I love this dirty town

Lahore was his first love, New York a passionate affair, but it was London that hooked Mohsin Hamid

Since leaving my birth city of Lahore at the age of 18, I had not lived in any one place for more than four years. So when I arrived in London in July 2001, I did not expect to stay long. The previous week, at my farewell and 30th birthday party in New York, I entrusted my battered pair of JBL speakers to a friend. I had purchased them on my first day of college, and had carried them from city to city like ancestral silver.

"Take good care of them," I told him. "I'll be back in 12 months."

"You never know, buddy boy," he said. "We're water-lily people, after all."

My friend, a Lahore-born nomad like myself, had a theory about us. We spoke Urdu, cooked mutter keema, danced the bhangra, regularly overslept; we had roots. And yet we drifted from place to place. So he called us water lilies, after a plant rooted not in earth but in ponds and streams. It was a rather unmacho sobriquet (unlike, say, "masters of the universe") but accurate none the less.

I landed in London, like so many foreigners, looking for a London that did not exist. Or rather, I was looking for London to express in its whole something that was true only of tiny parts of it. Where were the thugs who would casually call me "Paki" to my face? Where were the accents of Higgins and Pickering? Where were the casks of warm beer, the weekend cricket matches?

The flat above mine was occupied by an American woman, the one below by a French-Italian couple. The waiters at the nearest café were eastern European; the manager at the off-licence was Sri Lankan. The city was more white than New York, but ethnically it seemed similarly varied.

I was far from falling in love at first sight. No, London and I began by exchanging a reserved handshake. My chameleon skin was still tinged with the gunmetal hues of New York, and I found London more expensive, quiet, and slow. I missed the energy of my old abode, with its nocturnal howls and incessant exhortations to strive for extreme and rapid success.

Then things changed. The 9/11 attacks placed great strain on the hyphen bridging that identity called Muslim-American. As a man rarely seen in a mosque, and not possessing a US passport, I should not have felt it. But I did, deeply. It seemed two halves of myself were suddenly at war.

For a time, my fiction floundered in the face of world events, so I turned to journalism and essays instead. I wrote a piece for a New York newspaper about the fears of my parents and sister in Pakistan as the US prepared to attack Afghanistan. The paper deleted a paragraph on the reasons for the anger felt towards America in the Muslim world. A similar piece I wrote for a London newspaper was published unedited and in its entirety.

This was my first experience of what I would come to recognise as growing American censorship. It was also the first time I became aware of the relative openness of the British press. I began to read more and more of what was being printed in London; I was surprised and impressed. As a writer, I found the atmosphere in London liberating, not just because of what I was reading, but because of the debates I overheard at the office and at neighbouring tables in restaurants. My fiction began to flow again. When the end of my one-year work assignment in London arrived, I arranged to have it extended indefinitely.

The longer I stayed, the more London grew on me. I discovered the Ain't Nothing But Blues Bar on Kingly Street, the Lahore Kebab House in the East End. In the spring of my second year, I marched with a million people to Hyde Park to protest against the impending invasion of Iraq. Looking around me, especially at grandparents with their grandchildren, I found myself thinking: "I am one of them. I am a Londoner."

This was a disturbing thought, given my predilection for wandering, so I quickly pushed it away. Intellectually and politically, I had found much to admire in London. And yes, I could have a good time. But my heart was still closed; Lahore had been my first love and New York my most passionate affair. London and I, I thought, were destined to be just friends.

Then, one August afternoon in my third London year, London introduced me to my wife. I met her outside a pub in Maida Vale. She and I had been born on the same street in Lahore. We were strangers. We chatted in the sun beside the canal, agreed to meet for dinner. A week later, she returned to Lahore.

We dated long-distance, an exciting and near-bankrupting experience of transcontinental flights, pre-paid calling cards, and garbled internet telephony. Two years later we were married.

London taught me the pleasures of being a husband. Restaurants, museums, cinemas, pizza delivery, late-night video-on-demand: these things acquired entirely new romantic possibilities. We went for hour-long walks at midnight, gave directions to tourists. We found we could always get a table, even on a crowded night, at the Churchill Arms.

And so, after five years of living here, I find myself beginning to commit to London in completely unexpected ways. For the first time in my life, I am looking to buy a flat. Not because I dream of getting rich off my investment, but because I dream of staying.

The friend who has my old JBL speakers has now moved from New York, via Vancouver, to Amsterdam. I have never asked for the speakers back, but I often tell him that he ought to give my city a try.

There is something magical about London. It can coax a water lily to sink its roots into soil.

Mohsin Hamid's new novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", will be published by Hamish Hamilton in March

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