Thursday, September 19, 2013

London in September

How do you write about a place whose literature you are intimately familiar with, yet have had little physical presence in, mostly just transiting thru its airport?  How do you write about a place whose history you cannot but be in awe of, realizing it had systems of governance in place 300 years ago that are relevant even today, that it created a phalanx of officers who believed it was their preordained right to rule the world, and armed with just this sense of entitlement, had the confidence to walk into distant lands, into tribal villages, with wife and baby in tow, and expect to, and then rule, simply armed with the cloak of their confidence?  How do your write about a place that bears the street names of Landsdowne Court, and Little Russell Street and Greater Russell Street: names that have rolled off your tongue and passed under your slippers in the Calcutta of the 70s and 80s?  How do you write about London, a place you should have visited much more than you have, a London that is far from the Bilayat of your parents and grandparents, far from the London of glossy photographs of guards at Buckingham, of empty biscuit tins with alluring images of a tidy society, but a London more multicultural than New York, a London of abayas, of lungis, of flaming hennaed beards, of East European hotel accents, of  tweed jackets and herringbone fabrics, and merry evening men wearing blazing orange sports coats and lime green pants?  No Indian of a certain generation can write about England without a chip on his shoulder, without either over-reaching admiration, or slight ridicule, or an enforced sense of familiarity.

The afternoon we reached London, I took a walk to Hyde Park, a 10 minutes walk away from our hotel on Edgeware, a street full of middle eastern shops.  Once there, I looked for Speakers’ corner, the iconic symbol for free speech, where thru history, cranks, minorities, the oppressed and the antagonized could stand up on a public podium and rail away with no repercussions.  My father had spent time in London in the 1950s, he used to visit the British Museum every day, walk thru Hyde Park often.  I had first heard about Speakers Corner from him.  I asked a vendor at the corner, she vaguely pointed me to the place. There was no speaker. Just folks with smart-phones. 

Along the road by the Northern bank of the Thames, a taxi driver almost ran over and killed a bicyclist.  Only through a maneuver resembling the Japanese judo trick employed by Holmes to escape the clutches of Moriarty and re-emerge to public demand, did the cyclist escape.  Following this incident each party uttered a single foul word at each other, beginning with the letter f.  They then wheeled along and went their way.  It was the most civic display of the usage of the word f---- that I have ever seen.  The British have a way with softening curse words.  “Barnshoot” is an example.

At night we went to Southall for dinner.  The is the bastion of Punjabi life in Britain, the biggest Punjab outside of Punjab.  I had first heard of this place in  Khushwant Singh’s writings. He had met a sweeper at Heathrow in the 70s from Southall who wept and beseeched Mr. Singh to take her back home.  You can skip the English language entirely, and for a lifetime, if you are in Southall.  The place looks like a slightly prosperous North Indian city.  

The day we return we travelled to the Tate Modern gallery.  It is a beautiful, civilized thing to have museums with free entrance.  Tate Modern can sometimes be confusing, since the art can overflow into the visitor’s space.  “A” hesitated to sit at a beautiful oak bench with dark tight grain, and lines with a slight, deliberate curve in the fashion that Japanese furniture can sometimes have.  He thought it was perhaps also a museum piece.  There was a sparse Italian room with works of wood and stone slabs.  I suspected that the visitors walking into the rooms themselves were part of the artist’s design, a dynamic brush that the artist had trusted us with.  There was a room full of photographs of public executions sites in Syria, simple straightforward places where Honda Accords were parked on the curb. 

We walked back to Edgeware Street one night from the river, walking through Trafalgar Square, Piccaddilly and Oxford Street.  Somewhere south of Trafalgar we came to a road called Whitehall, by the side of which were statues of British generals with moustaches, looking sinister in the harsh floodlit night.  Field Marshall Viscount William Slim, the WWII General who retreated from Burma to India pursued by the Japanese, only to turn around and beat them back in the plains of Imphal, stood on a stone pedestal in his army boots, with perspicacity in his eyes and binoculars on the ready, should the London fog lift some day.  Inscribed on the pedestal below him were the names of the Indian and Burmese towns where he had seen action: Kohima, Imphal, and Arakan. A South European couple came over to look at the statue and the lady puckered her eyes as her lips tried to mouth the unfamiliar names of the towns.  And yet how delicious those names sounded to me—my grandfather had settled as a headmaster in Imphal, my father and my uncles had grown up there.  V.S. Naipaul, on visiting Pathankot in India found it strange to see the very technical British engineering word “railhead” amidst, what was in his mind, a very chaotic India: “How strange again and again to hear this solitary English word, to me so technical, industrial and dramatic, in a whole sentence of Hindustani—the railhead for Kashmir.” My feelings are similar, though in inversion to the course of this sentiment: these remote places whose names roll off so easily off my tongue sit etched in stone like strangers: geo-ported anomalies from a time long back, in this smooth, thoroughly occidental suburb.

On our last evening we spent some time at a pub.  Many years back, when some of us were working very hard to develop a new material for silicon processor chips, we would head off to an Irish bar in Mohegan Lake in NY late at night to blow off steam after our the kids had gone to bed (most of our kids at that time were of that age when putting the kids to bed was an important part of the family fabric).  The Irish bartender, who had become a good friend, had told me that Guinness, even in draught form, tasted better the closer you got to Ireland—London would be better than New York, and Dublin would be the best.  Now, Guinness is brewed in many different countries so I was always skeptical about his claims.  My friend is now long retired to Florida, but I decided to test his theory.  And indeed the Guinness tasted better, fresher in the heart of London than in New York.  Or perhaps it was just that beer is served a little warmer in Europe than in New York, allowing a better feel for its taste.  Barnshoot!


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    I guess you could say I came for the science, but stayed for the art.