In the summer of 1985, I was in Geneva, interning at a United Nations (UN) agency. Geneva was pretty, but it was also discreet and quiet, like a Swiss banker. Most people understood English, but they preferred speaking in French. My French at that time was non-existent, so once I left the area near Palais des Nations, I hardly got to speak to anyone. That is, until I met Javed.
One evening, in my hostel’s kitchen, I met a young man humming a tune which sounded vaguely like a song from a Hindi film. I had picked up some food from the fridge all students shared and heated some soup when he turned around and saw me.
Are you an Indian, I asked him. He smiled and said he was a Canadian. Looking at my perplexed look, he made it easy: His parents were from Pakistan, he explained, and he was interning at the World Health Organization.
On board and starboard: Geneva’s Palais des Nations.(Yann Forget/Wikimedia Commons)
Javed enjoyed some Hindi film songs, could talk about cricket, and most importantly, he liked spicing up his food the way I did. Over the next few weeks, we had many long conversations, about what we studied (he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and medical student), about our countries and the Western world, about our cricketers and their inability to win matches. We moaned about the strong Swiss franc, how hard it was to shop and how boring it was to eat the same curries and rice that we cooked for each other night after night because it was too expensive to eat out, and the food in the café was unappetizing.
Towards the end of that summer, Javed asked me if I wanted to come to England with him. We were students, dependent on scanty fellowships and scholarships. Flying from Geneva to London, tempting though it seemed, was not part of my plans.
He sensed my reluctance. “We will go by road,” he said. Then he carefully explained his plan. He had to return to his college by mid-August, with all the books he had acquired in Geneva. If I agreed to go with him and carry his stuff with him, we could travel by trains, cabs and a boat all the way to Oxford, in 24 hours or a bit more. Once there, he said, I could stay with him, and he’d show me around.
I had never been to Oxford. I had not travelled by train in Europe either. I had already finished the project the UN agency wanted me to work on, and if I disappeared for a few days, nobody would notice. And I loved hanging out with Javed. In that Francophone city, surrounded by earnest UN bureaucrats by day and a hostel where few spoke English in the evenings, Javed had been my constant companion. The phrase wasn’t invented then—or at least I hadn’t heard it—but going with him to Oxford was a no-brainer.
Christ Church college, Oxford.(Manoj Madhavan/Mint)
He had worked out the costs, distances involved, schedules and routes. When do we leave, I asked. And our adventure began.
It wasn’t going to be easy. We had, simply, too many bags, and only four hands. A few small bags which you could sling along your shoulders, a large, proper backpack weighed down by many books, a couple of suitcases, and another sleeping bag. Did I mention my own suitcase, since I wanted my proverbial change of socks for the week—at least—that I wanted to spend in Oxford?
We boarded the train at Geneva’s central station, Genève-Cornavin (also known as Gare de Cornavin) for Gare de Lyon in Paris. We wouldn’t have time to see any sights in Paris. The train, typically Swiss, left on time, and as we left Geneva, I could sense that however much Javed complained about the insipid nature of the city, he was going to miss the place.
The train moved briskly and soon we were in the French countryside. It was still early in the morning, and we drank some coffee. French officials walked through our compartment, checking passports. Javed’s Canadian passport was returned promptly; they lingered longer over my Indian passport, but had no questions for me, and let us resume our sleep.
The fun began once we reached Paris. Javed hadn’t told me that we had to change trains and go across the city to another major station. The distance between Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord is only about 5km, but the taxi queue was long and the Paris traffic unreliable. So we carried our worldly possessions and raced past others, snaking through Parisians, to get on the subway for Gare du Nord. We had to change lines at Les Halles to get to Gare du Nord—what we hadn’t bargained for was how large Les Halles was.
Les Halles seems almost as large as the Louvre when you are running late and while it lacks the aesthetic beauty of the museum, its walls do carry images of women wearing almost nothing. But unlike the canvases at the Louvre, where the nearly naked women usually lounged around in their beds, silken sashes draped strategically on their bodies, the women in the posters at Les Halles served a more prosaic purpose: of selling toasters, air conditioners, cars, cigarettes, intimate lingerie, perfumes, chocolates, holidays in distant islands, and even sports equipment. We had no time to look, of course, and we were well brought up Asian kids. I now remember little of that mad race except for Javed grumbling how unfriendly the Paris Metro was to the disabled, who’d find its many stairs—and the lack of escalators—a major drawback for easy movement.
Paddington station, London (Mike Peel/www.mikepeel.net/Wikimedia Commons)
We made it to the train to Calais just as it was leaving the station. We drifted into sleep; suddenly Javed got up and told me we had overslept, and Calais had passed us by. Desperately, we took our many bags and got off at a tiny station where nobody else got off, wondering what to do next. Help came from the stationmaster, who wasn’t sure he understood what we were asking, but told us to take a cab to the Calais ferry point.
It was already mid-afternoon and most drivers had topped their nice long lunches with a few glasses of the finest red from the vineyard nearby. We managed to rouse one bushy- moustached gent, who agreed to drive.
The White Cliffs of Dover (Les Powell)
It is only when he started the cab that we realized that he had had too many drinks and was considerably above legal limit under almost any jurisdiction, even a libertarian one. But we had a deadline and a destination and we begged him to keep his eyes on the road, hands on the steering wheel and his leg only gently on the accelerator, to be pressed only if necessary.
Javed sat with him in the front, keeping him awake and engaged in a conversation, with the driver asking us if we had eaten and whether we’d like to drink. Javed kept reminding him how far Calais was and that we had to make the last ferry. I looked at the farmhouses and Javed observed how the landscape would have been devastated only 40 years ago, during World War II. At the ferry point, we saw a middle-aged Englishman, pleading for the fare to take him home. He could barely walk. Most of us ignored him.
On the ferry, most passengers were English, bringing crates of wine home to make up for the higher-taxed and highly limited selection of wines in their villages’ off-licences. It was nice to hear the plummy English accent again, as well as the cheerful English numbers on the ferry’s music system. And the café served drinkable tea.
The tide was mischievously high and the water was buoyant, slowing our journey to England. I was busy looking at the white cliffs of Dover, looking hauntingly beautiful at the twilight hour. With the sun about to disappear, the cliffs looked distinctly golden. They would be silver, bathed in moonlight, when our ferry would reach Dover.
That’s when we faced another problem. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government had privatized the railways and the new operators had detached their timetable from other modes of transport, such as ferries. The last train for London left at its appointed hour, as though it was Mussolini’s Italy where trains supposedly ran on time. Meanwhile, the ferry disgorged hundreds of us, looking for a way out of Dover.
The immigration officers took their time, looking suspiciously at dodgy passports. Indians didn’t need visas to enter Britain at that time, but it meant some questioning at the border. The officer asked me the purpose of my visit and—for the first time in my life—I said I was visiting a friend. Travel, until then, had always been “official”—Scotland on a student exchange programme, the US to study, and Switzerland on an internship. This time, I was in England, visiting a friend. It gave me a sense of freedom I hadn’t experienced before.
That joy was short-lived; we found that the next train to London was at 4am, the so-called “milk train”. We were hungry and tired, but the ever- reliable, rights-conscious, desk-thumping Americans came to the rescue, protesting loudly, and as often happens, they got their way. Thanks to their assertiveness, all of us benefited. The ferry company, after much grumbling, hired a bus to take us to London.
We slept on that stretch. At Paddington in London, we spread our stuff on the ground and were about to sleep when two of London’s finest turned up. With exceptional politeness, they asked us who we were and why we were at the station. Javed explained matters, and said we were going to board the first train to Oxford.
The police officers told us we had to go to a hotel. But that costs money, and neither of us wanted to spend any. So we collected our belongings and pretended to leave, and after stepping out of the station on one side, entered from another side, spread our stuff again, and settled down.
About 2 hours later, we were woken up by the same police officers, looking irritated.
“I thought we said you had to stay in a hotel,” one of them said.
Javed explained how we were poor students (from India and Pakistan, I helpfully added) and how in another half an hour, the first train would leave for Oxford. Would they mind terribly if we waited for the train?
They relented. About 40 minutes later, we were on the train to Oxford. Another hour later, we were in that ancient town of dreaming spires. We dumped all the bags and squeezed ourselves in a taxi, asking the driver to take us to Christ Church college.
To cheer the driver, Javed asked the cricket score (Allan Border’s Aussies were visiting England, and the Birmingham Test was going on). But this driver was a football fan, and turned on the radio so that we could find out for ourselves what had happened. England were winning; but we didn’t care, failing the Tebbit Test.
The cheerful porter at Christ Church took us in. We went to sleep—in proper beds, at last—waking up many hours later. It was probably the oddest 24 hours of my life, but it confirmed the warm, strong, life-changing and affirming friendship we shared.
In the week that followed, Javed and I travelled a couple of times to London and saw the city as it should be seen—in bright summer sunshine, in resplendent colours. We ate fish and chips at night from vans, served by men from the Caribbean and explored pubs where I discovered warm beer. He took me to Cambridge and showed me the square in Trinity College where Harold Abrahams supposedly ran the 350m perimeter in less than 43 seconds—the time it takes for the clock to strike 12; the tree from which an apple supposedly fell on Newton; and the shimmering river where students punted. We went to an army surplus store where I bought a sweater and khakis. We later drove to Wales, visited Hay-on-Wye before it became the global literary capital, bought more books—including the first editions of Dom Moraes and Philip Larkin—and walked in the Dartmoor hills.
At the end of the week, Javed and I hugged, unsure when we’d meet next. We met once later, near Washington, where his family then lived. I stayed up the night with his sisters, Zareena and Shaheena, as we watched Dev Anand’s films after a dinner of a magnificent biryani Javed’s mother had made.
As I was thinking about writing on those wonderful days, where the journey mattered and the destination was irrelevant, I asked him in an email if he had any specific memory I was missing.
“Yes,” he said. “Don’t forget to mention that we lost one backpack.”
Whose fault was it? It hardly mattered—what’s the cost of a backpack compared to friendship?
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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