A few days ago I arrived in London after several weeks at my parents’ in India. I had dreaded coming back. Every return evokes childhood partings from Bombay, the sunshine, my grandparents, and a way of being that was more open, impromptu and easy than the one I knew growing up in Warwickshire.
I’d been seven years old when we left Bombay: the city came to take on a mythological sense of home in exile. Now, every departure from Bombay and the sight from a plane window of its pointy sweep of lights into the Arabian Sea tend to depress me; every return, when, early morning, the aircraft swoops closer and closer into miles of slum shacks, makes my heart lift.
But this coming back to London wasn’t so bad. The sun was shining when the plane bumped down; by the time I got to my flat in Bethnal Green, England was visibly a different place. It was in its summer incarnation, a strange occurrence that made me smile with its remembered familiarity: the sudden, zestful exuberance of a northern Protestant country; a sense that life has abruptly arrived, and must be lived frenetically before the light should pass. The evening I got back, I went to a bar in Islington with a friend; we sat outside drinking rosé till ten. It was still light. The next day I went to a party, followed by an after-party, and a party after that. I began to want to sleep. A friend and I walked outside together. The sky was irreproachably blue and luminous. A nearby clock said 4.30 am. But the exhausting brilliance couldn’t last. A couple of mornings later there was a return to a more familiar mode: grey skies, shivering a little when opening the door, and neighbours who didn’t look you in the eye and smile any longer but made embarrassed grimaces as they passed.
It was all right. Part of writing is finding enough distance on experience for it to be something you can put into order. I’d begun writing my first novel, set in Bombay, when I was living in a quiet street in Norwich. When I went back to Bombay last year, a friend said dryly, “I’d like to go away too if it makes you feel nostalgic about Bombay.” Then she complained about the traffic. It wasn’t only yearning for home, though, that made it possible to write about a place where I wasn’t; distance, mysteriously, does its own work.
When I was in Bombay, I wrote short stories that drew on people I remembered and places I knew in London. In Norwich I began to write about Bombay; I finished the novel in Bombay, copy edited it in Norwich, and proofed it back in London. Now, in London, I’m writing about characters in Paris, a city I lived in at the end of the last millennium, a decade ago.
Last summer – it seems longer ago – I was still working at a magazine in Bombay. The novel I’d written had an agent, but not, as yet, a publisher. Still, it was an exciting time. I went to Paris for work; soon after, I was in London. At this point another unlikely English heat wave was going on. I lay in St James’s Park under a tree and let leaf patterns and sunlight imprint themselves on my retinas. Suddenly I sat up. It was the 26th of June – the same day that, a decade earlier, I’d graduated from university. I recalled being in the same place in the same park halfway through that decade, at the end of one relationship and the beginning of another.
Shortly afterwards I was to move back to India – accidentally. I’d gone for a holiday, wondered if it might be nice to stay longer, and wrote a few letters to newspapers and magazines in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. A fortnight later I had an interview with and an offer from the Times of India in Bombay.
I hurriedly moved into a hostel in Colaba, not far from where I’d begun to grow up. I started work as a reporter, and went to the office every day on a red double decker bus, past neo-Gothic buildings that I remembered from childhood – Victoria Terminus, the High Court and the University. They had been built in the 1860s when Bombay was to become the new colonial capital; for me, living in England and then in France, they had made the Gothic Revival buildings in London, like St Pancras Station, and even the real Gothic cathedrals at Chartres or Ely, seem strangely reiterative.
Earlier, there’d been a sense of being two people – one more clipped, polite, restrained, English; another more exuberant, more simple. Neither of these personae remembered to stay neatly within national boundaries. It wasn’t unusual for me to feel, in India, that someone was impinging on my life in a way I found unwelcome but which was, generally, so normal as not even to be remarked on. And in England there would be times when I was too frank, or simply shrivelled inside from loneliness and the desire to be able to start talking to the person next to me on the bus without this meaning anything at all. Now, the two people inside seem to have achieved the happy, familiar contempt of a long marriage. Each speaks when she feels the urge, and neither particularly disconcerts me. Perhaps that day under the tree in the park was the first time I began to feel they could live together for a long time, and that I would survive this union. The different parts of my life seemed to interleave, rather than just insistently contradicting each other. But there wasn’t time to think about it then. I had a train to catch, and I got up, removed grass from my hair, picked up a broad, handsome maple leaf and put it in the book I was reading, before walking towards the underground.
Anjali Joseph’s first novel Saraswati Park is published by Fourth Estate on July 8. She was born in Bombay in 1978 and read English at Trinity College, Cambridge. She has taught English at the Sorbonne, and been a journalist for the Times of India in Bombay and Commissioning Editor of ELLE (India). She graduated from the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA in 2008 and lives in London.
Author photo: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi