My Canterbury Tale

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This post is not about food

I didn’t really have a plan when I landed in Canterbury last week.

Which was strange given that I knew that I would be heading to this Cathedral town in the South of England from the moment I got to know that I might be going to England. This was a trip which had taken almost 34 years in the making after al.

The thing is Canterbury, for me, is not just another town. It’s a lot more than that. It has been a part of my identity from right since when I remember. I moved towns, countries and continents yet one thing that was constant in my life, no matter what turn it took, is that I am a ‘Canterbury baby’.

I had grown up to stories of our times Canterbury. Of the hospital there where I was born, the same place where my father worked as a doctor, the address of the house we lived in, the octogenarian English lady, Mrs Taylor or ‘Canterbury Nana’ who used to live next door and would come over to look after my mother and me. To whom I used to ‘write’ letters when we left England and whom I remember meeting when we had come back on the way to India after we had to leave Iran. Stories captured in photographs in albums carefully preserved by my mother as we travelled through the many rocky paths of life.

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As I grew older, there were a million forms to fill…school exam forms, college entrances, company HR requirements, passport and visa applications, driver’s license, voter’s id, pan card….everywhere under place of birth would be ‘Canterbury, UK’…yes, I almost wore this as a badge.

As my UK plans began to crystallise…a by-product of speaking and judging invites that came out of blogging, I began to make enquiries on how to go to Canterbury. First leg, Barcelona done, I headed to London. I was going to be there for a about a week…three engagements…loads of folks to meet… yet I knew that I wanted to go to Canterbury before anything else. .

A couple of days into London as I began to get my bearings back and I was ready to head to Canterbury. My friend and food writer, Meera Sodha, who hosted me for the first half of my stay at their place, helped me go online and book train tickets to Canterbury for the next day.

I took the tube (Calcuttans still call it that even if the Londoners have sold out and call it the Underground or worse, the Metro). I missed the train as the ticket machine refuse to read the card and give me the ticket I had booked and soon I headed to Canterbury with a copy of the ticket from the booking counter, armed with a bacon and potato pasty, sold by a lady from Surat at the station.

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I got a seat easily and soon the train’s rhythmic beat lulled me to sleep. Barcelona had been hectic and I hadn’t really rested much. About a couple of hours later the train came to a halt. I got off at the station to a banner which said ‘Welcome to Canterbury’.

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I stepped out of the station, got onto the bus and asked for the Kent and Canterbury Hospital. Surely a hospital is not what you would expect on a standard list of things to see in Canterbury. The bus took me to the main bus depot and another bus and I was at the hospital. A huge complex and I finally decided to get off near a sign that said ‘main building’.

I got down and walked towards the building. I still didn’t have a plan.

There was a counter which said ‘enquiry’. They would probably be used to patients or relatives coming in for treatment, to fix a broken leg perhaps…in distress…a place for questions more serious than…”I was born here…can you help me find my roots”

I spotted a sign that said ‘hospital management - second floor’. I decided to walk up. Again no plan.

I went up on tiptoes. Past a patient being rolled out on a stretcher bed. Past a sign that said ‘oncology’. Calm, neat, clean…yet ambling around a hospital can be unnerving.

I reached the second floor and walked around. Suddenly I saw a sign which said ‘Chapel’ and peeped into the door. It was a mini church. By the alter there were electronic candles (!) which one could 50 p and light for someone one wanted to pray for. I am not really a very religious person but decided to light one in memory of my father who had studied and worked here. I looked back and saw that there was notice board which said that one could leave a note with a prayer if one wanted. I thought I would leave a note for my dad. There were slips of paper there for this but no pen. So I popped into the next room.

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There was a gentleman sitting there checking his emails. Turned out to be Paul Kirby, the chaplain of the hospital.

I told him what I had come for and he broke into a big smile. He gave me a pen to write down the note and asked me to join him once I was done by which time he would clear his mails.

I scribbled down a note and on second thoughts added the names of the others in the family too though later my little brother pointed out I spelt his name wrong.

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“Come let me take you downstairs”, said Paul when I went back. He explained that the Canterbury no longer had a specialised maternity ward. It was more of a cancer treatment based hospital with most of the other wards had moved to a larger town in Kent.

We went down to the maternity ward, the basic one, which was still there. Paul told the sister, “this gentleman was born here and has come back to visit us”. The nurses broke into big smiles which reminded me of the picture we had of me as a baby surrounded by the nurses.

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Paul took me to one of the rooms and said “this is probably where you would have been after you were born”.

I then told him the address of the house where we used to live in.

“It’s obvious why your father stayed there. It’s just behind the hospital and lot of doctors preferred that area” said Paul as he led me out through a passage.

“This is probably the path that your father used to take to come to work” said Paul as I could almost feel goose bumps springing up.

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Paul pointed me to the address that I was so familiar with and then headed back to the hospital after asking me to join him for a coffee. I walked down the lane which looked as if it was out of a picture postcard. I texted home saying, “In Canterbury and it’s so pretty!”

I walked up and down trying to find our house. The lane looked the way it did in the photos of our albums from close to four decades back. As did the houses. Frozen in time and yet so full of life and colour. Time seemed to have left The Gap untouched.

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I went past the houses. All the houses were ‘semi detached’ or divided into two. All the numbers were there. Except ours. I kept looking. Yes, all the numbers except ours. There was one house which didn’t have any number though. At the corner of the lane. Was this ours? I kept peering into it. Camera in hand. I should have asked my mother before coming here to describe where we used to. A lady stepped out and I asked her. Yes, this was the house and the section next to hers was ours.

I flipped out my phone and called my mother from in front of the the house we used to live in. This is what she later had to say on facebook about my call when I put up a picture of mine in front of the house:

This is the house in Canterbury, U. K where we lived years ago. My son Raja/ Kalyan came to this house from Kent n Canterbury Hospital. Last night (IST), he called me up standing in front of this house cutting across the barriers of ' saat samudra tero nadi'/ distance of seven seas and thirteen rivers. Remembered how a young girl used to wait for post from home which took minimum 2/3 weeks to come. The world has indeed become a global village!

Having seen the house to my heart’s content I was ready to step back, not entirely sure if I was at the right place. As I was about to leave a young man approached the house. I stopped him and asked him the address.

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Yes, this was the right house. Turned out the young man was one of the 4 music students sharing the house. He very kindly let me in and I walked up and down the stairs, past the rooms, in those few minutes trying to live and relive a lifetime of stories. I had had my share of happy moments and finally headed back to the hospital.

The chaplain was waiting for me with a big smile. He took me the cafeteria for the promised coffee. Strangely enough they had a Starbucks machine there, K’s favourite. Strange that the hospital where her father in law worked had one. I’ve never seen a cafeteria with a coffee machine before. The chaplain asked me to have a bite too but I politely declined and sipped on the coffee he bought me. He then gave me an energy bar his wife had given him.

Yes, I was the Canterbury baby after all.

I pointed out to the chaplain that it was quite a coincidence that I had walked into the chapel, given I am not really religious. That I met him and then he opened the keys to our Canterbury to me.

Mr Kirby looked at me and said, “Well chaplains are not just about religion…we are here to help”. Then with a twinkle in his eyes he said, “perhaps we could say its a God-cidence and not a coincidence”.

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Coffees done he walked me around the hospital. Showed me the old doctor’s canteen, which my mother had mentioned, which is now the library. He called up a matron from our time in Canterbury and we tried to see if we could pick up a common thread. He then took me out and pointed to parts of the building which would have probably been there during my parent’s time.

It was time to take the train back when the chaplain suggested that he drop me near the famous Canterbury Cathedral so that I could take a look at the institution that defined this little town. I walked past the high street of stores and fast food joints and pubs and cafes and reached the Cathedral a bit after the closing time. I hadn’t planned to stop there but did since I was there, I walked around in the pleasant chill of the evening taking in the magnificence of the structure before heading back to the station to catch the train for London.

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I faintly remembered that we had come to see the Cathedral when we had returned to England from Iran before we headed to India. Later, through a facebook comment by my mother I found out that my parents had actually got me to the Cathedral on the way home from the hospital after I was born!

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So thanks to the kind chaplain I had in one day seen where I was born, where I was first taken to when my parents took me home and then the house where I first lived…

Sitting in Mumbai, when I look back at that day in Canterbury I realise that it never struck me that things could go wrong that day. That I might not find find what I was looking for. That my childhood memories might dwarf reality. That I might be underwhelmed and disheartened by what I saw. Unhappy at the end of it all. That memories could have been shattered.

I had gone to Canterbury without a plan and things worked out pretty well. The day couldn’t have been scripted better.

It was good to be home.

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The following are the links to my mother’s blog posts about our time in England.

Part 1 & Part 2 

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