Friday, February 20, 2009

A short trip to London

Feb 02-04, 2009:

I have landed in London on the day of its worst snowstorm in 18 years. It is night and Heathrow airport is covered with a blanket of snow, looking numb with the weariness that cold and snow can bring. There are makeshift arrangements for passenger transit, officials operating doors as sluice gates to route foot traffic so that departing and arriving passengers do not mingle. The Heathrow Express train that I am supposed to take to Paddington is cancelled for the day, instead I mount the Heathrow Connect. We pass thru a white landscape, the quietness of my bogey punctuated by an American on his cellphone. The scattered reflectivity of the snow pushes your vision far into the landscape. Everything is in stasis: snowheaded vehicles frozen in parking lots, in the distance an occasional car taking a slow turn, its headlights illuminating a winter arc of white. The night train stops by small, empty stations, the snow a couple of inches thick, with the shoe imprints of passengers from earlier in the day. I cross Hayers and Harlington, Southall ( big poster for Akash Radio), Hanwell, West Ealing (“home of the positive internet company”). This is my first trip into London and it feels mildly unsettling. I am visiting a city that, through its history and literature, has given me a mythological familiarity--yet has remained sight unseen. America was more of a blank slate—its one generation deep familiarity never as ingrained as was England, where the linkage diffuses through generations and at various levels of Indian social stratification: the Dickens volumes in my grandmother’s house, the stories of sahibs and freedom fighters, the mofussil references to “Bilet” (corrupted from “Blighty”), the proclamatory nameplates “FRCS, Edinburgh” on the residential streets of Kolkata, the mimicry of television newsreaders, the club culture and the boxwallahs--colonialism and the British never too distant. This is a strange familiarity with a country and its unwalked city streets, known to many Indians of my generation and best articulated through the character of Arun in “A Suitable Boy”.

Checking into the Cumberland hotel in Mayfair I head to the bar late at night to grab a drink and dinner. At the bar I am flanked by an elegant Libyan and a British-Indian who informs me that once you are born, as he was, in East London, “you don’t give a shit about any other place”. It feels somewhat amusing to speak to an Indian with an exotic accent. I have the Cumberland club and I am served a sandwich whose edgings have been carefully sliced away. After several drinks, the Libyan and the Indian are looking for action--they plot their strategies for asking the barmaids out when the place closes for the night. I am tired and take my leave.

Next evening I take a long, magical walk. Strolling down the wide pavements of Oxford Street from the corner of Hyde Park, I grab a coffee and turn right onto Regent Street: the road gracefully swings into Picadilly Circus where I walk by Veeraswamy’s 1926 Indian restaurant. The half baked London of my creation dissipates -- through the open, Americanized walk-in-walk-out architectures of the ground floor shops, the globalized chain stores, the grand normalization of western cityscapes everywhere. I look for characters that could straighten out a crowbar with a sudden effort of strength, or wrestle their way out of a precipitous drop using a Japanese judo trick, but I find none.

It is bitter cold and as the night deepens there aren’t too many pedestrians. From Picadilly I cut across St. James Place, over pavements that are crusted over with ice, and then trudge onwards along the Mall to Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace. In this night there are still a few tourists around Buckingham. At these temperatures, the snow crunches underneath your boots as the the snow crystals--devoid of their moisture content--slide past one another unlubricated. On my right is the white wonderland of The Green Park as I move westward along Constitution Hill. The winters, I gather, were more severe a few hundred years ago when the Thames would freeze up and there were markets and “frost fairs” held across the frozen river. In 1599, at the time of Shakespeare’s rise to popularity, the Globe theatre was dismantled, transported across the frozen Thames in a “most forcible and riotous manner”, and re-erected on the opposite bank. About eighty years later, John Evelyn, a somewhat lesser known diarist than his approximate contemporary Samuel Pepys, writes about the frost fair of 1683 on the frozen Thames, "Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water."

London appears unusually safe. At this time of night, a young woman walks by alone in the park. In the distance, on a park bench, I see a couple sitting quietly. I reach the Wellington Arch and spend a few minutes reading names on a memorial to the Commonwealth recipients of the Victoria Cross. There are Gurungs, there are Singhs, soldiers who lost their lives in the first and second world wars. There is a recent wreath left by the Indian High Commission. London is also breathtakingly cosmopolitan. At the McDonald’s where I stop by for a snack, the customer in front of me is burkha clad. The attendants across the counter are Russian and Chinese, and the manager is Indian. Most of the hotel attendants I see are from Eastern Europe. The cable TV at the hotel has channel choices in an assortment of languages, the breadth of which I have not seen in any other country. This remains the legacy of England’s history of global involvement--for not even New York can rival the sheer diversity of this city, where 45% of Britain’s non-white population resides. Of all of my routine human interactions with service personnel in the process of getting around, eating, and shopping in this city over a two day period, only two were with what I would call native Englishmen (or women)— the cabbies on my trip to and from the train station.

I make my way back to the airport via Paddington station the next morning, with the routine and orderliness restored with the passage of the storm. In the thirty five years that has passed between the time that I first saw glossy spread pictures of Buckingham Palace in a book in Guwahati, to the moment where I stood before the structure myself, there has remained one constant—its queen and the country’s devotion to royalty. As I leave, Iremember reading about Muhammed Ali’s(then Cassius Clay) first visit to England to fight the now knighted Henry Cooper. “You got a queen” he announced to the assembled reporters, “you need a king. I am king”.

1 comment:

  1. You stopped at a McDonald's for a snack? what about an Indian "snack" (that will cost you more i think) down at AMAYA? a Michelin star can't be worng! :) I just booked my trip with LMT and i'll give it a try, fish tikka here i come!