A home for Indians studying in London

THE AREA AROUND FITZROY Square was richly supplied with restaurants serving good Indian food during the 1970s, when I was studying physiology and then dentistry at nearby University College London. My Indian friends, all students, introduced me to the delights of the Diwan-i-am, the Diwan-i-khas, and the Agra restaurants around Fitzrovia, all of which served superb food that was far better than that which could be found in most other Indian restaurants both in and out of London. The two Diwans have long gone, but I believe the Agra has been revived. Another place to which my Indian friends took me to enjoy Indian cuisine was the self-service canteen of the Indian YMCA at the north end of Fitzroy Street.

Students from India, formerly British India, have been coming to study in London since the 19th century.  Whereas now people of Indian subcontinental origin are commonly seen in the streets of London, in earlier years there were not so many of them about and their presence aroused both curiosity about them and prejudice against them.  For the Indian students of yesteryear, London, its inhabitants and their habits, must have presented them with puzzling experiences. Mahatma Gandhi arrived in London in October 1888. After a few weeks, he took a room at 20 Barons Court Road. His landlady was an English widow, who had lived in India. Gandhi gave his reasons for choosing to stay in a family:

“It is generally thought desirable to live in families in order to learn the English manners and customs. This may be good for a few months, but to pass three years in a family is not only unnecessary but often tiresome…” (Quoted from “Gandhi in London” by James D Hunt).

However, lodging in an English family had its pitfalls. It was difficult to lead a regular student’s life; Indian food was not served; and most landladies knew nothing of Indians and their ways of life. Gandhi, like many other students from the Indian subcontinent moved into single rooms. In 19th century London, student hostels were a rarity, and those catering to Indian students were non-existent. At Oxford and Cambridge, Indians, like the rest of the students, were housed in college accommodation.  

India House, one of the first (if not the first) hostels in London dedicated to accommodating Indian students was opened at 65 Cromwell Avenue in Highgate in 1905, as part of a protest against the unpopular Partition of Bengal and because its founder recognised the lack of places where Indian students in London could find a ‘home away from home’. It was financed by a wealthy barrister and Sanskrit scholar from Kutch (now a part of Gujarat), Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930). As I have described in my book “Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)”, India House soon became a nucleus for anti-British agitation by Indians aiming to free India from British rule. Unlike Gandhi, many of the freedom fighters who met and/or lived in India House, few of them were averse to employing violent methods to oust the British. Soon, it attracted the attention of the British security organizations. Indian students, in general, were regarded with some suspicion by these organizations because there was a fear amongst the British authorities that many of them might have been sympathetic to efforts to liberate India from British rule. There were other official fears such as Indians becoming involved in miscegenation. Things came to a ghastly head in 1909 when Madan Lal Dhingra, who was closely associated with India House, murdered a high-ranking colonial official, who had worked in India. India House was closed soon after this assassination was carried out.

Conspiracies, especially those being hatched in India House, led to the setting up of the Lee-Warner Committee in 1907 “…to Enquire into the Indian Students Problem in the United Kingdom”. One of its recommendations was to set up a hostel for Indian students, who had just arrived in London. Clearly, this was to be under the supervision and ideological control of the India Office and a ‘rival’ to India House in Highgate. It and several other government-approved organizations in London (e.g., the National Indian Association and The Northbrook Club, both established before India House) were designed to provide useful assistance to Indian students, but also to ‘keep an eye’ on them. At this point, I should point out that despite the fears of British officialdom, only a small percentage of students from India were involved in, or even remotely interested in, what was then regarded as ‘sedition’; most of them wanted to better their economic status.

On the 20th of October 1919, Kanakarayan Tiruselvam (‘KT’) Paul (1876-1931), first Indian National General Secretary of the National Council of YMCAs in India and 11 others met in London to explore the idea of establishing a hostel in London for Indian students studying in the city (“YMCA Indian Students Hostel: Triumph of Faith: 1920-2010” by John Varughese).  KT Paul, born in Salem (now in Tamil Nadu), was an Indian Christian leader. In 1920, he published an article critical of the horrendous behaviour of the British in the Punjab (e.g., the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919). However, despite this, he like many other Indians, believed that India’s best hope for the future was by maintaining links with western Christianity and contact with the British (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._T._Paul).  The meeting decided to set up a hostel for 100 students, 75% of whom should be Indian, and for up to 500 non-resident, Indian members. Thus, the Indian YMCA in London came to be born.

The first home of London’s Indian YMCA (‘IYMCA’) was not in Fitzroy Street but in Shakespeare Hut, a now non-existent half-timbered building in Keppel Street near to the University of London Senate House. It was leased to the IYMCA by the Shakespeare Society. During WW1, the so-called hut was used for entertaining troops from New Zealand. In 1924, it was demolished to make way for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (www.ymca.co.uk/about/feature/vintage-photographs-ymca-shakespeare-hut).

In 1923, the IYMCA moved out of the Hut and acquired the freehold of numbers 106-112 Gower Street, which was then fitted out to become a hostel with 40 rooms, a restaurant, a library, and recreation facilities. As had been the case in the short-lived India House in Highgate, the hostel in Gower Street hosted many meetings during which affairs relating to India and its future were held. Unlike those held in Highgate, the meetings were far less militantly revolutionary in Gower Street. Many students came to hear and discuss with a wide variety of prominent Indian leaders. In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi addressed members of the IYMCA in Gower Street. Other still well-known leaders of the Indian independence movement who made appearances at Gower Street included BR Ambedkar, Sarojini Naidu, MA Jinnah, Subhas Chandra Bose, J Nehru, and Pandit Malaviya, to name but a few.

On the 23rd of September 1940, three of the four houses that made up the IYMCA were destroyed by bombing. One student was killed, and five others injured. The hostel moved to temporary premises leased from the University of London at 25 and 26 Woburn Square. The booklet containing the hostel’s history records that in 1946 while inter-communal tensions were frighteningly high in pre-Partition India, the marriage of a Hindu to a Muslim woman was celebrated at the hostel. After Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Henry SL Polak (1882-1959), donated 300 books to the hostel, the nucleus of what was to become its MK Gandhi Library. Polak had been a friend and associate of Gandhi when the Mahatma was in South Africa.

When University College London offered to exchange land, which they owned near Fitzroy Square, for the site of the bombed hostel on Gower Street, the offer was accepted and planning for a new hostel on its present site began. With finances coming from many sources in India and elsewhere, construction began, with Indian High Commissioner VK Krishna Menon laying the foundation stone in 1950. The building designed by Ralph Tubbs (1912-1996) was opened on the 24th of March 1953. Tubbs tried to harmonise his building with the fine architecture in nearby Fitzroy Square. I think he did a good job. Although of a completely different architectural style, it does not clash with the fine buildings designed by Robert Adam, which line two sides of the square.

Since the inauguration of the hostel in Fitzroy Street, it has been visited by many celebrities including Jawaharlal Nehru, Queen Elizabeth II, JRD Tata, Harold Macmillan, Indira Gandhi, the Indian National Cricket Team (1971), Harold Wilson, and Lord Mountbatten. Apart from visits by celebrities, the hostel and its extension (opened 2004) has been home to many students from India and elsewhere. Despite the Christian basis of the YMCA, the hostel caters for people of all religions. In addition to providing accommodation, both long-term and for short stays, the Indian YMCA canteen is open to all, when there are no restrictions imposed by the Government during the covid19 pandemic. It provides something closer to home-cooked food rather than fancy restaurant fare.  

Had the Indian YMCA, or even the short-lived, discredited India House in Highgate, been in existence when Gandhi, a vegetarian, arrived in London in 1888, he would have had no difficulties with finding food to his liking from the start of his sojourn there. I have heard from people who have stayed in the hostel in Fitzroy Street that it is reasonably priced, conveniently located, comfortable but not luxurious. What more could one want?

Gifts from India to an English village

LIFE DEPENDS ON WATER. A few days ago, at the end of March 2021, we drove to a village in Oxfordshire to see two old wells. They are no ordinary wells: they were gifts from India while it was still part of the British Empire.

Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row

Edward Anderton Reade (1807-1886) was a British civil servant in India between 1826 and 1860. Brother of the novelist Charles Read (author of “The Cloister and the Hearth”), Edward was born in Ipsden, a village in Oxfordshire (www.oxforddnb.com/). He entered the East India Company in 1823. In 1832, he was transferred to Kanpur (Cawnpore), where he introduced opium cultivation to the district. In 1846, he became Commissioner to the Benares Division, a position he held until 1853 when he was moved to Agra.

Edward encouraged genial relations with the local Indian gentry and aristocracy. One of his Indian acquaintances, who became his good friend, was Ishri Prasad Narayan Singh (1822-1889), the Maharajah of Benares, who reigned from 1835 to 1889. During the years before the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (aka ‘First War of Independence’ or ‘The Indian Mutiny’), Reade and the Maharajah discussed much about England including the shortage of water that existed in Ipsden, the part of Oxfordshire where his family lived. Apparently, the villagers in this part of the Chiltern Hills had little or no access to clean drinking water, much as must have been the case for many villagers in India.

During the Rebellion of 1857, the Maharajah remained loyal to the British. In June 1857, the town of Kanpur was besieged by Nana Sahib and his forces. After 3 weeks, the British garrison surrendered under condition that the British inhabitants would be given safe passage out of the town. However, Nana Sahib decided to hold about 120 women and children and kept them housed in a house known as the ‘Bibighar’. This ended badly when some of the hostages were killed. Some of them tried to escape their grizzly end by jumping into a well at the Bibighar. This well became one of the most powerful images of the Rebellion in the minds of those who lived in Britain.

I do not know whether or not it was the tragedy at Bibighar that brought the conversations he had with Reade to the forefront of the mind of the Maharajah of Benares after the Rebellion was over, but in 1862, after his loyalty to the British had been formally recognised, he consulted Reade as to making a charitable gift to the poor people of Ipsden, whose plight he recalled. The Maharajah financed the construction of a well at Stoke Row, not far from Ipsden. It is also possible that the Maharajah remembered the help that Reade had given him when constructing a well in Azamgarh (now in Uttar Pradesh) back in 1831.

Work commenced on the well in March 1863. The well shaft was dug by hand, a perilous job for the labourers as they removed earth from the depths of an unlit and unventilated shaft, bucket by bucket. The shaft, 4 feet in diameter, was 368 feet in depth, greater than the height of St Pauls Cathedral in London, for this is depth of the water table at Stoke Row. Special winding machinery constructed by Wilder, an engineering firm in Wallingford, was installed. It is topped with a model elephant. The mechanism and the well stand beneath an octagonal canopy topped with a magnificent metal dome with circular glazed windows to allow better illumination. It resembles a ‘chhatri’ or architectural umbrella such as can be seen at war memorials on London’s Constitution Hill and on the South Downs near Hove.  The structure, restored in recent times, looks almost new today. Reade, who helped plan the Maharajah’s well, planted a cherry orchard nearby; dug a fish-shaped pond (the fish was part of the Maharajah’s coat-of-arms); and constructed an octagonal well-keeper’s bungalow next to the well. The profits from the cherries harvested from the orchard were supposed to help to finance the well, for whose water the villagers were not charged anything.  The Maharajah’s well at Stoke Row was the first of many such gifts given by wealthy Indians to Britain. Other examples include the Readymoney drinking fountain in Regents Park and a now demolished drinking fountain in Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:

“Reade was wryly amused that an Indian prince should thus give a lesson in charity to the English gentry.”

The well at Stoke Row provided the locals with fresh water until the beginning of WW2, when, eventually, piped water reached the area. It provided 600 to 700 gallons of water every day. The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row is relatively well-known compared to another Indian-financed well next to the parish church at Ipsden, where Reade’s grave is located. The well, whose winding mechanism is similar to that installed at Stoke Row, is not covered by a canopy. It stands by a cottage next to the entrance to the churchyard. It was presented to Ipsden in 1865 by ‘Rajah Sir Deon Narayun Singh of Seidpor Bittree’ (I am not sure where this is: these are the words on the well), who had, like the Maharajah of Benares, remained loyal to the British during the 1857 Rebellion.

The Ipsden well is deep but not nearly as deep as that at Stoke Row. A lady, who lives in the cottage beside the well, told us that she had tasted water from the well and it was ice cold, deliciously clean, and tasted pure, having been filtered by many feet of chalk through which it has seeped. She said that once a year, the local water board opens the well and takes a sample of its water to check its purity.

Both wells are worth visiting. We parked in Benares Road in Stoke Row close to the Maharajah’s gift. After viewing the well head and its surroundings, we bought hot drinks at the village’s shop-cum-café, which his run by a couple of friendly people from Zimbabwe. I am grateful to Dr Peter U for bringing the existence of this unusual well to my attention.

In the footsteps of a great Indian politician

DURING THE FIRST ‘LOCKDOWN’, we spent a lot of time walking within two miles of our home. Despite having lived in Kensington for about 30 years, we wandered along many streets, which we had never visited until after March 2020. One of these many streets, which we ‘discovered’, is Aldridge Road Villas, a few yards south of Westbourne Park Underground station. On our first walk along this road, we met a man, who was repairing or restoring an old model of a Volkswagen parked near his home. Amongst his collection of old restored cars was an old Chevrolet truck, which we admired. We chatted with him and hoping to meet him again, we revisited Aldridge Road Villas several more times, sometimes meeting whilst he was working on one of his vehicles. Because we tended to walk along this road hoping to meet him, we managed to miss something else of great interest to us. It was only recently, that I spotted what we had been walking past without noticing it.

Statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat, India

Aldridge Road Villas is probably named after the Aldridge family, who had owned land beside the Harrow Road at Westbourne Park since 1743 or before. The barrister, member of Lincoln’s Inn, John Clater Aldridge (c1737-1795), who became MP for Queensborough between 1780 and 1790 and then for Shoreham between 1790 and 1795, married Henrietta Tomlinson, widow of William Busby and a wealthy landowner, in 1765 (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/aldridge-john-clater-1737-95). Through this marriage, John came into possession of more land around Westbourne as well as some near Bayswater. It is on this land that Aldridge Villas Road was built (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=10787). The oldest houses on the street date from the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. A map surveyed in 1865 shows that the road was already lined with houses by that date.

One former resident of Aldridge Villas Road, at number 1, was the surgeon George Borlase Childs (1816-1888), who was born in Liskeard, Cornwall. A biography (https://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/) reveals that he was:

“…connected with the Metropolitan Free Hospital for many years, but is perhaps best remembered as Surgeon-in-Chief to the City of London Police, and to the Great Northern Railway. He took, indeed, a large share in organizing the medical departments of these institutions, displaying on a wider field the characteristic forethought and ingenuity of his work as an operator. The sanitary and physical well-being of the City policeman was one of his prime interests. He devoted much thought and care to the process of selection of members of the force, to their housing and their dress. The last-mentioned is, in fact, his creation, for he introduced the helmet as we now know it, the gaiters, and so forth. He also established the City Police Hospital…”

Celebrated as he should be, it is not Childs who was the best-known resident of the short road near Westbourne Park station. Although he did not live for a long time in the street, the most famous inhabitant of Aldridge Road Villas must be Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950). It was the plaque affixed to a five-storey terrace house, number 23, which had avoided our attention the first few times that we walked along the road.  

Like many other Indians living under British rule in India, who became involved in political activity, including Mahatma Gandhi, Shyamji Krishnavarma, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Patel decided to sail to England to study. Vallabhbhai set sail from Bombay in July 1910. On arrival in London, he stayed briefly at the then luxurious Hotel Cecil in the Strand. After that, he stayed in a series of ‘digs’ in different parts of London while he completed his legal training. One of these was for several months at 23 Aldridge Road Villas, the address that appears in his records following his admission to The Middle Temple to become a barrister on the 14th of October 1910 (https://middletemplelibrary.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/famous-middle-templars-3/), the same year as that in which Jawaharlal Nehru joined Inner Temple. Patel was called to the Bar on the 27th of January 1913 (www.telegraphindia.com/india/alma-mater-honours-iron-man/cid/220801). Incidentally, many years later my wife was also called to the Bar at Middle Temple, as had also been the case, many years earlier, for my wife’s great grandfather and his father-in-law.

Patel was hard up as a student in London:

“After his arrival in England, he joined Middle Temple and allegedly studied at least 11 hours a day. Because he was not able to afford books, he used the services of the Middle Temple Library where he spent most of his days.” (https://middletemplelibrary.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/famous-middle-templars-3/).

This shortage of money might well have been the reason that he walked between his digs and the library every day. His biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, wrote in “Patel. A life”:

“His twice daily walk between Aldridge Villas Road, Bayswater and the Middle Temple – 4 ¾ miles each way – took him past parks and edifices of great charm or magnificence, including Kensington Gardens, Buckingham Palace, St James Park, Cleopatra’s Needle and Waterloo Bridge. When he moved digs his walks were as long or longer but not less scenic.”

Gandhi lists Patel’s other London digs as 62 Oxford Terrace, 2 South Hill Park Gardens, 57 Adelaide Road, and 5 Eton Road. With the exception of Oxford Terrace, the other did were near Belsize Park and Swiss Cottage.

Back in India, Patel became involved in the struggle for Indian Independence, joining Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress Party. Like many other freedom fighters Patel served several terms in prison. After WW2, he was significantly associated with negotiations with the British regarding transfer of power to the Indians. In 1947, when India became independent, the country consisted of areas that were directly under British rule and well over 800 Princely States that were allowed some independence providing that their rulers did not do anything to challenge the overriding authority of the British Empire. Sardar Patel oversaw and encouraged the rulers of these Princely States to give up their supposed sovereignty and to become part of a new unified India. This was no easy task because some of the larger states, notably Junagarh, Kashmir, and Hyderabad, wished to become part of the recently created Pakistan instead of India. Some considerable persuasion was required to get these places to merge with India. Patel’s achievement at unifying India must surely rival that of Otto Von Bismarck, who unified the myriad German states to become one country by 1871.

The plaque in Aldridge Road Villas is a modest and almost discreet memorial to the great Patel. If you wish to see a more spectacular monument to this remarkable man, you will need to travel to Gujarat in western India, where an enormous statue of him, almost 600 feet high, was completed in 2018. Called ‘The Statue of Unity’, its bronze plates and cladding were cast in the Peoples Republic of China.

Usually, we walk south along Aldridge Road Villas. Until we spotted the plaque commemorating Patel’s residence in the road, we had not realised that we were likely to have been following in the footsteps of one of India’s greatest politicians, which he made when he set out for Middle Temple every morning. And, the idea that one is often walking where famous figures of the past have trod is yet another thing that makes London so wonderful for both residents and visitors alike.

Hampstead, Highgate, and the Indian freedom struggle

A MOTHER OF FAMILY-planning and women’s rights, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) lived at number 14 in Hampstead’s Well Walk between 1909 and 1916. I remember seeing a plaque recording her residence in Hampstead. However, I do not recall seeing the plaque to one of her neighbours, the socialist Henry Hyndman (1842-1921) on number 14. It was only when I acquired a copy of an excellent guide to Hampstead, “Hampstead: London Hill Town” by Ian Norrie, the owner of the former Hampstead book shop, ‘High Hill Books’ and Doris Bohm that I discovered that Hyndman had lived and died in Well Walk. Hyndman, a politician, lawyer, and skilled cricketer, was initially of conservative persuasion but moved over to socialism after reading “The Communist Manifesto”, written by Karl Marx in 1848. Although anti-Semitic, he was amongst the first to promote the writings of the (Jewish) Marx in England.

Replica of Highgate’s former India House in Mandvi, India

It is an extremely pleasant walk from Well Walk, across Hampstead Heath, Kenwood, and through Highgate village to Highgate Wood, opposite which the Indian born barrister Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930) lived in self-imposed exile with his wife Banumati. Born during the year when The Indian Rebellion of 1857 (First Indian War of Independence or ‘Indian Mutiny’) commenced, it seems that it was appropriate that he was a keen promoter of India being liberated from the British Empire. Krishnavarma, in common with Hyndman, believed that it was wrong that the British should control and exploit the inhabitants of India. They corresponded and most probably met each other.

In 1905, responding to events in India such as the unpopular partition of Bengal, Krishnavarma, a wealthy man, decided it was time to do something about bringing down the British in India. He did three main things. He began publishing a virulently anti-colonial newspaper, “The Indian Sociologist”; he gave money to create scholarships for Indian graduates to study in England; he bought a large house in Cromwell Avenue, Highgate. He was also one of the founders of the Indian Home Rule Society, whose views were in stark contrast to those of the Indian National Congress, which at that time, put great faith in the supposed benevolence of the British Empire towards its Indian subjects.

The scholarships had several conditions attached. The most important of these was that the recipients had to promise that they would never ever work for, or accept posts from, the British Empire. The candidates for these scholarships were usually recommended by people in India, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who were working actively to end British Rule.

Krishnavarma, recognising that many Indian students faced considerable hostility in Britain at the start of the 20th century, used the house he bought in Cromwell Avenue to create both student accommodation and a community centre, a home away from home for Indian students in England. He called the building ‘India House’, which should not be confused with the better-known India House in Aldwych, the Indian High Commission.

The grand opening of India House in Highgate was on the 1st of July 1905. The inauguration speech was given by Henry Hyndman. I do not know whether he was already living at Well Walk when he opened the student centre in Cromwell Avenue.

Soon after it opened, India House became an important centre of anti-British activity. Under Krishnavarma’s leadership, and given his anti-colonialist views, India House became of increasing interest to the British police and intelligence agencies. In 1906. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), a law student and leader of a secret revolutionary society, became a recipient of one of Krishnavarma’s scholarships. He lived in India House, where he wrote a couple of anti-British books, which were banned in British India. In brief, believing in armed revolution, Savarkar became one of the most dangerously anti-British activists in Europe. When Krishnavarma and his wife shifted to Paris in 1907, Savarkar became the ‘head’ of India House. Under his watch, smuggling of arms and proscribed literature to India was carried out. He encouraged experimentation in bomb-making, and was not dismayed when one of his fellow house-mates, Madan Lal Dhingra, assassinated a top colonial official in South Kensington in 1909. The assassination led to increased police surveillance and India House, which had been opened by Hyndman, closed by 1910.

I have introduced you to this lesser-known aspect of the history of the Indian Freedom Movement for two reasons. One is to explain my delight in discovering that I must have walked many times past the house in Well Walk where Hyndman lived (and died). For me, Hyndman has assumed greater interest than his deservedly far better-known neighbour Marie Stopes. The reason for this is that about five years ago I was in the town of Mandvi in Kutch (part of India’s Gujarat State). Krishnvarma was born in Mandvi and is now commemorated there. Apart from the modest house in which he was born, there is an unexpected surprise on the edge of the town. It is a modern replica of the Victorian house in Cromwell Avenue (Highgate), which was briefly home to Krishnavarma’s India House. Seeing this extraordinary replica of the house inaugurated by Hyndman in a flat desert setting got me into researching its story. In the end, I published a book about the Indian freedom fighters in Edwardian London, “Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)”, which explores the story I have outlined in far more detail.

[“Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)” by Adam Yamey is available from amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on kindle. Or specially ordered from a bookshop: ISBN 9780244270711]

City of relief

THERE WAS ALWAYS a tin of pink coloured Isogel granules in the bathroom of my childhood home. One of my parents took a teaspoon of this daily to ensure regularity of bowel movements. An important ingredient in Isogel is psyllium husk, which is extracted from the plants Plantago ovata and Plantago psyllium. Basically, the husk is a polysaccharide gelling agent which, believe it or not, can be used to ameliorate both constipation and diarrhoea. It might also have other health promoting properties, including possible mitigation of Type 2 diabetes, and reducing cholesterol levels in the blood.

Recently, for reasons that need not be detailed here, we have taken to using psyllium husk. We did not buy Isogel, as my parents did, but a product from India called ‘Sat-Isabgol’, which my wife’s parents used in that country. This product is packed in a picturesque box that includes the company’s trademark: an old-fashioned telephone (B.G. Telephone Brand Regd.).  The box we bought recently proudly proclaims that the company is in its 80th year. According to the box, Sat-Isabgol is:

“… the upper coating of Plantago Ovata (Ispagul) which is highly purified by sieving and winnowing.”

Interesting as this is, what attracted me to the box was the fact that the Sat-Isabgol factory is in Sidhur, a place we visited in Gujarat (western India).

Sidhpur is far from being a major tourist attraction, but it is not far from the ruins of the magnificent Sun Temple at Modera, which does attract many sightseers. The main attraction in Sidhpur is a couple of streets lined with mansions decorated with ornate facades and other decorative features. These were built between the 1820s and the 1930s by a successful group of Muslim traders, members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect. The buildings incorporate many features of European neo-classical styles. Many of the houses bear their owners’ monograms in Latin lettering. The streets in this rural provincial town have a surprisingly un-Indian look about them and if it were not for cows and other animals roaming about them, it might be easy to imagine that one was not in India. While I was roaming around taking pictures, local people were extremely friendly to me. I got the impression that few Europeans visit Sidhpur. One exception was at the sad ruins of a Hindu temple, the Rudra Mahalaya, where the security guards were most unenthusiastic about seeing me with a camera. I was unable to photograph it. Constructed between 943 AD and 1140 AD, this temple is was in extremely poor condition when we saw it about two years ago. If it should ever be restored, it would make Sidhpur a fine excursion for tourists staying in Ahmedabad. I liked what I saw during our brief visit to Sidhpur, but was completely unaware that the town is home to the factory which has been producing something that has brought so much relief to people all over the world, since 1940.

From Bombay to London

MY MOTHER-IN-LAW STUDIED medicine at the Grant Medical School in Bombay. One of her fellow students, Perin, was her good friend. Perin, a member of Bombay’s Parsi religious community, was related to the Readymoney family, Parsis, who were prominent and successful in Bombay. You might be wondering why I am telling you this and what it has to do with anything of greater interest. Well, bear with me and join me in Regents Park.

Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney

The Broad Walk is a long straight promenade that stretches from the Outer Circle near Marylebone Road at the south of Regents Park northwards through the park to Outer Circle next to the London Zoo. Near the south eastern corner of the Zoo, there is a gothic revival style Victorian water fountain on the Broad Walk. Well-restored recently, it is no longer working. The structure, which is made of pink granite and white stone, looks like a typical flamboyant 19thy century public drinking fountain that can be found in towns all over England, but closer examination reveals that this is not so typical. Amongst its many decorative features there is a cow standing in front of a palm tree; a lion walking past a palm tree; the head of Queen Victoria looking young; and the head of a moustachioed man wearing a cap of oriental design.

The man portrayed on the drinking fountain was its donor, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney (1812-1878), who was related to my mother-in-law’s friend from medical school. Readymoney was born into a wealthy family that had moved to Bombay from the Parsi town of Navsari (in present-day Gujarat), close to where the first Parsis might have landed in India many centuries earlier. Cowasji began working as a warehouse clerk at the age of 15. Ten years later, he had become a ‘guarantee broker’ in two leading British-owned firms in Bombay, a lucrative position. By the age of 34, he was trading on his own account. In 1866, he was appointed a Commissioner for Income Tax. This form of taxation was new and unpopular in Bombay, but Cowasji made a success of its collection.

In recognition for his services to the British rulers of India, Cowasji became a Justice of the Peace for Bombay and, soon after, was made a Companion of The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India. He was a great philanthropist, providing money for building in Bombay: hospitals; educational establishments; a refuge for the destitute; insane asylums; and decorative public drinking fountains. In addition to these good causes in Bombay, he made donations to the Indian Institute in London. In recognition of his philanthropic works, he was made a Knight Bachelor of the United Kingdom in 1872.

Three years before being knighted, Readymoney financed the construction of the drinking fountain in Regents Park. It is his face that appears on it.  It was, as a noticed affixed to it reveals, his:

“… token of gratitude to the people of England for the protection enjoyed by him and his Parsee fellow countrymen under British rule in India.”

The Parsi community in India, like the Jewish people in that country, was and still is a tiny proportion of the Indian population as a whole. It felt that its survival would be ensured by showing allegiance to whomever was ruling India, the British in Readymoney’s lifetime. The fountain was inaugurated by Princess Mary of Teck (1833-1897), a granddaughter of King George III, under whose watch the USA was detached from the British Empire.

The fountain, which makes for an eye-catching garden feature, was designed by Robert Keirle (1837-1914; https://borthcat.york.ac.uk/index.php/keirle-robert-1837-1914-architect?sf_culture=en), architect of The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Keirle also designed a drinking fountain for another Indian, The Maharajah of Vizianagram. This was erected in 1867 at the northern edge of Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch, but it was removed in 1964 (https://theindiantrip.com/uk/vizianagaram-city/info). All that remains of it today is a small stone memorial, which I have walked past several times.

Usually, we spend several months in India, the country where my wife was born, but because of the current pandemic we will have to delay our next trip, for goodness knows how long. Seeing things in London with Indian association, like the Readymoney Fountain in Regents Parks helps us, in a strange way, to maintain out ties with a country for which both of us have great affection.

Honouring a Hindu hero in London

MI5 WORKS TO HELP protect our democracy in the UK. Its architecturally unflattering headquarters stand looming above the southern end of Vauxhall Bridge. A few yards downstream from it, and directly facing the main entrance of the Tate Britain across the river, there is a small grassy triangle close to the river. In the middle of the green space, there is a bust on a pedestal. The bust depicts a man with a moustache, who is wearing two chunky necklaces and what looks like a bejewelled turban. This is a monument to Basaveshvara, who lived between 1134 and 1168 (actually, these dates are not certain: he might have lived c1106-1167). A panel on the side of the pedestal notes that he was:

“Pioneer of Democracy and Social Reform”

Various people and organisations supported the creation of this monument to someone of historical importance but until now unknown to me and, I would guess, to many other people wandering past the bust. As one of the organisations involved in its creation was The Government of Karnataka (in southern India), I reached for my tattered copy of “A History of Karnataka” (edited by PB Desai), which I picked up in the wonderful Aladdin’s cave of a bookshop, Bookworm, in Church Street, Bangalore, a city which I visit often. It has 8 index entries for Basaveshwara, who is also known as ‘Basava’, ‘Basavanna’, and ‘Basavaraja’, all of these being transcripts from various Indian language alphabets.

Basaveshwar was born of Shaivite Brahmin parents at Bagevadi, which is now in the Bijapur district in the northern part of Karnataka. His name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Vrishabha’, the divine bull, Nandi, who carries the god Shiva. Early histories (the Puranas) described him as an incarnation of the god Shiva rather than a human being, but it is considered that he was certainly a real person. A devotee of Shiva, Basaveshwara was well-versed in both Kannada and Sanskrit learning. He was brought up in a social milieu in which people blindly adhered to the dogmas and rituals of Vedic Hinduism without bothering to understand the true spirit of religion. Desai wrote:

“Basava’s mind revolted against these ills and he decided to defy the existing order of things.”

After receiving the sacred thread, very roughly speaking a Hindu equivalent of the Jewish Bar-mitzvah or the Christian confirmation, Basaveshwara went to the Kudama Sangama, a temple complex at the confluence of the Rivers Krishna and Malaprabha. In 2011, long before I had ever heard of Basaveshwara, we stopped briefly at the Sangama on our way from Hospet to Bijapur (now named ‘Vijayapura’), both in Karnataka. When we were there, the rivers had dried up and we saw signs advising visitors to beware of crocodiles.  

Basaveshwara remained at the Sangama for about 12 years. In his time, as it is now, the Sangama was much visited by people from all walks of life. There, he met many scholars and learned men from all schools of Hindu belief. Eventually, Basaveshwara travelled to Mangalavada, the headquarters of Bijala II (c1130-c1167), the feudatory governor of the Kalachuri family (of the Chalukya dynasty). Soon, Basaveshwara became the Chief Treasurer of Bijala’s court. It was then that Basaveshwara:

“… started his new movement of religious and social reforms, treating all devotees of Siva [i.e. Shiva] as equal in all respects without the traditional distinctions of castes, communities and sects.” (Desai)

After about 20 years, BASAVESHWARA moved to Kalyana, the capital of Bijala, where his reformist ideas gained a great following. Bijala II, who had become suspicious of Basaveshwara, began crushing the movement inspired by Basaveshwara’s radical ideas that seriously threatened the traditional hierarchy that favoured the Brahmins, as well as advocating some hitherto unknown equality of men and women in spiritual aspects of life. For example, Basaveshwara sanctioned a marriage between the son of an ‘untouchable’ and the daughter of a Brahmin. Upset by this, Bijala sentenced the couple to death. Basaveshwara’s followers then plotted to assassinate Bijala, an act of which Basaveshwara disapproved. Realising that he could not restrain his angry followers, Basaveshwara retreated to Kudama Sangama, where he died. Bijala was murdered soon afterwards. Later, Basaveshwara became venerated as a (Hindu) saint.

Basaveshwara believed:

“…that every human being was equal, irrespective of caste and that all forms of manual labor was equally important.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basava).

These ideas sound familiar to those versed in the history of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived many centuries after Basaveshwara.  Yet, Basaveshwara is relatively unknown compared with Gandhi. Basaveshwara was certainly a reformer as is stated on the base of his bust near Vauxhall Bridge and his radical ideas were undoubtedly democratic when considered in relation to the time when he lived. So, it is quite appropriate that from his bust, there is a clear view of the Houses of Parliament, a home of democracy.

The bust on the embankment was erected by Dr Neeraj Patil, born in Karnataka, a member of the Labour Party and Mayor of the London Borough of Lambeth 2010-2011 and Dr Anagha Patil. It was unveiled in November 2015 by the current Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi. It is appropriate that Modi inaugurated this memorial as his parents were members of what was officially recognised a socially disadvantaged community, whose emancipation would surely have been approved by the reformer Basaveshwara.  And what is more, Modi is one of the first, if not the very first, of the Indian Prime Ministers, all democratically elected, who was not from a ‘high’ caste or social class such as Brahmin, Kayastha, and Rajput, and has completed at least one term of office. So, I feel that Basaveshwara does deserve a place within sight of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

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.”

Little Nell and the British Empire

Here’s poor lil’ Nell

  With a fresh fish under each arm

Crazed, scarred, and cracking

CAN YOU BELIEVE that although we have walked through London’s Hyde Park so many times (in order to take exercise as is recommended by our great leader, a biographer of Winston Churchill, and his government) that there are still many things in it for us to discover? Walking in the southwest corner of the park recently, we saw four man-made items that caught our interest.

An octagonal Victorian bandstand, which was built in 1869 and stood in Kensington Gardens, was moved to its current location in Hyde Park not far from Hyde Park Corner in 1886 (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/). It is said that this bandstand has good acoustics; I have yet to hear music played here. In the 1890s, concerts were held at the bandstand three times a week. Currently, in normal times, that is when there is no pandemic, the bandstand is used occasionally for concerts and other events as well as becoming part of the annual Winter Wonderland fairground held in Hyde Park.

The bandstand, which was/is often used by military bands, is about 100 feet northwest of a black coloured bronze equestrian statue depicting St George slaying a mammoth dragon. Its coiled, scale covered body, my wife considered accurately, resembles a haphazard pile of discarded lorry tyres. The stone base is surrounded by a frieze depicting cavalrymen in action. The equestrian sculpture stands in front of a low wall which bears the names of cavalry regiments involved in WW1. The monument, though erected before WW2, also those involved those:

“… in the war / 1939-1945 / and on active service thereafter.”

The monument, The Cavalry Memorial, which used to stand nearer Park Lane was unveiled in 1924 by Field Marshal, The Earl of Ypres (formerly Sir John French; 1852-1925) and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII, who reigned for 11 month). The knight on the horse was modelled on:

“…a 1454 effigy of the Earl of Warwick, mounted on horseback holding an uplifted sword, and the horse on a C15 century engraving by Albrecht Dürer.” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1278118).

The sculptor was Captain Adrian Jones (1845-1938). Jones was an army veterinary surgeon between 1867 and 1890. He took up painting and sculpting after he retired, specialising in depicting animals. His best-known work, created in 1912, is not far from the cavalry monument: it is the Quadriga that adorns the top of the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner.

The cavalry monument is a mere 200 yards north by north-east of a modest memorial to a fairly recent tragedy that stands beside the South Carriage Drive. It remembers the eleven soldiers who were killed by a bomb planted by IRA terrorists near this spot on the 20th of July 1982.

Returning to a path that leads north from a spot between the Cavalry Memorial and the bandstand, you will quickly reach a small art-nouveau structure. Formerly a fountain, this is a depiction of an almost naked girl wearing a hat and holding a fish under each of her arms. We asked a gardener working nearby if he knew anything about this curious garden sculpture. He informed us that it was a sculpture of Little Nell, a character in “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens and that it used to stand in Hyde Park’s Rose Garden.

The sculpture, created by William Robert Colton (1867-1921) has been variously known as the ‘Memorial Fountain’, ‘The Mermaid Fountain’, ‘The Colton Memorial’, and, much later, as ‘Little Nell’ (www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/colton/7.html). It is not clear why Colton’s sculpture should be associated with Dicken’s character, Nell.  What we see today is a concrete cast of the original that was made in 1897. It looks as if it could do with a lot of tender love and care as it seems to be crazed, cracked and scarred.

Colton created various public sculptures in London, but his work is found further afield. I read (www.speel.me.uk/sculpt/coltonwr.htm) that:

“Important in his career was a series of Indian portraits in the mid-1900s, including statues and busts of the Maharajah of Mysore and the Dewan of Mysore, and a monument to J. Tata, including allegorical figures, for Bombay.”

I have probably seen some of his Indian works both in Mysore and Bangalore but took little notice of them. A website (http://mysore.ind.in/chamaraja-circle) extolling the virtues of Mysore reveals:

“The French born celebrated sculptor of the time, William Robert Colton was commissioned to execute a statue in memorial of the maharaja. He is the same sculptor who executed many famous sculpture in India including the statue of Sir K Seshadri Iyer, at Cubbon Park in Bangalore, who was the Dewan of Mysore State from 1883 to 1901. Also the 8 bronze tigers of Mysore Palace too are the works of Colton.

He spend[sic] some three months in Mysore during 1912 for the preliminary study for making the statue of Chamaraja Wodeyar. The statue was executed in white Italian marble in England … In the statue the maharaja is portrayed in standing posture in military uniform.

Though Colton was famous for executing lifelike sculptures, one glitch was the in the appearance of the face of the maharaja. There was not much resemblance between face of the maharaja and the face of the statue. When the statue finally arrived in Mysore in 1918, the queen the late maharaja Chamaraja Wodeyar was not happy with this aspect.”

Colton, whose father was an architect, was born in Paris, but was taken to England when he was three years old. He studied art first at the Lambeth School of Art and then at the Royal Academy.

Three of the items, which I have described, have connections with Britain’s former empire. Some of the cavalrymen remembered on the Cavalry Memorial, fought in not only in WW1 but also in Egypt, South Africa, and British India. Several major cavalry units were based in India and included soldiers of Indian origin. The other item with an association with part of the former British Empire is the small lady with two fishes, created by an artist who has sculpted some notable Indians. The bandstand near these two park features is typically Victorian and octagonal, and not markedly different in appearance from one that stands in Cubbon Park in Bangalore (India). And all of these are but a few minutes leisurely stroll from Apsley house, the former home of Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), who fought in India in the late 18th century.

Spectacles and Mahatma Gandhi

MANY PEOPLE REGRET having to wear spectacles. I am not a part of that crowd.

When I went to school and university, my eyesight was so good that I did not need to consider wearing glasses. However, many of my fellow pupils were not born with such satisfactory vision and were forced to wear spectacles. I felt that those who wore glasses looked far more intelligent than those who did not. I do not know when and from whom I got that rather ridiculous idea. My parents did not wear glasses until they were about 45 years old, by which time I was in my early teenage. Yet, I knew they were both intelligent long before they discovered that they were having to hold their newspapers and books ever increasingly further from their eyes before they finally resorted to wearing spectacles.

I qualified as a dentist in 1982 without needing to wear glasses apart from safety goggles whilst drilling teeth at the dental school. About three years later, I decided it would be a good idea to protect my eyes whilst treating my patients. Instead of goggles such as handymen (and handywomen) use, I decided to ask an optician to make me a pair of ‘specs’ with tough plain lenses. I was extremely pleased with my spectacles. Wearing them, I looked in the mirror and immediately felt more intelligent, however ridiculous this might sound.

As I approached my mid-forties, the plain lenses needed to be replaced with prescription lenses as my eyesight was no longer what it had been. After a year or so, I began noticing two things. First, at night I was seeing three red traffic lights where there was only one. Secondly, when sitting far away from the stage in a theatre, I could hear what was being said or sung but the performers on the stage were barely distinguishable from one another. Watching a play was a bit like watching from afar insects moving about. Enter my new pair of long-distance ‘specs’ and these problems were resolved. But now I had two carry around two pairs of glasses: one for reading and the other for seeing afar. The solution was to try bifocals, which I have grown to like.

My first pair of spectacles was made by an optician’s firm in Kent, near where I worked. Since then, I have had several pairs made extremely competently in Bangalore, India. Most of my Indian ‘specs’ have been made by a company called Lawrence and Mayo (‘L&M’), which has several branches in the city. We favour the branch that used to be on Mahatma Gandhi (‘MG’) Road, but has, since the construction of Bangalore’s metro train system, been located nearby in Barton Tower, which overlooks MG Road. This branch has supplied eye care for several generations of my wife’s family and at least one of the staff has known members of at least four generations.

L & M was founded in Calcutta in 1877 by two Jewish families, the Lawrence’s and the Mayo’s. According to Girish Bhagat (www.scribd.com/document/352875229/1-Case-Study-on-Lawrence-Mayo-2016-Only-Case-Study-Material), the two families:

“…set up optical businesses in two cities simultaneously: London and Kolkata. Later they went on extending their businesses all over the world … After Kolkata, they went ahead in setting up their branches over large cities of India. It soon gained the reputation as being known as authorised opticians to kings and viceroys alike …”

Apart from London and India, the company had branches in Cairo, Spain, Portugal, Colombo, Rangoon, and Singapore.

The families who established L&M were originally named ‘Lazrus’ and ‘Myers’. According to Vivek Mendonca, whose family took over the firm (www.brandyouyear.com/2020/06/dr-vivek-g-mendonsa-group-director-marketing-lawrence-and-mayo.html):

“They were Opticians, Watchmakers and Craftsmen of fine custom made Jewellery, which they used to embellish on customised spectacles for Royal Families, Prince and Princesses based on colour stones based on their coat of arms.”

Of the Lazrus family I found the following information (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/Community/exe/history/lazarus.htm):

“Frank Lazarus (s. of Mathilda Lyon and Lippa Lazarus of Plymouth), who married into a family who were among the founders of the Jewish community of Hartford Conn., USA, and who later returned to England. He was in the optical business and apparently had a business called Lawrence and Mayo, with a branch in India, and which is now one of the biggest and the oldest optical firms in India.”

Of the Myers, I have not yet managed to discover anything about them.

However, I have found that amongst their many customers, the Indian branches have served some well-known people including Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, and J.R.D. Tata.  As if that were not enough, they have supplied eyewear to:

“…queens, viceroys, barons and other people of high repute chose Lawrence & Mayo as their personal optician. During the Wimbledon Finals of 1923, Queen Mary was spotted styling the Amulet inspired glare protectors from Lawrence & Mayo.” (https://youandeyemag.com/optician/lawrence-mayo/)

Although the quality of the work they have done for me is more than satisfactory, learning about some of their former customers is additionally gratifying.

Today, the 5th of January 2021, about two years since I last obtained a new pair of specs from L&M in Bangalore’s Barton Tower, I picked up a new pair from a local optician, owned by an Indian optometrist in London. I am about to give them a ‘test drive’ and hope that they will be as satisfactory as those made by Gandhi’s erstwhile optician. They are certainly better looking than the glasses that appear in many portrayals of the Mahatma.