full essence of what being human meant to me.