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          Volume 10 |Issue 16 | April 22, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Unforgettable Journeys
(Part II)

Farah Ghuznavi

Some months ago - in one of those "brainwaves" that we sometimes mistakenly identify as possible sources of fun - I decided to attend the launch of a literary anthology, featuring a piece of my writing, in Birmingham. The supposed brainwave involved my decision to undertake the journey by road rather than the simpler option of travelling by train, because it had been a long time since my last road trip (presumably long enough to erase all memories of petrol fumes, traffic jams, directions that make no sense and possible motion sickness). All of these experiences and more were to make their appearance during this somewhat ill-fated journey.

The anthology of flash fiction - each piece comprising of no more than 250 words - featured a variety of contributors from very diverse countries and personal backgrounds writing on the common theme of what a journey linked to the Asian subcontinent might mean to different people. There were number of speakers at the event, including Birmingham's poet laureate Adrian Johnson, and the performances were followed by each of the contributors present receiving their award and reading their piece on stage. I will admit that I chickened out and asked my friend Sadaf, who was also there, to read mine. She did a wonderful job; far better than my stage-phobic self would have managed.

My short story was about a young man who leaves his village in 1971 and returns after the war to pick up the pieces of what had once been his life. It is a very emotional piece, and one close to my heart, so I was nervous about the reception it would get at this event. My nervousness was heightened by the fact that a large number of Pakistanis were also present there. Some of them had been raised in Britain, others were too young to perhaps know the truth about the genocide that had been inflicted upon Bangladesh in 1971, particularly because of the propaganda campaigns carried out in Pakistan during subsequent decades (e.g. the Pakistani state's insistence on “blaming” the birth of Bangladesh on Indian intervention or the stirring up trouble by a few upstarts, rather than recognising it as a natural outcome of the Bangalis' stand against oppression, and their right to self-determination).

But to my immense pleasure, a number of audience members made a point of telling me that they had enjoyed the piece. Later, I was also approached by the mother of another contributor - a young British-Bangladeshi medical student named Shagorika - who had vivid memories of the Liberation War. Two of this lady's brothers had gone missing during the conflict, and only one returned. Since Shagorika's mother had been around 10 years old at the time, she was able to remember these events clearly. And she told me that when Sadaf was reading out my piece, it gave her goosebumps. What more could I ask for?

Afterwards, our little group headed off for a celebratory dinner. At the last minute, we dropped our initial choice of modern European cuisine in favour of the Singaporean-Chinese restaurant just outside the launch venue. That turned out to be one decision that definitely worked in our favour.

The six of us spent a couple of hours relaxing in a pleasurable conversation over a veritable banquet – silky Laksa noodles in a thick, spicy coconut broth; stir-fried chicken smothered in fragrant lemongrass; steamed bass in a citrus sauce; a delicious mixed vegetable concoction; densely green pak choi; and a Malaysia-style chicken curry that I didn't even manage to get to taste, so fully occupied was I with the first couple of options. And like true Bangalis - forever convinced that there is no such thing as too much rice -we ordered the latter in both steamed and fried varieties!

The next morning, we started out early, since I had a flight to catch at Stansted airport. Within 10 minutes, things started going wrong with a vengeance. Attempting to take a long distance call while we were driving, I let my duties as navigator take a back seat, which we paid for soon enough as my friend, who was driving, took a wrong turn and we ended up having to go more than half an hour in the wrong direction on the highway, before we were able to turn back. Another disaster occurred when a tall lorry carrying goods obscured the sign to another turnoff until we had basically passed it! So we were already nearly an hour late, and that was before the trouble started with the fuel gauge...

To be perfectly honest, after two stress-induced wrong turns, and a near disaster with the high-tech fuel gauge (it first digitally informed us that we had 46 km worth of fuel, and 10 minutes later - miles from any petrol station - changed its mind to let us know that in fact we had no fuel left!), it was a miracle that we made it in time for me to catch the flight.

Ryanair, the low-cost flight carrier, was in its turn determined not to make the day any easier. Although tickets are cheap, the airline keeps an eye out for any opportunity to slap on extra charges e.g. whether for exorbitantly priced food on board, charges for wheelchairs (!) or anything else they can think of. Needless to say, fines for exceeding the airline's very strict baggage limits frequently constitutes one such opportunity for clawing money out of the passenger.

In my case, with two pieces of luggage weighing respectively 1 kg above and 5 kg below the luggage allowance, they nevertheless insisted that the luggage had to be repacked so that the offending excess 1 kg was removed from one bag and shifted to the other! Fortunately - and I never thought I would hear myself say this - the terror alert declared the previous day by a number of European airports meant that passenger numbers were down, so despite the delays and recalcitrant airline staff I was able to board a plane without having a total nervous breakdown.

Once on board, the budget airline began offering its various "extra" items for sale, and I began to feel sorry for the cabin staff walking up and down the aisle, trying to sell everything from over-priced food to phone cards to lottery tickets to "smokeless cigarettes" (don't even ask me what the point of these things are, but apparently they provide some kind of nicotine infusion without the attendant smoke, and can therefore be used on non-smoking flights!). Despite their smart uniforms, the cabin attendants suddenly reminded me of the street sellers one frequently encounters in the course of the Dhaka traffic jams, hawking their mismatched variety of wares.

As it happened, I didn't need to buy anything myself, having come on board carrying my own chocolate 'moose' from the self-service outlet Pret 'a Manger; it came complete with the cute design of a pair of antlers on the container. I got out my copy of the "Journeys" story collection, took off the top of the dessert container and prepared to relax. And as the first spoonful of that indescribably delicious chocolate mousse began melting on my tongue, all my stress magically melted away with it…


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