Recently, I read an article. I think it was in TIME magazine. It was by a student writing about how even though she misses campus life, she is still learning a lot with her roommates by just staying at home. Devoid of the university bustle which usually kept her up and about, she is trying to enjoy cooking dishes together and spending quality time with others.
While it was a beautifully penned, I failed to relate to it. Having been forced to come home, I couldn’t help but look past the technical part of ‘being in a university’ as opposed to the metaphysical aspects of actual university life.
That is what I tell myself.
The real reason I failed to relate to it was because I was envious that the student was still in the same environment during the pandemic as she had been in prior to it. That she hadn’t been forced to return home, several thousand miles away, to a different country in the middle of March.
I sound like a privileged, ungrateful jerk. I know I should mention the platitudes that come attached while writing anything about the frustration around lockdown life – the presence of a loving and caring family, food on my plate, and a healthy body. But I think I have done that enough by keeping my feelings locked inside me – at least the excessiveness of them – for the past seven months.
I left for London exactly a year ago to embark on a 12-month journey to finish my masters. It was an important year because I’d literally begged my family to let me go, and after several thousand fights and tears, I had gotten my way on the condition that I return to India as soon as I finished.
A year seems like a long time, but the first six months went by in alarming rapidity. Or so it seems now to me. I recall feeling homesick at times. Now, sitting at that home for which I was sick, I feel no sense of homecoming at all.
My return to India was inevitable; my joint family here in Indore had taken the pandemic news very seriously just like many of my counterparts’ parents. When they rushed back to India a few days before me, I remember suppressing my apprehension over the seriousness of the situation.
Maybe I won’t have to go, I thought. Maybe the UK would handle this problem better than Italy and Spain, who at that time had been the epicentre of the virus. But after denying several hysterical phone calls from the rest of the family, I couldn’t say no to my father who politely yet sternly requested me to come back immediately. University had shifted to online classes about a week before and that was all the reason my Dad needed.
Also read: COVID-19: On Missing the Warmth of Campus Life
I cried while leaving. But it wasn’t my departure that made my insides spurn and ache. It was the unpredictability of my return to London that made fear bubble through me.
The day I returned, I had a secret meltdown at night emboldened by jet lag and a familial dread of being back in a place that I wasn’t mentally prepared to see for another eight months. March slowly dragged to April and I told myself, amidst making regular phone calls to friends still in London and writing essays (a thankful distraction) that I would go back in May. But then May found me changing my final dissertation topic all of a sudden and telling my personal tutor over a Zoom call that I wanted to return to London to finish my research there – ignoring her polite derision over my naïveté.
June was a blur. I don’t seem to remember anything except doing readings for my thesis and watching reruns of TV shows that are only watched when one is in desperate need of comfort. We celebrated Dad’s 50th and I told myself that I wouldn’t be here for Mom’s 51st a month later. My calls to friends had abated; awash with a ridiculous hope that I’ll return soon, I grew tired of answering the ‘when’ of that return to friends who missed me. I missed them too, but I was also jealous of them. Their video-calls and Instagram stories depicted a sunny London and the beauty of it was too much to handle at times.
Watching Schitt’s Creek slightly numbed my pain in July. I gave my mother a beauty basket on her birthday and told myself to be optimistic. I won’t be here for Rakhi, I decided. The overwhelming lurch in my stomach that had previously manifested at the thought of returning in August, knowing that I’d only have a month to spend in hostel, was replaced by the sanguine need to hold onto that one last month.
I’ll go, I told myself. You’ll come, my friend told me, your stuff is here.
August was spent writing the 15,000-word dissertation that I genuinely enjoyed working on. A couple of my friends who, like me, had also gone back to their hometowns, returned to London. But it wasn’t possible for me. I had another of several meltdowns just two days before Rakhi. But this one was explicit – my mother witnessed me crying uncontrollably and, in anger, tearing off from my bedroom wall the taped London street signs which had been my constant companions, giving me a false sense of hope.
Also read: How COVID-19 Stole My Last Semester of College at JNU
It was after this spectacle that I accepted that returning to live a university life was not in store for me.
For me, it was not just the time spent attending classes or going to libraries for failed all-nighters. It was eating at the English breakfast place opposite my college campus; a cosy cafe run by a Turkish family who had started greeting me as one of their regulars and serving me my ‘usual’ of two hash browns, scrambled egg, two buttered slices of toast, lots of gravy-soaked beans and a cappuccino.
It was going to Central London every week for my Bhangra classes and then in the spirit of desiness from all the Punjabi numbers I’d danced to, going for kathi rolls at a cute little hole-in-the-wall place in Soho. It was strolling with a friend I’d re-acquainted with, all the way from Leicester Square to the Christmas stalls at Trafalgar Square.
Bill Bryson describes his love for London rather eloquently in his book Notes from a Small Island. Apart from deeming it the ‘most beautiful city’, he also talks about the smaller things prevailing there.
“…cherry red pillar boxes, drivers who actually stop for you on pedestrian crossings, lovely forgotten churches with wonderful names like St Andrew by the Wardrobe and St Giles Cripplegate, sudden pockets of quiet like Lincoln’s Inn and Red Lion Square, interesting statues of obscure Victorians in togas, pubs, black cabs, doubledecker buses, helpful policemen, polite notices, people who will stop to help you when you fall down or drop your shopping, benches everywhere.”
It was during one stroll when we passed the bustle at Piccadilly, the sudden chill at Green Park, the throng of tourists at Buckingham Palace and out the majestic Victorian gateway overlooking the gallery at Trafalgar, that I finally understood what Bryson meant – the utter magnificence that London holds even in seemingly insignificant things, the possibility of discovering something new in every alley.
However, it wasn’t just the beauty of London that comprised my university life. I know I would not have been able to experience it all during the lockdown. It was everything that follows when one starts living on their own.
So mainly it was just home. Home being sitting with my closest friends in the hostel courtyard during chilly nights wrapped in thick coats, the smoke from their cigarettes providing just a tinge of relief. Home being the forever bustling area of South London. Home being walking into the closest Sainsburys for groceries and getting free mints from the Indian origin uncle who worked there. It being my tiny room, where I’d come back every night from the outside cold to the radiating warmth, shrugging off my coveted black coat, plonking my National Gallery tote bag on the desk, covered with a menagerie of items from takeout food pamphlets to books and finally dropping down on the bed, before curling my feet inside a luscious throw I’d found for cheap at T.K. Maxx. Home being the synecdoche that changes form wherever and whenever we find ourselves belonging.
This part of my home now sits inside cardboard boxes in a storage area somewhere in the Eastern part of the city. I’d told my friend prior to the pickup service to keep with her the polaroid shots of us at the courtyard which were pinned to the softboard in my room. I got the rest boxed.
My friends have started thinking about returning to London, but I know that is not in the cards for me – at least not in the way that’ll replicate those six months. I’d bargained with my folks for a year of emancipation and I’d had that snatched away halfway. But I have stopped asking the universe for questions as to why this had to happen during a year which was already a ticking time bomb for me.
So here I am, writing something I had hoped to never write while listening to Ali Sethi’s voice, which acts as a balm:
‘Umraan langiyaan pabba paa (my life has passed by, waiting on tiptoes)’.
I imagine London awaiting my arrival or, the other way around, me waiting to meet London. I know I probably will not be able to go back to that student life again. And that’s okay. The city will always be there.
Sahiba Kaur Bhatia is a media and communications graduate from Goldsmiths. She spends her time listening to Ali Sethi and reading anything and everything related to the 1947 partition.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty