It was my first trip to the United Kingdom after a month of personal turmoil. There had been a death in the family the previous month and we figured that the break would do us all some good. We landed in Heathrow on June 2nd, a Friday at 2 pm. It was an easy ride to Tooting Bec station. All we had to do was first figure out the tube routes.
The London tube is a series of crisscross networks and it is very easy to get lost in its vastness. Heathrow terminals 1, 2, 3, and 4 all lie on the westernmost end of the Piccadilly line. Our mission was to reach an obscure station on the Northern line called Tooting Bec.
The first order of business my mother gave us as soon as we had completed the immigration process was to get a tube map of the city. She said, “You will get lost in the labyrinth if you don’t have one and we will only end up spending a lot of money on our travels. It makes no sense…get a map from somewhere and we will be good to go.”
“After her series of international travels, she would know,” my dad joked.
Just before you enter the underground, there is a quaint little shop with a much welcome banner ‘Welcome to the London underground’. I entered the shop and was greeted by a brunette in her late fifties. She had a kind face and from mine, she could tell that I had no idea of what I was doing.
“First time in London, eh love?” she asked me.
“You got it right. I need a tube map and four oyster cards.”
She guided me to the cash counter and within minutes I came out a more confident traveler, ready to navigate the much talked about London underground.
The London underground is rickety and old. I had expected to see modern trains with shiny windows and sparkling clean floors. I was obviously mistaken. The floor was polluted with beer cans and processed food wrappers. You could see people of all shapes and sizes on the train. Some looked very important with their formal attires, an expensive looking leather bag slung from one shoulder and their eyes focused on a smartphone. The next were well dressed women who were clearly under the influence. Balancing atop their high heels and giggling away, they attracted the attention of well-groomed men. The other category was the suburban ladies and their husbands carrying children and a bad full of bulging goods which I can only imagine had bottles and baby food.
Then there were the clueless tourists like us who looked around in wonder trying to pick up on the normal thing to do while on a tube. It was easy enough to find more of our kind. I picked up on some French that a couple, clearly exhausted from air travel, spoke. They, much like us, were arguing which route they should take to reach their destination. Their little girl was using a pole to dance and was attracting claps from the elderly group of ladies sitting in a corner.
Tooting Bec station is on the southernmost hemisphere of the Northern line. We had to take the eastbound train on the Piccadilly line and change in Leicester square where we boarded the Morden bound train on the Northern line.
Eleven stations and three arguments later, we reached our destination. It was 8 pm.
Tooting Bec reminded me of Bangalore. The first thing you see when you exit the station is a western looking mosque with brick walls. The roads are lined with shops selling kababs and Mughlai food. The people on the street had distinct Asian features and the majority wore skull caps. I picked up some Hindi conversations here and there and my dad swore that there were Tamils around him.
It would suffice to say that we felt at home in this obscure part of London. We dined in an Arabian restaurant called ‘Dawat’ which served succulent and delicious tunde kabab and romali roti. The owner, an elderly gentleman with a greying beard, called himself Mr. Khan.
Khan Sahib’s father had migrated to London from Pakistan in the early 1900s and Mr. Khan had grown up, a citizen of the United Kingdom. He wore a black coat over his off-white kurta and hoped that he would go back to the land of his ancestors once before he died.
“Here is my number. Everybody in the neighborhood knows me as Khan Sahib. Just call me anytime you need something. After all we are like bhai-bhai,” Mr. Khan assured us.
June 3rd, Saturday
June 3rd 2017 saw my first brush with terrorism. We woke up refreshed from a good night’s sleep. Funnily enough, none of us were suffering from jet lag. “It must be the excitement,” my mother proclaimed.
Less than 24 hours and we had already found an acquaintance in Khan Sahib. Now nothing could go wrong.
Sightseeing in central London was the agenda of the day. We would start from Westminster Abbey, continue onto Tower Hill and London Bridge and end in a Hampstead where we were scheduled to dine with my mother’s friend.
We arrived at Westminster at noon and walked all the way to Tower Hill. The streets of central London were bustling with people- tourists and residents alike. It was a bright and sunny day. The road side pubs and cafes had a waiting line outside them. Most people didn’t seem to mind the wait owing to the clear skies.
I overheard a young woman talking on the phone while waiting in line for a table at King’s Head at the corner of Crouch End. She exclaimed what a boon the sunny day was to the weekend.
Great start to the weekend, indeed.
Tower Hill is on the banks of River Thames. If you go to the banks, you get a view of the London Bridge towering majestically over the mud filled water of Thames.
After a fun filled day sightseeing and dining on sea food and good red meat, we started our journey back to the familiar lanes of Tooting Bec. We got on the south bound train on the Northern line. When we neared Bank, there was commotion in the station. The train stopped and hordes of scared people got on the train.
The station speakers announced that the next two stations- London Bridge and Borough Market- were shut down for security reasons and that the train would not stop at either. Furthermore, Tower Hill was also closed down for the next twenty four hours.
The stuffed train reeked of sweat and fear. People held on to each other as if expecting something to go wrong any moment. The stations of Tower Hill and Borough were completely deserted save for the armed police. The train whizzed past both as if anticipating an attack.
I picked up lone words here and there from the hushed conversation of the passengers.
None of us knew what was wrong till we got off the train. The streets of Tooting Bec were completely deserted save for the occasional car that hurried down the street.
9:58 pm. A white Renault van headed southbound on the London Bridge mounted the pavement and hit the pedestrians, killing three. Following that, the van crashed at Borough market and three unknown assailants (later identified as Khuram Shazad Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba) got off the van and started attacking the people around.
They were armed with kitchen knives and stabbed four people in the Borough bistro pub before getting shot down by the metropolitan police.
Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis, told The Telegraph: “At eight minutes past ten last night, we began to receive reports that a vehicle had struck pedestrians at London Bridge. The vehicle continued to drive then from London Bridge to borough market. The suspects left the vehicle attempting to stab a number of people including an on duty British transport officer who was responding to the incidence and he received serious injuries, fortunately not life threatening. Armed response officers responded very quickly and bravely and confronted the three male suspects who were shot and killed in borough market within eight minutes of the first call.”
“It is now being confirmed that seven members of the public have died. In the early hours of the morning (4 June) I visited the hospital where the injured are being treated. There I heard truly remarkable stories of extraordinarily brave actions. My officers on and off duty were first on the scene,” Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis told The Telegraph.
This was the third terror attack on London in the last three months. In March 2017, five people were killed in an attack in Westminster. Following that, a suicide bomber killed 22 people at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.
The attackers in the London Bridge terrorist incident were identified as Khuram Shazad, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba.
Khuram Shazad Butt was a Pakistani born UK resident who had a wife and two kids. He was 27 years old and according to BBC, had been reported to the police by his neighbors for attempting to radicalize his children. He was also a member of the banned extremist group- Al-Muhajiroun and had featured in the 2016 television documentary –The Jihadis Next Door.
Rachid Redouane was a 31 year old Moroccan and had been denied asylum in the United Kingdom in 2009. He had been married to an Irish woman and had been radicalized in Morocco, according to his ex-wife.
Youssef Zaghba was a 21 year old holding dual citizenship of Italy and Morocco. He was on the terror watch list of the Italian government and was thought to be radicalized by the Al-Muhajiroun branch in Italy.
The responsibility for the attack was claimed by ISIS (Islamic state of Iraq and Syria) via the Amaq News Agency, an online news outlet associated with the ISIS.
Following the attack, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the press where she condemned the cowardly actions of the terrorists and urged the public to be cautious and vigilant at all times. Furthermore, she said that the 8th June UK general elections would go on as planned. However, the Conservative Party, Labor Party, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party suspended their election campaigns for a day on the 4th of June. The UK Independence Party did otherwise and continued their campaigning.
London mayor Sadiq Khan was “appalled and furious that these twisted and cowardly terrorists deliberately targeted innocent Londoners and tourists.” Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain told the media, “Muslims everywhere are outraged and disgusted at these cowards who once again have destroyed the lives of our fellow Britons… That this should happen in this month of Ramadan, when many Muslims were praying and fasting, only go to show that these people respect neither life nor faith.”
Prime Minister May, in her address at 10 Downing Street on 4th June said, “We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue the way they are…They (the three attacks) are bound together by a single evil ideology of Islamist Extremism that preaches hatred, sows division and promotes sectarianism…It is an ideology that is a perversion of Islam and a perversion of the truth…It will only be defeated when we turn people’s minds away from this violence—and make them understand that our values—pluralistic, British values—are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”
She went on to say that “we cannot allow this ideology a safe space it needs to breed…we need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risk of extremism online.”
The next day
“Do not wear shorts and sleeveless today,” my mother urged me on the bright Sunday morning following the terror filled night. “You know what their (the terrorist’s) belief system is. God knows what they might do if they see a brown skinned girl wearing shorts. Let us all be careful now.”
Messages from concerned friends and relatives had flooded in when we reached home the night of Saturday 3rd June. Worried calls and advices to lie low and not venture into central London buzzed through the static of the phone lines.
“You might get frisked. Ask your boyfriend to shave off his beard please,” an aunt typed over WhatsApp. “He (the boyfriend) might look like a Muslim.”
We took all necessary precautions of carrying our Indian passports with us and wearing appropriate clothes. We decided not to venture near the area of attack and instead, to go towards Waterloo which was the nearest station to London Eye.
Quite contrary to expectations, Tooting Bec was buzzing with activity. Men in their skull caps were headed towards the mosque, presumably to pray. Kids were out on the road with their parents, sucking on candy. Khan Sahib’s Dawat was open for breakfast.
We ventured in to grab a bite and to also talk to the elderly gentleman about the dos and don’ts in this situation. Khan Sahib came towards us with a smile and a good morning lingering on his lips. He seemed his usual jolly self.
“How are you this morning?” he asked.
After exchanging pleasantries, I ventured to ask him about the attack and how he expected the general atmosphere to be in the following days.
“There is really nothing to worry about. As far as I know, our nation deals with such situations maturely in most parts. Yes there are some parts where there might be hate crimes but you can’t blame them, can you? They are just looking out for their own.”
Khan Sahib was overall optimistic about the fact that people would be safe and that no harm would come to the innocent.
The tube was packed with travelers, as usual. It seemed like any other normal day. The only difference was that some people glanced at us longer than usual. Their gaze wasn’t hostile but it was cautious, to say the least. I was reminded of Khan Sahib’s statement- they are just looking out for their own. I could understand their sentiments. It was the same sentiments my family had experienced after the Mumbai attacks of 26/11. I gave them a smile I thought was re-assuring. Some smiled back, relief flooding their faces while others looked away, their faces laced with distrust.
We took a north bound Northern line train to Waterloo but found that the station had been closed off. We had to get off at Leicester square and come back southwards towards Kennington (still on the Northern line) and then walk to the London Eye.
The streets were full of pedestrians, cars, buses and cycles. There was more police than usual but there was nothing that made us feel unwelcome.
London Eye and testimonials
Jeremy Erckelboudt was visiting London for the first time. Born in Boulogne-sur-mer in France, he is a French teacher with Alliance Francaise. Jeremy takes a month off every year and travels to different countries of the world. This year, he had booked tickets for the United Kingdom.
I met him while standing in line to board the London Eye. We started chatting in French, commenting on how bad the fish and chips we had bought was. “It is full of oil. How do these people eat it?” he wondered aloud.
The conversation slowly shifted to the events of the previous night. He had seen the footage on TV sitting in a pub in Regent Park. He too, had been enjoying his Saturday night with a couple of colleagues from Alliance, before they rushed home to their families.
“I have been here (in London) for ten days now and I find the place very welcoming. Unlike in Paris, the police don’t frisk you as much before entering a cinema or a museum. Here people trust you more. Back at home, you are always a suspect no matter what you look like or where you come from. I just hope London doesn’t become another France,” he said.
Pourpuri Mayani, a resident of Amsterdam was also vacationing in the city with his mother.
“Please call me Puia,” he said with a charming smile as we dined in KFC.
Puia was an Iranian by birth but had declared himself and his mother a refugee in the year 2015 and had been given asylum by the Republic of Netherlands.
His mother, like my own, was scared how they (the British authorities) would treat them. Puia on the other hand, a budding lawyer, was not afraid.
“Unlike the country I come from, I have faith that this nation will handle things properly. There is no excuse to terrorism. If they frisk me, they will find nothing and they will let me go. I have no problem with that.”
Master Yogi Laser, a master contortionist and yoga practitioner, performed in the area around the London eye. He mesmerized the crowd by fitting himself into a small glass box. “We must be together and practice love in these trying times,” he advised his audience.
“I believe that love can fix the world. We are all one and together we take care of each other and fight this evil. Today we are one and I love you all,” he said when he ended his acts.
Ananya Lahiri has been a British citizen for the last thirty years. Originally from India, she migrated to the UK in the 1980s. She lives in the suburbs with her daughter- Mia, and her husband Steve. Mia is eleven years old and knows what extremism is all about.
“They teach us to love every religion in school,” she says very confidently. Her teacher Mrs. McNeil is a believer in Gandhi. She wants her students to respond to violence with love.
After June 4th 2017
As the days passed, I noticed the police protection decreasing on the roads of London. The glares on the tube transformed once again to curious but friendly stares. The passengers smiled once more and the election campaigns continued.
There were a couple of police raids in the Barking area of east London and arrests were made. However, all those arrested were released in the days that followed.
London was again back to its fast life. The investment banker in his formal attire, was once again seen to be busy with his smartphone and rushing to work with coffee in his other hand. The party girls were back in their high heels attracting male attention and the suburban parents were seen enjoying the sunshine with their kids in Regent Park and Hyde Park.
For most Londoners, life continued as it had before the attack, but the memory of the horror remained. I boarded the flight back to India on 15th June with mostly happy memories of my stay in the queen’s country. But I caught myself looking at my fellow passengers with cautious stares on my way back home.