Memorable year endings

NEW YR Turned on palm_1024 BLOG

 

IN 2019, WE SPENT NEW YEAR’S EVE  in Ahmedabad. This beautiful city filled with history and remarkable monuments is in the Indian state of Gujarat, which is officially teetotal. Although we did consider smuggling some booze into our hotel room, we had an alcohol-free New Years Eve. After clinking glasses of chhaas (buttermilk), we sat in our bedroom listening to firecrackers being let off sporadically in the dark streets nearby. Other New Year’s Eves have been more memorable.

When we were young children, my sister and I used to spend New Year’s Eve with my cousins. Their parents, my uncle and aunt,  used to work hard to host our families and friends on Christmas Day. Their treat was to go out to celebrate the last day of the year. My sister, my cousins, and I were left at home to give company to my uncle’s ageing mother. My aunt and uncle used to get ready to leave and then came to say goodbye to all of us remaining behind. Invariably, my uncle’s mother used to try to guilt trip them by saying:

“How can you think of leaving us alone this  evening, of all evenings?”

This plaintive question was always unsuccessful in getting them to change their plans.

Sometime in the 1980s, I was staying over Christmas and New Year in a remote part of  Cornwall near to Bodmin. On that New Year’s Eve, I drove to Land’s End. That year’s end, Land’s End was enshrouded in thick mist. All I could experience of this famous landmark were, the icy cold air, the sounds of waves and a foghorn that blasted intermittently. I have yet to see Land’s End properly.

In 1994, I visited India for my first time. My wife and I were staying with my in-laws in Bangalore.  They were members of the Bangalore Club, one of the city’s prominent social clubs. Every year, they liked to attend the Club’s New Year’s Party. In the 1990s, these parties were fairly modest affairs. Tables were set up under the stars on a large lawn around an open-air  circular dance floor. The tall trunks of the palm trees surrounding the lawn, were entwined with strings of tiny light bulbs. One of the trees would have the current year displayed with numbers outlined with tiny light bulbs. At midnight, these used to be switched off as soon as the illuminated figures displaying the new year were switched on.

There was dancing on the circular dance floor. A competition was held to find the best dancers of the evening. In the past, my in-laws used to carry away the prize year after year. After some years, the committee asked them to forego the prize so that others could win them. Even as octogenarians, my in-laws were superb dancers.

In the 1990s, the ‘happening’ place for New Year’s Eve parties in Bangalore was the KGA (Karnataka Golf Association). Nowadays, the Bangalore Club is deemed to be the place to be as the year passes through its final hours. The party is now noisier and far more crowded than it used to be when I first experienced it – not my ‘cup of tea’.

One year after my father-in-law had passed away, my wife and I spent the 31st of December at home with my widowed mother-in-law. We ordered a pizza from a well-known chain. When it arrived, it tasted alright although it had a musty odour. We decided not to, or could not manage to, stay awake until midnight. We fell asleep. At three o’clock in the morning our mobile ‘phone woke us. It was our daughter ringing to wish us a happy new year. I must admit that this was the most relaxing New Year’s Eve I can remember.

Some years earlier, in the 1980s, I celebrated New Year’s Eve with my friend Raša in Belgrade,  the capital of the former Yugoslavia. To see the New Year in, we went across the River Sava to a party in a large flat in New Belgrade.

Before we set off in a taxi, Raša warned me to keep away from windows and  balconies. You might wonder why. Many retired military men lived in New Belgrade. A lot of them possessed firearms. At midnight, they celebrated by firing these guns. People outside on balconies or close to windows sometimes got injured by ricocheting bullets. We were not affected. At about 1 am, we left the party and visited some friends who lived on the edge of Belgrade. There, we drank a great deal of alcohol. The rest of that New Year’s Day was lost in an alcoholic haze.

I hope that the end of this tragically troubled year, 2020, will be memorable in a pleasant way. Will we be raising our glasses to digital devices,  or will we be clinking them with those held by our friends and family, maybe with fully extended arms?

 

Decorated palm tree at the Bangalore Club

Birthday in Kosovo

K1 PROHOR PC 90 Church ext BLOG

MY BIRTHDAY IS on VE Day (8th of May). In 1990, I celebrated it in the former Yugoslavia. I was driving around Serbia in a rented car with my friend from Belgrade, Raša R. His birthday was the day following mine.

Before I rented the car, Raša, a vey wise fellow, advised me to rent a car from one particular company because its cars carried Slovenian registration plates, rather than Serbian. This  proved to be sound advice.

On the seventh of May, we booked into the comfortable accommodation provided at the beautiful Prohor Pčinjski monastery in the hills of southern Serbia. We decided to stay there two nights in order to celebrate our birthdays.

My birthday wish was to drive into the autonomous region of Kosovo and Metohija, which was populated by a high percentage of Albanians. And, then as now, I was greatly interested in all matters connected with Albania and the Albanian diaspora. Both Raša and I had separately visited the area in the 1970s. We were both keen to see it again.

Raša, a Serbian, had some reservations about driving into Kosovo, where there had been some unpleasant violent incidents between the Serbian and Albanian communities some months earlier. However, he decided that he would accompany me for two reasons. One was that our car bore Slovenian plates, not Serbian. The other related to his excellent command of the English language. He said he would only speak in English in Kosovo, not a word of Serbian.

We set off, driving through the relatively empty Serbian countryside. The boundary of Serbia and Kosovo was at the summit of a low mountain pass. As soon as we entered Kosovo,  we discovered that, unlike the part of Serbia we had just left, the countryside of Kosovo was relatively crowded with people, by the road side and in the fields. The landscape was liberally dotted with recently constructed homes and other buildings. This was quite different from what we recalled of our earlier visits.

We drove into Priština (Prishtinë), the capital city of the autonomous region. The main road was filled with a sea of people. We inched forward. The crowds parted slowly to allow us to proceed. Raša advised, nay forbade, me to sound the car’s horn. He did not want to upset anyone. I had never before driven through such crowds. Four years later, I did it again, but in the central market area of Bangalore in India. There, I and other motorists sound horns incessantly, but nobody pays the slightest notice to them.

We parked in the centre of the city in a car park that looked like it was the site of a large demolished building.

I was keen to buy recordings of Kosovan Albanian music for my ever growing collection of music from all over Yugoslavia.  The best supplier turned out to be a kiosk that sold cigarettes, magazines,  and newspapers. I bought about fifteen cassettes, the kiosk’s entire stock, but had no bag to carry my haul. The enterprising shop keeper saw my plight. He opened a couple of cartons that each contained twenty packs of cigarettes and emptied the packs onto his small counter. Then, he carefully packed my cassettes into the cartons.

After lunch in what seemed to be the grandest hotel in the city, we drove to see the beautiful Serbian Orthodox monastery at Gracanica.  Then we wended our way back towards Serbia, stopping for coffee at Gnjilane (Gjilan). There, I spotted a kebab shop that used a logo identical to the well-known McDonalds ‘M’. When I pointed this possible breach of ‘copyright’ to my friend, he shrugged his shoulders and said:

“This is Kosovo. Anything goes.”

We reached Prohor Pčinjski, where we ate a lavish and tasty dinner. The following day, Raša’s birthday trip was a drive through parts of Yugoslavian Macedonia. After passing some rice paddy fields, we were stopped by a policeman with a speed measuring device. He fined me the equivalent of £1 Sterling for speeding. My friend was fined half of that for not wearing a seatbelt. Otherwise, we had a good day, visiting an attractive small town, Kratovo, and the Roman ruins at Stobi on the River Vardar.

The following day, we drove back into Kosovo, stopping at the small town of Prizren. On both the 1990 and my 1975 visits, Prizren captured my heart more than any other place in Kosovo. Recently taken photographs I have seen show that it is still a delightful place.

From Prizren we drove to a dramatic pass that led from Kosovo into south eastern Montenegro.  We spent the night in Rozaje, a small Montenegrin market town. Thus ended a memorable double birthday celebration.

Soon after we visited Kosovo together, it was time for me to fly back to England. Raša accompanied me to Belgrade airport. Just before I entered the secure departure area, I waved to him and experienced a weird sensation. I felt that Raša knew that we would never meet again.

My sensation was not without basis. Soon after I left Yugoslavia,  the country began its painful dismemberment. Visiting my friends in Belgrade and elsewhere in Yugoslavia became inadvisable.  Sadly, by the time that uneasy peace began to reign again in what was once Yugoslavia, Raša had passed away.

VE Day marked the end of hostilities between the Axis and Allied powers in Europe on the day that was to become my birthday a few years later. The imposition of socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe that followed  did not put an end to festering sores that had been troubling the Balkans and elsewhere since the decline of the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian empires, which had already begun at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This was certainly the case in what was Yugoslavia. During the ‘reign’ of Marshal Tito, a semblance of unity was achieved in his country. However, after his death, as if recovering from a general anaesthetic, old unresolved conflicts reawakened. President Milošević did little to resolve these, but instead helped to exacerbate hem. Hailed by some Yugoslavs, mostly Serbs, as the new hero of Yugoslavia, this assessment was not shared by many, especially the Albanian folk in Kosovo.

For all the opprobrium that was heaped on Serbia during the 1990s, I cannot forget the warmth, hospitality, and friendship shown to me by ordinary people living in Yugoslavia, Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Albanians, and many others during the 1970s and 1980s. They did not deserve what befell them during the 1990s and much of the 20th century.

You can read more about travelling in the former Yugoslavia in “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” by Adam Yamey. This illustrated book is available from:

Amazon

Bookdepository.com

Lulu.com

Kindle

Photo shows Prohor Pčinjski monastery

New End new beginning

HAMPS 23 Former New End Hospital BLOG

 

NEW END HOSPITAL in Hampstead village closed in 1986 and converted into luxury flats. It was opened in 1869 as a workhouse for impoverished folk and in 1931 it became a hospital specialising in endocrine diseases. In that year, a clinic devoted to treating thyroid disorders was established.

On Tuesday afternoons during the years 1968-1970, when I was preparing for university entrance examinations, I helped out in the thyroid department laboratories at New End Hospital.

The labs occupied the dank basement under the Victorian hospital. The outfit was directed by a formidably bright lady scientist. She was assisted by a small friendly team of scientists and technicians.

The first task assigned to me was to make the afternoon tea. I had never made tea before without using a tea bag and with the addition of milk (at home we drank tea without milk). What I served was universally abhorred. That first afternoon, I was given a lesson of how to prepare tea ‘properly’.

The lab I worked in was dedicated to diagnosing and treating thyroid patients with radioactive isotopes of Iodine. Patients were given radioactive iodine to ingest in the ward. Then, they were brought to what looked like a dental chair in our basement. A technician applied a Geiger counter probe to different parts of the patient’s body to determine the distribution of the iodine. From this, diagnostic information could be derived. Today, this manual technique has been replaced with automatic electronic body scanners.

After scanning, the by now radioactive patients were sent back to the ward. There, they waited for their radioactivity levels to drop to safe values or to await further administration of the isotope for therapeutic reasons. In both cases, these patients had to wait until they were no longer emitting harmful rays.

To assess the levels of radioactivity in the patients’ bodies, their urine was collected regularly and stored in brown glass Winchester bottles. These were brought down to be stored in the basement. Each bottle was regularly inserted into a lead covered cylindrical container containing Geiger counters. Apart from white lab coats, we wore no other protective garments.  Often, I helped with this activity. Thinking back, I doubt modern Health and Safety would have sanctioned our working practices in that basement.

At school, I was learning computer programming, and enjoying it. We learnt the principles of programming and how to use them in the recently designed Basic computer language. When the thyroid laboratory bought a programmable desktop Olivetti calculating/computing machine, I was the first person in the lab who knew how to make it work, to programme it.

The lab needed to communicate with the matron in charge of the thyroid ward, but everyone feared her. So, whenever possible if the lab needed to send something to her, they waited for me to arrive on Tuesday afternoons. By some kind of luck, the terrifying matron treated me kindly. I found her to be agreeable but realised that she needed to be treated with ‘kid gloves’.

My experiences at the laboratory under New End Hospital were both fascinating and enjoyable. They were also influential because they instilled in me an interest in physiology, and particularly endocrinology. I am certain that had it not been for those Tuesday afternoons at New End, I might not have gone on to making a new beginning at University College London, studying physiology.

 

Picture shows the former New End Hospital

Dig weed

GATE 3e Old Highgate School changing rooms BLOG

HIGHGATE SCHOOL IN north London, like many other public (i.e. private) schools in the UK and far fewer state schools, operated (and might still do so) a Combined Cadet Force (CCF). The CCF was designed to provide military training to teenage schoolboys. It provided military experience that would allow its members, if they joined the forces, to advance up the ranks faster than young people who were recruited without this training. It helped give public school boys an earlier chance of commanding their fellow soldiers than those who had not been privileged to attend expensive private schools.

Highgate School had a well equipped CCF. There was an armoury, a drill hall, an assault course, and at least one member of staff dedicated to running the CCF. During the period I attended the school,1965 to 1970, many of our teachers had served in the armed forces during WW2. Some of them were involved with the school’s CCF.

Fortunately for me, participation in the CCF became voluntary instead of compulsory when I reached the age for joining it. I would have hated the discipline, the polishing of belts and boots, the physical activities, and wearing the uniforms made of scratchy materials.

The CCF training took place on Tuesday afternoons. When it ceased to be compulsory, the school decided that those who did not volunteer should spend Tuesday afternoons doing some kind of useful social work

I was first assigned to gardening duty, known as ‘digweed’. Along with another boy, we spent Tuesday afternoons in the garden of one of the boarding houses. Our mission was to clear the weeds from flower beds. Neither my companion nor I could distinguish a weed from a flower. The sight of the house master’s wife bringing us cups of milky tea and biscuits always marked the end of a pointless afternoon, which left the garden in a worse condition that when we arrived.

After a while, I was transferred to visiting the inmates of a local old age home, what is now called a ‘care home’. My task was to chat and cheer up the inmates sitting in high backed padded chairs around the walls of the large sitting room.

In my teens, I was not the chattiest of people. And, all o the elderly inmates except one, were either incapable or uninterested in responding to my attempts to engage them in conversation. The exception was a feisty lady, who was very talkative. The only problem was that she was not there every week. She told me that whenever she was able, she escaped from the home and enjoyed herself until the police brought her back.

One afternoon, I rang the doorbell of the home. When the doors were opened, but only a little, I caught a glimpse of a coffin standing on a trolley in the dimly lit hallway. The matron told me that it would be best that I came back the following week. I had a free afternoon that day.

At some point the school decided that those who did not join the CCF should become members of the newly formed Basic Unit. Instead of wearing miltary uniforms we wore track suits. We spent time ‘square bashing’ or military style drill. I was hopeless at this, turning left when I was supposed to be turning the other way, and not moving in time with the other members of the unit.

One day during Basic Unit, we had to attempt the school’s military assault course. At one place on this, we had to scramble up two metal pipes to reach the flat roof of a seven foot high concrete block house and then to jump off it. I reached the roof, but refused to jump down. I remained up there until the other hundred or so boys had completed the course and were in position for some more drill before the afternoon ended. In desperation, the supervising teachers pleaded with me to jump down otherwise nobody else would be allowed to go home. I told them that did not bother me nor would I jump down. In the end, I was helped down so that the session could be brought to an end.

The best and most enjoyable Tuesday afternoon activity I did was during my last two years at Highgate. I worked as an assistant at the now long since closed New End Hospital in Hampstead. But, more about that another time!

Picture shows the concrete area where the Basic Unit trained

Saturday night feeder

BRUGES 65 BLOG

MY LATE MOTHER trained at the Michaelis Art School in Cape Town. She became a commercial artist. After she married my father in London in early 1948, she became a more creative artist, a painter and then a sculptor. Her interest in art was shared by my father, who became deeply interested in the history of art. Most of our family holidays were connected with my parents’ enthusiasm for art both old and new. I used to be quite envious of my friends whose parents took them to the seaside, but now that I am older I appreciate the special nature of our family holidays.

One of the places my parents enjoyed visiting was Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium.  We used to stay in the city’s Hotel Portinari. Once every visit, we did something that I found more enjoyable than visiting churches and museums. We took a boat ride along the city’s canals. These tours involved travelling in a small low boat powered by an outboard motor. The most exciting part of this voyage was when we passed beneath a particularly low road bridge. The tour guide would tell us all to duck our heads. My mother, who saw danger around every corner, always  emphasised how important it was to lower our heads as much as possible to avoid them being smashed to a pulp by the metal struts under which we were passing. In retrospect, considering the potential for experiencing this awful injury (possibly leading to death), I am amazed that my mother sanctioned these boat trips every time we visited Bruges.

My mother passed away, I married and in 1995 our daughter was born. Six weeks after her birth, we crossed the English Channel and we took our daughter with us. We were driving to Rotterdam in Holland to meet my wife’s parents, who were disembarking there after a cruise on the River Rhine.

We wanted to spend a night in Bruges on our way to Holland, but were unable to find accommodation in a hotel that we could afford. Instead, we booked a hotel at nearby Damme, which was said to be picturesque.

We arrived at our hotel in Damme on a Saturday afternoon. I remember that we had trouble getting hot water to flow in our shower. However much the hot tap was turned, the water remained icy cold. The problem was solved when a member of the hotel staff explained that the taps had been labelled wrongly: hot water flowed when the cold tap was opened.

 In the evening, the three of us went to a restaurant in Damme. The dining room was a long rectangle in plan. A long central ‘aisle’ ran between two lines of tables. Each table was occupied by late middle-aged couples sitting  with their backs to the walls and facing the diners seated opposite them across the aisle. Not one of these people looked as if they were enjoying their night out, or even being alive. They were a miserable looking bunch.

We were shown to the one remaining empty table. Within minutes of sitting down, our daughter decided that she needed a drink, not of Belgian beer but something that only wife could supply.

My wife asked the maitre d’hôtel whether there was somewhere that she could breastfeed our daughter discreetly. He pointed at a door. My wife stood up and walked towards it. Before she reached it, the hitherto seemingly moribund diners sprang to life. They told us that they did not mind if our daughter suckled in the dining room. They did not want mother and child to be exiled, or even self-exiled.

For the rest of the evening, our fellow diners remained animated, exclaiming how sweet our daughter was and offering much advice. Our arrival and our daughter, in particular, had made that Saturday evening a huge success for these ageing members of Damme’s  bourgeoisie.

 

Picture of the Minnewater in Bruges, taken in the early 1960s

 

The kindness of strangers

SARA 4 BLOG

I VISITED YUGOSLAVIA frequently during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Often, I travelled between towns on public transport, often using the efficient networks, each of them operated independent bus companies, of inter-city buses. I travelled routes all over the country from Subotica in the north to Ohrid and Skopje in the south, and from Zadar in the west to Zaječar in the east. It was on these vehicles that my love of the varied forms of Balkan folk music was born. Every bus was fitted with loudspeakers and a radio. For hours on end the bus passengers were treated to an endless, and in my view delightful, stream of folk songs and folk music. On one of these bus trips, my first to Sarajevo, I met someone who was to become a good friend.

Dubrovnik was the point of departure for my first visit to Sarajevo. I bought a ticket at the bus station just outside the walls of the old city, entered the bus, and headed for the seat, whose number was printed on my ticket. In those days, and maybe this is still the case today, passengers were assigned specific numbered seats on long-distance buses. Whenever I knew that I would be travelling a day or two ahead, I used to buy my ticket in advance in order to get one of the seats numbered 1 or 2, which were at the front of the bus, and therefore with the best view, and, incidentally, also with the highest risk of injury in a head-on collision.

On this particular occasion in the bus station at Dubrovnik, I found a young French tourist was sitting next to his girlfriend in my seat. I started explaining, in my poor French, that he was occupying my reserved seat. As I was doing so, a middle-aged woman, sitting near the rear of the bus, explained the situation in fluent French. The French couple vacated the incorrect seats and settled into their assigned places. These happened to be close to the woman and her friend. I could hear them conversing in French as we wound our way up along the valley of the Neretva River and away from the Adriatic coast. I felt a little miffed that they had found someone to converse with, but I had not.

After a few hours we stopped in a village perched high on a hillside. The young French couple said goodbye to their new friends, and left the coach. Our bus, which should have arrived in Sarajevo well before nightfall, remained parked on a steep slope in the small mountain village for hours. The few passengers who were continuing on to Sarajevo sat on a bench under a tree in the sultry afternoon sun. Eventually, I asked the lady, who could speak French, what was happening. She explained that one of the tires of our bus had been punctured, and that it was taking a long while to repair it. She revealed that she was an inhabitant of Sarajevo and that her travelling companion, an old friend of hers, was a schoolteacher from France.

Finally, our bus was ready to depart. As it was now almost empty, I sat near to the two women and chatted to them. The sun was setting, and we were still only halfway to our destination. Soon after we began moving, the heavens opened. The mountainous region through which we were slowly making our way was filled with crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning. Torrents of rain made driving slow and difficult. I began despairing of ever reaching the city where the Hapsburg Archduke was shot in 1914. And, I was becoming concerned. I was heading for a city, which I did not know and where I had no accommodation arranged, and it was beginning to look as if would be almost midnight by the time we reached it.

I asked Marija, the French-speaking lady from Sarajevo, whether she could recommend a hotel for me. She shrugged her shoulders and said that as she lived there, she did not know about hotels. At this point, her companion said to her in French:

“Whenever I meet foreign students in my hometown in France, I invite them to stay in my home.”

Marija said nothing. It was my impression that she had not needed to hear this bit of information.

It was late at night when we eventually arrived in Sarajevo’s bus station. It was located far from the town centre on the main road that led to the spa at Ilidža. Miodrag was waiting for Marija, his mother-in law, and her French friend. I was told to get into his tiny car with them and all of our baggage, and we drove along ill-lit rain soaked streets through the darkness of the night until we reached the end of a short, steeply inclined cul-de-sac in central Sarajevo. We entered Marija’s second floor flat, and Liljana, Marija’s daughter, served us a huge, tasty supper. At the end of the meal, I still had no idea where I would be spending the night. Before I could ask where I would be staying, Liljana showed me her mother’s spare bedroom, and told me (in good English) that I should sleep there.

After breakfast the next morning, I set off to find a hotel in which I could stay for the rest of my visit. It did not take long to find one and to reserve a room. Next, I bought a bunch of flowers – they were stems of gladioli – for my kind hostess and returned to her flat. I entered, gave my bouquet to Marija, thanked her for looking after me, and told her that I had found accommodation. She told me not to be ridiculous; I was to cancel the hotel and to stay with her and her family.

Marija and her family lived in two flats in the small houses that lined a short street that led off one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Marshal Tito Street. It was within a few metres of the Baščaršija, the old bazaar area of the city. From my centrally located base, I was able to explore Sarajevo with ease. Set on both sides of the River Miljacka, the city stretches along a long narrow valley and spreads steeply up the hillsides flanking it.

The Baščaršija district looked just like a typical Turkish bazaar. When I showed pictures of it to Mehmet and Saadet, some Turkish friends in London, they said that it looked just like Bursa, their hometown in Turkish Anatolia. Like most oriental bazaars the one in Sarajevo was divided up into areas specialising in different trades. For example, there was a cluster of copper-beaters, another of silversmiths, and yet another of leatherworkers. I fell in love with the city.

I visited Sarajevo several times, always staying with my new friends. On several occasions, they visited me in London and once they stayed in our then family home in north London.

In the late 1980s, Miodrag and Liljana expressed their concerns about political changes that were happening in Bosnia. This was before the city became entangled in a fearful struggle for life during the complex and bloody civil war that occurred during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. They decided that they needed to leave Yugoslavia and start a new life elsewhere, which they did. Miodrag and Liljana and their daughter migrated to an island in the Indian Ocean, where life was calmer and prospects better than in Bosnia. Although we met them on one of their visits to London from their new home in the Indian Ocean, I have lost touch with them unfortunately. As for Marija, who remained in Sarajevo, I hope that she did not suffer during the attacks on her city.

For more of my experiences in the former Yugoslavia, please read my “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, available on Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and lulu.com.

Himalaya Palace

HIM 1 BLOG

 

THE HIMALAYA PALACE cinema in the London suburb of Southall, an area where many people of Punjabi descent live, showed only Bollywood films from India, usually the latest releases. Being keen on these films, we often made the long trip from our home to Southall to watch them. During our regular visits to India, always including Bangalore, we take time to see Bollywood films in the country where they are created.

We were in Bangalore in December 2001 when the blockbuster film “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (ie ‘sometimes happy, sometimes sad’) was released all over India. We were staying with my in-laws,  and everyone decided that we had to see it.

We chose a cinema near the famous Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR), a long established popular eatery in Bangalore. It was decided that we should have breakfast there before seeing a morning screening of the film. So popular is MTR, that queuing is always required before getting a table. It was my first visit to this highly esteemed place and I hope my last. Everything we were served was almost dripping with ghee, which is part of its attraction for its many fans.

The cinema was a few steps from MTR. After buying tickets, we had to wait in another queue. This one was to await one’s turn to have bags searched by security personnel. I thought this was to prevent weapons and bombs from entering the auditorium, but it was not. The security people were searching for food and drinks. So-called ‘outside food’ could not be brought into the cinema because it risked reducing the sales of overpriced snacks and drinks sold by the cinema.

When we reached our seats, my sister-in-law showed me her basket, lifted a shawl within it, and revealed the sandwiches and other snacks beneath.  So inefficient were the security people that they had not delved into the bag with any seriousness of purpose.

Before the film started, my sister-in-law offered me and the rest of the family rolls of compacted cotton wool rather like those that dentists stuff into patients’ cheeks to dry the mouth. She said we might need them because the volume of the soundtrack would be very high. I declined them, and enjoyed the full impact of the sound.

At the Himalaya in Southall before the start of any film, a sign would be projected. It said something like:

“Please do not talk during the performance.”

This was a pointless exhortation because at the Himalaya the soundtrack was played so loud that even if you screamed at your neighbour, they would not have heard you.

Sadly, the Himalaya Palace (built 1929) is no longer a cinema. It closed in 2010. When we last visited Southall a few years ago, the Chinese style front of the Himalaya, complete with dragons, still existed, but its interior had become a covered market.

Nowadays, well at least before the pandemic arrived,  we watch Bollywood films that are shown regularly (at least one per week) at a Vue cinema in London’s Shepherd Bush.

Providing you miss the Friday and Saturday screenings of the latest releases, the audiences are usually minute, often less than ten people in an auditorium that can seat well over 150 people. Even before the pandemic, social distancing  was the norm during the screenings because empty seats usually greatly outnumbered occupied ones.

Most Bollywood films are long, usually over two and a half hours. So, there is an interval during their screening. The point at which the interval occurs is chosen by the film maker to leave the audience at a point of high suspense in the story.

Once during an interval at a Bollywood screening at the Vue, we sat in the almost empty cinema and heard two ladies, sitting several rows in front of us, chatting in Italian. Out of curiosity,  we asked them in Italian why they had chosen to see a Bollywood film. Their reply surprised us.

The two women were members of an Akshay Kumar fan club in Calabria in the far south of Italy. They had only ever before seen films starring Akshay on video screens.  They were staying far away from Shepherds Bush in Dulwich when, to their delight, they discovered that the film we were watching, starring Akshay, was being screened in Shepherds Bush. They had come to see one of Akshay’s films on the ‘big screen’ for the first time.

Bollywood’s films have captured the hearts of people all over the world. They were even  popular in the former USSR. When we visited Albania in 2016, we discovered that they, as well as Indian TV soap operas, had captured a significantly large audience of Albanians. These films would not have been shown in Albania prior to the downfall of its Stalinist style regime in 1991.

Until it is safe to do so again, my wife and I will have to enjoy armchair screening of our Bollywood DVDs. Enjoyable as these are, they are an incomplete substitute for ‘in your face’ full blast performances in a cinema auditorium.

No refusal

UBER DRIVERS IN MADRAS are, so I have been told, unaware of a potential customer’s desired destination when they accept a job. It might be a short ride or even an out of town destination. We discovered a consequence of this when earlier this year we were advised that the most reasonable way to make the three hour journey from Madras to Pondicherry was to hire an Uber.

The first three drivers, who offered us rides, phoned us to ask where we wanted to go. When we told them, they cancelled our rides. On our fourth attempt, an Uber arrived. He was happy to drive us to Pondicherry because, as we found out three hours later, he had a friend he wanted to visit there.

In Bombay, the taxis are nicknamed ‘kali pili’, which refers to their black and yellow body paint colours. Most of the cabbies are argumentative and some if them seem reluctant to work, making complaints like “too much traffic” or “that’s too far”. Eventually, one finds a cab that is willing to carry out one’s wishes, often complaining all the way.

Further south in Bangalore, popular transport for those who avoid urban buses include Uber and Ola cabs as well as three-wheeled autorickshaws.

Bangalore Ubers and Olas are unreliable. Often they accept a ride and minutes before they are about to arrive at the pickup point, they cancel. I imagine that often they get stuck in the city’s slow moving or often static congested traffic and feel they are wasting their time trying to reach their passenger waiting beyond the traffic jam. Whatever the reason, these app connected car services are not nearly as reliable as they are in Bombay or London.

Autorickshaws are the best method for getting through the congested thoroughfares of Bangalore. Their plucky drivers are able to take risks with their small vehicles that larger cars are unable to attempt. These manoeuvres are daring and can be hair-raising for the passengers but they get you to your destination relatively quickly.

Hiring an autorickshaw in Bangalore is always an adventure. The vehicles are fitted with taximeters, which are supposed to determine the fair. They are used occasionally but not often. The driver will suggest an often outrageous fare, which is the starting point for haggling. Or, some drivers will agree to use the meter determined fare plus some extra Rupees in addition.

Some autorickshaw drivers without much to do will often foreigners something like:
“Come with me. I’ll take you anywhere for only 10 Rupees.”
Sounds tempting, does it not? Do not succumb to this unbelievable offer because if you do, you will soon discover the catch. The naive passenger will be invited to visit the driver’s friend’s/cousin’s/brother’s store, where if you buy something, the driver will be rewarded with something like: school books for his children, or a kilo of rice for his starving family, or a new shirt, or …

Some autorickshaw drivers will set off for a journey in Bangalore, and then after a few minutes, will ask the passenger whether, on the way, they want to do some shopping at a shop the driver recommends. A determined refusal is required to ensure that your journey will not include an unwanted detour for shopping.

On the whole, autorickshaws are a great way of getting around Bangalore.

Calcutta is filled with rugged but battered yellow Ambassador taxis. These are slowly being replaced by newer vehicles with blue and white body paint. One thing they share in common is the wording “No Refusal” printed on the exterior of their doors. The cab driver, who stop to pick up a passenger, are not supposed to refuse to take you wherever you want. Most of the drivers comply with this.

Taxi drivers in London and other places in the UK are, by law, required to take you anywhere within the area they are allowed to operate. Like the drivers in Calcutta, the British cabbie is supposed to adhere to the “No Refusal” concept, and often, cabbies, but by no means always, comply.

Interesting as all this is, present conditions during the current pandemic mean that not too many cabs are being hailed at the present.

Picture: Taxis in Calcutta