From Kerala to Kent

Liberal Arts student Johan Mappumchery Babu journeyed to campus for the first time this September, amid the uncertainty of Covid. His blog is a story of determination and freedom.

Picture a dolphin – joyful, content and safe. He sings sweet songs to himself. Occasionally, he must put on a few displays, a few shows and though it makes him uncomfortable, he goes with it because it is his duty. Years pass by in this fashion until one day he starts feeling something new, something inexplicable but powerful, something ridiculous but necessary. His breathing has become constricted, his songs have become more melancholic. He has this constant urge to just jump out of the pool he is confined in, to the limitless sky. To the sunshine. What will happen to me?

Now picture me. A 17-year-old Indian boy – jet-black hair, braced teeth and as the family says, ‘getting thinner everyday’. I am applying to several universities, none of them are in India, or Asia. All I want is to get out, to escape. My whole family, except my mother, my rock, is against it.

‘The boy is holed up in his room reading all the time. If he can’t even go to the grocery store to buy essentials for his family, how do you think he’ll thrive in a different continent?’ is the exact translation of what they asked my mother in Malayalam, my mother tongue.

Hearing that one is incapable of living in the real world is a hard thing but having heard it all my life it could no longer affect me. But what my mother said next really affected me. ‘I have no idea. But I am sure.’ Sure, of what? She did not say. She was never one for cheesy melodrama. That day I knew that I was not sure of what I was doing, and that I would never be, for that matter. But this is what excited me – this uncertainty, this danger.

When one has lived a whole life being protected, being helped, all one needs is to get out of that bubble. Not to find an identity (like you see in English biopics of people from minorities coming to a big city); I had an identity, unfortunately an identity that went against all or most of the established societal and filial norms – like an unpleasant note in a melodious song, like an ink stain on a perfect piece of writing. What I wanted was a forum to be able to showcase that identity, confidently and unequivocally.

I had my fair share of difficulties to get to England. COVID-19 compounded all the uncertainties that usually come along during the application time. Nobody was sure I would get into a university when a new term was going to start soon. Then one morning my mother and I made a Clearing application to Kent. Imagine my surprise when I got an unconditional offer the evening of the same day. I was enthralled. But even that happiness was momentary, because the immigration process that ensued took all the energy out of me. A whole month was filled with unsatisfactory sleeps, unsuccessful trips to banks to get the sufficient student loan in the time left and unnecessary anxieties.

I think of a line in a movie I once saw:

‘Things will work out in the end. Why? Because they simply must.’

And it did for me. Amidst mounting financial difficulties, amidst a global pandemic and a life I knew too well, I decided to fly. Both literally and metaphorically. In a practical sense, this was the most stupid decision I could have made, but I wanted it – stupidity was something that a nerdy, do-it-all, rule-following kid wanted to embrace.

My journey was a ‘Comedy of Errors’ of sorts. When I left Kerala, my family gathered around me, sure that they would not physically see me for four years and said goodbye. It was awkward, but painful. There were tears in my father’s eyes. That man! My dog, Becka, just looked at me accusingly. She turned her head when I said goodbye. She still does when I video call my parents. I reached Delhi for the connection flight and there I got taken to a dingy part of Delhi (ravaged by COVID-19) and I was scammed by the locals. My luggage (which I recklessly left behind) was taken up by the airport officials because they presumed it ‘was a danger to the security of the airport’.

Despite all that I safely arrived in England by six in the morning. It was one of the most magical moments of my life. But one difficulty, which I had til then never acknowledged, presented itself. I did not have any accommodation yet. I did not know I was going to stay at a bed and breakfast until I asked for a room there the day I arrived. I was helped of course, at every step of the way, by total strangers. Wonderful, generous people who I am forever indebted to. Here is something anybody who meets me hears:

I thrive on the kindness of others.

I look back on these recent memories and laugh about it. I have always had this belief that after I move to England, everything will be alright. My life would be just … ecstatic. But that is not the truth. I grapple with difficulties everyday – fortunately more practical ones – but I have found a freedom I have never experienced before. I feel like a dancer in a moment of suspension, gliding through the air, unsure of how and when they will land. But as it is to them, one thing is sure to me – that moment is all that matters.

Remember the question the dolphin (not the most intelligent or challenging of metaphors, forgive me) asked himself. I still do not have the answer for it. That is the beauty of it, I suppose. I take refuge in it. In the beauty and the uncertainty. And I cherish it. I am going to the beach tomorrow with my friends. There is nothing like a good swim in an unbounded sea.

Johan Mappumchery Babu is studying for a BA in Liberal Arts with a Year Abroad, in Paris.

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