Dreary-Gorgeous Whitechapel

Every term-time weekday, on my way to work, I walk – or sometimes cycle – past what had been my grandparents’ first home in this country: a one-bedroom flat that had been shared (contentedly, as their determined nostalgia, perhaps, would have us believe) by six kids, two parents, and frequent night-staying flows of familial guests, even. Communal waste-bins, and washing-lines. Its local masjid, marking the end of that road, which had been visited daily by my late grandfather. His characteristic sandals, and the sweets he would bring for us, upon returning. [Recently, I have learned from my Nanu that he would also bring her – his wife – her favourite sweets. Ice-like sugar cubes, and hiding them away from we mischievous, ever-grasping grandchildren. But we managed to find them, somehow, put not-discreetly-enough away, in those little metal canisters. Twist those lids off: a sugar rush…] And now, when my uncle comes down from his new cottage-like (Masha Allah) place in the suburbs, he likes to go to the same mosque.

Twenty-minute walk or so away: past glass buildings, a strange and intriguing flower garden (which my friend warns me against visiting: she says she’s seen a dead rat there, before), past an outdoor Brazilian ‘food garden’, and then across the road from rows of sleepy-seeming wholesale fashion shops. And tucked away, modestly: an Islamic secondary school for girls – a Madraasah – in half-infamous, albeit half-intentionally-overlooked, Whitechapel: the beating heart of East London. The bustling market; the forever-in-use hospital buildings, lofty and quite unmissable. These somewhat-Dickensian streets; in Winter, the orange glow of streetlights, seemingly seeking to burn out all that dullness.

            The grey blanket of sadnesses ‘seasonal’. Somewhat ‘decrepit’, arguably, and, yet, somewhat ‘poetic’ too, actually. Babies’ shrieks emanating from flats upon flats, stacked, one on top of the other; the quiet lullabies of their mothers, exhausted from the day’s work. Laa ilaaha illallah. Seven people living in homes really only made for two.

            Outside: sweeping. A man in a green high-vis jacket, speaking on the phone, in Arabic. The sporadic sounds of brush, against pavement. Brush, brush, brush: onomatopoeic, almost, soothing. The low thrum from the nearby truck. Two opposing rows of old council flats, and they lead to a block of apartments, complete with its own concierge, its walls of glass. And then: the spillage of a box of chips, which you find you must now sort of hop over.

            The wreckage of that old shutter-secured shed. Somebody has attempted to paint ‘art’ atop that side of things: flowers; something meant to be a little obscure, ‘politically edgy’, maybe, somehow.

            Women in headscarves – Bengali, Arab, Somali – half-concealed within their own private worlds, walking past, slowed down in speed by blue plastic bags bulging with fruit and veg from the local market. A bowl of tomatoes for a pound; a box of honey mangoes for ten. And sometimes: their sons, trailing along, after them, themselves carrying a bag or two. And daughters, glasses rested on heads, their eyes surgically attached to their phones, though looking up in intervals, if only in order to cross some roads, or to accidentally glare at those cigarette-drinking men who apishly cat-call them.

            And it is that precise feeling, when the bus finally, finally, arrives. The woman with the wiry hair, who will not cease from her tutting. Grumbling, sighing. She has somewhere to be.

“Babe. Could you check when the next bus might be coming, please?” she asks, voice coated in strong Cockney accent, her cigarette-stained smile. And then: the bus finally glides into view. Trundles lazily, its wheels sloshing the rainwater about; it stops outside the hospital. Nearby, there is a man who stands there, almost every day, in business attire. Smoking something, and with his bag hanging from the tall iron fence. There is a functioning speaker inside, playing something out loud. And upon each of the tall fence’s numerous little iron spires, there are metal bottle caps.

Whitechapel, we find, is a place that can quite easily be ‘taken for granted’. What, truly, catches the eye, in some glittering way, save for these colourful café signs? The contrast between purple and yellow, of that new ‘Naan’ place: ‘fusion food’, one might call it — between Londoni and Lahori.

The doctors and suited professionals very much seem to prefer this place, to satisfy their Desi food wants, over that old place: run-down monochrome sign, small hexagonal half-glasses, upside-down, metal plates of salad (tomatoes, cucumber, onions, lettuce, sometimes, and khassa morriss), and mango lassi in recycled plastic milk bottles, blue lids. The newer place has warmer lights, ‘cultural’ wall art, and an electronic till, which works. The old place finds itself frequented by Pakistani men who find slices of ‘home’, there. A small bathroom sink, attached to the side, on the wall, a classic bottle of Carex handwash.

            Around the corner, also: two schoolgirls, in white headscarves, and otherwise cloaked in black, attempt to hide from their teacher, who is walking on the other side of the road. Backpacks worn on only one shoulder – it’s… ‘cooler’ this way, of course – and watches which tell the time, but, then again… who’s counting?! 8:00, school opens, but they can push their luck, as they often do; make that 8:15.

Today’s lunch is from the local supermarket. The ‘popular’ girls come in, also, with tall cups of bubble tea, cans of energy drinks, even, placed on their tables, on display. They’re told off, over and again, warned of the nutritional dangers of such choices. But it tends to be in one ear, and out the other, with them.

            And, after school, the cleaner sister goes to the assistant head, to complain about the atrocious state of that one classroom. That particular form class: the food left everywhere; the leftovers from various academic-artistic endeavours. At the nearby state school – almost militaryindustrial, in how it is run – the students do not sweep, nor clean in these same ways. They barely even pick things up, off the ground, and there is an army of cleaners, uniformed and systematic. [According to my cousin Moosa, that school – the one he currently attends, and which I also went to – had been designed, initially, to be a prison. “Can’t you tell? That’s why it looks like H.M.P down there“.] Here, though, the best we have is a broom against a wall, which sort of goes missing sometimes, and a plastic dustpan-and-brush set, in each classroom. Two cleaning sisters who go around, maintaining the place.

            Outside the school: a little flower-bed. It is nearing summer now, and there are white roses blooming. They seem like they belong there; like it is their home. But, equally, such beauty seems a little out-of-place here, maybe. This is a Victorian building – originally designed to be a primary school – whose bricks find themselves to be completely laden with age, and must, and experience. And outside:

            A small mess of rubble, and tarmac. Flood-like puddles, also, whenever it rains: there is construction work, seemingly forever being done. A new extension to the school building. Only a five-minute walk away, also, there is a purple-and-white themed girls’ school, far bigger, and government-funded, than this one. That one’s headteacher holds the title of being a ‘CEO’. This one’s headteacher is a Mufti. Our colour code is green, and, while it is true that we do not have streams of funding flooding in: on Fridays, for example, we walk into school while Surah Kahf plays, melodiously, from the tannoys. And friends who pray together, stay together.

A wonderful thing to witness, especially while it rains: black umbrellas, and cobbled roads. Daughters waiting in their fathers’ nice cars, windows tinted with a bit of steam. And that heart-soothing recitation, its sacred and comforting meanings, flowing into our ears. Friday, the most blessed one of the week.

            Inside: the distinctive smell of toast. First, coming from the sixth form’s common room. And then, of course, from the staff one. Mugs out, spoons chucked in, kettles flipped on. Before one of the teachers had left for maternity, she had gifted her colleagues a coffee machine: there it sits, now, on the counter, a kind gesture, legacy.

            And everywhere: there are books, and pens. Stamps, to use for marking. Biscuits and doughnuts; mini buffets, on foil and plastic trays, put together celebrating no particular occasion, save for that of being here, alive.

            One of the cleaner sisters says that she has been having trouble sleeping lately. She goes for days, these days, without a blink of shuteye: she does not know why. She says she lives about twenty minutes away: a nine-floor block of flats, wearied by use, which stands opposing no place other than glass, shiny and metallic Canary Wharf. This, and that: only a few streets away from one another.

            Here, at her home, she has displayed her orchid plant outside her portion of the building. Walking in, the tower smells like drugs. And then like curry, probably. A woman whose countenance seems to be addled with stress, desolation, maybe; her son leaving her behind, racing ahead, across the narrow walkway, on his scooter. And then a group of people by the lifts, commending a little girl on something to do with acting school or something: their heavy Cockney accents, and those promises, pinned to her, of ‘fame’ and ‘success’. Make it ‘big’, make it big. Make it out of here.

Inside: some deflated old Eid balloons come together, around the main light in the living room, to form a sort of multi-coloured chandelier. Two notebooks on a table, which is set against a balcony window. Here, an exchange of languages is set to take place:

My English, for her Bengali. And bowls of watermelon; plates of Bazi with rice. Today, also, a packet of fried peas: quite a nice snack, actually. Miss D apologises, more than once, for the “mess” her place is in, although it is really not. Today, after work at the school, she has picked up and bathed her little children; cooked; cleaned, with the aid of her husband, who works as a restaurant chef. She offers me a cup of tea, like she frequently does at our workplace – or a glass of milk, perhaps, since she thinks I will have found the Bazi a bit too spicy – and asks me, in passing, how many bedrooms my house has. Now, we have, Alhamdulillah, four in total; this, for this past year-and-a-bit, has been my first time having a garden and a garage. [Main difficulties here, in terms of the unprecedented lifestyle changes: having to actually go down some stairs, in order to eat, or to get some water up]. And before: my first two homes (outside of my Nan’s) had closely resembled Miss D’s one. ‘Studio flat’, and then ‘maisonette’. From them, I remember going to the local corner shop for glass bottles of milk, graffitied walls, and learning how to use the microwave (to warm up glasses of milk) fairly young.

Our gold – and our little box TV, actually – had been stolen from one of these places. Window smashed, broken into, while we had been away, in Bangladesh. And, like Miss D’s two daughters, (alongside fighting, and being a ‘tomboy’) I loved playing with dolls back then. Unlike them, however, I had no siblings there – neither to boss around, nor to be governed by. Only my pink tent, which often broke down into its individual pieces, and that TV; the imagined feeling of spiders, also, crawling all over my pillows, and all up and down those walls. [I had scarcely really ever felt ‘at home’, there, in that place.] And then: my ‘real home’, so it has always felt (my cousins, my school, and my friends) had been only a train or two away: in somewhat-grimy, but mostly-inescapably-comforting, Whitechapel. And these most undisciplined skylines. And in all that, of dreary-gorgeousness (and those conflicting forces of brutish-beauty tough-and-earthy-as-old-brick ‘working-class’, and increasing shiny-and-sharp-and-sleek-as-new-glass ‘gentrification’) which immediately surrounds it.


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

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