I walked Brick Lane with my boyfriend in the fall of 1998 in search of a curry.
We practically never ate in restaurants because London was and continues to be expensive to those who don’t know its more forgiving places. We were still new to the city and had only figured out a scarce number of the city’s secrets but they were fruitful ones. We were unofficially sub-letting a rent-subsidized apartment from a man who had acquired the right to live there after years of illegal squatting in the same space (he wanted to live with girlfriend without giving up his claim to the space). We had both found work. I held a series of short term jobs from a temp agency and he – the reason who I followed to London, was working for a college friend of his who had started up a wholesale business of third-world crafts with a girl-friend. Our days were busy with work but we had the weekends to explore the city on foot, street by street.
One Saturday afternoon, we decided to splurge on a curry. And where else should we go than Brick Lane? It was famous for being a ‘little India’ of London and having many curry houses.
What do I remember of Brick Lane? I remember a narrow unremarkable street with several blocks featuring Indian restaurants. In front of each stood a skinny Bangladeshi (if I had to guess) man who would kindly entreat us inside. We had no reason to choose one restaurant over an another and had just assumed that they would be all be more or less alike. And so we walked into one of the first ones we passed and were seated in a mostly empty restaurant.
When I look back at it all, I think we should have taken some sort of evasive action when we realized that the complimentary poppadoms we were served were so stale that they were unquestionably days old. But we only months into our relationship and so happy of just being together in the same city and continent that we did not complain or find a reason to leave. Besides, neither of us were really the type to make demands on others. At least, not where we didn’t know our place.
Both of us ordered a balti curry each because we had never had this UK-specific dish before. The balti refers to the small metal wok-like bowl that delivers the curry. I’m not sure whether the bowl’s specific purpose is to allow the customer to tip their container at a precarious angle to allow the thick nasty layer of red grease to collect at one side so it may be avoided, but that’s what we both ended up doing in an attempt to salvage our very expensive and very disappointing first and only curry in London.
We didn’t find what we looking for in Brick Lane.
We thought it’s name was a promise, but it was only a place.
We didn’t find what we were looking for in London, either.
The job that was promised by his old college friend never ended up matching the description that was told to him over the phone mere months prior. Instead of travelling to China and Africa in search of fair trade opportunities with local artisans, my beloved was sent to trade shows to the far off lands of Manchester where he had to sell polished “healing” rocks to the gullible and the desperate. It wasn’t long before there was a confrontation and – and only four months after I had quit my job and moved myself to be with my beloved in London, we had to leave. By Christmas.
My beloved followed me for the next job. And then the next. When he couldn’t find work, he started his own small business in the food industry. We got married. We have two small children. We have not been back to London.
But I have revisited Brick Lane in Horas Perditam through my weaver.
It took some time before she told me so, but I learned that her name Trellis and that she was once a gardener. I told she had a great name for both these endeavours. As we chatted, she would intermittently send me photos as she walked along Brick Lane.
What was I looking for in Brick Lane that was not found so many years ago? What could she help me find now?
On a whim, I asked her if she could find Ganesh on Brick Lane. Ganesh is the elephant-headed god that is oddly endearing to most Hindus and to many non-hindus as well. I thought I may as well give her a specific mission or just an excuse to walk inside the shops of Brick Lane. I also told Trellis what little I knew of the god: Ganesh is known as the remover of obstacles.
As I waited for a reply from Trellis, I idly, flipped open a new tab and read up more about Ganesh online. And what I read made me laugh: Ganesha is known as the bringer of good luck, wealth, and fine foods.
When Trellis returned to chat, she sent me a photo that she had just taken with her camera. In the corner of the frame, you could see the top of a red-bricked building, but the main feature of the photo was a grey sky being parted by blast of sunlight pouring through the clouds.
She typed, “The sun no longer faces the obstacles of clouds. Ganesh has made his presence known.”
If we return to Brick Lane, I don’t think we will try to find a good curry. I will try to find Ganesh, instead.