Memoir

Small stories of the planet

COULD IT BE true? Had we just made the first ever Halal Irish stew?

The lamb's slaughterer could not have predicted such a destiny. I said my thank you in Arabic to the butcher and strolled past the Filipino grocery shops and South African estate agents, past the well-muscled groups of homosexuals and Aus­tralians guzzling beer, past the 30-metre Madonna cleavage squashed into a French corset. I am in Earl's Court, south-west London – I doubt the Earl would recognise it now.

I handed the meat to my partner to do her worst. She was born in America and developed a soft spot for Northern Ireland from her time there (hence the stew). I am Australian. We're both of Indian origin.

While the stew slowly bubbled, we visited a market in east London. The Whitechapel Road market is now the heart of a Bangladeshi community. The next day, we visited friends in St Albans, a quaint English village 30 minutes north of London; interplanetary travel is possible on the Northern Line.

My soft spot is for London, where everyone, surely, can find a somewhere to belong. Or at least where a sense of alienation is well distributed. Growing up in Adelaide, I remember feeling alienated by some talk of multiculturalism. I was fre­quently welcomed into the place where I was born, received commiserations whenever India lost the cricket, which they almost always did, and was accused of supporting cheats, when the won. Headlines declared "six million migrants make us proud". Upon discovering I was one of them, I wondered whether my children would also be counted, and how many generations this would go on.

Tolerance seemed a lazy aspiration. It asked people to get along, but not really. Respect – now there's a challenge.

In London, like in any other mixed-up place, whether a person actually feels he or she belongs is in the mind. That is where people tally small stories of discrimination and alienation, friendship and kindness.

To assess belonging, and the room for it to breathe, I observe less tangible things than the economic contributions from migrants, and the numbers consuming differ­ent cuisines (the stew was hearty, but a bit bland for my taste). Rather, I attempt a poll of the "atmosphere": the public space where meaning is formed. For clues, read letters to the editor, note the headlines, watch the politicians.

Seeing difference is one thing and a place is generally better for it, or at least more interesting. But sometimes I wonder what my Lebanese butchers say to each other in their quiet moments, or what goes through the mind of that Bangladeshi stall owner with the best mangoes in London. I wonder how they feel about all this dif­ference: what they think of this "new world" we live in where people will be fingerprinted to cross borders. What sorts of small stories will emerge about belonging?

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