A Visit to Cambridge


A Visit to Cambridge

By Firdaus Kanga

            A Visit to Cambridge Introduction

Firdaus Kanga, a writer and journalist from Mumbai, wrote A Visit to Cambridge. He was born with brittle bones, which caused him to break easily as a child. The lesson gives us a glimpse of Firdaus Kanga and Stephen Hawking's meeting. Stephen Hawking, one of our time's greatest scientists, suffered from a type of paralysis that confined him to a wheelchair and allowed him to'speak' only by punching buttons on a computer, which speaks for him in a machine-like voice. Both of these men were in wheelchairs. They met each other during Firdaus Kanga's visit to Cambridge.

A Visit to Cambridge Summary

Firdaus Kanga's visit to Cambridge begins with him taking a walking tour of the city. During the tour, his guide mentioned that Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist, lived there. The author had completely forgotten about it, and as his tour came to an end, he went to a phone booth to call him. He was able to communicate with Hawking's assistant and explain that he had travelled all the way from India in a wheelchair. From three-thirty to four o'clock, the assistant gave him a half-hour with the scientist.
The author describes how people frequently ask differently-abled people to cheer up, as if they have a courage account that they are too lazy to check. He believes that seeing someone like you achieve great things is the only thing that can make you stronger. Although the writer disagrees, Stephen Hawking told him that he hadn't been brave and that this was the only choice he had. Because it took a lot of effort for him to tap on his little switch and find words in his computer, the author was guilty of making the scientist speak. He had a sharp mind, but his computerised voice rendered his words as frozen phrases.
Stephen mentions that it amuses him when people patronise him. The writer then describes Hawkins as looking like a three-dimensional version of all his magazine photographs. His appearance is shocking at first look, but he is the embodiment of a man's inner glow. He convinced the author that eternal souls exist and that everything else is merely an accessory. Hawkings thinks there is nothing good about being disabled, but the author believes it makes you realize the existence of kindness in the world.
Furthermore, when asked if inspiring many people makes things better for Stephen, he stated that it does not. It doesn't make much of a difference to someone whose body is like a claustrophobic room with walls that are getting narrower by the day. Stephen's only piece of advice to differently-abled people is to focus on their strengths. The half-hour was up, and the writer was ready to leave, but the scientist forced him to stay. He invited the author to tea and a tour of his garden. His garden was big as size of a park, but Stephen covered every inch of it in his wheelchair while the writer avoided him. They didn't say much in the sun. When it was time to leave, the author touched him on the shoulder and wheeled out. Looking back, he saw an embodiment of his bravest self, the one he was moving towards and had believed in for so long.

A Visit to Cambridge Lesson Explanation

Cambridge was my metaphor for England, and it was strange that when I left it had become altogether something else, because I had met Stephen Hawking there.

  • Metaphor- a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.

The author begins by telling the readers that for him, England meant only Cambridge at one point in his life. He went on to say that after meeting Stephen Hawking, the meaning and relevance of England in his life had completely changed.

It was on a walking tour through Cambridge that the guide mentioned Stephen Hawking, ‘poor man, who is quite disabled now, though he is a worthy successor to Issac Newton, whose Chair he has at the university.’ And I started, because I had quite forgotten that this most brilliant and completely paralyzed astrophysicist, the author of A Brief History of Time, one of the biggest best-sellers ever, lived here.

  • Astrophysicist- scholar of astrophysics – branch of physics dealing with stars, planets, etc

The author mentions being on a walking tour through Cambridge when his guide mentioned Stephen Hawking. Because he was differently abled, the tour guide referred to him as a "poor man." He even told the author that Stephen Hawking now holds the position previously held by Isaac Newton at the university. The author reveals that he had forgotten that Stephen Hawking, the most brilliant and completely paralysed astrophysicist and author of one of the best-selling books of all time, A Brief History of Time, lived here before the guide mentioned it.

When the walking tour was done, I rushed to a phone booth and, almost tearing the cord so it could reach me outside, phoned Stephen Hawking’s house. There was his assistant on the line and I told him I had come in a wheelchair from India (perhaps he thought I had propelled myself all the way) to write about my travels in Britain. I had to see Professor Hawking — even ten minutes would do. “Half an hour,“ he said. “From three-thirty to four.”

  • Propelled- drive or push something forward (here, it means come)

When the walking tour ended, the author hurried to the nearest phone booth, stretching the cord to the point of almost tearing it, so that it could reach him outside the booth (because he was on a wheelchair). He dialled Stephen Hawking's residence and his assistant answered the call. The author introduced himself as someone who had travelled all the way from India (which the assistant must have taken literally, as he had travelled all the way from India on a wheelchair) to write about his travel experiences in Britain. The author explained that he needed to see Professor Hawking even if it was only for ten minutes, but the assistant gave him a thirty-minute slot the the next day from three-thirty to four.

And suddenly I felt weak all over. Growing up disabled, you get fed up with people asking you to be brave as if you have a courage account on which you are too lazy to draw a cheque. The only thing that makes you stronger is seeing somebody like you, achieving something huge. Then you know how much is possible and you reach out further than you ever thought you could.

At that moment, the author began to feel weak. He describes how, as if it were easy, he is constantly told to be brave and cheerful as he grows up differently-abled. People thinks that those who are different are simply too lazy to draw a cheque on their courage account. The only thing that gives you courage and strength in such a situation is seeing people like you do something big. Only when you realise there is hope and possibility do you dare to go beyond your limits and imagination.

“I haven’t been brave,” said his disembodied computer voice, the next afternoon. “I’ve had no choice.” Surely, I wanted to say, living creatively with the reality of his disintegrating body was a choice? But I kept quiet, because I felt guilty every time I spoke to him, forcing him to respond. There he was, tapping at the little switch in his hand, trying to find the words on his computer with the only bit of movement left to him, his long, pale fingers. Every so often, his eyes would shut in frustrated exhaustion. And sitting opposite him I could feel his anguish, the mind buoyant with thoughts that came out in frozen phrases and sentences stiff as corpses.

  • Disembodied- separated from the body
  • Anguish- severe mental or physical pain or suffering
  • Buoyant- intensely active and vibrant

When he went to see him the next afternoon, Stephen Hawking told him that he hadn't been brave. He said in his computer voice that he had no other choice. The author wanted to respond that living so creatively despite his disabilities was a brave choice, but he refrained because his guilt overtook him every time he pushed Stephen Hawking to respond by talking to him. He spoke by typing the words into his computer and then tapping a small switch in his hand with the only movement left in his pale, long fingers. He was easily fatigued and would occasionally close his eyes in frustration. The author describes how he could feel Hawking's pain as his intensely active and vibrant mind produced thoughts that were emotionless and stiff as a corpse.

“A lot of people seem to think that disabled people are chronically unhappy,” I said. “I know that’s not true myself. Are you often laughing inside?” 
About three minutes later, he responded, “I find it amusing when people patronize me.” “And do you find it annoying when someone like me comes and disturbs you in your work?” The answer flashed. “Yes.” Then he smiled his oneway smile and I knew, without being sentimental or silly, that I was looking at one of the most beautiful men in the world.

  • Chronically- in a persistent and recurring way
  • Amusing- causing laughter and providing entertainment
  • Patronise- to be kind or helpful to someone, but to talk to them as if they are inferior
  • Sentimental- prompted by feelings of tenderness or nostalgia

The author expresses how most people believe that people with different abilities are always sad and miserable, but this is not true for him. Hawking is asked if it was true for him or if he was laughing on the inside. Hawking took nearly three minutes to respond. He finds it amusing when people are only nice to him because of his unique abilities. The author then asks him if he gets irritated when people like him come in and distract him from his work, to which he answers emphatically "yes." After that, Stephen smiled oneway, not allowing himself to be moved by emotions, but the author knew he was looking at one of the most beautiful and wonderful men in the world.

A first glimpse of him is shocking because he is like a still photograph — as if all those pictures of him in magazines and newspapers have turned three-dimensional. Then you see the head twisted sideways into a slump, the torso shrunk inside the pale blue shirt, the wasted legs; you look at his eyes which can speak, still, and they are saying something huge and urgent — it is hard to tell what. But you are shaken because you have seen something you never thought could be seen.

  • Slump- sit, lean, or fall heavily and limply.
  • Torso- upper part of the body
  • Wasted- weak or emaciated

The author describes how the first glance at Hawking is startling because he is motionless, like a photograph. All of his photographs in magazines and newspapers appear to be three-dimensional, but As you get a better look at him, you notice that his head is turned sideways limply, his upper body is shrunk inside his dull blue shirt, and his legs are weak. His eyes appear to be able to speak; they are still trying to say something important and urgent, though what they are saying is difficult to understand. Looking at him completely shakes you up because your eyes have something completely unexpected in them.

Before you, like a lantern whose walls are worn so thin you glimpse only the light inside, is the incandescence of a man. The body, almost irrelevant, exists only like a case made of shadows. So that I, no believer in eternal souls, know that this is what each of us is; everything else an accessory.

  • Incandescence- inner glow or light
  • Accessory- not essential, but extra, though decorative

When you see him, he appears to be a lantern with worn-out walls that only allow you to see the light inside. Yes, before you is a man's inner glow. It gives the impression that the body is irrelevant and only exists as a shadow case. It even makes the author, who does not believe in eternal souls, realise that man is nothing more than that. Everything else is simply unnecessary.

“What do you think is the best thing about being disabled?” I had asked him earlier. “I don’t think there is anything good about being disabled.” “I think,” I said, “you do discover how much kindness there is in the world.” “Yes,” he said; it was a disadvantage of his voice synthesizer that it could convey no inflection, no shades or tone. And I could not tell how enthusiastically he agreed with me.

  • Synthesizer- an electronic musical instrument, typically operated by a keyboard, producing a wide variety of sounds by generating and combining signals of different frequencies
  • Inflection- rise and fall of the voice in speaking

The author asked Stephen what he thought was the best thing about being differently abled. Hawking responded that he found nothing positive about it. The author then stated that he believes it makes you realise how much kindness exists in the world. Stephen agreed, but the author couldn't understand how excited he was because of his voice synthesiser, which has the disadvantage of conveying no inflection, shade, or tone.

Every time I shifted in my chair or turned my wrist to watch the time — I wanted to make every one of our thirty minutes count — I felt a huge relief and exhilaration in the possibilities of my body. How little it mattered then that I would never walk, or even stand.

  • Exhilaration- a feeling of happiness, excitement or elation

The author mentions that every time he adjusted his chair or looked at his wristwatch to check the time, he wanted to ensure that no single minute of the meeting was wasted. He adds that he was relieved and pleased with the limited options his body provided. It almost didn't matter to the author at the moment that he would never be able to walk or even stand.

I told him how he had been an inspiration beyond cliche´ for me, and, surely, for others — did that thought help him? “No,” he said; and I thought how foolish I was to ask. When your body is a claustrophobic room and the walls are growing narrower day by day, it doesn’t do much good to know that there are people outside smiling with admiration to see you breathing still.

  • Cliche´- phrase or idea used so often that it loses its meaning
  • Claustrophobic- very small and suffocating (‘Claustrophobia’ is an abnormal fear of being in an enclosed space)

The author told him how Stephen had inspired him beyond limits, and he was sure that he had inspired many others. He asked whether this fact made things any better for Stephen. It didn't, according to Stephen. The author felt foolish for even asking such a question after hearing his response. This is because Stephen Hawking believes that when your own body is like a very small and suffocating room whose walls are closing in on you day by day, the fact that people are happy that you are alive makes little difference to you.

“Is there any advice you can give disabled people, something that might help make life better?” “They should concentrate on what they are good at; I think things like the disabled Olympics are a waste of time.” “I know what you mean.” I remembered the years I’d spent trying to play a Spanish guitar considerably larger than I was; and how gleefully I had unstringed it one night. The half-hour was up. “I think I’ve annoyed you enough,” I said, grinning. “Thank you for…”
“Stay.” I waited. “Have some tea. I can show you the garden.” The garden was as big as a park, but Stephen Hawking covered every inch, rumbling along in his motorized wheelchair while I dodged to keep out of the way. We couldn’t talk very much; the sun made him silent, the letters on his screen disappearing in the glare.

  • Gleefully- very happily
  • Rumbling- a continuous deep, resonant sound (probably of the wheels, here)

The author asked Stephen if he would like to offer some advice to other differently-abled people in order to make their lives a little easier. Stephen advised them to focus on their strengths and abilities. Olympics for the differently-abled, according to Stephen, are a waste of time. The author got the gist of what Stephen was saying because he had spent years learning to play a Spanish guitar that was larger than his own, and how he happily unstringed it one night.
The thirty minutes had passed, and the author smiled as he said, "I think I've annoyed you enough," and continued to thank him for his time, but was interrupted by Stephen, who asked him to stay. He waited for Stephen to say something else before offering the author tea and a tour of his garden. Despite the fact that the garden was big as size of a park, Stephen used his motorised wheelchair to show him every inch and corner of it. The author made an effort not to get in his way. They couldn't talk much during that time because the letters on his screen disappeared in the glare. It was as if the sun had silenced him.

An hour later, we were ready to leave. I didn’t know what to do. I could not kiss him or cry. I touched his shoulder and wheeled out into the summer evening. I looked back; and I knew he was waving, though he wasn’t. Watching him, an embodiment of my bravest self, the one I was moving towards, the one I had believed in for so many years, alone, I knew that my journey was over for now.

After an hour, it was time to go. The author was at a loss for words as he walked away, unable to kiss him or cry either. As a result, he touched his shoulder and moved out into the summer evening in his wheelchair. As he looked back, the author realised Stephen was waving (when he wasn't). The author describes how looking at Stephen was like looking at his bravest self, the one he was moving towards and had believed in for so long. He was well aware that his journey had come to an end for now in England.

                              About the Author

Firdaus Kanga, a writer and actor based in London, was born on 1960 in Mumbai. He has written Trying to Grow, a semi-autobiographical novel set in India, as well as Heaven on Wheels, a travel book about his experiences in the United Kingdom. His work, Trying to Grow, was later adapted into a film called Sixth Happiness, in which Kanga played both the screenwriter and the lead role of Brit, a boy born with brittle bones. He's also shown a documentary called Double the Trouble, Twice the Fun, which was a provocative documentary drama about sexuality and disability. Firdaus Kanga was born with an imperfection of osteogenesis. Kanga's work has been chosen for inclusion in The Vintage Book of Indian Writing: 1947-1997. 



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