An Open Book and an Empty Cup: London Regained
By Iqbal Ahmed
Coldstream, UK
ISBN: 978-1527253216
204pp.

Iqbal Ahmed was born in Srinagar, lives in London and is the author of four memoirs which draw on this dual inheritance to illuminate the immigrant experience, combining travel, discovery and daily life alongside reflections on memory, literature and history.

His new book, An Open Book and an Empty Cup: London Regained, is a lyrical, multi-layered exploration of London, interwoven with his Kashmiri heritage. His narrative is enlivened by anecdotes about the places he sees and the people he encounters, and the cafés he discovers and where he lingers with “an open book and empty cup” — words derived from W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘Vacillation’, a philosophical meditation on life and its binaries.

An Open Book and an Empty Cup begins with contemplations of borders and boundaries, following Ahmed’s dismay at Britain’s 2016 pro-Brexit vote and its implicit narratives of otherness. He contrasts this majority vote to that of cosmopolitan London, which had voted Remain, as had distant Gibraltar, edged by Spain and the Mediterranean. He describes his own exhilaration at being able to travel freely as a British resident across Europe, without the impediments of visas and immigration formalities that he had been subjected to on a different passport.

His conversation with an Irishman on the post-Brexit divisions of North and South Ireland evokes memories of Jammu and Kashmir. He writes of the Line of Control, which crosses a glacier where the Pakistani and Indian armies “have placed heavy artillery in the snow to ward off each other.” He describes Uri, the garrisoned border town, and the river Jhelum which “wanders through Srinagar”, then passes through the Pir Panjal mountains and across the border to Muzzaffarabad “downriver” and onwards to Punjab, and is believed to be “the Bidaspes, mentioned by Ptolemy.”

A Kashmir-born British writer’s latest book, like his past four, is a lyrical, multi-layered exploration of his dual inheritance

This seamless movement across cultures, continents and centuries becomes a foil to borders, war and violence. Since childhood, Ahmed has witnessed army convoys and police patrols in Kashmir and, when he arrived in Britain, Irish Republican Army (IRA) activity and related bombs blasts were rampant. He comments on imperial history too.

Ahmed enriches his narrative with literary references. His experience of the London underground includes ‘Poems on the Underground’, a project aimed “to bring poetry to passengers” travelling on the tube. There, poems by William Shakespeare, Derek Walcott, Yeats, Moniza Alvi and others, posted above the carriage windows, speak very personally to him. He reveals that the underground was initiated during the Great Exhibition of 1851 — that great celebration of the Empire’s loot, housed in the spectacular Crystal Palace, “referred by some as the Great Shalimar.” This metaphorical reference to the grandeur of Lahore’s Shalimar reminds Ahmed of Srinagar’s Mughal garden of that name by the Dal Lake.

Cycling in London is Ahmed’s great discovery. To him, it remains the most enjoyable aspect of living in London and enables him “to roam the town completely at will.” He celebrates the sheer joy of that experience and undertakes a 160-kilometre ride from London to Bath, with hundreds of cyclists, to raise funds for Kashmir’s floods. He lived in the south of Hampstead Heath and, later, East Finchley, and brings vividly to life many London landmarks as well as the people he meets, from landladies to chance acquaintances.

He incorporates Regent’s Park, the London Central Mosque and buildings designed by 18th century architect John Nash into his tale. He writes of that exclusive locality — Bishop’s Avenue — where huge, empty homes often change hands and the eerie silence of night can be disrupted by celebrity-chasing paparazzi. He witnesses the transformation of King’s Cross from a “grungy part of London” into “the biggest transport hub in Europe”, while the nearby British Library is almost a “spiritual home” to him. He conjures up a completely different aspect of London during his visit to Southall, with its large Punjabi community and where he attended the Vaisakhi Mela to celebrate the Sikh New Year.

Ahmed joined the staff of a well-known London hotel some 20 years ago. He felt immediately at home there, “because it was full of transients” such as himself. He gives hotel life, and the hotel guests he meets, a further context by reflecting on the writings of Vladimir Nabokov, who lived in the Montreux Palace Hotel, while Marcel Proust “found ordinary events at the Ritz [in Paris] more interesting than the extraordinary events taking place in the world outside.” He recalls Kashmir’s fabled houseboats, too, and the Grand Palace Hotel, the maharajah’s erstwhile home.

Ahmed’s discovery of art and art galleries in London takes him to the National Gallery, the Tate Britain, the Tate Modern, and Hayward Gallery, among others. He discusses specific works of artists ranging from William Turner, Vincent van Gogh and Johannes Vermeer to Pablo Picasso, Canaletto and Henri Matisse, and chances upon Henri Cartier Bresson’s photographs of Kashmir.

He incorporates the various problems he faced in Britain as well, including Home Office delays in granting a spouse visa for his newlywed wife. He builds in various trips to Srinagar to visit family amid increasing troubles there, including curfew in 2016; he finds Agha Shahid Ali’s poem in The Country Without a Post Office speaks for contemporary times, too: “‘Srinagar hunches like a wild cat: lonely sentries, wretched in bunkers at the city’s bridges, far from their homes in the plains, licensed to kill’.”

This seamless movement across cultures, continents and centuries becomes a foil to borders, war and violence.

In Srinagar, “peace has always been fragile” but, in February 2019, Ahmed’s trip is cancelled because flights are suspended. Friends tell him of thousands of troops in Kashmir and security forces asking foreigners to leave. Finally, he decides to go to Srinagar in August, but first he stops over in Gurgaon, near Delhi.

He discovers the telephone lines to Kashmir have been cut overnight. This “preceded the official announcement of the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and the downgrading of the state into two Union territories, thereby revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution.” His shock and sorrow and his state of limbo are skilfully juxtaposed alongside memories of Kashmir, its mountains, cities and landscapes in a happier past. He stays with his parents in Srinagar for Eid, but celebrations are very muted that year. He quotes an Urdu poet: “How could I celebrate Eid when I am bereaved?”

Ahmed’s portrayal of the rhythms of life brings together both the familiar and unfamiliar and also tells of how London changed to him after marriage and fatherhood and he starts to rediscover his “adopted homeland” anew in the company of his little school-going son.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 14th, 2021

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