One snowy Saturday we sat in a train, trundling along from Paddington, stressing and straining under the weight of surprising snows, which engulfed, caked and delighted us during our stop-starting voyage to another world called Southall. With train departing, we crunched through the freshly laid snows, and exited the station to see young men, Asians, shovelling and pushing, huffing and puffing, helping families, saloons and vans slither there way up slopes that did their best to inhibit ascent. Venturing on in the crisp air, flattening the settlement, we came across a shop selling bites, teas and tobacco leaves. Curiosity called for a Masala Chai, very Christmassy with its cinnamon aroma. We procured a tobacco leave. The assistant sprinkled several sauces on to the leaf, as if he were gilding a Big Mac. Over zealous with the condiments he was, we wondered when it might stop, we chuckled, the magnitude of our chuckling growing exponentially with each squirt of new flavour. Later we entered a Gurdwara, and with socks and shoes off, a Sikh carefully mounts an orange kaftan on my head, smiling broadly when he sees my appreciation. I pat him on the back. An old man with a fine moustache talked in broken English about how Kabul was not doing well, mujahedeen, he said.
We walked across cold floors, peered into the dining hall, where men sit crossed legged on long carpet and ate and then worked our way up to the prayer hall. A beautiful, huge room, with a sea of white carpet, and men, and women, sitting in small groups or on their own, backs to the wall and columns, contemplating the melodic liturgy of the wisened and beard distinguished scholar teacher , who sat in a box lit up by the orange and yellow hues, given life by the light filtered by the beautiful stain glass window which sits imperiously behind. The man waved a white-feathered stick across something that took the shape of a very small coffin, all covered in white. Either side scholars took their position in booths, which lit up when they entered. We saw learning and wisdom accreted, pages of large books turned and inspected. Learning al publico. I closed my eyes and let the melodies of an old scholar’s song fill my mind, my brain trying to make sense of the grammar of this strange language, I felt welcome and yet unwelcome; toleration and anxiety, both within and beyond.