Hola! Hope you're smiling :)
I met Julia in London on the morning of 16th. Faking being a local, I showed her the area around the Intercontinental where I had walked a lot over the last four days. I took her to my favourite little coffee shop on Shepherd Street – Caffe Inn, the first coffee shop I walked into in London. Julia had got me a Klimt bag from a special Klimt exhibit in Vienna, only two days before was Klimt’s birthday and I made my love for him public on Facebook – hence the gift was perfect and I was happy to flaunt it in the stylish neighbourhood.
After enjoying a great breakfast and another cup of hot chocolate we headed to Marble Arch to take the Oxford Tube to Oxford. We had an appointment in Oxford and needed to reach by 5:30 pm. Someone truly special had invited me for high tea – someone I only dreamt of meeting in person.
A few years ago I spent a lot of time in the bookshops of Hyderabad, and picked up The Solitude of Thomas Cave for it’s terrific cover, the title and the blurb. I was intrigued by the story of this man from 17th century who spends a year alone in the Arctic and survives! Such a plot is magnetic. As I read the book, I was mesmerized not only by the story per se but the writing style, the details, the imagery, the beauty of the language and was drawn to the writer with a force so solid that I spent months hunting for the writer’s email id so I can write to her and let her know how the book captivated me. It didn’t bother me to wonder if my email would mean anything to the writer but I had to tell her! I had to thank her for writing the book.
I found it, her email id – wrote to her and got a reply too. Since then, I have been very lucky to correspond with Georgina through email.
It was Georgina Harding’s first book of fiction, that I knew. What I didn’t know was that she had written travelogues before, many years ago and one of them is on a tiny village in South India, an ex Dutch colony, where she spent a season and wrote a fantastic book on every observation she made – geographical, historical, cultural, anthropological and more. Tranquebar: A Season in South India is no longer in print but I had to get a copy. I found someone on Amazon selling it second hand for 0.001 GBP, no idea how much that is! I got the book, read it over and over again until I was ready for my visit to Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu. The year before last I spent some beautiful time there and wrote to Georgina about it.
Since The Solitude of Thomas Cave Georgina has written two more books, I could read neither. Her latest book released in early 2012 – The Painter of Silence was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize.
Before leaving for UK, I wrote to Georgina requesting for a meeting. She was in Oxford for a day and the appointment was to meet with her at 5:30 pm at Christ Church College. Turns out that the Dean of Christ Church – The Very Revd Christopher Lewis is Georgina’s brother.
As the Oxford Tube entered Oxford, the tiny beautiful town of centuries old buildings, warm streets closing for business, students with books in hand or bags on shoulders, walking, some cycling, some engaged in conversations at street corners. The streets are narrow and the bus high, so one can almost peep into the windows of houses on the streets as if walking on stilts. We saw beautiful bay windows of splendid Victorian style, some simple windows on brick walls with flower pots fastened tightly to the seals. I remember the dream like glimpses of houses through these windows – images of a grand, baroque style mirror on the walls of one house, a piano in another, a tea set on a wooden table in another – much like walking on a poem on ‘windows in Oxford.’
The St. Aldate’s bus stop is right outside the entrance to the Christ Church College where Julia and I got off the bus – thanked the driver who helped us with the luggage. The janitor inquired about the purpose of our visit and we told him we were the guests of the Dean, as Georgina had suggested we respond to any inquiries inside the college. I was glad we had a chance to say that to someone ‘guests of the Dean of this college’ – for it gave a great sense of pride for two ordinary tourists to be able to say that – what an honour! The Dean of this college is appointed by the Crown.
(Information here from Wikipedia)
Meeting the Dean of any Oxford University college is no ordinary thing but there’s something even more extraordinary about the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford – Christ Church, formally titled “The Dean, Chapter and Students of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford of the Foundation of King Henry the Eighth”, is the only college in the world which is also a cathedral , the seat of the Bishop of Oxford. The Visitor of Christ Church is the reigning British sovereign, and the Bishop of Oxford is unique among English bishops in not being the Visitor of his own cathedral. The head of the college is the Dean of Christ Church, who is a clergyman appointed by the crown as Dean of the cathedral church. There is a senior and a junior censor (formally titled the Censor Moralis Philosphiæ and the Censor Naturalis Philosophiæ) the former of whom is responsible for academic matters, the latter for undergraduate discipline. A Censor Theologiæ is also appointed to act as the Dean’s deputy.
And thus we were lead into the Christ Church College which produced 13 British Prime Ministers, under the trees of which W.H. Auden wrote poetry, where David Ogilvy dreamt up designs in his head, the gardens of which inspired Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Apsley Cherry-Garrard possibly walked the same corridors as I did as I walked to the door the janitor pointed to. I pressed the bell which seemed as old as the door – perhaps a few hundred years old. The sky was overcast, the wind chilly and everything around us antique with a mesmeric quaintness to it as in an 18th century english novel.
“I am not so sure if I know how Georgina looks, maybe I won’t know it if it’s her opening the door” – I said to Julia. “You will know, don’t worry” Julia replied. The door opened and I knew Georgina, not from the similarity of her in person to her picture from the 1990s but from her smile, the ‘Mubin’ and the firm handshake. We entered the door, dropped our backpacks and were lead to the living room. Georgina’s sister-in-law, Rhona Jane Martindale, the wife of the Dean asked if we would “want to use cloak rooms after that long bus journey” – yes, we wanted to, not so much for the need of using one but for my preparation to face Georgina, to compose myself, to control the mixed feelings of excitement, nervousness and anxiety, no wonder I took a long ten minutes to do that.
As I walked into the room where Julia, Georgina and Rhona were seated, I was very relived to find Julia conversing with them as she would with anyone – in her melodious tone that is highly affable and reassuring for me. What they were talking about I don’t remember but soon the conversation turned to writing and books. On extraordinary occassions such as this meeting, I am always pulled by the opposite forces of diplomacy and honesty – should I be diplomatic and limit any chances of exposing too much of myself which may or may not be impressive and therefore avoid any chances of being judged or should I be honest, true to my nature, speak my mind and see what it unfolds? I have always chosen honesty and that is not a very comfortable choice for the dangers are massive but interestingly, they are real. So I was honest when I confessed to Georgina that I am not motivated to read Indian writers for reasons I don’t understand. However, I was happy to share my thoughts on Chetan Bhagat’s writing whose works I have read. We then spoke of Tranquebar and my visit before we headed for a walk around the college.
Georgina and Rhona were curious about what brings me to England and I told them the story – of where I intended to go, where I landed and how. Georgina seemed interested in the story surrounding Uganda, Baby Michael and Marie, she listened to me with attention. Before walking out of the door I handed Georgina the gifts I had taken for her – a necklace from Tranquebar, handmade by the women of the town and a paper clip with Bidri art. I hope she liked them.
I am intrigued also by Georgina’s sister-in-law Rhona who was very warm and hospitable and to whom I had taken an instant deep liking. As we visited The (grand) Hall where Harry Potter was shot , on the walls of which hang the pictures of some of the most illustrious sons of England, and around other extraordinary places within the campus, I told them of the places I visited in London – of my visit to the Keats House Museum and my personal pilgrimage to the grave of Charles Lamb and the visit to The Charles Lamb Pub – here in the picture I am showing the sticker I pulled off the bottle of the Charles Lamb Wine and pasted on my journal.
As we walked around the college, I felt a sudden overload of inspiration, awe and wonder which pushed me to doubt if this moment was real at all or if it was a very vivid dream. It was a challenge to focus my wonder and amazement around one thing – the history of the college, the beauty of being in Oxford or walking with Georgina. As it dawned on me that this is reality and I am indeed walking with Georgina, other things faded away in comparison of that one big reality. I was most aware of her presence, was mesmerized by everything surrounding this wonderful woman – her voice, the words she chose while speaking, her expressions, her hands, her astounding presence.
Georgina brought up the Orange Prize – “not winning it was good. It’s nice to be nominated for when you are nominated you get all the publicity you want but to win an award means great pressure on what you deliver next.”
Georgina then mentioned a writer from Turkey she met sometime ago – a wonderful writer who wants to write in English but is so popular for her Turkish novels that she is expected to write in Turkish and finds it hard to write anything English, the publishers always want them in Turkish!
Me: “Is that Elif Shafak?”
Georgina: “Elif Shafak, yes.”
Elif Shafak, is another female writer I greatly admire. To imagine my two favourite writers talk in a grand hall, is beauty.
Georgina took us to a garden which is off limits to general public and students too. It is here that I spotted a lonely bench which Georgina and I gazed at for a little over ten seconds – this was a moment of connection – we were both drawn to the same thing that was in front of us, I can’t explain what this means to me but you can guess that it means something 🙂
Soon it was time to leave, with our backpacks on and a heavy heart for the meeting ended and no one knows if there’ll be another one, I left Christ Church college. As we parted Rhona had something to say ‘and my wish for you is that you write a book, I hope to read it soon’ with Georgina adding ‘start with your travels, that story you told me about Baby Michael and Marie is extraordinary, you seem to have great travel stories to tell.’
Juli and I walked the deserted High Street of Oxford as the spires and the figures on them watched us – an Indian and an Austrian with heavy backpacks, in love with the moment and the place. The rest of the evening was spent in The Cape of Good Hope pub around the corner of St Clement’s over fish and chips and martinis while waiting for my first host from Couchsurfing – Alex.
P.S. We couldn’t meet the Very Revd Dean Christopher Lewis as he was away that evening.