There’s a thrill when you make a major change and land up in an alien environment. You don’t know how things are going to be, you don’t even know if you will deal with them. I was always told that people around you give you the strength to work through that uncertainty. They infuse you with energy, inspiration and no matter how alien or bleak the environment they’ll tell you that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
Luckily enough, I have always had people like that around me. But I left them all behind and landed in UK. From being a confident Mumbai girl, I was the latest export from India, a meek, lost girl in the Queen’s land. I’d spent a week with the Kale family but as I drove down to the uni with my family, I started feeling that knot in my tummy. I was scared. I had never lived on my own, I had never been so far away from my friends and I had never ever been friendless. Well, not since high-school, but let’s not go there.
As the car wove through the University of Sussex campus, I was bright eyed and as we located my residences I was nervous as hell. Making friends from scratch, fending for myself, cooking, cleaning and studying all by myself and in addition to that, homesickness. I wasn’t unprepared. I had been warned by many, but it was happening now. This was real. I took a few deep breaths and told myself I’ll be ok. We pulled up right behind a car. A girl got out of the car. I had never seen her before and yet there was something very familiar about her face, something very comforting. She smiled looking towards the residences and I saw hope.
I got off the car and continued to stare at her. Will she be a friend? Will she be in my school? Will she be…
‘Hi are you studying here?’ I heard my cousin ask.
She nodded, that smile fixed on her lips and excitement dripping from every corner of her face.
‘My cousin’s doing her MA from here. Meet Shakti,’ he introduced me…
She shook my hand, ‘Hi, I’m Mariam. I’m doing MA in Critical Theory. And you?’
There was warmth in her voice. And I replied that I was doing my MA in creative writing and she could critique my work. In my head, I thought, WTF are you saying? I realised this was going to be awkward, making new friends. But then she laughed at my stupid joke and I felt like all be ok.
Little did I know that this girl, the first person I met on the campus, would end up being such a close friend! Mariam Zia, this bundle of energy, hails from Lahore, Pakistan. She’s one of the people I treasure. At times, a mere ‘hi’ here and there tells her what’s going on in my head. She’s like this elder sister who’ll watch out for me, who’ll patiently listen to me whining and then bring a smile to my face. She is the reason why I loved my novel as much as I did.
At Sussex, I made my own family. They were and are still pillars of strength in my life (I know I never email or keep in touch, but they continue to be my strength) Mariam happens to be one of the closest to me. Mariam and Shefali helped me grow up; they helped me be me as I grew up. Of course, Shef deserves a blogpost of her own but Mariam, this one’s for you.
Our countries can’t see eye to eye and yet we see each other to the depth of our souls. My calls or SMS wouldn’t go through to her, we all know why. She lives in Lahore. On her birthday, I couldn’t hear her voice, I couldn’t tell her how much I loved her, all because our countries are constantly at loggerheads. Our friendship is very special to me on an individual level, yes, but I also know that it is symbolic. It is symbolic of the fact that beyond that border, we share a similar culture, similar values. And if we have enough love in our hearts to give and enough room in our hearts to receive, we can share a lovely relationship. I should be able to take a flight and go see Mariam. She should be able to get on a bus and come see me, but we can’t. I haven’t seen Mariam in 4 years. Last time I saw her, we were freezing at Trafalgar Square, right outside National Gallery and we held each other tight. We promised to see each other soon in our respective home cities. We continue to promise each other that even as relations between our countries have turned more and more hostile. In the end what matters is that our friendship, our love has continued to grow strong. And no matter how many of my SMS or phone calls get blocked or however difficult it gets to see Mariam, I just need to close my eyes and I see her. She is in my heart.
Happy birthday, Mariam Aapa (big sistah!) Tum jeeyo hazaron saal, saal ke din ho pachas hazaar. May all your dreams come true, may all the happiness in the world be yours and may you live a long life. And we will see each other soon, I mean it!
On your birthday, words are all I have… So here’s to you, thank you for being in my life…
P.S: Mariam, do you notice the excess use of ellipses? It’s because words, they’ll never be enough…