The Tea Leaves in the English cup of Tea

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English is my second language

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney,

 

My forebears in Bombay built the British fort

Left on the spine of the ancient water-port

Muslim soldiers, buried at Horsell Common,

(Who fought for each British man and woman)

Had to be removed from those sacred grounds

When the National Front brought hunting hounds

Had the Unknown Soldier been an Indian hero

In the woods would stand an ancient Willow

Weeping and whispering: ‘here they belonged

Farewell brave soldiers’ goodbye, so long’

Far and away from their native roots,

They died for England’s green and pleasant shoots

And when young migrants flew into Heathrow

Overcome by whirlwinds of bitter-white snow

The weather was as chilling as the English faces

Of frosted hostility for browner races

And a ‘social problem’ was the migrants’ label

Causing ‘total transformation’ of the English fable

 

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney,

 

I began to memorise lines of the Qur’an

With passages of Dylan, Blake and Iqbal

At school I recited Macbeth and played lacrosse

as if I’d attended Shakespeare rather than the mosque

The revolution in Iran made me delve into Nizami,

and I remember reading the words of Albert Hourani

On Nishapur’s school housing Greek thought

Where works of Plato were poured over and taught

The teachers stopped handing me commendations

As students could not bear the shameful degradation

Because English is my second language. But, wait, no,

English came from Indo-Iranian seeds that grow

We mute, obscure immigrants are not undone

English is not our second tongue, it is your only one

And we await the day you learn ours

So that conversation finally flowers

 

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney

 

Coping with the Past

 

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The Plaque of T. S. Eliot on one of the SOAS buildings, formerly the office of Faber & Faber

You can order your life by the chronologically startling events that punctuate it.

These aren’t always happy, exciting events, but dark and terrible moments too.

How many soliloquies of an acquaintance have you heard beginning with ‘When my mother died…’ or ‘the year I got divorced…’.

The most significantly painful memories cleverly enmesh themselves into our moments of greatest change and transformation, like the period of time it will take to shed skin.

This is a deeply painful process, nonetheless, but vital in colliding our fantasy of our lives with the reality of what it has become.

As a student at SOAS, I attended lectures in the building displaying the above plaque, and had little notion that, alongside writing one of the most influential poems ‘The Waste Land’ and inspiring the poetic revolution in Iraq through انشودة المطر ‘Rain Song’ by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (‘Eating the earth around her, drinking the rain’), T. S. Eliot also wrote a poem entitled ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’. He enjoyed detailed observations of the pathetic, the superficial and the humiliating.  The point to be made is that pressed up against the window pane where you will daydream your best work, is the categorical failure, trauma or anguish required to fuel your journey towards it.

Soon after my baby died, I spent a long, lonely afternoon in the Waterstones in Piccadilly. This is the largest bookshop in Northern Europe, and a cave glittering with gems of ideas where you will be left alone to browse, read, sleep and ponder. I read ‘Very Good Lives’ by J. K. Rowling. She talks about failure having the power to reveal ourselves, in a brutally honest fashion, stripping away the misdirected thoughts and aspirations we had.

I am now in what John Agard calls ‘a pregnant moment’ of my own history, both metaphorically and physically.

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Pregnancy after loss is both thrilling and uncertain. I am aware of the weighty impact and responsibility now of every decision I make for my health, my mental wellbeing and my spiritual growth. I have emotionally come through a cycle, a flow chart of growth:

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I accept my limitations. I cannot see the future, and I know I have human anxieties and emotions that make me imperfect. Imperfection, as many learned men and women try to reiterate, is the ingredient to a wise life, because in overcoming our powerful desire for superficial order and symmetry (and never taste disapointment) we are on the road to a wiser, more contented life.

We enjoy escapism, fantasy, the arc of the narrative and the subsequent happy ending. But this is not what we experience in life. As T. S. Eliot writes:

‘…said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.’

So never stop daydreaming, keep writing nonsense stories, painting and indulging your appetite for sitcoms. Be ever aware, though, that these are part of your consolation therapy for being a troubled human, and that you will have to take the path towards deep growth and resilience if you want to make difficult experiences empowering.