She died for the Empire

I HAVE MISLAID my copy of “Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan” by Jean Overton Fuller (1915 -2009), first published in 1952. Jean was born in England, the only child of an officer in the British Indian Army. She was a friend of the Inayat Khan family, one of whom was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan (1914-1944). At the end of WW2, Jean travelled around Europe interviewing people who had been connected with Noor’s activities during WW2.

 

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A few days ago, during a pleasant walk in London’s West End, we stopped near Hyde Park Corner to look at the memorial to those citizens of the Indian subcontinent who had fought for the British Empire during the two World Wars. Part of the memorial is a small pavilion that looks Indian in design. The ceiling of this structure is inscribed with the names of those who were awarded the prestigious George Cross and Victoria Cross awards during the two Wars. We looked up at the names, not expecting to see any that we would recognise, but were both surprised and pleased to see that one of the names is ‘Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan’, who was awarded the George Cross, posthumously. Noor and her family were not people we knew, but her story was familiar to us.

Noor was born on the first day of 1914 in Moscow, where her father had arrived (from Baroda, now in Gujarat) in 1913 to promote Sufism in the ‘West’. Her father’s family were Muslim nobility, her father’s mother was a descendant of the great Tipu Sultan, who died in 1799, fighting the British. Her mother was an American of European origin.  Shortly after Noor’s birth, her family shifted to London, where Noor attended a nursery in Notting Hill. By 1920, the family had moved to Paris. At the outbreak of WW2, the family fled to England, landing at Falmouth in Cornwall.

During WW2, after joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (‘WAAF’), she soon became a member of Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), where she underwent tough training. Already a trained wireless operator, she had an advantage over other women who were to be ‘courier’s, who worked behind the enemy lines helping to support those resisting the Nazis. Her fluency in French was another advantage that Noor had over many of the other couriers. Also, her appearance was such that it could easily have been considered European.

Noor was flown from Britain to Europe on the night of 16th /17th June 1943 and landed in northern France. Her courageous exploits have been well-described in a detailed book by Shrabani Basu, “Spy Princess”, published in 2006. Sadly, her presence in France was betrayed (by one of two Frenchmen), and she was first arrested by the Gestapo on about the 13th of October 1943. After intense interrogation, during which she revealed nothing of use to the Germans and nothing that compromised her comrades,  she was shot at dawn in the Dachau concentration camp near Munich in September 1944. In addition to being awarded the George Cross, Noor was also a posthumous recipient of the French Croix-de-Guerre. A commemorative blue plaque on her last home in London, 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, was the first to be put up in honour of a woman of Indian origin.

Michael Richard Daniell (‘MRD’) Foot (1919-2012, the historian and former member of SOE, wrote in his introduction to Basu’s book:

“Holders of the George Cross are out of the common run; Noor Inayat Khan was even farther out of it than most.”

The memorial near Wellington’s triumphal arch at Hyde Park Corner was inaugurated in 2002. In addition to recording Noor’s name, there are over seventy other names of those awarded either the VC or the GC. Many of them have Indian sounding names, such as Noor’s, but a few have names that sound English, such as FC Booth and ECT Wilson. The Indian names suggest a fair mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh recipients of these medals. Of the Indian recipients, or those who have Indian sounding names, of the two honours, the VC and the GC, awarded during WW2, the only one who was involved in behind-the-lines espionage and resistance activities was the young Noor Inayat Khan.

Noor was in favour of Britain giving India her freedom, ending its status as a colony within the British Empire. However, unlike some of the fighters for Indian independence like Subhas Chandra Bose, who favoured an alliance with the enemies of Britain during WW2, she was, to quote Basu:

“… convinced that Indian leaders should not press for independence when Britain had its hands full of fighting the war. She felt that if the Indians backed Britain and won gallantry medals it would create a sense of confidence in them, and the British would readily grant independence to India after the war…”

After WW1, there were 22 Indian recipients of VC and GC, but Britain did not relieve its domination of India. Instead, it began to tighten its grip. Noor and the other awardees of the high honours for bravery as recorded in the monument near Hyde Park Corner demonstrated the gallantry of people from the Indian sub-continent, but I am sure that this was not part of the reason that Britain released its long hold on its prize colonial possession in 1947.

I am sorry that I cannot find my copy of Overton Fuller’s biography of Noor. It is the source of some of the information in Basu’s book, which contains much material that Overton Fuller did not have access to when she wrote her book. When I find it eventually, it will be interesting to compare what the earlier author wrote about Noor with what Basu wrote 54 years later.

Facts, figures, and famine

blog churchill

 

THE BRITISH PRIME MINISTER, Mr Boris Johnson, appears to be strongly dependent on his chief adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings. Mr Johnson’s hero, the late Winston Churchill, was also very reliant on his chief advisor Professor Frederick Lindemann, First Viscount Cherwell (1886-1957), a scientist. Madushree Mukherjee, the author of “Churchill’s Secret War”, wrote:

“On most matters, Lindemann’s and Churchill’s opinions converged; and when they did not, the scientist worked ceaselessly to change his friend’s mind …”

Lindemann created the ‘S Branch’, a group of specialists whose role it was to report to Churchill after distilling “ …  thousands of sources of data into succinct charts and figures, so that the status of the nation’s food supplies (for example) could be instantly evaluated…” (Wikipedia).

Mukherjee noted:

“… the mission of the S branch was to provide rationales for whichever course the prime minister, as interpreted by the Prof, wished to follow.”

It would seem from this that Churchill pulled the strings, and even the great Lindemann was somewhat of a puppet. In contrast, it is difficult to say whether the puppet-master is our present prime minister or his chief adviser.

Two Commonwealth countries, Australia and New Zealand  erected large war memorials to their citizens near Hyde Park Corner and the gardens of Buckingham Palace. A more modest memorial complex, the Commonwealth Memorial Gates (inaugurated 2002), was put up to commemorate the great contribution that people from countries in the Indian subcontinent, the West Indies, and Africa made to defending the British Empire during the Second World War. An information panel informs the viewer that during the First World War, 1,440,500 men and women from the Indian subcontinent and Nepal “Volunteered for military service in the Indian Army”, and during WW2, “…over 2,500,00… “ men and women from the subcontinent fought for the forces of the British Empire. Between about 64,500 and 74,000 of the military personnel from the Indian subcontinent died in combat during WW1, and over 87,000 Indian (that is from pre-1947 ‘British India’) soldiers died during WW2. These figures are of necessity approximate and without doubt horrific. However, during WW2, the number of Indian citizens, who died of starvation in their own country during WW2 is far more difficult to know. The most reliable approximations give the number of Indians dying of starvation in Bengal during WW2 as being at least three million, that is about half the number of civilians who died because of Hitler’s demented racial theories.

The three million or most probably more Indians, who starved to death, lived mainly in Bengal. They did not perish by accident, as Madhusree Mukerjee explained in her book, which has been highly acclaimed. Unlike other famines in India caused by failures of harvest, what happened in Bengal in 1943 and ’44, the starvation of the Bengalis was probably largely man-made. And, as the book suggests using damning evidence that has come to light since WW2, two men who were most significant in its making were Churchill and his chief adviser Lindemann. 

Churchill was quite rightly focussed on winning the Second World War and at the same time preserving the integrity of the British Empire, which was being challenged by Indian nationalists throughout the two decades leading up to the outbreak of war and after the fighting began. For reasons I cannot explain Churchill did not like the Indian people. To give just one example, he is reported to have said of them in November 1942 that they were:

“… the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.”

His adviser, the eugenicist Lindeman (Cherwell) was also no lover of the Indians. Mukerjee wrote in her book:

“Inferior as the British working class was in Cherwell’s view, he nonetheless ranked it far above the black and brown subjects in the colonies.”

Later, she wrote:

“All the evidence points to the prime minister and his closest adviser having believed that Indians were ordained to reside at the bottom of the social pyramid …”

Long after India had become independent, Lindemann described (according to Mukerjee who provides reference for this):

“… ‘the abdication of the white man’ as the worst calamity of the twentieth century – more deplorable than the two world wars and the Holocaust”.

The gist of Mukerjee’s book is that important amongst the reasons that the 1943 famine in Bengal was not relieved was that Churchill was not in favour of releiving it. The author wrote that although at times vital supplies and shipping were at critical levels, there were opportunities for famine relief supplies to be sent to Bengal. However, the British government under the leadership of Churchill came up with many excuses to avoid supplying famine relief.

I found the evidence provided in Mukerjee’s book to be reliably persuasive. However, there are many who would prefer not to hear anything but good of the man who helped Britain and its allies win WW2, Winston Churchill. For a defence of Churchill’s behaviour during the Bengal famine, I refer you to https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/in-the-media/churchill-in-the-news/bengali-famine/, an on-line article that tries to demolish an article by Gideon Polya with the title “Media Lying Over Churchill’s Crimes”, published in 2008 (see: https://sites.google.com/site/afghanistangenocideessays/media-lying-over-churchill-s-crimes). 

You can judge Churchill’s possible role in Bengal’s 1943 famine however you wis,  but see what Professor Amartya Sen, a former colleague of my father at the London School of Economics  said. Michael Portillo said to him in a BBC interview on the 14th of January 2008:

“What’s interesting about your description is that it doesn’t appear to rest upon a shortage of rice.”

Sen, who appears to be far more generous than Mukerjee about Churchill’s attitude to the famine, replied:

“No it wasn’t. I think I have to say the British Indian government was callous. I don’t think they were criminal but they were certainly extremely callous and didn’t really worry too much about it. And secondly they were badly misinformed. What had happened is that there was a considerable expansion of demand for food because of the war boom. And with the same supply they were having rising prices. So it wasn’t connected with food deficit at all.”

(https://sites.google.com/site/drgideonpolya/bengal-famine-broadcast).

Seeing the war memorials near Hyde Park Corner and a Holocaust memorial nearby in Hyde Park, and having recently finished reading Mukerjee’s book, inspired me to write this short piece in order to provoke interest in one of the horrible tragedies that happened during WW2, the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Mukerjee’s book presented me with one very superficial resemblance between Churchill and his admiring biographer Boris Johnson. Both had their devoted advisers. Although Churchill might not have done things to everybody’s satisfaction, he did play an extremely important role in suppressing the forces of evil that were threatening Britain and its allies during WW2. Let us hope that Boris will follow in Winston’s footsteps in our fight against another evil enemy, the Corona virus, and lead us to victory.

 

A river and a canal

THE GREAT BED of Ware is eleven feet long and ten feet wide. Constructed at the end of the 16th century, this four-poster bed dwarfs the modern king size bed (six and a half feet by five feet). The Great Bed was housed in various inns in the town of Ware in Hertfordshire until the early 1930s when it was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A few days ago, we visited Ware, not expecting to see its Great Bed but for other reasons. One of these was that it is a small town not far from Perry Green where the Henry Moore Foundation is located. Another was to see the upper reaches of the River Lea and the point along it where water enters the New River.

 

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The Gauge House and the New River emerging from underneath it

The 42 mile long River Lea, a tributary of the River Thames, rises near Luton in the Chiltern Hills in Bedfordshire, flows through Hertfordshire, and then makes its way south through parts of  northeast then eastern Greater London, reaching the Thames at Bow Creek. The river flows through the centre of Ware. A short walk (1.3 miles) along the bank of the river westwards from Ware, brings one to the start of the New River, which is not actually a river. It a canal built to bring fresh water from the clean upper reaches of the Lea into London.

The history of the New River involves the London district of Islington, where the reservoir that used to collect water from the New River was located. To quote from something I wrote a couple of years ago (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/44/):

“At the triangular Islington Green, Essex Road branches off from Upper Street at an acute angle. At the apex of the triangle, there is a statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631) sculpted by John Thomas (1813–1862). He stands bare-footed, wearing a ruff and breeches, which stop short of his uncovered knees and lower legs. Below his plinth, two carved children sit or kneel with pitchers between their legs. Once, they issued water, but no longer. Myddelton, a Welsh entrepreneur, was the driving force behind the creation of the New River water supply project. The 38-mile-long canal, which he helped to finance, was constructed between 1608 and 1613 …”

Roseberry Avenue in London’s Islington is now best-known for the Saddlers Wells Theatre. However, one of its near neighbours was of great importance in connection with the New River. Quoting from my piece again:

“Across Roseberry Avenue, which flanks Spa Fields, there is a large brick building with white stone trimmings, now a block of flats. Completed in 1920, New River Head House was designed by Herbert Austen Hall (1881-1968) as the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board. Above two of its windows, there are carved inscriptions. One reads “Erected MDCXIII”, and the other “MDCCLXXXII”. These dates are 1623 and 1782 respectively, which are carved in archaic lettering. The inscribed stones must have been saved from an earlier building. The land on which the house stands was formerly the ‘New River Head’.

The New River, a canal constructed to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into London ended at the reservoir called ‘New River Head’. It was high enough above what was the city of London in the 17th century to allow the flow of water from it to be ‘powered’ by gravity alone (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp165-184). The brick-lined reservoir was constructed in 1623, when the first building at the reservoir, the ‘Water House’, was also built. The architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811), surveyor to the New River Company, repaired, enlarged, and refaced it in the 18th century. The refacing was done in 1782 … The old building, which had been enlarged many times, was demolished by 1915.”

Having seen the site of the destination of water carried by the New River, I was keen to see the point of its origin. Hence, our visit to Ware.

We parked near the centre of Ware in a car park (Burgage Lane) next to a footbridge that crosses the Lea. Then, we followed the riverside path after traversing the river. At first the path runs sinuously beneath trees that line both banks the stream. Their different coloured leaves are reflected in the water that ripples as waterfowl swim past. We met many other people enjoying their morning walks, but the path was never crowded.

After a short distance, the river flows around and between a network of islands and the path loses its lining of trees. Soon, there is open country on one side and on the other a series of modern industrial buildings partially hidden from view by occasional trees including lovely weeping willows. We reached the impressive weir of Ware. To enable boats to pass this hazardous waterfall, a lock exists. Ware Lock was first built in 1855 but looks as if it has been modernised since then.  Continuing west from the weir, we became aware of traffic noise as we approached the concrete bridge that carries the busy A10 dual-carriageway road over the river.

A third of a mile upstream from the road bridge, there is a tall brick house. It is not attractive and can be seen from afar in the flat landscape surrounding it. This building, The Gauge House, was built in 1856 to the design of William Chadwell Mylne (1781-1863), a son of Robert Mylne, who was involved with the terminal reservoir at New River Head in Islington (see above).  The building is constructed on an arch, a bridge that straddles the start of the New River at the point where water enters the canal from the River Lea. The ground floor of the building houses a mechanism for regulating the flow of water from the Lea into the New River. This is explained on the historicengland.org.uk website as follows:

“… [The] ground floor contains the gauge which measures the intake of water from the River Lee; it consists of 2 iron boats 5m long floating at Lee level which are joined by a chordal segmental iron beam 9m long, and the rise and fall with the level of the Lee controls the flow of water over the sluice which can be further adjusted by weights hung from the gate, the daily intake from the Lee being 22 1/2 million gallons.”

Another website, engineering-timelines.com, gives details of the predecessors of the Gauge House:

“At first, the flow from the river was monitored by a wooden ‘balance engine’ – a rocking beam-and-float device. It was later replaced with the Marble Gauge, built by Robert Mylne inside a Portland stone chest. Though now empty, this is still visible a little downstream.”

We were able to see the exterior of the Gauge House including the grille through which water leaves the Lea to flow under the building and that from which it flows from the House into the first stretch of the New River. The canal flows about 300 yards south before making a right angle beyond which it begins flowing east.  Having visited the London terminus of the New River and walked along attractive stretches of the canal lined by parkland in Canonbury, near Islington, I was very satisfied seeing where this historic waterway commences. We retraced our steps along the riverbank to Ware before driving to visit the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green.

Returning to the subject of beds, which is associated with the town of Ware, my mind leaps a quarter of the way around the world to Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In January 1994, we spent part of our honeymoon at St Margarets in Ooty, a guesthouse belonging to the ITC company. The room we occupied in this typical colonial style bungalow was huge. And it needed to be to accommodate the enormous bed that we occupied. This bed, whose width rivalled that of the Great Bed of Ware was not so long as the latter. Its sheets must have been specially made to fit this enormous bed.  Although there were only two of us sleeping in it, I think that that it would have been wide enough for four or five couples to sleep in it without it becoming overcrowded.

Both Ooty and Ware have their charms, but the latter is far more accessible from London especially in these times of restricted travel caused by the wholly unwanted presence of the Covid-19 microbe.  

 

 

Some like it hot

MANY VARIETIES OF CHILLI, differing in size, shape, and colour, can be seen growing in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Seeing them recently, whetted my appetite to write something about these fiery food items and their relationship to Indian cuisine.

JULY 9 chilli

Chilli is widely used in the multitude of different foods consumed in the Indian subcontinent. However, it is most likely that before the 15th century, this hot-tasting food ingredient was unknown in this part of the world.  Before its introduction to India, black pepper was used to add pungency to food. It was the European’s great yearning for valuable spices like pepper that brought them to the shores of the India, beginning with the Portuguese. It was these same seekers of spice who are believed to have introduced chillies to India from far away Latin America.

In early 1994, I made my first of many trips to India. In Bangalore, where I spent most of my time, I discovered the wonderful bookshops that the city still possesses. In one of these, I bought a book that has proved to be a useful mine of scholarly information about Indian food and its history, “Indian Food – A Historical Companion” by KT Achaya. Published in 1994, it cost 750 Rupees (about £12 in those days), which was quite expensive for a book back in 1994, but it has proved to be a valuable and useful addition to our book collection.  Much of the information that follows derives from the pages of this book.

One of the most interesting things I have learnt from Achaya’s book is that in ancient times, the inhabitants of the subcontinent, such as the Harappans and the Vedic Aryans, were keen meat eaters. Achaya wrote:

“No less than 250 animals are referred to in the Vedas, and 50 of these were deemed fit for sacrifice, and by inference eating.”

He added later:

“The abattoirs for domestic animals had specific names, like garaghatanam (beef), and shukarasnam (swine) … In the Rigveda, horses, bulls, buffaloes, rams, and goats were all described as being sacrificed for food… The Jataka tales list the flesh of the pigeon, partridge, monkey and elephant as edible. To this, the Brhat Samhita (6th century) adds buffaloes and lizards. At a shraddha ceremony, use of meat was very meritorious according to the Vishnu Purana (3rd or 4th century), and the meats listed are those of the hare, hog, goat, antelope, deer, gayal and sheep; both priest and performer partook of the meal.”

However, from the earliest of times, there were thoughtful Aryans who questioned the taking of animal’s lives for food, and gradually the trend towards vegetarianism grew.

Returning to chillies, Achaya suggests that they must have entered India quite early, but many centuries after the ‘creation’ of the Vedas. He quotes lines by the south Indian composer of Carnatic music Purandaradas, who lived between 1480 and 1564, which indicate that he was aware of the effects of chilli. The Portuguese, who introduced chillies to India, first landed on the subcontinent (near Calicut) on the 20th May 1498. So, they must have been quite a novelty when the composer wrote the lines (quoted by Achaya):

“I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used … fiery when bitten …”

Chilli was well received in India because, unlike pepper, it could be grown almost anywhere and had a pungency far greater than pepper. Unlike the Portuguese and later European invaders, chilli in its various forms was a welcome visitor to the Indian subcontinent.

Thus far, I have not written anything that is remarkably new to the well-informed. Now, I will describe something that fascinated me most in Achaya’s wonderful book. The author dedicates several hundred words including references to scholarly works about this topic. In brief, there is evidence that the continent of South America was visited by predecessors of today’s Indians long before Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492.

Amongst the wealth of evidence that Achaya describes, here is a sample. Indian deities feature in pre-Columbian sculpture: Ganesha with his rat; Vishnu’s tortoise ‘kurma’; two elephant heads with typical Indian ceremonial trappings; elephants with ‘mahouts’ wearing turbans; and a portrait of the last ruler of the Incas depicts him wearing a sacred thread the way that Brahmins do. A manuscript discovered in the Yucatan (Mexico) was written in the Kavi dialect of Java, which is derived from the Sanskrit and Pali languages. It records that a merchant, Vusulana, explored the coastline of what we now know as ‘South America’ in 923 AD, that is 569 years before Columbus made his discovery and a few years before Leif Erikson landed in Vinland (probably Newfoundland and New Brunswick). If we accept this and other evidence that there were interactions between the Indian subcontinent and pre-Columbian America, then we should not be surprised if the travellers who crossed the Pacific might have brought foodstuffs back to India.  

Some of these pre-Columbian imports might have been members of the Annona family: the sitaphal and ramphal. Convention dictates that these were imported from Latin America via the Cape of Good Hope, but some archaeological findings suggest that they might have been in India long before the arrival of the Europeans. Achaya cites the  discovery of sculptures of Bharhut (2nd century BC) and frescos painted at Ajanta (about 7th century AD) that depict a fruit looking very similar to custard apple (sitaphal), but points out that George Watt (1851-1930), the Scottish physician and botanist who worked in India, felt that it might be native Indian plants that were being depicted.

More convincing than the Annona fruits is the evidence that maize, a cereal that originated in Central America, was also being grown in India in the pre-Columbian age. Some of the evidence for this is the finding of maize pollen grains in ancient archaeological sites in the Kashmir Valley. Another intriguing discovery was made at the 12th century temple in Somnathpur near Mysore, where 92 female sculptures are all holding in their right hands “… an object looking remarkably like a corn cob.”

What I have written is based on a summary of knowledge published in 1994 in one book. It is likely that since then there has been further research on connections between India and America before Columbus, but I have not yet been able to access it.

  

Intriguing as the possible relationship between India and pre-Columbian America is, there is little doubt that the chilli, like the potato and the tomato,  only found its way into the Indian diet via the Portuguese and other European colonisers of the New World. So next time, you burn your tongue on a chilli lurking in a curry, you know who to blame.

Wake up call

RETIREMENT OFFERS MANY PLEASURES. One of these is waking up in the morning at whatever time one wishes. I do not want to sound slothful but waking up early rarely appeals to me.

black ring bell alarm clock

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

While I was undertaking research for my PhD in physiology at University College London (‘UCL’), there were no daily time constraints. I could turn up at the laboratory whenever I felt like it and leave whenever I wanted. My timings were entirely up to me. I used to arrive at UCL at about 10 in the morning. At 11 o’clock, I went upstairs for coffee and biscuits in the Starling Room (a departmental meeting place for post-graduates and academic staff; named in honour of the physiologist Ernest Starling). By noon, I had returned to the lab. However, there was not much time to do anything because I liked to have lunch at just before 1 pm. And, after lunch, I often sat in the Ladies Common Room, chatting with Margaret, my supervisor’s wife who also worked in the lab. You can be sure that we never discussed scientific matters over our cups of sub-standard institutional coffee.

By just after 2 pm, I began getting down to work, setting up an experiment. However, everything stopped at 4 pm, when one of us would put the kettle on to boil, the heat being supplied by a gas flame from a Bunsen burner. Tea and biscuits involved me spending another hour chatting, mainly with Margaret. The other PhD students and workers in our lab took tea but were not distracted from their work. At 5 pm Margaret and my PhD supervisor, Robert, set off homewards, followed soon after by the rest of the lab. Between 5 and about 8.30 pm (and on some weekend days) is when I managed to do some ‘solid’ work. Miraculously with this lackadaisical schedule, I managed to do sufficient experimental research to be awarded a doctorate. Then, my life changed dramatically.

Soon after becoming ‘Dr Yamey’, I enrolled in the Dental School of UCL to train to become a dental surgeon (‘dentist’). Compared to my BSc and the PhD studies, this course leading to a Batchelor of Dental Surgery degree was far more demanding of my time. Five days a week, my presence was required at the Dental School at 9 am sharp. The day, which included a lunch break and two brief coffee breaks (if you were lucky), ended at about 5 pm. This seemed to me as bad as being sent back to junior school.

At first, I found this rigorous routine difficult after the relatively laxer times I had enjoyed during my BSc and PhD courses. I remember waking up at 7.00 am on dark autumn mornings and looking out of my bedroom window to see if there were lights on in any of my neighbours’ windows. Often, there were none. To arrive at the hospital by nine in the morning, I had to board the Underground at the peak of the morning rush hour. The tube trains were always crowded, standing room only, at that time. However, in those days in the late 1970s each train had two carriages in which smoking was allowed. Because many people were going off smoking or did not smoke, these carriages always had plenty of empty seats when they pulled into my station, Golders Green. Ignorant of secondary smoking, as I was then, I always travelled comfortably in the smelly, smoke filled carriages. However, by the time I had travelled the thirty minutes to Warren Street, I was always in great need of a quick coffee in the Dental Hospital’s basement canteen before classes began. After qualifying, the early morning routine continued. It lasted for thirty-five years until, at last, I retired.

Waking early in the morning was not confined to dental studies and practice. It is a feature of life that I have got used to in India. Many people in India wake early to take advantage of the cooler early hours of the day. I learned this very soon after arriving in Bangalore during my first visit to India in 1994. For the first few weeks, my wife and I stayed in my in-law’s home. On the second or third morning of our stay, I woke up in darkness. I could hear people rushing about in the house. I woke up my wife and said that I thought that the house was being burgled or attacked. She reassured me that all was okay and told me that the family liked to rise early. It was not quite 5 am. Day after day, my father-in-law tried to encourage me to join him on his early morning walk, to see the sun rise. Eventually, I gave in and we walked around a nearby open space in semi-darkness. It was only when we had returned to the house that we noticed the sun was beginning to rise.

Since those early days in India, I have just about got used to getting up incredibly early if there is a good reason to do so. Driving out of a city as large as Bangalore is one of these reasons. Before 7 am, there is hardly any traffic on the roads, which are usually choc-a-bloc during working hours. Flights to London are another good reason. They often leave India at early hours of the morning so that they can land in Western Europe at an hour that will not disturb those asleep in the UK, where late night/early morning passenger flights are forbidden. Although I can see the benefits of doing things early in the morning in India, I still miss being permitted to sleep until my built-in biological clock gives me its wake-up call. And for those of you who are by now thinking that sleep is all important to me, let me tell you that of late, despite not having any work or travel obligations, that clock of mine is waking me up much earlier than it used to years ago.

A bookshop in my memory

I HAVE LOVED BOOKSHOPS ever since I can remember. In my teenage years, I used to haunt the shelves of Foyles, a multi-storey bookshop in Tottenham Court Road. The store is named after its founders William and Gilbert Foyle, who established their business at Station Road in Peckham in 1903. A year later, they moved it to Cecil Court, an alley near Leicester Square, which still contains several bookshops. By 1906, Foyle’s had a branch on Charing Cross Road, which is where I got familiar with it.

BLOG FOYLES by Tarquin Binary

In the second half of the 1960s, Foyles was a very well-stocked bookstore even if it seemed a bit confusing to its customers. There were separate departments specialising in various topics distributed over at least three floors. I discovered soon enough that behind the bookshelves in some of the departments there were yet more shelves, and these contained second-hand and remaindered books often at reasonable prices. It was amongst these hidden shelves that I found a rather useless but picturesque road atlas to Bulgaria, published in Bulgarian, and a wonderful detailed street map of East Berlin, “Haupstadt der DDR”. This map carefully avoided mapping the city’s contiguous West Berlin. It gave the impression that East Berlin bordered the edge of an area of uninhabited desert.

The language department was very interesting. It stocked books on every language from A to Z. It was there that I discovered a copy of “A Short Albanian Grammar” by SE Mann, published in 1932. This hardback book with dark green board covers was priced at 15 shillings (i.e. 75 pence). I was particularly excited to find this volume as my interest in Albania was already becoming quite well-developed. However, 15 shillings was way beyond my budget in 1968. That year, I began studying biology for the A-Level examinations that had to be passed to enter university. It was then that a chance to obtain this book arose.  

During the first year of the A-Level course, I entered the school’s Bodkin Prize biology essay competition. I wrote a long treatise on the life of the woodlouse. This was my first ever bit of serious research. I visited the Science Library, which was then housed in a part of the then disused Whitely’s department store in Queensway. There, I translated a long article written in French about the reproductive system of the woodlouse. From what I can remember, the woodlouse can reproduce asexually, a process known as parthenogenesis.  I was awarded the second prize. The only other contestant was my classmate Timothy Clarke, whose older brother, Charles, was to become Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006. Tim won the first prize.

Thesecond prize was 15 shillings to be spent on books. I asked the school to spend that money on procuring me the copy of the Albanian grammar book in Foyles. To my great annoyance, my choice was turned down and I was asked to choose again, making sure that at least one book was a hardback, because it was to be embossed with the school’s crest. I chose two books. One was a costly paperback on genetics and the other was the cheapest hardback I could find. To this day, I still do not possess a copy of Mann’s book.

Returning to Foyle’s, let me tell you about its payment system, which resembled, so I was told, the system adopted by shops in the Soviet Union. First, you had to find a book you wished to purchase. Then, you took it to a desk in the department where it was shelved. A shop assistant took the book and wrote out a paper bill. Next, you had to take the bill to one of the few cash desks in the shop. After queuing, you parted with the correct amount of money and then the paper slip was stamped. Following this, you returned to the department where your book was being held and queued up again to exchange your stamped paper slip for the book, which you were then free to take away. This laborious payment system survives today in the government run khadi (home-spun materials) shops in India. These old-fashioned shops, often smelling of moth balls, are picturesque to say the least.

Foyles was bewildering to the newcomer stepping off the street. Like the tiny alleyways in Venice, it was a great place to lose your way. However, if a customer was looking for something specific, this was not helpful. So, quite sensibly, there used to be staff standing near the entrance to help customers find what they were seeking. Some of these no doubt poorly paid staff had poor command of the English language. On one occasion I heard the following:

“May I help, Sir?” asked a young lady with a strong Eastern European accent.

“I am looking for choral music.”

The assistant hesitated and then pointed at the escalator while saying:

“Please try the engineering department.”

That was long ago, back in the late 1960s.

Foyles moved out of its home on Charing Cross Road in 2011 and occupied another building a short way from it on the same street. Its current premises occupy part of the former St Martin School of Art, where my mother used to work in the sculpture studios in the 1960s. I no longer shop at Foyle’s but remember it fondly.

 

Picture by Tarquin Binary from Wikipedia

Books of choice

Beerwolf_500

 

I HAVE LOVED READING ever since I was first able to master this skill. During my childhood, we used to drive to Hampstead (in north London) every Saturday morning. We always used to visit the now long-since closed High Hill Bookshop on Rosslyn Hill. Our parents allowed my sister and me to choose one book each Saturday and bought them for us. Week by week, my collection of the adventures of Tintin by Hergé grew until I had all the episodes that had been published in English. There was little, if any, censorship of our choices. However, I had the distinct impression that my parents preferred that we avoided books by Enid Blyton. So, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of her extensive literary oeuvre.

I discovered and fell in love with “Mad” magazine, which was not available at High Hill Bookshop. I bought copies of it at a local shop, using my pocket money. My parents appeared not to approve of the magazine, but my father (not my mother) was always happy to read my copies of it when I had finished with them. “Readers Digest”, like Enid Blyton, did not fulfil my parents’ criteria of ‘good’ literature. I enjoyed leafing through this periodical and particularly remember reading and re-reading an article written by someone who was conscious during his brain surgery. I did not need to buy “Readers Digest” at full price as it was possible to buy boxes crammed full of old issues, sold as a job lots for a few pence at local jumble sales.  

There was only one book that was deemed strictly forbidden during my childhood. It was “Struwwelpeter” by Heinrich Hoffman, published in 1845 and reprinted many times since then. It is a series of moral tales about children who misbehave. For example, when Konrad disobeys his mother’s instruction not to suck his thumbs, an itinerant tailor appears and cuts off Konrad’s thumbs. Each tale is illustrated by frighteningly graphic illustrations. On afternoon, my sister and I, who had discovered this book by accident, were interrupted by my mother. She seized the book and tore it into pieces, which she stuffed into the wastepaper basket. Apart from this violent reaction to a book and the hints that Enid Blyton was to be avoided, I could read pretty much anything I wanted.

At school, books were recommended as being worth reading, especially those by famous 19th century British authors. I never read any of these. For some unknown reason, probably contrariness, if someone told me that I ought to read a particular book, this put me off even opening it. I wanted to read what I had chosen myself, not what had been chosen for me because it might be “good for you”. Similarly, if someone tells me that this or that food item is “good for you”, I do not rate that as a positive recommendation.

At Christmas 1963, we were in New York City. A friend of my parents, ‘E’, met us in the book department of FAO Schwarz, a toy store on Fifth Avenue. She wanted her son and me each to choose a book as a gift from her. E showed me a thick encyclopaedia of anthropology, which she had decided either that I would enjoy it or that it would be good for me. Well, I took one look at it and decided to check out the other books on display. I homed in on an illustrated history of the FBI. It was filled with intriguing black and white photographs, some quite gory. I took the book to E, who looked at it disapprovingly and then asked whether I was sure that I did not want the fine book on anthropology. I was sure, and a few minutes later I became the proud owner of the book about the FBI. E’s son, who was clearly more easily influenced by his mother than me, chose to buy the anthropology book. Years later, he qualified as a psychiatrist and I as a dentist. I am not sure what can be concluded from that.

My parents’ suggestion that there was something not quite right about Enid Blyton left a lingering doubt about the author in my mind. In the mid-1990s, I began visiting India regularly. There, I discovered wonderful bookshops, some of which were (and still are) much better stocked than those in London. What surprised me in those shops were the huge numbers of books by Enid Blyton on sale. Clearly, Enid was well-read and her books much purchased in India.  So, when I heard that there was going to be a lecture about Enid Blyton and India at the Nehru Centre in London, I felt that this was not to be missed. The speaker was none other than Enid Blyton’s very articulate daughter. She told us that British educators often frowned upon her mother’s works (just as my parents had done). The reason they were not keen was that it was considered that Enid’s vocabulary was not rich or varied enough. She revealed that when the texts of her mother’s books were analysed numerically, the vocabulary used I them was, in fact, no less rich or varied than that employed by other authors writing for the same age groups.  

In recent years, I have changed. Maybe, I have become a little less stubborn about book recommendations. If someone suggests a book to me, I no longer instantly reject the idea of reading it. There is a good chance that I will look it up to see what others think of it. If it is about a subject that might chime with any of my interests, there is a good chance that I will buy a copy and add it to the ever increasing pile of unopened books waiting to be read by me.  However, you will still not be able to find Dickens, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, or titles that would “be good for me” on their spines.

Puncher

THE HUMBLE COCONUT plays an important part in Hindu ceremonies because, to put it very simply, it is a very holy item.

 

OOTY BLOG

We had a Hindu wedding in Bangalore (India) in January 1994. A most important part of our more than three-hour long ceremony was to do the ‘feras’, that is walk around a sacred fire seven times. My wife, Lopa, and I were attached together with several garlands that had been draped around us earlier in the proceedings. At the end of the religious activities conducted by two pandits (‘priests’) near to the fire, we walked to my in-law’s small Maruti 800 car, a vehicle hardly larger than a Fiat 500. With some difficulty Lopa and I, still attached together by the garlands, squeezed into the back seat of the car. Then my brother-in-law started the engine and drove us forward over a coconut placed under one of the car’s front wheels. The coconut was broken. Breaking coconuts is very auspicious for Hindus and, therefore, a good thing to do at the start of a marriage.

After the lengthier than expected religious ceremony, the reason for its great length is another story, we had lunch in the lovely garden that surrounded my in-laws’ home. Later that day, we enjoyed a formal reception with a buffet vegetarian dinner at the Bangalore Club. As my wife’s grandmother had requested that there be no alcohol on the day of the wedding ceremony, we complied with her wish. So, just after ‘the stroke of the midnight hour’ (to quote the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru on the 15th of August 1947) we cracked open bottles of Marquise de Pompadour, an Indian champagne.

The plan was to leave Bangalore on a driving trip on the day following the ceremonies and festivities already mentioned. However, as Robert Burns famously wrote in 1785: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley [i.e. The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew]”, so did ours. My in-laws had planned for Lopa and I to go on a driving tour around parts of South India in the Maruti, driven by the family’s driver (chauffeur).  But the driver had other ideas.  On the morning of our departure, we learned that he had quit his employment with the family to take up another post elsewhere. We wondered ‘What to do?’ to use an Indian English set of words that appeals to me.

My wife’s parents made a quick decision. They decided to accompany us as far as Ootacamund (‘Ooty’), a hill station in Tamil Nadu state. From there, we would continue the planned trip using public transport and they would drive the car back home. Maybe, it would not appeal to many just-married couples to take their parents on a honeymoon, but we had no problems with it. Mummy and Daddy packed quickly and had the kitchen staff prepare copious amounts of picnic fare. We all piled into the tiny car with stacks of baggage.

Currently, it takes about eight hours to drive from Bangalore to Ooty without stopping. In 1994, it took longer. We did the journey in two stages, spending a night in the Bandipur nature reserve, currently almost six hours from Bangalore, at the state boundary that separates Karnataka from Tamil Nadu. As I was carrying my International Drivers Permit and I was younger than Lopa’s parents, I volunteered to do the driving. A rash decision, you might be thinking, if you are familiar with driving conditions in today’s India, but it was not. I had already made several driving trips in the crazily crowded central market areas of Bangalore and enjoyed the experience.

We set off and were soon out in the country. Outside Bangalore, there was little traffic on the roads except in the small towns through which we had to pass, there being no by-passes. In 1994, far fewer people had private cars than they do today. So long as one obeyed the informal rule that advised you to give way to cows, who seem oblivious to the dangers of traffic, and to anything larger than one’s own vehicle, there was little that could go wrong.

Well, that is what I thought as we drove along two-lane roads lined with ageing trees with thick trunks and shady foliage and plenty of colourfully dressed pedestrians, many of them carrying loads on their heads. Then, I realised we had had a puncture, or ‘puncher’ as it is often spelled (phonetically) in India. For some reason, we did not resort to using the car’s spare wheel. Instead, we drove a little further and stopped by a wayside ‘puncher’ repairer. This and most others, both then and now, were not what you would expect of a tyre repair station in Western Europe, for example a branch of ATSEuromaster or KwikFit, but something far more modest. Usually located under a tree (for shade), the typical roadside ‘puncher’ repairer consists of a pile of mainly damaged tyres and an assortment of scraps of rubber, once parts of tyres. Despite the unhopeful appearance of these waystations, the people who man them can get you back on the road with a tyre repair within minutes. The only problem, which I discovered soon enough, was that these repairs did not last long. Just in case you are wondering, there were no shops for new tyres along our route back in 1994.

Between Bangalore and our destination at the hill station, we limped along from one ‘puncher’ repairer to another. This problem was a result of the driver having deserted the family. Had he stayed on to drive us, he would have made sure that the vehicle and its tyres were roadworthy before our departure. Apart from the stops for repairing punctures, we arrived at Bandipur safely.

On the following day at Bandipur, we lucky enough to get a ride on a huge elephant. The creature carried us almost noiselessly through the jungle. As it moved, it seemed barely unaware of its passengers. It lumbered along, snacking on tufts of vegetation, which it snatched from the ground with its trunk. The only wildlife I spotted were deer-like creatures, sambars, which were not as exciting as the tigers that we were told lurked in the area. The elephant ride was a complete contrast to the ‘wildlife tour’ we joined at the nature reserve. This consisted of a large single-decker bus with a noisy engine, which was loud enough to frighten even the boldest of wildlife. Our fellow passengers included some boisterous Indian schoolchildren, who were observant enough to spot the occasional monkeys. Apart from them and us, there were some very earnest European tourists armed with costly, sophisticated cameras and telephoto lens. They were very dismayed by the racket being created by the enthusiastic children. At one spot, the bus stopped, and we were all invited to disembark to look at an indistinct footprint in damp mud. This was, we were told, the spoor of a tiger. It did not excite me, but I can still remember it.

We made it to Ooty without mishap. Lopa’s parents stayed in accommodation about a mile from ours. We stayed in an attractive guesthouse built in the British colonial period. Rather inappropriately for a honeymoon suite, it was supplied with the widest bed I have ever seen. Ten people could have slept side-by-side with their arms outstretched without touching each other. Its sheets and blankets must have been made specially for this enormous bed. Maybe, this bed had been constructed with great foresight, with  ‘social distancing’ in mind.

Lopa’s parents stayed on in Ooty after we set off to continue our holiday in Kerala. While they were in Ooty, they had new tyres attached to the Maruti, and then Mummy drove Daddy home.

It is now twenty-six years and a few months since Lopa and I sat in the family Maruti and were driven over the coconut. It is only now as I relate this story that a thought has occurred to me. And that is, I wonder whether one of the tyres was troublesome because it had been damaged by a sharp edge of the shell of the broken coconut.

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