Monday, 19 August 2013

After England

Just back after a 16 day trip to England; given that the last time I was there was in 2004, there was a lot of nostalgia involved. I met old friends, saw many new places, I also participated in a conference... here is a report:



First of all, just to make it clear to those who are wondering why it took me that long to go back to England -- a country of which I have very lovely memories  -- there is a short answer: as I am still a highly suspect Indian, even though I am a permanent resident of Germany, I still need a visa to enter England, and since getting a visa is an expensive and highly complicated exercise (including travelling to Dusseldorf to give my fingerprints!), I could not justify putting myself throught that misery till now.

Back to the trip: the best things first, meeting old friends, revisiting old haunts and realising that no matter how long it has been since last time, some relationships never change...It was a bit strange to be back in Oxford as a tourist this time, and to actually stay at Queen's College, which for me was in the past associated only with the Wednesday Kinder-Seminar, the weekly supervision sessions and the thesis that had to be written. But the fact that nothing much had changed in Oxford helped, and the feeling that I did not need a map to get around or to recall the names of the colleges made me feel somewhat different from the other tourists around. Peter and Sylvia were also as warm and welcoming as always, and it was a real treat to be their guests. But ALL my other friends in Oxford were no longer there, some temporarily away, some moved out, some dead... it was sobering. They were building a posh new Maths Institute, thankfully, it was not quite ready yet, so the old one was still in place...but I did not try to go in, because I have come to understand over the years that it makes no sense to try to hold on to things, because one cannot stop them from changing and it hurts all the more later when one is forced to face the facts...

Our one-day stop in London and my visit to Leeds, where I spent the last 3 days before flying back, were also absolutely lovely. Being back there reminded me of some things that I like very much about my friends -- their ability to take a stand on issues of general concern and their willingness to stand up for them, no matter what; their ability to remember little details about others, their ability to care for others even when the others are very far away, their abililty to be gracious and welcoming, even when they are very tired. It was simply beautiful to be with them again... 

The nice things next: our little holiday in the beautiful Cotswolds, around the corner from Oxford. We visited a few little market towns, checked out quaint and ancient churches, visited gardens and manors, and tried to get a feel of the countryside. We got the feeling that visting 'National Trust' sites -- mostly old historic buildings and beautifully laid out and maintained gardens -- seem to be quite a popular day-excursion for many in England, even though entry charges can be quite steep. Every day we saw a bit more of that wonderful part of England till the very last evening, when we almost accidentally, landed up in the picturesque and ancient  village of Bibury -- and believe me, I have perhaps never seen anything more beautiful...

The conference in Manchester was also nice in part, for I got to make many new friends, meet many academics with whom I share common interests, and also heard some brilliant talks and debates...The conference however, was supposed to be much bigger than what it finally turned out to be, with only a small proportion of those who had papers (accepted for presentation) turning up. And this meant that many panels just collapsed, but since there was no way to find that out in advance, it was really very annoying to arrive at some room where a panel was supposed to be held only to find that no one was there. One of the panels I was supposed to speak in had 21 submissions to begin with, by the time the book of abstracts was prepared it was down to 14, of which only 4 had registered and of those only 2 actually showed up! Hence we decided to merge with the panel next door where a similar disaster had occured -- but since our panel was on NE India and theirs on Serbian public health, we did not have really very much to say to one another. It would have been much better if the organisers had made some effort to merge at least those panels which were similar in theme (of which there were many).

Some of the student halls where participants were put up were also old and falling apart -- and the loud banging of fire-doors all through the night kept most people awake... Manchester in that sense was a city of contrasts -- with posh glittering areas and also with completely run down parts...The part of the university where we stayed was called the 'Curry Mile' because of the large Indian and Pakistani Muslim population there. Being in that area at Eid made me feel that Manchester, at least certain parts of it, could pass off as some part of a noisy busy Indian city. And given the number of participants from India at the conference (not less than hundred I am sure), we could well have been in India. Entire university departments had turned up in toto there and were to be seen replicating their heirarcheis even in far away Manchester.  But let me talk about this phenomenon in greater detail in another blog... for now let me end by telling you the most dreadful thing that happened to me on this trip -- the unsecured internet connection of the Manchester conference made my laptop catch a deadly virus, as a result of which my laptop is really and truly DEAD now. I am not sure I will ever forgive Manchester for this...



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