Manchester, UK: July 16-22, 2022
The year 2022 found me planning a brief visit to the island that once ruled the world,
and whose language English still does: the UK. The city that I was visiting was
Manchester, where my older son Sanjay had pursued a Ph.D. in Disaster Management at the University of Salford. Though he had obtained his doctorate in 2020, the graduation ceremony was delayed due to Covid. I had not traveled the skies since 2018. Fears of Covid kept me restricted to driving just between Petaluma and Windsor. Pushing aside these fears, I began researching about this city. Lo and behold, when I read that this was the birthplace of the industrial revolution I had an eerie reaction. Often in my conversations with friends I have discussed my theory of the destruction of the family unit, the loss of geographical roots through several generations and also the weakening of family trades and professions that can be traced to the industrial revolution. Here I was now to visit the first industrial city from where the tentacles of industrialization spread throughout the world. It had drastically changed the way people thought and lived.
The flight from Atlanta, Georgia on Virgin Atlantic was an eye opener. The upper class
seating felt like I was in a commuter flight. Even though the seat could stretch into a
bed, the arrangement was like being in a can of sardines! My diet request arranged
through Delta, a partner to Virgin Atlantic, was messed up. Asian food is not what I can
handle in the plane or in restaurants as it tends to be greasy and spicy. The flight
attendant was kind enough to come up with an alternative that I could handle. This was the first time that I was travelling with Sanjay along with his wife Sue and her mother Mickey.
Dr. Louiseann (“Mickey”) Richter, Professor Emeritus, University of Phoenix, and Sanjay’s friend Dr. Ajit Pyati, Associate Professor, University of Western Ontario were both extremely supportive of my son during his Ph.D. journey and helped him prepare for his yearly defenses of his research and the final defense of his thesis. The Ph.D. system in the UK is much tougher than it is in the U.S. Those pursuing a Ph.D. in the UK are actually not referred to as students but as “Postgraduate Researchers” or PGRs. PGRs working on a Ph.D. in the UK have to defend their research once per year along their journey, whereby failure can entail the PGR getting completely kicked out of the Ph.D. program permanently. Unlike the U.S., where there is only one final Ph.D. defense in front of a familiar advisory committee that has been with the Ph.D. student throughout the whole journey, Ph.D. PGRs in the UK defend each year through their final defense in front of mystery panels comprised of one professor from the university and one professor from an outside university in order to effect impartiality in the process, both of whom have to be unfamiliar with the research of the PGRs prior to agreeing to be on the panel. Thus, Sanjay had no idea from year to year whom he would have to defend his work in front of and they did not know him or his research until they agreed to be on the panel. His final defense was 3.5 hours of intense questioning and challenging of his research-based arguments found in his thesis.
Arriving in Manchester airport we were welcomed by a very friendly and humorous
immigration officer. I noticed that signs in the airport were unusually large and often
repeated. How nice for a befuddled traveler in a new place. Elevators are referred to as
lifts and carts as trolleys. Outside the airport we were greeted with a loud “Hello Sanjay” by an Indian limousine driver named Vipin. Once inside the limousine we got to know he was from Surat, Gujarat. This city in India known for diamond cutting even has young kids adept in this art. Soon in our conversations I called him Vipin Bhai and he called me Mataji. It was kind of him to insert a CD that played Hindi religious songs for me. We heard about his lengthy hours at work, about how well-placed his daughter and son were in life, and how they spoke Gujarati as well as English.
As we drove along the motorway (highway) I saw how bright green and lush the tall trees looked on either side. Not a common sight in southern Sonoma County where I live. As we approached the Deansgate area of Manchester, I was thrilled to see early 19 th and 20 th century ornate buildings, well-maintained and beautiful. The reddish brown of the bricks was so cooling to the eyes. That architecture was from a time period when art went into the design of buildings, quite unlike the box-like structures of today. We arrived at the Hilton Deansgate well before check in time as our plane had landed rather early in the morning. The receptionist, a young slim fragile looking woman named Danielle surprised us with not only the way she welcomed us but also the manner in which she lugged our suitcases. We were comfortably settled in the lobby waiting for our rooms to be cleared. In the days that followed, Danielle proved to be very prompt and caring. We gave her the title: Super Woman.
July 18 th was an extremely hot day in Manchester, but the four of us were too excited and tense to take heed. Sanjay and his wife Sue headed off for registration and gown
checking while Mickey and I sat in the large and thankfully covered portico in front of
Lowry Theatre. I was totally fascinated by the ethnicities and clothing of family
members who waited like us. Three generations often wearing their native clothes and
speaking both British English and their first languages filled me with a joy I have never
experienced in the US. Sue texted me stating that Sanjay looked so very regal. I thought
to myself: after all his paternal great grandfather was royalty. Sanjay somehow managed to get an extra ticket for Sue at the last minute, as tickets to the venue were limited to two per graduate. With tickets in hand Mickey and I entered the auditorium that seated 1,730 eager folks. Then a mixup took place: right next to my aisle seat D37 there was no D36 which would have been Mickey’s. The seat next to mine was D35. Where did D36 go, considering these looked like permanent numbers? I got the attention of a frustrated usher. She had no solution. I let Mickey sit in my seat and walked out of the auditorium with a determined haste. Eventually I managed to get the ticket folks to issue me another ticket, this one in the J section closer to where Sanjay was sitting. The program began with live music and then the dignitaries, some of whom I suppose were faculty members, walked up to the stage and soon occupied the chairs there. Welcoming speeches followed, some tinged with British humour. The speech given by chancellor Lucy Meacock was one that I felt very encouraging and helpful to any serious graduate who is to venture into the world of careers and profession. Anecdotes taken from her own life augmented her advice. She spoke about how life is more than academic skills and how criticisms and mistakes taught her valuable lessons. She went on to enumerate the very many achievements of the university. Next the doctoral graduates were called in by their names followed by stating their Ph.D. thesis titles. It was wonderful to see Sanjay walk up so dignified, saluting the dais with a bent head and folded palms in namaste. He then offered a namaste to the chancellor and had her place the cap on his head. When he turned to the audience and did another namaste to them there was a rain of applause. Indeed, this was one of the most important and gratifying days in my life! Knowing how hard he worked for his Ph.D. made me even prouder of him. We took pictures then with his professor, Dr. Bingunath Ingirige.
The Hotel, the City, and the People
My room on the 22 nd floor of the Hilton Deansgate had a large window with a beautiful view of the city. I could see all the way to the Pennine Hills toward Scotland. Each day found me having a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel restaurant after which I walked all over the Deansgate area. I realized soon that the location of this Hilton was a boon to an avid walker like myself. I could walk wherever I pleased and never get lost. Set near the roadside and diagonally to the road edge are these small, elevated boxes attached to the street light posts. These are referred to as puffin (pedestrian user friendly) crossings. This allows the pedestrian to monitor passing traffic while waiting for the signal to cross. The lights are close to the pedestrian and is helpful for even visually impaired folks. I could see how it enabled a smooth transition and movement for both vehicles and pedestrians. Around 9 am the sidewalks get filled with folks rushing to work. It was common to see young Muslim women wearing the headscarf and walking briskly with briefcase in hand. A good number of office goers I could see from my window, took to the trains that plied the routes quite frequently.
Vehicular noise was low as many vehicles are hybrids. Britishers seem to favour smaller cars unlike Americans. Maintenance workers were very helpful and mannerly when I asked for directions. Homeless people, referred to as rough sleepers in the UK, never begged but always wished you a good day as you passed by.
I discovered that within walking distance there were very many restaurants reflecting
world cuisines: Turkish, Polish, Greek, Italian and Mexican. The very first question
asked in restaurants is about food allergies. Within walking distance from the hotel were Sainsbury supermarkets, both small and large. On weekdays they are open from 7 am to 10 pm. Though not much into shopping I found some interesting stores too. There was Shuropody for footwear that had a resident podiatrist, a futon shop that had beautiful dinnerware and small furniture, a specialty chocolate place called Dormouse, owned by a young woman named Isabella. She made fancy chocolates daily in addition to carrying chocolates from all over the world. From her I learned that many European chocolate companies use cocoa from the Philippines as the quality she claimed was the best. She also spoke about a tasty drink made from the white mucilage that covers the cocoa seed.
The day before I left Manchester, we drove in the evening around Salford campus. I was surprised to see schoolboys, all of Middle East descent playing ball and talking in their language. A happy boisterous group. The small campus convenience store was open. It was crowded with young students, yet the cashiers maintained a cheerful countenance. Here I found surprisingly a wide variety of biscuits to choose from. British chocolates and biscuits were all that my granddaughter Priya wanted from here. The older one Asha, wanted me to send her pictures.
The ceremony, the campus and the sight of happy schoolkids made me wish for both of my grandkids, that they should go to college in UK, Scotland or Ireland. There is much to learn from cultures much older than the one in this young America we live in.
The John Rylands Research Institution and Library
Within a beautiful late-Victorian neo-Gothic building nearby is housed a unique
institution. It is part of the University of Manchester. The library, which opened to the
public in 1900, was founded by Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in memory of her
husband, John Rylands. To me this place felt like a church dedicated to Knowledge as
handed down to us from days of yore, through the works of great authors and poets.
You can see them all featured in the stain glass windows. The special display on the
day I visited this place was, a massive collection of manuscripts associated with Dante’s
The People’s History Museum
This is a small museum crowded with displays that cover the story of the past, present
and future of democracy in Britain. If only I had more time, I would have visited this
place over several days as there is much to learn.
I could not go to a section in the Town hall famous for the frescoes that cover the history of Manchester. It is being remodeled and will be open only in 2024. However, I did get a glimpse of it when I saw a beautiful painting at Gusto Italian restaurant, the place where Sanjay proposed to Sue in 2018 days before defending his first year of Ph.D. research.
The two days of record- breaking heat upset my plans to visit the much-desired Lake District. The visit to John Ryland’s Library took me back to my school days at Sacred Heart High School, Presentation Convent Church Park, Madras. My love for English poetry was born then and it grew all through my college years at Stella Maris College in Madras. We had several periods of English prose and poetry in high school, perhaps because I was graduating in London Matric and not the then prevalent, Secondary School Leaving Certificate. In high school I remember getting very excited when asked to read the poems aloud in class. Shelley, Yeats, Coleridge, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats and Noyes were my favourites. Even to this day when I read The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, my whole being gets consumed by the impact of his creation! To a lesser extent I took to the 18th century American poets such as Longfellow, Whitman, Eliot, Poe and Frost. My attachment to British poetry was emotional, not so much with British prose. In college we had poetry, prose and Shakespeare all separate periods. Our teachers here included Irish and British nuns. Here is where I discovered that I had an aptitude for paraphrasing poems. I remember the loving looks of joy and approval on Sister Joseph Michael’s face when it came to my turn to speak about the verses. Years later this capacity to analyse, elaborate and paraphrase was to bloom when in Los Angeles I worked on Rgvedic suktas and many a Sanskrit hymn.
The typical young Indian daughter that I was then, obedience to parents was drilled into my core. An environment to express one’s deep desires was never there. When the time came for me to enter college as per the wishes of the elders in the family and as advised by our family doctor, I ended up majoring for a bachelor’s degree in Zoology and with Botany as my ancillary. Never for once did my mouth utter the following truth, “All I wanted to be right through school was, to be a lecturer in English !”
In 2006 when I moved to Sonoma County after having lost my precious husband to cancer, a new chapter opened. I began composing poems at a frantic pace, like river waters rushing out through a happily broken dam. Initially shy I eventually managed to read my poems at the monthly Rivertown Poetry readings, A-Museings at the Aqus café in Petaluma. My journey into singing Turkish mystic music began in 2015, I found here too I enjoyed rewriting the translations of the Turkish poems keeping in mind the mystic states, symbolism and the emotions of the bards.
I hope the future holds another trip to the UK and perhaps Ireland, for the six days in Manchester were certainly not enough. On my return flight to the US, I pondered how subconsciously my English pronunciation was better in the UK !
The Mancunians of today
Interaction with human beings
Taking a genuine interest in them
Opened many a heartwarming treasure.
There they were from all around the globe.
In the restaurant the majority who worked,
Were from Africa, India, Italy,
South and Central America, Australia too.
From Switzerland, Germany and Greece they came.
None from the US or Canada did I meet.
All of them seemed to love Britain.
It is as if a spark was lit when we spoke.
The interaction truly lovingly divine.
Danielle, the peerless receptionist
Optimist that could solve any problem,
Shared her aim to open her own hospitality firm.
The day before I left Manchester,
A tight hug I did receive
As she rushed after work to her home.
We both knew we would miss each other.
Lana Banana, a hostess full of humour
A Tajik-Armenian grandmother
Who chose her last name.
As I was leaving for the airport,
She ran to me with a couple of bananas
“Take this” she said, “if you get hungry.”
Sebo, the young Somalian Muslim,
A dedicated child speech therapist,
Struggling to maintain harmony,
Within the clash of generations.
Macbeth, the Goan at the coffee bar
Who knew not the meaning of his name.
His eyes sparkled when I informed him,
It means: a righteous person.
Long dark haired, beautiful Valeria, from Colombia,
Who walked like a swan as she served.
Kasim, the young Pakistani,
With whom the Hindu in me,
Bonded unusually well.
Louie, a Salford graduate in engineering,
Our Uber driver from Burnage,
From whom we all learned,
That Manchester is a city
Where jobs are aplenty,
Neighbourhoods are safe,
Homes are affordable,
Schools are good.
Essentially a place,
Ideal for the young,
Who are starters in life.
Then a final goodbye to Vipin Bhai,
The Gujarati who promised
To take me to the Lake District,
The next time I visit this city.
Call me will you, oh Manchester?
August 25th, Petaluma
Cafes and Restaurants