George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Wednesday 14 February 2007
Law and Mantras
Owen Powell - 13th February 2007
After we had joint-interviewed Saraa and Mohamed (see Mongolia and Guinea), we decided to tackle the increasing queue of keen students by talking to one each at a time. Just as Alex had some bad luck with ‘doubles’, people from countries we had already met, I found that two of the three people I spoke to were also inadmissible under the strict rules we had set ourselves. First up, Maria from Ecuador was in London solely as a student, and wasn’t working here. Second, Vladimira from Slovakia was so settled in the UK that she now lived in Arundel and worked as a head waitress in a restaurant there. Even though Maria had never seen snow until last week, and Vladimira encouraged me to go skiing in her home country, I had to let them down gently and turn to the next person in the queue.
Shelbys was from Venezuela, and had been in London for just over a year and a half. As well as studying at the school, she also worked there part-time as a secretary, and had had previous jobs in London as a waitress and au pair. But her long term intention was to get her English up to a good enough standard (it was already pretty good) that she could go back into the field she worked in in Venezuela: Law.
Shelbys had been a public prosecutor in Venezuela for most of her twenties (she’s now 32). However, after a number of upheavals in Venezuelan political life it became difficult to continue working, and she had to leave her job. Leaving the country to find work elsewhere seems to have been the next logical step, and so Shelbys had travelled to Europe.
Although Shelbys didn’t mention him by name, most Europeans with half an eye on the news will associate Venezuela with its President, the entertaining Hugo Chavez. I have been reading about his speeches and policies for a while now, and find much of what he does and says compelling. He has become a sort of poster boy for the Left, a totemic figure opposing the advance of US policy across Latin America, and appearing to do a lot for social equality in his own country. (Much of the investment comes from the sale of oil, though, so his progressive credentials are automatically compromised). However, during this project we have met various people from the area (for example, Ligia from Colombia) who have a very different attitude. I wasn’t sure that my comfortable Western European preconceptions (gathered from occasional articles in the liberal press) added up to much, though, so didn’t attempt to discuss the ins and outs of current Venezuelan politics with Shelbys, and, as lessons were beginning again, we collected together our notes and headed out onto the street.
After leaving the language school, we had one further appointment. Alex has mentioned elsewhere our first interaction with those Oxford Street regulars, the Hare Krishnas, and today was the day we made good on our promise to return. We had been told to arrive at 1pm, any afternoon, and we would be able to take part in that day’s public lunch lecture, open to all. So, after nodding sagely at the lady at reception and at anyone else we found on the staircase, we found ourselves peering through the glass door to the temple, shoes in hand. The people inside were chanting mantras. Occasionally new people would quietly walk past us, open the door, go in and ring a small bell that was attached to the wall. Sometimes they would go in and not ring the bell. The whole bell-ringing scenario filled me with dread, as all religious services do. I’m useless at religion. I always find that for something that’s inherently spiritual, there are a lot of systems and technical stuff going on that it’s all too easy to get wrong. Were we supposed to ring the bell or not? I had visions of us pushing the door open, brashly giving it a ding and offending the Krishna devotees for eternity. Or, alternatively, sneaking in and ignoring the bell, which might mean terrible things for our ancestors or descendants. There was no way of knowing. We looked at our watches. It was five to one. Did we dare go in yet?
Thankfully, the Krishna temple is run to a pretty tight schedule. Just before one, the chanting came to a triumphant conclusion, and the room started to empty. We caught sight of one of the monks we had met the previous week, and he ushered us in for the start of the lunch lecture. There was no need to ding! We found some mats on the floor, and took a seat. Rather smugly, I crossed my legs. Alex struggled. There are benefits to being five foot seven, after all.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the mystique of what goes on in the Krishna temple. It’s well worth popping along yourself – everyone there is very friendly and open, there are some interesting ideas being discussed, and you get a nice communal meal as well. (Krishnas famously don’t eat meat, fish or eggs – on the day we attended, it was a special feast day where they don’t eat pulses either but our potato and broccoli combo was delicious). The only slightly awkward moment came right at the start when, out of thirty or so attendees, we were noted as being the only new faces and asked why we were there. The factually true answer – “To find someone from another country” – seemed to be inappropriate, so Alex and I mumbled something about being curious to discover the basis of Krishna beliefs. The man leading the session was glad to oblige, and seemed to direct the whole of his talk towards us. We felt quite honoured, especially when we found out after the event that he was a retired rock star who had played (as a session musician) on Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting.
After the talk and the meal, suitably enlightened and fed, we thought about how best to go about finding our country representative. The lady at reception gave us a contact number for one of the centre’s leaders, Pranadikha, and said that she would be able to help. One phone call later, we were a step closer. We had swapped email addresses, and a meeting was on the cards. What would happen next?