An Ode to Manchester: Inscriptions of an Inconsequential Indian

I visited Manchester for a 3 day halt in-between two conferences in Leicester and London back in 2013. And just outside the Central Library was a sign that read: “Manchester means the world to me”.

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You could be forgiven for considering that sign as an exercise in exaggeration. You could well think that it was merely the sentiments of people who have been born and brought up there. You could even think that this was the exclamation of a football fan captivated by the romance of the Busby Babes, the trio of Charlton, Law and Best, the Class of 92, Sir Alex Ferguson or modern-day superstars like Ronaldo, Rooney or Pogba. But even a cursory sojourn in the city will convince you that the sign actually touches a deeper chord.

After exiting the railway station, as I bunglingly looked for directions to my hotel, I came across a couple of typically robust, gregarious and smiling Sikh cabbies who gave me very clear and helpful directions to the hotel. They had all been living in Manchester for decades and did not seem to suffer from any anxiety of belongingness. This was the first clue to the multicultural plurality of the city. Such plurality was also evident from the sprawling China Town of Manchester, the Gay Village with its proud rainbow flags, Indian restaurants and a cosy Bombay Street and most importantly, a whole host of warm, welcoming friendly people who enjoyed all the colours of life (not just red and blue, that is).

This plurality would attract the eyes of a traveller in other ways as well. Alongside tall, glass-covered glitzy modern buildings, including the Manchester Hilton, he would be awed by the spires and arches of structures that bear the intricate knottings of history. And just as Manchester occupies a pivotal place in the history of the Industrial revolution in England, something which it celebrates through its Museum of Science and Industry or a statue of Alan Turing, it is also the place where the famous Chopin played his last concert and where inveterate comedians like Norman Evans or Sir Harry Secombe regaled the audiences.

For a student of English literature like me, it was also quite remarkable to see a plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which happened at the erstwhile St. Peter’s Fields that now falls within the modern City of Manchester where 15 people were killed during a peaceful demonstration and more than 600 injured after a cavalry charge. The plaque bears testimony to the heritage of Manchester as a working class city, a city of resilient people who have fought adversities and stood strong and have inspired others in turn – including someone like Percy Bysshe Shelley whose ‘Masque of Anarchy’ was written in response to this horrible consequence of governmental crackdown.

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All of these memories came flooding back in the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester in which a suicide bomber managed to kill 22 people in the Manchester Arena during an Ariana Grande concert attended by hundreds of young people. The attack stung me into that same kind of pain and grief that I experience when my fellow Indian regularly fall victim to networks of terror.

It is rather pointless to talk about the deplorable nature of these terrorist organisations, the inhuman motivations that drive them and the destructive fantasies that are nurtured by those who work for these organisations. They are immune to criticism and deserve whatever punitive measures a state can muster.

But more importantly, the only way one can effectively fight terror is by not succumbing to terror at all and by upholding those values of plurality, courage and togetherness which Manchester has embodied again and again. From Thatcherite blight to IRA attacks – Manchester has survived and prospered. It is particularly interesting to note that in 1996, when the IRA detonated a 1500 kilogram bomb on 15th June at Corporation Street, in the heart of Manchester, England was hosting the Euro’ 96 and despite all the horror and destruction, the match between Germany and Russia went ahead as scheduled on the very next day at Old Trafford. More than fifty thousand people watched the game. Manchester had responded: “we will not give in”, they said.

It is one of those strange eccentricities of history that once again juxtaposed terror and football as only two days after the attack, Manchester United, a club almost synonymous with the city, played the final of the Europa League and won, dedicating its victory to the whole of Manchester. Of course, overcoming adversities and horror is in the DNA of Manchester United as well. This is a club that overcame the horrors of the Munich crash to become the best in the country and the best in Europe, this is a club that under Sir Alex Ferguson, for more than two decades, showed the world that it’s not over until the final whistle and conjured almost magical, miraculous victories in the dying minutes from the jaws of certain defeat. And Manchester United is also a testimony to that spirit of diversity and togetherness which the city as a whole embodies – footballers from all across the world come and play at The Theatre of Dreams and become one of Manchester, irrespective of their race, religion or language as they become part of the collective experience of football with its truly universal language; and this is equally true for the Manchester City Football Club as well which has now become a major force in the English Premier League with a similar stellar cast of global superstars. So the victory of Manchester United, symbolically, was also a victory of the Mancunian spirit, a typically working class spirit, a spirit of invincible resilience founded on togetherness. As an impassioned Steve Bertram wrote in Manutd.com: “Marcus Rashford may have been the only Mancunian on the field by birthright, but every single player was an adopted Manc; each one buzzing about the field with bottomless energy and purpose. Ander, Matteo and Anthony from Bilbao, Legnano and Massy became Andy, Matt and Tony from Blackley, Longsight and Moston. All of them, one of us.”

For all these reasons and more: “Manchester means the world to me” too.

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Figure 1: Picture courtesy Reuters and The Independent

-Abin Chakraborty

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