Republic Day

AFTER OUR HONEYMOON in the south of India, we returned to Bangalore, where we disembarked from an overnight bus from Ernakulam (in Kerala) at about 4 am on the 26th of January 1994. Several hours later and incredibly bleary-eyed, we joined many other residents at a gathering in a courtyard of the apartment block in the city’s southern suburb of Koramangala. Mr Zafar Futehally (1920-2013), a noted naturalist and one of the senior tenants, stood by a flagpole and made a brief speech. Then, the flag of India was raised, and everyone dispersed.  It was Republic Day, the significance of which was unknown to me back in 1994, when I made my first visit to India.

Ambedkar in Bangalore

Now, I know that on the 26th of January 1950, two and a half years after India became independent, the Constitution of India came into effect and India became a republic, having briefly been a Dominion since the 15th of August 1947. The Constitution was drafted by a committee that was led by Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). After leaving school, he was educated at the University of Bombay, then at Columbia University in NYC, and then at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). While in London, he qualified as a barrister as a member of Gray’s Inn.

Long after 1994, I learned that Ambedkar had lived in a part of London with which I am familiar. He resided in a house near Primrose Hill and Chalk Farm, where the Roundhouse is located. In my recently published book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”, I wrote:

“Another reformer and patriot lived near Regents Park Road. He was Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), who championed India’s Dalits (‘untouchables’) and formulated the Constitution of India. Between 1920 and 1922 while he was studying at the London School of Economics and for the Bar, Ambedkar lived in a house at 10 King Henrys Road near Regents Park Road. In 2015, the house was bought by the Government of Maharashtra and was then converted into a memorial to Ambedkar. It is open to the public. Visitors can learn about Ambedkar from the well-captioned photographs on the walls of the rooms that they can wander through. The upper floor contains a re-construction of Ambedkar’s bedroom including a four-poster bed, some of the great man’s books, and an old pair of spectacles, which might have belonged to him. Other rooms contain shelves of books and various memorials to Ambedkar. There is also a commemorative plaque to India’s present Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the memorial house in November 2015. The garden contains statue of Ambedkar clutching a book (the Constitution) in his left hand. A few years ago, neighbours of the Ambedkar house complained about it, concerned that it would attract swarms of tourists.”

Although he could never have met him, Ambedkar’s home in King Henry’s Road was not far from the house in which Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) lived for several years.

The statue portraying Ambedkar statue in the garden of his former London home is typical of those found all over India. Apart from helping to give birth to India’s Constitution, Ambedkar campaigned for the rights of the Dalits (the ‘Untouchables’), as mentioned in the quote above. The Dalits were excluded from the four caste Varna system of Hinduism and considered by many Hindus as the lowest of the low, fit only for menial tasks that members of other castes would not deign to consider doing. Ambedkar, born into a Dalit caste, campaigned actively for the ending of social discrimination against this class of people. Mochis (cobblers/shoe repairers), who handle leather, are often Dalits. The best place to find a mochi is on the pavement beside a road. Sometimes, they sit on the ground surrounded by their tools and footwear awaiting repair. In other cases, they work from little stalls that can be locked up when they are not at work. These stalls often bear images of Ambedkar in honour of the man who did much to help the Dalits. What with the huge numbers of statues of him and of portraits on the stalls of mochis, Ambedkar must rival Gandhi as being one of the most frequently portrayed politicians of modern India.  

So, every Republic Day, it is appropriate to celebrate the birth of the republic and the adoption of the Constitution, but we should not forget to raise our hats and flags to Ambedkar, the brilliant man who did far more than father the Constitution.

Party in a Tudor hall

WE ATTENDED A WEDDING in a most attractive location today, the 25th September 2021. The ceremony was held in the great hall of a palace favoured by Queen Elizabeth I. Built in 1497, most of the palace was demolished but this superb hall, a masterpiece of Tudor architecture, remains. The great hall has a newer neighbour, a triumph of Jacobean architecture: Hatfield House built in about 1608 and incorporating material from the former palace of which only the great hall remains. The Jacobean edifice was built for Robert Cecil (1563-1612), First Earl of Salisbury. Some of his descendants still reside in the house.

With about 250 people attending and dining at long tables, it was not hard to imagine such joyous festivities occurring during the Tudor heyday of the great hall.

This time last year

WE MARRIED TWICE. That is to say that Lopa and I had a civil marriage in a registry office in October 1993 in London’s Chelsea Town Hall and then a religious marriage in mid-January 1994 in my in-law’s garden in Koramangala, a district south of central Bangalore. Both ceremonies were memorable and meaningful but the one in Bangalore was more colourful, and far lengthier than that in London.

Between November 2019 and the end of February 2020, we were in India. Just before leaving for India in November 2019, we celebrated our English anniversary with our daughter at a French restaurant in London, the Poule au Pot, where one can enjoy typical classic French cuisine in a dimly lit but pleasant environment.

Mid-January 2020 found us near the port of Mandvi in Kutch, formerly an independent princely state, a largely arid, desert region, now part of the Indian State of Gujarat. We were staying with Lopa’s cousin and his wife in their lovely remote and spacious 150-year old farm house, which has been in his family for several generations. Informed of our anniversary, they decided to treat us to dinner at a nearby resort close to the sea. After the meal, we walked to the car under a star-filled clear sky and returned home. There, we sat on the veranda and enjoyed a dessert that Lopa’s cousin’s wife, an accomplished cook, had made specially for us.

A year later, a few days ago, we celebrated our ‘Indian’ anniversary in London. Interestingly, the temperature in wintry London was higher than it was when we were in Kutch (at night), but there was far less sunshine. This year, in the midst of strict ‘lockdown’ conditions necessitated by the covid19 pandemic, we celebrated alone, and not at a restaurant. We had a celebratory cup of coffee outdoors and enjoyed a good home-cooked meal prefaced by gin and tonics. Had we been in India as we often are in January, but not in Gujarat, which is teetotal, we would most probably also have celebrated with ‘g and t’ but sitting outside under the stars on a warm evening in southern India.

Little did we know when we were enjoying ourselves in Kutch last January, that a year later, the idea of visiting India, let alone leaving London, would be out of the question. Well, as my late father used to say, rather annoyingly when misfortune struck:

“Such is life”, or “These things happen.”

Christmas at home this year

WILL BAXTER WAS a teacher at the University of Cape Town, whilst my late father was studying for a BComm degree before WW2. Will, recognising my father’s academic excellence, persuaded my father’s mother that she and her family would do well to subsidize my father continuing his studies in London. When he presented his case to Dad’s mother, my grandmother was at first surprised and said that my father’s siblings were even brighter than him. By all accounts, my father and his three siblings were well-endowed with brain power. My grandmother agreed, but before Dad was able to set off for London, there was another hurdle. Dad had become articled to an accountancy firm in Cape Town. Leaving this would have involved breaking a legal contract between him and the firm. Will spoke to the senior partners and managed to get Dad released from his contract. Then, the year before WW2 started, Dad sailed to England and enrolled for higher studies at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). With the exception of a few of the war years and one year in Montreal (Canada), Dad spent the rest of his life in London, where I was born.

Will Baxter returned to the UK and taught at the LSE and became a firm family friend. My earliest reminiscences of him were at Christmas time. Until I was in my mid-teens, we used to visit Will and his wife at his home in the Ridgeway in Golders Green on Christmas morning. We used to have warm drinks in the living room in which there was always a large, decorated Christmas tree.  Will always had wrapped presents ready for my sister and me, always books. I cannot remember which books I was given, but I do recall that every year my sister always received a beautiful hardback edition of one of the classic British novels by authors such as Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters.

The Baxters’ front garden had a gate supported by brick pillars. When I was about 3 or 4, we visited the Baxters one morning (not on Christmas Day), soon after the mortar between the bricks had been renewed. It was still wet, and Will inscribed a small ‘A’ in the mortar to record how high I was on that day. Year after year when we visited the Baxters, the letter was there in the set mortar, but my height had increased considerably. After many years, several decades, it disappeared after Will and his second wife, his first having died many years previously, had had the pillars refurbished.

Always after our Christmas morning visit to the Baxters, we walked or drove over to my mother’s sisters’s home, where we ate a festive lunch, often featuring roast goose. In addition to my close family and my aunts, other people attended this party. These included my aunt’s in-laws, various people we knew who had no close family in London, and my uncle Felix, my mother’s brother.

Felix, more than many of the other adults, truly enjoyed our Christmas lunches. He entertained us kids, my two cousins, my sister, and me, by tales of ‘Turkey Lurky’, ‘Goosey Lucy’, ‘Ducky Lucky’, and similarly named fowl. However, as we grew older, he failed to realise that we had become a little more sophisticated and blasé to enjoy this type of entertainment. At the end of the main course, he used to interrupt the adults’ conversation by standing up, thumping the table, and singing a song about bringing us some ‘figgy pudding’. I noticed that it always annoyed the adults and especially my aunt who was already stressed enough already, having produced a magnificent meal for 15 or more people.

After lunch, we retired to the living room to open presents, and always enjoyed. Felix always felt it necessary to entertain us, his nieces, and nephews, after lunch. To this end, he brought along packets of coloured inflatable balloons. He inflated them and asked one of us to hold them at their necks whilst he knotted them. Next, he twisted and tied the balloons together to make sculptures of animals. I hated these balloons because I could not tolerate the goose-pimples that the squeaking of the balloons set off in me, and still do today. One of my cousins did not enjoy this balloon experience because of the risk that a balloon might pop noisily. It is probably to our credit that none of us, his nephews, ever told him how much we disliked the balloons that Felix always brought with him.

Christmas lunches at my aunt’s house ceased many years ago. For many years, I spent Christmas enjoyably with the family of my PhD supervisor and his wife, with whom I became close friends. Then later, we often spent Christmas in India, in Bangalore where my in-laws live. This year, we had planned to do the same, but, in common with everyone else, this plan had to be abandoned for reasons that need no explanation.

I have celebrated Christmas Day at my aunt’s house, in Paris, in Méribel-les-Allues, in Manhattan, in Bangalore, in Stoke Poges, in Belgrade, in Wrocław, on a ‘plane to Sri Lanka, in Cornwall,  and in Cochin, but until this year, never at home. So, this year is a first for me: Christmas at home.

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

Death of an automobile

It is odd how an old photograph can trigger a whole lot of memories, which you thought were long forgotten. This photograph brings back memories of the last hours of one of our motor cars.

I had just had our old Saab car serviced and I asked the dealer how much it would beworth as part exchange for a newer model. I was told £400 would be generous. I was horrified, and said:
“Really? You’re kidding”
“No, Sir, yesterday I was shown a ten year old Jaguar in good nick. I only offered the owner £400.”

I paid for the service, having been told that several quite costly repairs might be needed soon if wanted to keep our Saab on the road. The first of these, and this was a legal requirement, was to replace the four tyres.

We bought four new tyres a couple of days later and set iff to attend a wedding anniversary in Kent. On the way, we stopped at a bonsai tree nursery to see an old acquaintance.

When we returned to the nursery’s car park, our car would not start. All that happened when I turned the ignition key was a whining noise followed by smoke seeping out of the engine.

We called the AA, the emergency breakdown service, and an agent arrived soon. He looked at the problem and came to a rapid diagnosis. I asked him how much it would cost to repair the major problem that had occurred. He said about £400. With that information and the knowledge that other major repairs might be needed in the near future, it was not a difficult decision to scrap our Saab.

That was back in late 2010. Prior to that date, we had used our car to make annual visits to France, where we enjoyed staying at ‘Gites rurales’, rented holiday homes often in picturesque rural spots. I took many photographs on these lovely holidays. The picture illustrating this piece was taken somewhere in France, but as I never bothered to label all of my photos at the time, I cannot tell you where I saw this fine set of doors.

Canine celebration

IT IS NOT SO OFTEN that I am invited to a dog’s birthday party in Bombay, let alone anywhere else. Yet, early one Sunday morning this February we were picked up by a friend and driven to Marine Drive with its elegant curving seafront lined with apartment blocks, many of which are designed in the Art Deco style.

We joined a group of our host’s congenial friends, all of whom had brought their dogs to the party. Everyone had arrived with snacks for breakfast. The group meets every Sunday and their dogs greet each other like old friends.

While we humans filled ourselves with sandwiches, patties, samosas, cakes (some eggless for strict vegetarians), biscuits, and hot tea, the dogs lapped up icecream. A few stray dogs joined the party whilst crows looked on enviously. Some of the stray dogs had thin string collars with small labels. These dogs are being considered for adoption by dog lovers. Stray dogs, often intelligent and very ‘street wise’, make good pets once they have had appropriate vaccinations.

We had attended our friend’s dog’s birthday two years ago. It was a relatively quiet occasion because the seashore promenade on Marine Drive had been fairly empty apart from occasional joggers and cyclists. This year it was different.

The promenade was chock full of children out for an early morning charity fun(?) run. Swarms of children of school age were moving along the wide pavement, some bearing banners with the names of their schools. There was much shouting and maasti (fooling around). Most of the children were wearing black tee-shirts with the name of the charity for which they were raising money (Terry Fox Cancer fund). At first glance, this seemingly endless procession of kids with banners looked like a political rally.

Some of the children seemed not to know or care about the direction they were supposed to be running. Many of them stopped to pet the dogs and to take photos of each other with the creatures. We asked some children why they were out running. They answered that they had no idea but their teachers had told them to do it.

While the kids were running or walking past us, they made a great noise as already mentioned but every few minutes this was drowned out by powerful motorcycles racing at high speed along Marine Drive. We were told that this also happens late at night and each year this reckless, careless driving (‘rash driving’ in Indian English) results in many fatalities on Marine Drive.

When we arrived at the party there was a thick mist or haze that almost hid the buildings around and far across the bay. By the time we left, having enjoyed the party and all that was going on around us, visibility had improved and we could see across the bay much more clearly, but not perfectly.

I am looking forward to another doggy birthday party in Bombay next year! Take a lead from me: canine celebrations can be great fun.

A memorable new year’s eve

Some years ago, we were in Bangalore on a New Years Eve. Our daughter went off to an all night party and we remained at home with my recently widowed late mother-in-law.

We ordered a pizza from the local branch of a well known international pizza chain. It arrived by motorbike, looked delicious, but tasted mouldy.

At about 10 pm, we were all feeling sleepy and retired to bed. At about 3 am we were woken by a telephone call. It was our daughter wishing us a happy new year.

We had slept whilst the old year ended and the new one began. It was the most effortless and relaxing way of ‘celebrating’ a New Year that I can remember.

PS: this year we celebrated the New Year’s Eve in a part of India where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden!