Westminster, London
Notes and thoughts from Jaihoon’s journey to London and Cambridge, Feb 12 to Feb 14 2017

Day 01

Snow & Rain Treat

Travelers ran left and right. I had no idea whom to ask. All I knew was what to ask: the way out.
Snowflakes fell over face, head and the sweater. And rain added to the already messy situation. Over the bridge. Upon the steps. On roads and footpath. Sometimes sand too. I struggled to walk with the burden of heavy baggage along the Paddington Basin. All I wanted was the bus stand. Little did I know there was no such thing as a bus stand, rather only bus stop.

Apparent Beauty for Eyes. Veiled, for the Heart

And I Walked. Saint Mary’s Church appeared veiled by trees. Its bricks color blended well with the winter-molested trees. Like Lady Mary, her church too was veiled. Apparent Beauty ends in shallow eyes. Veiled beauty penetrates deep into the heart.

Journeys Supercharge Eagerness

After much searching and enquiring, I found the bus pick up point I was desperately looking for.

The pre-bought Oyster card helped to avoid further trouble. On board, I was relieved to escape the cold. An aged black Lady in wheelchair stared into nothingness. Spoke to no one. Somehow the fellow passengers and driver made out where she had to get down. The bus had a special arrangement to help the physically challenged to get down.
The bus was heading to Kilburn locality. I could not take my eyes off the map and ears of the computerized announcement. But isn’t journey about supercharging our eagerness and anxiety which adds to its thrill?

Boys in Khandoura

Two boys, presumably of Arab origin, in their colored khandouras stepped from the top level of the bus, which is when I realized there was a floor above me. Sporting a weather jacket in hood, they were heading for their religious studies, I guess. The bus passed by crowded coffee shops and several other merchandisers. After a short while, the bus stopped announcing my stop.

Investing in People’s Etiquettes

After relieving the luggage at the hotel, I summoned a taxi. The driver was an African ethnic man named Ahmed. Appearing to be in mid 50s, he did not have very impressive things to say about the Gulf countries’ status of labor rights. ‘Asians built those countries’, he said while elaborating on his views about the significant expatriate workforce in these nations.

‘At times I get clients from that part of the region whose rudeness is as shameful as their arrogance’, said Ahmed, in his pronounced British tone, with soft echoes of African accent. Whatsoever be Ahmed’s experiences and conclusions, it would be fair to nail the fact that those nations investing mega millions in destination marketing also need to ensure their people behave well when traveling abroad too. A country or culture is read more so by the vocal and body language of their people than by their monuments or events. Investing in developing people’s etiquettes will invoke greater dividends in marketing a destination than billboards or event sponsorships. Well-behaved citizens are the real ambassadors of a land.

Ahmed drove the cab in modest speed as per London standards. He took the fastest route possible. We passed by a street with almost cent percent shops and customers related to the Middle East.

Our talk went on, but the destination reached in no time. I paid the fare he quoted only to realize why very few people travel by taxis in London. It did not take a crash course from London School of Economics to understand the reasons for the popularity of public transport in this mini country which Romans referred to as Londinium, which rather sounds like alkali metal of modern chemistry.

Protocol of the Commons

In line with what I had earlier read about Londoner’s polite protocols, I did not forget to thank the driver. Stepping down the car, I walked across the Green Park. The cold continued its ambush as I walked through the bush and grass of the ancient park.

Photos: Paddington

Democracy Pays for Royals’ Bills

Known as the official residence of the Queen and co, the Buckingham Palace is a royal marvel in this democratic country. This heavily guarded and deeply applauded building is an adorable darling of the British, most of them actually. Paying for the Queen and her family from the public treasury is not what every taxpayer may agree to. However, given the arithmetic of tourism revenue worth half a billion dollars from royals-based palaces and castles, there are more than one reason to let continue this pre-democratic legacy.

Corporation-scripted Conflicts

Turning around, a giant fountain sprayed into my curious eyes. Located just facing the Palace, the Victoria Memorial is dedicated to the ‘Empress of India’, Queen Victoria. She was the reigning queen during the 1857 rebellion, considered India’s first unsuccessful freedom struggle from the clutches of the East India Company.
Corporations are, and have been, the real leeches behind most human conflict. They script and sculpt infinite number of conflicts suited to their greed. The priest and politician are only the visible nails of its invisible hands.

Royalty. Left and Right

The sight of fountain inspired deep thoughts. But the depth was only going to deepen as I walked briskly through The Mall. Wanderers roamed through the silent path blessed by quiet trees on either side. Rain had further dampened the frozen soil.

The walk across the Mall led to the area called Pall Mall. This area was popular for its shops and houses in 18th century. A major portion of the properties is somewhat owned and benefited, if not directly, by the Queen Mother. This arrangement is conveniently named Crown Estates.

Pall Mall is also home to the St. James Palace, the oldest monarch habitat in UK, which houses many members of the Royal family. By 19th century, the Buckingham Palace dethroned the significance of this red brick monument.

Past: All Horses, no Doves?

Royals and royalty is synonymous with parades and ceremonies. One necessitates the other. Parades are the only opportunity for the royal celebrities to baffle the bewildered commoners.

The Horse Guards Parade, a vast ground encompassed by several historical monuments including statues and palaces, most of which are reminiscent of Britain’s imperial horrors worldwide. Another structure thought to commemorate the beheading of ‘the last absolute monarch of England, Charles I”. The ground also occasionally hosts sporting and film based events. The Queen’s birthday is, however, the most significant celebration held on this historic ground.

Should history be all about politics alone? Does Past have to be painted by blood alone? Was force the only language of Past? Were there only horses but no doves, pigeons or butterflies then?

Not every question has answers. But that didn’t stop me from pushing ahead across the city of Westminster. The soft snowflakes continued to descend. But my resolve to walk ascend.

Photos: Royal Palaces & Parades

Traditions Demand Brains and Balls

Pedestrians, motorists, cyclists and some pigeons here and there. There was no reason to sit back. Hence, my feet sailed to where my heart rowed. And vice versa.

London’s public transport are icons in themselves. The traditional red bus and black taxi have withstood the onslaught of globalization despite the city’s positioning as the HQ of financial and other service sector industry. Sustaining a tradition these days demand both brains and balls as well. And Londoners have, to a greater extend, proved their capacity for both.

Straight Path: Neither Smooth Nor Silky

I passed by different monuments and memorials at different junctions and streets. ‘Look right’, ‘Look left’ read the instructions. For, human life is precious. Too precious to be offered at the altar of heedlessness.

In off-the-road journey too we need to be on the watch out for life-threatening forces approaching from either side. The Straight Path to the Garden isn’t a smooth and silky ride always. It never will be, rather. In fact, the Garden is the prize only for those who tactfully, read luckily according to some, escape the thorn pricks. The Gardener, out of His merciful choice, may heal some wounds.

Pregnancy Patrons

Like other traditional Christian societies, London has its share of monuments and churches dedicated to saints, men and women. St Margaret is perhaps London’s equivalent of Georgia’s St Nino, both of whom were venerated as ‘patron saint of pregnancy’, reminiscent of Sayyida Nafisa of Egypt, venerated across the Islamic world with similar sainthood attributes. St Margaret commands a memorial in the Westminster Abbey, the millennial church which also hosts tombs of seventeen monarchs. The sculpture here is hailed as one of the finest feathers of British hat.

Tick of Time is the Kick of Life

Part of the beauty of earthly life is its untold finitude. There are biological and psychological clocks ticking in him. Time is inseparably woven into his DNA material chasing his dreams and ambitions. Finitude of Life is its infinite thrill as well. Life consumes the drink of Time sip by sip until the cup runs dry. Death is the unexpected residue at the bottom we bitterly consume.

Monuments such as the Big Ben, perhaps, reminds us just that. The tick of time is the kick of life.

Photos: Westminster

Planned Journeys Inform. Unplanned ones Inspire

The kick and tick of time brought me to the Parliament Street. It is here I witnessed a protest against the withdrawal of refugee-friendly legal amendment in UK.

There is a fun in treading a planned path. A Well-planned trip is half the journey. After all, the last thing modern man wants to do is to spend some cognitive energy on a non-entertaining subject. He is promptly ready to pay any numeric bills, walk as many miles, talk as many hours, but shy of any thinking minutes.

Maps, notes, facts, thus become handy when stepping on a foreign soil. Bus and train numbers, distance calculations and weather information only make the journey fruitful.

However, there are times when Destiny diverts us to unplanned territories with unimagined thoughts. Planned routes inform, I already knew. However, unplanned ones inspire and illuminate, I had realized that day.

The Bloodbath of British Raj

It was as part of my medieval world culture tour that I arrived in London. No Indian can be free from the cruel and colonial memories of ‘British Raj’. School history textbooks are filled with the demonic atrocities of the White Man, their generals and governors, king and queen, princes and barons, evoking cinematic emotions of fear and abhorrence.

As I swiftly solo-walked through the forest of map-marked London’s historic, yet lifeless, landmarks, something distracted me to jump the marked coordinates on my mobile phone. Just as we always fail to recall the beginning of a dream and remember only the latter part, similar is the case of getting distracted. We only realize the diversion from our awareness AFTER we are diverted, i.e. not during the process.

Insane Mothers. Wrinkled Grandmothers

The distraction led me to walk on the Whitehall locality where gigantic government buildings gloriously stood with amazing architectural aura. A large number of people gathered under a historic statue, which read Bernard Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. The crowd included men, women and even infants. It was freezing cold and snowing too. No sane mother would bring her infant in this extreme weather unless it was a death and life matter. There was nothing to enjoy in the one-degree cold for the old women with wrinkled faces and fading voices. I could not take my hands out of my woolen jacket and these protesters were openly holding placards since some time. It was either insanity at work or their lives were brutally at stake. Either way, it would never be for some others’ sake.

The Media Drone

Human calculations and approximations are mostly based on prenotions and confusions. Understanding and misunderstanding are both learned from environment. Media ‘drone’ you with concepts and misconcepts which define our perception of the Other.

Unlearn before Learn

The cold continued its chilling offensive even as I walked a step closer, pushing my way to the center of the gathering. What I learned from there shattered all my calculations and forced me to unlearn some past facts and learn new ones instead.
Lesson one. They had not assembled there to protest the violation of their immediate rights. Lesson two. The subject of their protest was not even remotely connected with their way of life, neither geographically nor ideologically.

For Refugee. By Refugee

Organized by Safe Passage UK, the protest was apparently organized to express their disapproval of the closure of Dubs scheme, created in 2016, for transfer and rescue of refugee children which is said to have facilitated rehabilitation of 3000 unaccompanied children in different parts of Europe. It is noteworthy to know that Lord Dubs, the man behind the benevolent legislation, was himself a child refugee during the Nazi days.

Geographical Proximity. Ideological Responsibility

The assembly of protesters had members of all ages, possibly ranging from age 0 to 70. Mothers held their infants, despite the single degree temperature. They had gathered to express their solidarity for the desperate refugee children suffering in camps across Europe. Certainly an impossible sight to witness in the Asian and Arab countries, who had more geographical and ideological proximity, read responsibility, to the victims than this European community.

‘Have you no Shame?’

Embarrassed at my inhumanity, I had a look at one of the placards. “This is about the Children. Have you no shame”, read one of them. Although it addressed the decision of the present British government, I guess it was more suited to those regions and regimes blind to this modern human tragedy.

The Problem with Muslim Eschatological Preachers

Another heart-stirring truth is the eagerness and steadfastness of the Jewish community in their unwavering solidarity for the suffering refugee children, mostly belonging to the Muslim faith. Jews were subject of the inhuman Holocaust and have first class experience of the physical and psychological pain of refugee life. Many of them reached the British soil, fearing for their lives from the hands of Nazi demons. Therefore, it is highly imminent for the Islamic world, especially their Media, to refrain from collective mentality and give up propagation of animosity between the two communities. The Muslims’ cry to distance their faith from the extremist elements within should also be complemented with their distinction between Judaism and Zionism. Muslim preachers should be cautious in their eschatological lectures not to address all Jews as allies and harbingers of the Accursed Dajjal (Anti-Christ) in the apocalyptic days.

Pro-Refugee Hashtags

I also came across several social media hashtags pertaining to this protest event including #Refugeeswelcome, #JewsforRefugees, #ResistTrump. But no hashtag will be equal to this selfless gathering in the extreme winter.

Artists against Racism

The pro-refugee children movement did not end with street protests and online campaigns. While film award nights are usually spoiled by glitz and glamour of stars, the BAFTA night (held the next day) witnessed a prominent television director to severely term the UK government decision as ‘brutal’.

Stand up to the Petulant Child

The pro-refugee event did not forget to display their scathing opposition to the Trump’s racist remarks and raids. In the preceding week, there was a mammoth 40,000-strong march against Trump’s proposed UK visit. There were no second thoughts in their minds when it came to Stand upto Trump’. The fire was spreading beyond London to other cities including Manchster, Leeds and Birmingham. British MPs termed Trump as a ‘petulant child’ while Sadiq Khan, the beloved London mayor called for the American President’s invitation to be withdrawn.

London, the Queen. Londoners’ humanity her Crown

The warmth of humanity emanating from the hearts of protesters there made me forget the ferocious cold. To a local mediaperson who came to report the event, I could not but share my enthusiasm, ‘the beauty of London is not merely in the amazing monuments and landmarks of the London Bridge, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, but in the hearts of these heroic human rights champions who came out in this cold in support of the frozen, foreign and forsaken refugee children.

Photos: Protest against ending Dubs Amendment

Enter the Red Dragon

After attending the gathering, I continued the random walk only to reach the Leicester Square. The Red Dragon had extended its cultural and corporate charge in the heartland of Britain too. Mandarin scripted signboards restaurants and herbal clinics flourished on both sides. Every nation today almost has a Chinatown. It may be better said every Chinatown has a nation around it.

Mistaking Diamond for Heart, sincerely

Rushing through the lanes and streets, I arrived at a ground where people seemed to be all in merry. Except a majnun-martyr who sang while playing his guitar. On the ground were a speaker, a suitcase, an umbrella and some cables. He wasn’t performing for the love of singing, I realized from the placard placed near the coins donated by his street audience. He was a victim of love. The economics of modern love, actually. This was a fundraising performance to gift an engagement ring for his lady love. The poor lover had already sold the most precious thing he could ever gift, his heart. But then he would have hardly thought, rare for any lover to think though, girls are inherently used to combining, read as confusing, heart and diamond with equal sincerity. Preachers from the industry ensure every girl is a convert to the gospel of ‘Diamonds, not heart, are girls’ best friends’.

Pharaonic Perversion

I returned to the hotel with prayers for the ‘madman’ lover. En route, I passed by the Cleopatra’s Needle, located on the Victoria Embankment near the Golden Jubilee Bridges. This structure, with its counterparts in Paris and New York, is based on ancient Egyptian obelisks.
Pharaohs and pharaohs-related art and architecture continue to fascinate minds till date. Reasons unknown. And so is the purpose.

Photos: Victoria Embankment

Day 2

Treading the Untrodden

It was day two of stepping on the English capital. The previous day was fully absorbed in walking across the streets of London, gazing at Queen Inc.’s guards and palaces.
The sights of Westminster and Leicester lingered on the back of the mind. I had fairly got an average idea of urban London: it’s rich and poor, young and old, ancient and modern. Now it was time to explore the suburbs, parks and gardens.

I gathered all the determination I could and set afoot for the walk which lasted more than 15km to have a firsthand experience of London suburbs. Winter was in full form, unforgiving and intolerant. But I too was ruthlessly determined to discover what was in store for me that day on the untrodden path. And little did I know what was in store that destined morning.

Photos: London Suburbs

Sharing is Caring

To add to the cold, little drops of rain fell now and then. It was around 10 in the morning. The walk, which began from Cricklewood, took me to new roads, streets and suburbs, including Mapesbury Rd and Christchurch Ave. Finally when I reached the Brondesbury Park, a banner caught my attention: ‘Help the environment, by sharing cars with family and friends’.

Intrigued by the eco-friendly message, I inched a few steps closer. The signboard read, Imam Khoei Islamic center. My curiosity was further aroused to have found this in London and I could not stop from walking closer.

Politicians, not Faith, Feed on Conflicts

A fifty-something man, who seemed to be the caretaker, greeted me. By then I understood the structure and texture of the building I had stepped into. It was a masjid run by the mourners of the Kerbala catastrophe. ‘Am just a visitor, but not here to pray,’ I hurriedly clarified intending not to cause any misunderstanding.

‘I am sorry but I didn’t hear that,’ the man replied, ignoring my apology. ‘Brother, we are children of Adam and Eve. Shia-Sunni conflicts are for the politicians. We need not be hostile to each other,’ he reassured.

He welcomed me to the Masjid and showed around the place, inviting me to photograph anything I wanted. A relic from the Holy Ka’aba in Makkah hung on the wall. The walls and roof were well decorated in stunning Persian architecture.

The Problem with Love

‘Our only problem is that we love the Ahl Bayt (Descendants of the Holy Prophet) more,’ he said, while offering me a bottle of water as well as a box of well-cooked rice, prepared at the center, mixed with Arabian curry and a sweet dish in a corner.

‘What is this for?’

‘This is the month of the birthday of Lady Fatima, the daughter of Rasoolullah. We prepare this 5 day a week for those, who attend this masjid,’ he elaborated. Tired and frozen, I could not resist his hospitality, especially the warmth of the cooked rice.

Kerbala: Kerala’s Own

I too did not leave him empty handed. In return, I gave him handful of dates and almonds, which my wife had carefully packed for my solo trip. ‘I am from the state of Kerala in India. And we love the Ahl Bayt even more,’ I eagerly responded. Our brief encounter did not afford me the time to elaborately acquaint him with the legacy and leadership members of Ahl Bayt enjoys in the political and spiritual heartland of present-day mainstream Kerala. Moreover, Ahl Bayt figures chiefly in the semi-religious eulogy literature of traditional Malabar, crafted in Arabi-Malayalam script.

‘Just recite salat-un-nabi (blessings and prayers on Prophet) as you walk,’ he reminded me. ‘Of course, that is how I reached here. InshaAllah till we meet in Paradise, farewell.’

To believe well is to behave well, with neighbors

As I exited the compound, I saw another banner on the fence. It reminded the worshipers to be mindful of the rights of neighbors, including reducing noise, avoid littering as well as refrain from beeping the horn.

‘One who does not behave well with the neighbors is not one of us,’ a quote from the saintly scholar, Jafar Al Sadiq.

This is all that a human needs to do today: To cause zero disturbances for his or her neighbors – at individual, community, and national levels.
We have somehow confused spirituality for identity politics. Worshipping the Lord does not have to mean intimidating His creations, be they of any faith denomination, or no faith at all. Muslims have to be not only environment-friendly, but neighborhood-compliant as well. A lesson so badly missing from the present-day paranoid pulpit’s theatrical talks.

This is the sum total of the life of Holy Prophet. His family illustrated the same with immense suffering, patience, and sacrifice. Hence, they became the darling of millions, of humans and angels.

I continued my walk in the cold – this time with the warmth of the ‘Fatimi’ morsel.

Photos: Imam Khoei Islamic center

Sunday Farm: Community’s Crusade on Corporations

By the time I finished the Rice packet, I had crossed street after street and finally reached a modest neighborhood called Salusbury. It was a down to earth locality with simple human souls around. The hot dish was over but the cold wasn’t. This time I desperately wanted to grab a hot coffee to kill the cold before I froze to a corpse. While there were several branded coffee shops around, I hesitated to enter any. Partly driven by curiosity and partly by stubbornness, I kept looking for better and innovative outlet.

As my appetite for caffeine reached its peak, I noticed a group of people assembled inside a fenced compound. It seemed like an exhibition or carnival. In I entered and discovered it was both.

The Queens Park Farmer’s Market was Salusbury’s crusade against the corporations. Held every Sunday, this community market sells community grown products for community members. A kind of economic democracy.

Men and women enjoyed buying the fresh farm products while children delighted in playing the rides. Fresh vegetables and fruits, salted fish, garlic pickles, bread and cakes, cheese products, wine, local honey, meat poultry, soups, plant nursery etc. It was a small but grand market. And I made sure I got my coffee, fresh and hot to continue the walk.

Photos: The Queens Park Farmer’s Market

Shrine of Letters

The coffee-powered walk energized the mind and made brought new sights to view. Going further, streets and roads numbers changed rapidly. I looked around and realized the zone was called Kilburn. To my right was a traditional red-bricked building with the signboard ‘Kilburn Library’. The staff were very helpful and I gladly donated my book, Mission Nizamuddin, the micro travelogue about my trip across North India.

Relieved to have visited the shrine of letters, I decided to ride the tube to destination next.

Mortal world. Immortal Pleasures

The escalator at the destination tube station, like the rest of them in London, had well framed advertisements towards the right wall. From beauty to slimming to drama plays, every other board preached the gospel of immortal pleasures for this mortal world.

Individual: Mini World Matter

The way out of the Warwick Avenue station led me to a tall structure known as the St. Saviours Church. Built in 1976, this angular building is designed with hexagonal interior. The church is said to be ‘extremely popular with young families, as well as single people and older members of the Parish’ and adopts a ‘modern catholic liturgy’. All denominations are welcome, or so they claim.

Every soul, not just groups, carry in him or her a mini-world matter. Hence, each individual is a denomination in himself, especially in this egocentric isolationism.

Embracing the Green Creed

Before I fully submerged in the sea of thought, a green and serene paradise showed up in the shore of my vision. It was profoundly picturesque with canals, bridges, green grass and waterborne birds. Boats with dining arrangements passed by. Seagulls flew to their liking. Lovers walked hand in hand whispering heart to heart. The river appeared calm interrupted by random ripples.

Little Venice, as this paradise is called, is located in this Victorian-fashioned suburb preserved in ‘unusual integrity’. Trees, due to severe winter, were desperate to come to life. The tiles and bricks too had converted to the Green Creed. There was a loud silence which added to the cold. But Beauty put on its seductive dance, irresistible even for the ascetic minds.

The sun would set soon. Hence, I decided to call it a day. I bid farewell to the grand and brilliant Little Venice. For, only an early to bed schedule would guarantee the next day’s long journey on time. I had to move out of London and its beautiful suburbs to an entirely different land and landscape.

Photos: Little Venice of London

Prayers: More Horsepower than any Human Invention

Curiosity added fuel into my fire of Anticipation. Eyes refused to bow. Consciousness equally fought to preserve its integrity. A new opening was destined the next day, so much that I saw the morrow even before it appeared in the mirror of Time. They say dreams are the unreachable stars. I say dreams are the candies we thankfully grab from the Magnanimous Fate-Smith. It is then I realized, prayers have more horsepower than any other human invention till date. Prayers are our currency to buy stocks of dreams and ambitions.

Day 03

Christening Present with Christian Past

Eyes opened unusually early that day. The journey to go was longer than I had gone ever in the trip.

Starting the day on pure vegan and dairy breakfast, I began the walk to the nearest Overground station in Cricklewood. Dressed in an unusual costume for a hectic train and on foot journey, I was more than uncomfortable. But it did certainly protect me from the zealous cold winds in the early morning. The bus driver was helpful in guiding me where to descend in order to reach the station.

The Thameslink train reached on time at 8.44am. After passing through three stops, it finally reached the St. Pancras after a 12 minute ride.

It is worth noting that many places and services in UK are christened after religious personalities. Though religious observances may not be very popular in the everyday life of an average Briton, their history and traditions are largely religious. Monarchy and Christianity are intensely interwoven into the cultural identity of the country.

The scene outside the Station was extremely busy. Little did I know my next embarking point was just across the road and it turned to be the busiest and grand stations I had seen so far. This is connection point for major distant parts of UK.

Expecting huge traffic and rush, I quickly ran to catch a seat in the Great Northern train. During the run, I saw huge queue in front of the ticket counters. I wondered why.

All set for the journey of my dreams, I continued to anticipate huge traffic of passengers. But to my delight, there were hardly two souls besides me in the entire bogey.

Photos: Journey to Cambridge

Anticipation is to Time what Housemaker’s hands are for Dough

According to the travel map, the train journey was supposed to last 52 minutes. But Anticipation is the enemy of an eager mind. Like a devout housemaker’s laborious hands on the dough, it presses and stretches Time by several miles. My experience was no different either.

I convinced myself to be patient, at least tried to act so.

After the train moved and moved, vast meadows began to appear on both sides. With just one stop during the nearly hour-long journey, and no single passengers nearby to converse, it was only natural to rest my mind on the pillow of thought and imagination.

Hub of Intellectual Intervention

The seed of most modern cultures are conceived in the minds of incredible individuals and institutions. And one has to admit the fact, great institutions are the de facto breeding ground for great minds as well. Minds of poetry, philosophy, literature, arts, science, mathematics and politics whose thoughts, words and actions shaped the destinies of several multitudes around the world. What would it be like to visit such a mind-moulding hub of intellectual interventions? My eagerness, therefore, was only understandable.

Under the Shadow of Black Death

My destination was named after such an institution or vice versa. The region had become a significant trading centre during the Vikings rule, or so historians say. It had also fallen victim to the Black Death, the devastating plague which claimed the lives of at least 100 million humans in the 1300s. It also played an active role in the English Civil War.

During the 1940s, ‘a secret meeting of military leaders held in Trinity College laid the foundation for the allied invasion of Europe. During the war, Cambridge served as an evacuation centre for over 7,000 people from London.’

The region is also blessed with sufficient natural water which meant flourishing agriculture. However, the modern economy is strengthened by service industry with high-tech companies along with research and development, pharmaceuticals and tourism.

Cars Many. Town Tiny: Cycles to Rescue

This University is both a victim and contender of the Industrial revolution. There are cars many in this town tiny. Residents here use cycle to beat the symptoms of the automotive congestion. Quarter of the city’s people use cycle to their place of work, according to a survey used years back.

Authors Not Far Away

The city also hosts among the oldest publishing houses in the world… and whoa what appeared outside the train window was just that. I shook off from my day-dream and rubbed my eyes only to discover the Cambridge University Press just a few meters away. Now that the Press appeared, its authors had to be nearby.

As expected the station arrived in few minutes. I descended the train in an air of ambition and aspiration.

Genuine Stupidity

I hurriedly walked towards the payment gate and reached out the oyster card. Nope. Next gate. Nope. Seeing my disappointment, an officer of Indian origin appearance, approached me and advised I had been traveling illegally so far without proper ticket. Perhaps out of sympathy for the genuine stupidity of this first time stranger, he advised me to proceed to the next counter and apply for both inward and outward journey. I thankfully smiled at him and sighed: No wonder the rush at the ticket counter of the King Cross station!

I wasted no time further. Grabbing a city map from the tourism kiosk, I marched to the destination which had been the firewood for this fiery pilgrimage so far.

Small Roads. Grand History

The Station Road was a connecting road with important commercial buildings either sides including Research center of Microsoft, the software behemoth. The link road finally landed me on the Hills Road.

The road was too narrow for such a grand historic city. Cars and buses went to and fro. I saw many pedestrians, from students to moms and kids. Besides single roads for either directions, there was a dedicated track for cycles too.

The first notable, though humble by later sightings, building my eyes fell on was a red-bricked fort-like church named St. Paul.

The Wheel Story

I, cyclists and pedestrian students in groups crossed each other’s paths. One mom carried her children in a tricycle. Cars and buses raced one another. Children played with their unirider toy. Strangely, much of humanity’s status and time is determined by the number of wheels. Is that why wheel is considered the most important invention of man?

Banks, beauty saloons, boutiques appeared all around. Another mass structure called, Our Lady and the English Martyr Church was positioned to the left.

Multi cuisine for Multi Cousins

Regent Street, where I’d reached by then, had food outlets catering to almost the entire humanity’s taste buds. British, Greek, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Thai and Arabic as well. The diverse eateries explained just the multicultural nature of Cambridge’s residents. And that explained the Korean mom, Indian students, Arab traders and European customers I observed on the walkway.

Petty and Pretty

‘Take the left as you walk ahead’, replied a passerby as I asked for the route near the Cambridge City Council, the non-metropolitan district’s admin team led by the mayor.

A few more minutes and the air of consumerism became more pronounced. A panorama of pretty and premium fashion boutiques covered the pedestrianised shopping street called Petty Cury.

Photos: Cambridge Street Views

Progress is where Dissent is

And there it was. Cambridge University, the 1209-founded institution I had set out to discover. One of the oldest surviving universities in the world, each college here has a chapel, library and centuries of scholarship to its credit. This institution emerged out of an ideological drift from its parent, Oxford University.

Photos: University of Cambridge

Drift and dissent are the seeds of human intellectual progress. Compliance and conformity are for the feeble minds and faint hearts. Claiming alumni of eminent mathematicians, scientists, thinkers, lawyers, philosophers, economists, writers, poets and politicians, it has contributed at least 15 prime ministers for Britain.

History slept in its cradle. Philosophy made its pillars. Science watered its gardens. Theology plastered its walls. Mathematics crafted its architecture.

Photos: Jaihoon at University of Cambridge

Knowledge, the Religion of this Sanctuary

I continued across the lanes, halls and chapels of the various colleges in this academic haven. Benches where pondered the philosophers and Laboratories where scientists blended elements, halls where debated the lawyers and the river bridge where sighed the poets… Time travel could not be this easy. Knowledge was the religion of this Shrine.

The cold wind blew on. Yet I began to sweat unable to swallow this marvel-morsel of knowledge and history. The charm of architecture was no less alluring than the history emanating from it.

An Indian Unitarian at Trinity College

Baffled and bewildered, excited and euphoric, I waved my feet across the pathways of splendid gardens, sublime buildings and sacred Statues.

Photos: Trinity College

And then I reached the building where once arrived an eager Philosophy student in the year October 1905 following the advice of his professor-mentor. In his college application at the age of 27, he believed to ‘make a contribution to knowledge in the West’. He delved into Kant and Hegel, Plato and Aristotle while also drawing on Ibn Sina and Ibn Maskawaih. He made friends with the titanic scholars of the campus. A passionate poet at heart, the days and night at Trinity College sharpened his poetic genius lending it new color and zeal.

After graduating, the student returned back to his country to awaken his countrymen from their deep slumber. His verses became their lanterns for generations that followed. He echoed their pride and joy, but also became their critical mirror.

Dignity of Belief is greater than Arrogance of Reason

I too borrowed my light and might from that Lantern. His verses instilled in me the pride of my creed in these no-God times. He taught me the dignity of Belief is better than arrogance of Reason. He sanctified the Self from the soil of imitation.

The Indian Philosopher’s memories continued to ripple as this ‘river’ crossed the River Cam. The surrounding was intoxicated with beauty bathed in tender sunlight. Endless lime-colored trees on both sides bordered the vast green maidan with a road in between. A handful of ‘human specimens’ walked by.

Photos: River Cam

Sleep bloomed. Dream loomed

Exhausted after a dawn to mid-day non-stop walk, I leaned under the shade of for few minutes. Fatigue groomed. Sleep bloomed. Consciousness doomed. And a dream loomed…

‘I have burned the midnight oil in this knowledge-seekers’ chamber. I spread the fire of my restless heart among the disheartened children of Sind. I taught them the lessons of Selfhood. I liberated them from the shackles of servitude. Times change and so do the tricks of the Devil. Like Gazzali in his, I solved the riddles of my Time. Every morning comes with its own dew.’

Religion is to Smash the Idol of Self Worship

East and West are equally corrupt now with the worship of self. The primordial self has conquered the world of creed and deed. Ego alone wins in the race under the banner of religion and God. The new age dogma preaches to just ‘be yourself’. The true sage is one who will help to transcend beyond the self.

You have come this far. Hence, go back not empty–hearted. Allow me to direct you to a Living Lantern to deliver from the darkness of lower self. Like Gazzali, he will cure you of the sickness of self. He is the son of this city whereto you have eagerly traveled. So far you wandered in the deserts looking for water. Now go seek the blessings from Oasis of Knowledge. Indeed, your thirst has brought you here. For, water is the plunder of the thirsty alone.’

Enter the Gazzali of Cambridge

I opened my eyes in a flash. And charged in a dash. I came to see the glory of Past and here was news of the living treasure of the Present.

Weariness vanished. Sleep too banished. Ambition flourished. All I could then see was the vision of that living Gazzali of Cambridge. I sped as if that was the last day of the world. As if Gog and Magog would dawn and unbelief would lewdly dance on the streets. I sped as if there was no other morrow.

And I reached his doorstep in less than an hour. His assistant gladly welcomed and made me feel at home. I offered my prayers immediately as the Shaykh was expected anytime soon. The royal English Tea and biscuit was placed on the table. I concluded the prayer. And waited on the couch for the man in the vision.

And then entered through the door that Lantern who was hinted to in the vision. The David to slain the Goliath of lower Self. But far from displaying any air of superiority, he gently asked to take a seat as he poured tea into the cup. ‘We English learned to add milk from India’, he said while extending the hot drink to this stranger.

We conversed for about an hour. From politics to mysticism to Islamism to community development.

Photos: Jaihoon meets Abdal Hakim Murad

Indo-Pak: Ego-shaped LOC

We started on the recent xenophobic tendencies across Europe. ‘England is changing a lot’, while sharing his thoughts on the Brexit.

When I said I hailed from India, he at once enquired if I had visited the shrines across the LOC. When he listened to my negative reply, he sighed, ‘Borders are such a curse’, adding also that the Indo-Pak Partition only ‘served only the ego of their adamant leaders’.

Shouting is from Fear. Mildness from Certainty

When I shared by experience of the courtesy I received from the Britons, he affirmed, ‘We English don’t shout a lot’.

When asked, his attributed his mild speech to his teachers who were all quiet by nature’. On the loud speeches on the pulpits and public lectures, he said ‘Shouting of khutbas is out of agitation. Usually people scream when in fear. Calmness is a sign of Yaqeen, certainty in faith. Shouting is from agitation of fear.’

Saintly Travel

When I shared my enthusiasm for travel and the destinations I had reached, he asked inquisitively, ‘Did you go to Khawja Bahauddin Naqshband? It’s an amazing place’, referring to the tomb of the great Muslim saint in Uzbekistan ‘Yes, alhamdulillah’, I replied thankfully.

A Faith-Compliant and Environment-friendly Dream

He also spoke enthusiastically about the Cambridge Mosque project; an eagerly cherished dream of the Cambridge Muslim community, which is dedicated to the spiritual and social welfare of the city’s estimated six thousand Muslims, including many visiting students. Estimated to cost 23 Million Pounds, the Mosque will also serve as a cultural bridge fostering greater understanding between communities and have a strong educational component, providing an infrastructure and support for learning and research. Although the building will ‘proudly adhere to consensual Sunni Islam’, all denominations will be welcomed at the Europe’s first environmentally-aware mosque, which was designed by Marks Barfield who were behind major international projects including the London Eye.

Activism: Shy of Demons Within

Religious activism will be counter-productive whenever it is robbed of self introspection. Activism, he believes, fails to address the threat of demons within oneself. Religious activism and self-introspection are ‘not mutually exclusive’,

Solitude in the Crowd

He quotes the life of Imam Al Gazzali as explains the role of an activist in society.

‘You cannot improve yourself and then walk away when somebody is starving in the street. Similarly we cannot really succeed in bringing balance in the outward structure of the world if we are not doing it from the position of wisdom. You cannot heal others when you are sick by yourself. The weapon for the believer in these days is to practice ‘solitude in the crowd’. Deal with people mercifully but without being influenced.’

Nemesis of the Self Righteous

The British scholar is mostly known for his ruthless attack on the self-righteousness of wannabe spiritualists within the community. The mild preacher shows zero tolerance when it comes to criticism of the vanity of human self.

Educated at Cambridge, Al-Azhar, and London universities, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad is a leading British Muslim scholar and researcher, who is currently serving as Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University and Director of Studies in Theology at Wolfson College. He has been awarded the Pilkington Teaching Prize by Cambridge University and the King Abdullah I Prize for Islamic Thought. He is well known as a contributor to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’.

“The traditional etiquette of knowledge-seeking is absent in online learning platforms which lacks the warmth of face to face interaction,” added Cambridge’s own ‘Shaykh’, who has consistently been included in the “500 Most Influential Muslims” list published annually by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre.

He also lamented the fallacy of ‘half-baked scholars’, who respond to every other issue, whereas established scholars of earlier times always chose to retract from irrelevant or debatable topics. He chooses not to indulge in frivolous argumentations where the opposing side is not prepared to give an ear for his point of view. He cited the example of Imam Malik, the monumental jurist of Medina, who responded ‘I don’t know’ to 36 of the 40 questions raised to him.

When I eagerly enquired how he manages the critically disturbing questions from Cambridge University students, he replied that ‘Students here come from educated background, without much prejudiced minds. And if at all there’s, it can be easily broken down’.

Guides may be far. But Destination is Near

As he reached his hand to pour tea again, I jumped from my seat and insisted, ‘No Shaykh. Let me pour for you this time’. He did not refuse my wish.

As we delved further into the past, I asked ‘how is it possible to find a ascetic master saint in the present turbulent times just as in the past?’

His reply was fast and sharp. ‘The methods have changed and become tough but Allah is not gone away. Some names of Allah has opposites. For example, the opposite of Al Awwal is Al Akhir. However, His name Qareeb (Near One) has no opposite. Sufis always recognized this. It’s not like physical nearness but spiritual presence. He is never far. How can He be far, the whole of world is His names.

Fall in love with God’s Will for a Beautiful Life

True Dhikr, or Divine Recollection, according to him, is in “the delightful observation of God’s attributes which manifest in the mundane life around us” and not merely in the “chanting of God’s Holy names”.

‘Names are flashing like rainbows. His presence is total, unimaginable to our feeble brains. Zikr (recollection of God), is to remind (us of) this. Everything is manifestation. Open our hearts to accept the perfection.

Falling in love with the Creator’s doings is the secret to living a beautiful life. Wholeheartedly resigning to His Will, even if it is painful, will bring us spiritual nourishment.

‘Even if the manifestation is bitter, like what a perfect Cook cooks for us, we may not like some dish, but it’s the perfect one for us, most nourishing… If we fall in love with whatever He is doing, we will have the most beautiful life ever. And will have nothing to complain about’.

Light One. Shadows Many

‘The whole of the world are the interaction of His Names like rainbows. Whatever we see other are shadows. There is nothing else in reality. What is the reality of shadows but for the light? The Quran always uses ‘zulumat’ in plural and ‘nur’ in singular’.

Global Islam. Local Islam

He is a formidable critic of the zealous Islamist movements in the Muslim world. He had recently equated Zionism and Islamism to have the ‘same smell’ due to its fear of ‘non-belonging’, which ultimately took ‘its fears on others’.

In one of his lecture on Indonesian Islam, he had also noted that Islamic practices ‘cannot be taken out of cultural context’ and hence Indian Muslim or British Muslim is as much original as Arabian Islam. He also observed that ‘Islam has always flourished in centers of cultural interchange’ while referring to the growth of Islam in Java locality. ‘Islam respects the cultural traditions as long as it is not against the core tenets of the Creed’, added the Shaykh who is married to a Pakistani living in UK.

Kerbala: Connecting Cambridge and Kerala

Shaykh Murad is also involved with British Muslim Song, an initiative to showcase the growing collection of beautiful songs and sounds from the rich but little-known heritage of British Islam. The Shaykh is also lead singer in an album released based on the devotional songs of Husain Vaiz kashifi, the Afghan poet, dedicated to the love for Ahl al-Bait. He personally presented me with a CD of the album whose songs are equivalent to the semi-religious ecclesiastical literature of Malabar (mawlids etc.), which contains rich eulogies of renowned saints of past, most of whom belong to the Family of Holy Prophet.

When briefed about the legacy of Sayyids’ contributions in Malabar, he was already familiar with the Hadramaut tradition among Kerala Muslims and their heritage. He expressed interest in knowing the Kerala Muslim community closer and was receptive to the idea of an academic visit to the South Indian state.

The Light and Tears of Gratitude

The tea cup had again run dry. But my heart and eyes had been filled with light and tears of gratitude. Rarely in life had I gained such an opportunity to converse with a living intellectual genius of the highest level in the present world. A brilliant scholar who, like Allama Iqbal, had dived and delved deep into the wisdom of East and West. Like al Gazzali, he was a sheer gift of God for this Ummah passing through one of its most intellectually challenging phases.

He called the college’s photographer to take a picture of our meeting. I too grabbed one in my camera. Another guest had arrived by then. It was time for me to take leave, unwillingly though. He humbly walked me to the door while reminding to make sure I take my coat to protect from the cold wind.

Meeting Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad was like meeting the Imam al Gazzali of our times. Yes, the Gazzali of Cambridge.

A Prayer. Just for Me

While returning back in the train, my eyes fell on this travel-return prayer. “We return, repent, worship and praise our Lord. Allah fulfilled His promise, aided His servant, and single-handedly defeated the allies’. I pressed my heart with the conviction that this prayer made the greatest sense to no one as much as it had for me in this blessed evening.

It wasn’t in vain that my morning began that day on such fervent note. I repeat, dreams are the candies we thankfully grab from the Magnanimous Fate-Smith. I repeat again, prayers have more horsepower than any other human invention till date. They are our currency to buy stocks of dreams and ambitions. God will fulfill them.

Mujeeb Jaihoon is a UAE-based writer, orator, and wanderer of Indian origin. His published books include The Cool Breeze From Hind, a spiritual travelogue across Muslim Kerala and Mission Nizamuddin, acclaimed as world’s first Twitter-based micro travelogues across North India. He has journeyed to remote areas of Western China, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine besides the Arabian Gulf countries