A Journey in Writing
by Iqbal Ahmed
When I set out to write An Open Book and Empty Cup, I thought it would be an expression of disillusion. However, it turned out instead to be a love letter to London. I had written an outline and sent it to a friend who remarked that we are drawn to authenticity and to depth, but we read to be inspired too. This made me think again. A literary editor once told me that writers aren’t usually aware of their own emotions and I think there is a certain truth in that.
While working on my new book, I set foot again in Tate Britain and Tate Modern after a gap of more than 18 years and felt inspired by seeing the great works of Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. During my first few years in London I had happily hopped from one art gallery to another but later missed various major exhibitions like most of the Londoners who do not pay much heed to what is on their doorstep – it is usually visitors to London who flock to these exhibitions. A display of black and white photographs of engravings at the Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate was titled ‘How I Love London’, which made me wonder about my own changing relationship with the city.
I visited the London Transport Museum for the first time because I wanted to show my young son the trams and trolleybuses that once plied the streets of the capital. Until then, I had only been inside the museum’s shop to buy the odd postcard. Thanks to this and similar experiences during the course of writing this book, it dawned on me that I should cultivate a fresh outlook to regain the idea of an ideal city.
An aborted trip to Kashmir last August resulted in making me feel more at home in London. Having spent exactly half of my life in Srinagar and half in London I felt torn between the two cities. I have always yearned for a time when I could tend my own vegetable garden in Kashmir. However, that now seems to be a pipe dream after last year’s political upheaval in the region.
When I was growing up in Kashmir I had no illusions about making a living from my writing in the future. On a visit to Srinagar, a relative asked me about my occupation in London. I told him that I had written a few books. He insisted that that was my pastime and I should tell him what I really do for a living.
I was bemused when an acquaintance asked me whether I received any
royalties for my work. I thought the medieval-sounding word ‘royalty’ was presumptuous, given the original sense of ‘royal right’ for the payment made by a mineral producer to a site owner. It was only much later that the word became applicable to published works.
I consider myself to be fortunate to have a full-time job that allows me to work on my books without worrying about getting paid for practicing my métier. My job in the hospitality industry has also encouraged me to visit other cities. Although my father has never heard the names of any Roman or Greek poets, he would certainly echo the sentiment of Ovid’s father who often said, ‘Why try a useless Vocation? Even Homer left no wealth’. But for me, the urge to write is a compulsion and money doesn’t enter into the equation.
London has reinvented itself in the last 25 years. There was no Tate Modern when I arrived in the town in 1994. But today it has become one of the most visited modern art galleries in the world. And these days you can conveniently travel from Tate Britain to Tate Modern by riverboat
I have tried to come to terms with Brexit in the first chapter of my new book. There was no international train station in the UK when I first came to London and I found it amusing that some Hampstead residents liked to call Europe ‘the Continent’. But today you can catch a Eurostar train from London to Amsterdam just to visit the museum dedicated to the works of Van Gogh.
Just like the old London, modern London is made up of more or less self-contained villages. You can find such villages as Little Italy and Little Punjab in and around the city. You may hear the church bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Little Italy near Clerkenwell but you will see the white domes of a gurdwara in Little Punjab, otherwise known as Southall, while travelling to Heathrow by car.
Writing a book can change the author’s outlook as much as it can change the outlook of the book’s readers. As a writer, you begin a year’s journey knowing only the destination but not the route. An old saying in Kashmir goes that an expedition itself shows the way to the expeditioner. To me, that rings very true.