In the long queue outside the Wrights bar at lunch hour every day, an overwhelming sense of equality grips me. It is here that I stand in unison with many to avail the benefits of scholarship: a jelly-filled dough nut for 60 pence and a steaming can of hot chocolate for another 60. Let truth be told: on any given day, this is the best I can afford for lunch on days I choose not to cook. In the inviting lunch joints on Kingsway next to the LSE, a modest lunch pack usually comes for 5 pounds. That counts to 500 in the currency of my country. I still haven’t stopped calculating every time I look at a menu. Almost always, I turn away and walk back to the Wrights Bar. The people at the Bar know me by face now – a hard-earned recognition in the middle of the madness of college life; an unintended happiness in a city where everyone’s time, including mine, comes at a premium.
Sometimes, I share a treat with a friend and classmate from Austria: a mixed platter of meat and beans. When we split the bill, it’s never more than 2 pounds. On days I run out of money, there is free lunch from the Hare Krishna temple. There is yet another incredibly long queue to get by for a plateful of fusion food, best exemplified by the pasta-rice I was served once. But the overwhelming sense of equality doesn’t escape me in this queue either. I am a student of political economy and while a number of classrooms at LSE are plumbing the depths of the North-South divide academically in an increasingly unequal world, I know I don’t have to worry about it as long as I am here. I have the equality of opportunity, education and freedom to access everything that the LSE and London has to offer. I’ll continue to feel equal and even when I run out of money, there will be food on Houghton Street. What’s better is, perhaps, this: standing in a queue for food doesn’t make me an undignified beggar here.
Back home, people in my hometown in India think I must be incredibly rich to study at the LSE. Through the superfast Internet highway at the school campus, I often bridge the distance between them and myself through a computer screen. Their curious faces float on my screen and I sometimes give them a virtual tour, my finger pointing to the numerous photo frames of economists from the LSE in its corridors. They haven’t heard of them, but they roll their eyes and giggle, especially when the taps in the bathrooms run on their own. Back home, there are no taps in many households, and power supply remains erratic. We are often told that we are a nation of promising prospects – “the emerging market’’ – but we haven’t fixed our basic needs yet. Because I am here, people in my hometown can see the `other world’ they have only heard of.
I tell them that besides the expensive demands London makes on its residents, there is space for those who live on grants – in my case, it means living next to the St Paul’s Cathedral and catch the posthumous whiteness of its magnificent dome from the window of my shared room at Sumner Street every morning. Within a few kilometres are the luxury shops on Oxford Street and the lively pubs in Soho, but what I extract out of London is not something one could buy. Like fresh air, for example, and sunshine that warms my back as I walk along the Thames. Spring is in the air. There is hope, not just in nature but also in the hearts of students that this burst of beauty in a new city has a purpose; that the consequence of a world class education is the opening up of exciting opportunities.
For me, being at LSE has meant pushing my limits and learning new things, not just in the classroom but beyond. A rewarding exercise regimen is one of them. But to build an unflinching walking routine was more of a challenge to the mind than to the body. A fatal attack of Pneumonia had drained my health a couple of years ago. I was fearful of the London winter, of getting wet in the snow someday, and eventually, dying in wilderness. But our dreams are not only venerable for the gift of equality they bring to us, they also instil courage so we can realise them. When Londoners run on Victoria Embankment, a stone’s throw from the school, my fears recede and resolve takes over – if London couldn’t make me walk, no other place could. What I began in December is now the powerful hymn of my morning prayers, my zealous ode to the city I have come to treat as my own.
Within the distance of my daily walks, I traverse worlds of varying hopes and promises – children playing along the shore at Gabriel’s Wharf, a musician strumming his guitars for the lovers on Queen’s Walk, an old woman selling flowers, clowns on Westminster Bridge brightening up tourists’ photos. My walk is a physical monologue in a world full of conversations and noise. I walk through pubs and extravagant diners; giant hoardings of Stephen Ward at the Aldwych Theatre and the glittering Shard where everyone goes for an aerial view of beautiful London. I pause, sit on a bench by the river, and write. Sometimes, I cry too. Perfection in life can be overwhelming.
Like most of the students, musicals have enthralled my evenings and countryside travels have soaked my feet in adventures. That’s not a joy in the slightest doubt here because an LSE student, inevitably, becomes a student of life. LSE is at the core of a circle that reverberates with a cultural and intellectual variety few cities in the world can offer. But what I learn within its classrooms brings to me a purpose for the world, the realisation of my strength in a queue and how I can make that happen for others when I go back.
(C) Pallavi Singh. March 2014. Photo by PallSin.