London attack: Sometimes people of this city just walk on by

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Carnaby Street, London, in November 2016. Photo taken by Monica Sarkar.

It’s been a week since the London attack that struck the city on so many levels. Debates on terror, authorities, cyber security and Islamophobia were stirred, as well as defiant images and messages to the perpetrators that Londoners will not lie low.

Some discussions also exposed underlying sentiments in the country. The social chatter around the photograph of a Muslim woman apparently walking past a victim of the attack lying on the ground sparked racist comments.

The person that took the photograph and the Muslim woman who was her subject spoke to the media afterwards and explained their actions. And some raised a valid point. If she was a white woman, would anyone have said anything?

But we also need to face a harsh truth. Many people were so quick to criticise the Hijab-clad woman and there was an overflowing of praise for those who helped others or stood united in a vigil the next day. But having been born and raised in this vast, yet sometimes compact, city, I’m afraid to say that we are often a community of people that will walk on by.

Remaining alone

On countless of occasions, I’ve seen old people struggling to walk up stairs at tube stations, or people in obvious need of help on the streets. And they remain as we found them: alone. And yes, I have stopped – but you even feel alone when you’re helping.

Friends have told me, they fell ill while walking in a tube station and they had to wait for staff to attend to them, while everyone else gave them sideway glances, or looked straight at them but walked straight past.

Last year, I hurt my head and walked down a busy street holding a bloody tissue to my head. People gawped, or pretended not to see me. The only person who asked me if I was okay was a Muslim man outside Regent’s Park mosque. (That’s the true nature of Muslims, by the way.)

In 2004, the BBC reported that cars drove past or swerved around a woman lying injured in the road in southeast London. And just over a month ago, The Sun reported that initially, people just walked past a girl who was battered by a severe storm.

There are also countless reports of when passersby have been saviours. Yet it’s also so common for neighbours living on the same street or even next door to barely know each other. I’ve been guilty of that too, and wonder why.

Though this may also be commonplace in other cities, it’s not like this everywhere. In Kolkata, India, where my family originate from, I can tell you that vast crowds of people will form around a man who faints in the street, or a woman who trips and falls on the pavement. I’ve seen it with my own eyes; the woman I mention was my mother.

We always love to talk about ourselves as tea-drinking, gentle people. And although we are, to some extent, we are also passive aggressive. Just walk down Oxford Street on a busy day or into the tube station during peak hour and tell me how many times you get mindlessly shoved past – sometimes, deliberately.

We need to change that’

To be fair, my father, who passed away from dementia last year, was always helped by very kind people when he fell down on the street a few times. He also occasionally spoke warmly of strangers who stopped to speak with him. So it’s not as though that kindness doesn’t exist at all. But is it really our nature?

This is, by no means, an intention to undermine those that did help. PC Keith Palmer, who lost his life in the attack, epitomised the very spirit that we should be inspired by.

Before we are so quick to judge others, or even heap praise on ourselves, I think we also need to take this opportunity to really reflect and decide on the type of city we want to be overall.

I met an American lady in a queue at a cafe the other day and we started chatting. And before she left, she said people were rarely friendly to her since she arrived here on holiday. I said I have felt that London, though as amazing as it is, can be quite isolated. And you see a lot of people by themselves.

Before she left, she said: “We need to change that.” Is there any better time than the present? And doesn’t it strengthen our unity in the face of terror?

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