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?

Umbrella of memory

BUILT BETWEEN 1787 AND 1820, BRIGHTON PAVILION looks less like a hospital than most other buildings. Yet, during the First World War (‘WW1’), this decorative seaside retreat for British royalty was converted into a hospital to treat Indian troops. They had been wounded whilst fighting for the for the British Empire in the battlefields of Flanders. On the 14th of December 1914, the Pavilion was opened as a hospital with 724 beds. According to George Morton-Jack in his book “The Indian Army on the Western Front”, 14,185 wounded Indian troops were brought to Brighton on six “state-of-the-art” hospital ships. They were treated in the Pavilion and other hospitals specially established for the Indian wounded in Brighton and elsewhere. Over 2,300 Indians were treated in the converted Pavilion.

BLOG

The Chattri

A few of the Indians did not survive their injuries. Of those treated at the Pavilion, 18 died, 10 of whom were cremated. Those who died, were given last rites according to their religious beliefs. Moslem corpses were buried in a purpose-built cemetery near the Shah Jehan Mosque at Woking (in Surrey). This mosque was completed in 1889 to the design of Gottlieb William Leitner (1840-1899), an orientalist of Hungarian Jewish heritage. The Hindus and Sikhs who succumbed to their injuries in the hospitals in Brighton were cremated on traditional funeral pyres. Between the 31st of December 1914 and the 30th of December 1915, 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated at a specially demarcated spot on Holt Hill (near Patcham) in the South Downs, 500 feet above sea-level and then their ashes were scattered in the sea according to their rites.

Years ago, we used to meet the late General Misra (of the Indian Army) once a year for dinner when he came from India to the UK on his annual visits. He was a jovial gentleman, who seemed to enjoy life. All that we knew about his visits was that during them, he used to make a trip to Sussex to pay his respects to those Indian soldiers who had died during WW1. Apart from knowing him as a pleasant dining companion, we knew nothing else about him apart from the fact that he was related to some close friends of ours. We were not sure exactly why he used to go to Sussex in particular. Also, we were then unaware that our affable old friend had had a formidable military career.

During WW2, the General was attached to the 6th Rajputana Rifle regiment. A report (https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/28086/4/MANIS002.txt) written during the British Indian campaign against the Japanese in Burma noted:

“Expediting the Jap withdrawl from the TENGNOOPAL Ridge and converting his retreat into a rout, the capture of a prominent hill to the east of Sibong, know(n) as Battle Hill, by a battalion of the 6th. Rajputana Rifles enabled us to have a grand-stand view of the retreating Japa on their LOC. The Rajputs singing and shouting made merry here as they sent MAG bursts on the jap LOC. In this battle and from the attack on Lone Tree Hill near Shenam, the Rajrifs [sic] have been commanded by Lt. Col. Dinesh Chandra Misra of Agra and a graduate of the Indian Military Academy.”

On the 5th of October 1944, the London Gazette announced that the then Captain (temporary Major) Misra had been awarded the prestigious Military Cross for his services in Burma. His distinguished military career (with the British before Indian independence) is summarised on the Imperial War Museum website (https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80017253):

“Indian cadet at Indian Military College, Dehra Dum, India, 1933-1935; officer attached to North Staffordshire Regiment in India, 1935-1936; served with 5th Bn Rajputan Rifles in India and Hong Kong, 1937-1941; served with British Army Aid Group Indian Section, China, 1942-1943, served with Rajputan Rifles in India and Burma 1943-1944; student attended Staff College at Camberley, GB, 1944-1945.”

From what my wife and I remember of this affable general, he never mentioned his brave exploits or even hinted at them.

Recently, a friend posted a photograph of a monument that he runs past whilst taking exercise on the South Downs near Hove. This small structure, which looks Indian in design, is what General Misra used to visit on his annual trips to the UK. A few days ago, we visited our friends in Hove and after eating a delicious lunch with them, we drove up on to the Downs near Patcham and walked through a field of well-fed grazing cows to reach a small enclosure containing the Chattri and a monument listing the names of the Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were cremated at this place during WW1.

‘Chattri’ is the Hindustani and Punjabi word for ‘umbrella’. The monument on Holt Hill consists of a small white marble dome supported on eight pillars made of the same material. This stone Chattri stands on a podium with stairs leading up to it from a lower platform on which there are three low granite slabs. The three granite slabs cover the spots where originally there had been three concrete slabs on which the funeral pyres were built and then ignited according to religious tradition. The ‘umbrella’ or ‘chattri’ symbolises, according to a plaque nearby, “the protection offered to the memory of the dead”.

Funded partly by the India Office and Brighton Borough Council, the monument was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921. It was built to the designs of EC Henriques (died 1940, aged 51) a young Indian architect from Bombay. His work was supervised by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob (1841-1917), an expert in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. I have eaten dinner at one of Jacob’s other buildings: Bikaner House, a palace he designed in Mount Abu (Rajasthan), constructed in 1893. Built as a summer palace for a maharajah of Bikaner, it is now a hotel. In January 2020, we ate a poor-quality meal there. We and the other diners sat dressed in padded jackets because the dining room was unheated, and the outside temperature was close to freezing point.

The bases of the eight columns of the Chattri interested me because they bear the same decorative motif seen on the bases of pillars in Hindu temples constructed well before the era of Moslem invasions of India began. The early mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat (e.g. in Ahmedabad and Champaner), which borrow many structural features of Hindu temples, also contain pillars whose bases are decorated with the same motif seen on the Chattri. The same is true of the capitals of the pillars that support the dome of the Chattri. Also, the domes in those ancient Hindu temples and mediaeval mosques are always supported on eight pillars arranged in an octagon, as is the case at the Chattri.  In brief, the small but elegant Chattri, which looks a little incongruous in West Sussex, would look very much at home in many parts of India.

The Chattri stands high on the South Downs in a pleasingly landscaped garden. It overlooks the surrounding hills and the ribbon of coastal towns including Brighton and Hove, and beyond them the sea. Part of the monument complex is a more recently (2010) erected concrete wall on which are carved the names of the 53 Hindu and Sikh men who were cremated at this spot, as well as their ranks and regiments.

To reach the Chattri, we walked along a path through a field in which cattle were grazing. As I looked at the cows, I thought that most of the Indian men whose lives ended in Brighton and were cremated on the Downs must have often walked amongst cattle in India before they left it to fight in Flanders  for the Empire, which did their fellow countrymen few favours.

During our brief visit to the Chattri, there were a couple of families relaxing around it. Their children were playing cheerfully around the pillars and on its steps, blissfully unaware of what it represented. This did not bother us. We felt that their joy would have been appreciated by the men who sacrificed their lives for the future of families such as these and many others. The wide horizons, the lovely landscape, and the fresh air enveloping the monument, gave the place and its surroundings a special, maybe spiritual, atmosphere, a feeling of the continuum of life and beyond. Who knows, but any of us at the Chattri might possibly be reincarnations of some of the soldiers cremated there.

POSTSCRIPT: INDIAN SOLDIERS ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Many Indian soldiers fought for the British because they believed, or hoped, that by supporting the Empire in its struggle for survival, India would gain at least some autonomy, if not a generous dose of self-rule. In the last years of WW1, even the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi roamed around India encouraging Indians to enrol to fight for the British. Joseph Lelyveld wrote of Gandhi in his book “Great Soul. Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India”:

“He implores wives to send their husbands to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the empire, blithely promising, ‘They will be yours in the next incarnation.’ Fighting for the empire, he now argues, is ‘the straightest way to swaraj’”

The Indian soldiers fought for the empire. Some were killed, others injured, but India did not reach swaraj (i.e. self-government) at the end of WW1. Remember, less than a year after the Great War ended, soldiers commanded by a British general killed at least 379 and wounded over 1000 unarmed Indian civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab, the district of India that supplied many troops to the Western Front and other battlefields. Even Winston Churchill, no lover of India, was genuinely outraged by the horrific nature of this murderous event.

India would have to endure many upheavals and another world war before independence was won.

Hall of fame

CAXTON blog

Caxton Hall is close to major London landmarks such as Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, St James Park, and Buckingham Palace. Yet, it is hidden away in Caxton Street, not only from the casual visitor but also from the attention of contemporary London life. However, this has not always been the case.

Built as Westminster’s Town Hall in 1878-82, it was designed by the architects W Lee and FJ Smith. Its architectural style has been described as an “Ambitious but coarse essay in Francois I style”.[1] It is distinctive looking building that attracts the eye.

The Town Hall contained two large public spaces known as the Great and York Halls[2]. Prior to the 1930s, these halls were used for a variety of gatherings including political meetings. Between 1933 and 1979, Caxton Hall became a registry office where weddings (often of celebrities) were held.

In 1900, the first Pan African Conference was held in Caxton Hall. From February 1906, it was the venue for meetings of The Women’s Social and Political Union, which was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, a fighter for women’s suffrage. Being close to the Houses of Parliament, Caxton Hall was a convenient place for the women to gather before their regular marches to the home of Parliament.

On the 1st of July 1909, Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie was shot dead at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington by an Indian nationalist, Madan Lal Dhinghra, from the Punjab. On the 5th of July[3], four days after the assassination, many Indians gathered at Caxton Hall to condemn the actions of Madan Lal Dhingra. Although most of those attending supported the motion “ that those present at the meeting and all the communities of Indians both in India and Great Britain express horror and condemnation of the murders of Curzon Wyllie …”, there was at least one person who opposed it as this extract from my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets” describes:

“When the Chairman announced that the resolution had been passed unanimously, Veer Savarkar, who was in the audience, shouted:

No, not all!

Thereupon, mayhem broke out. People were filled with fear as many of them knew Veer’s connections with revolution and bomb-making . Many shouted that he should be thrown out and a few chairs were brandished angrily. A Mr Edward Palmer[4], of mixed British and Indian ancestry, took it upon himself to:

“… plant a truly British blow between the eyes of Savarkar who had raised a chair to fell me… ”

Tirumal Acharya, who helped to defend Veer from further attacks by Palmer, first thrashed Palmer and then began helping his friend get away from the hall .  Before this, VVS Aiyar had threatened Palmer with a gun, but Veer winked at him to restrain him . A few days later, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, who was unable to attend the meeting, wrote to the London Times, saying that if he had been present, he would have supported Veer’s objection even at the risk of being thrown out . He added that although he objected to the resolution and believed in the right to express one’s own opinion, he did not consider that assassination and anarchism was the right way to achieve the independence of his country.”

For those who do not know, Veer Savarkar (VD Savarkar: 1883-1966) has assumed great importance in today’s India. He was a prolific writer, an Indian nationalist and freedom fighter, and helped formulate the concept/philosophy of Hindutva, which is part of the foundation of Hindu Nationalism.

Although Savarkar did not remain in the UK for much longer after this meeting, seeing Caxton House, now converted to luxury dwellings, and knowing its connections with those people I have researched in some detail sends a shiver down my spine.

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”

by Adam YAMEY

is available from:

Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and Kindle

Notes to the text of the blog:

[1] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1357266

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caxton_Hall

[3] Much detail from Times (London) 6 July 1909

[4] Edward Palmer was of mixed Indian and British descent. Maybe, it was he who founded Veeraswamy’s Restaurant in London in the 1920s (see: https://erenow.net/biographies/white-mughals-love-and-betrayal-in-eighteenth-century-india/1.php, and https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-British-Curry/, both accessed 15 June 2019)

The Patient Assassin

Assass

 

I love browsing in second-hand bookshops. Occasionally, I come across really good books that I had not previously known about. The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand (published 2019) was one such discovery.

The Patient Assassin is about the life and exploits of  Udham Singh (1899-1940), a pro-independence, anti-British activist. Some of his friends were killed in the notorious Jallianwalla Bagh massacre  in mid-April 1919. Under the command of General ‘Rex’ Dyer, several hundred innocent men, women, and children, were shot dead within the closed space of Jallianwalla Bagh, a walled public garden in Amritsar. Many others were injured in this cruel attack whose supposed purpose was to subdue the people of the Punjab so that they would not rise against British rule. 

Dyer died of illness in England, having been proclaimed a hero for his malevolent deed. Michael O’ Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, who thoroughly approved of what was done at Jallianwalla Bagh and other horrific treatment of Indians, retired to London.

Udham Singh had friends who were killed at Jallianwallah Bagh. He made it his mission to kill O’ Dwyer. The author of Patient Assassin, Anita Anand, traces Udham’s complex and mysterious life from the Punjab to London, where he shot dead O’ Dwyer at a meeting at London’s Caxton Hall in 1940. Ms Anand weaves an exciting tale based on her researches of Udham’s colourful and exciting life. Her book about a real person makes far more engaging reading than most fictional thrillers. 

I was very pleased to stumble across Anand’s book for two reasons. One is that it turned out to be an un-put-downable read. The other is that it chimes with something that I have been working on.

In mid 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra, who like Udham Singh came from the Punjab, shot dead Sir William H Curzon Wyllie, a retired important British administrator in India, at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. This assassination horrified the British nation and many in India. 

Dhingra had come to England study engineering at University College London several years before shooting Curzon Wyllie. He had become involved in the freedom fighting activities that were centred on India House in Highgate between 1905 and early 1910. It was Dhingra’s fatal shots that hastened the demise of India House, a student hostel and meeting place which was regared by the British as a ‘centre of sedition’.  I have almost completed writing a book about India House and its members, including Dhingra, and it should be available for sale soon. Its title will be “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.

Finding Ms Anand’s book quite by chance was a great delight for me. Unintentionally, it might almost be considered a kind of sequel to what I have just written.

Be reasonable

Booking

Last year, we were booking our daughter into a simple home-stay by the sea in Kerala, India. While we sat in the owner’s office, I spotted a framed certificate issued by the Booking.com website. It showed that the home-stay had earned a 9.8 out of 10 satisfaction rating. I congratulated the owner for achieving this. Sadly, he told me, the latest rating was now 9.4.

“That’s still pretty good,” I said.

“Maybe,” the owner replied, “but it keeps going down. The problem is the Indian guests who stay at my place.”

“Why?” I asked.

“When foreigners come and pay £10 per night, they know what to expect,” the owner began, “but when Indians come here they expect accomodation worth £100 even when they are only paying £10”

“The problem is,” he continued, ” that Indians arrive expecting included breakfast, a swimming pool, and other facilities, for which they would usually have to pay £100 or more. These are not available at £10 per night. So, when they write their reviews on Booking.com, they give us a low rating, which is not fair given how little they have to pay. These low ratings bring down my overall rating.”

I sympathised with the man, who then admitted:

“I would rather have no Indians staying here. I prefer the foreigners because they know what to expect of budget accommodation.”

When I stay at places that I have booked on Booking.com, I tend to be over generous with my rating unless there is something very seriously bad about the place. Also, when choosing where to stay, I am not put off by ratings of just over 6 out of 10. I have often found hotels with lowish ratings to have been under-rated because people have been over-critical about minor defects.

So, when you next rate a place you have visited, try to be fair and reasonable with your ratings.

Tastes change

Once, long before ‘political correctness’ became fashionable, when my wife was an undergraduate student, she asked two Nigerian students whether they preferred their tea “black or white “. They looked at her indignantly before answering aggresively: “with milk“.

When I was a child, I drank tea without milk. That was the way my parents preferred it. That is what I became accustomed to. If I sipped even a little tea with milk, I felt nauseous. Tea with milk, as served in England, is made by adding brewed tea to milk or vice versa depending on your preference.

My prejudice against tea with milk persisted until I began visiting India in 1994. At first, I was suspicious of the “white” tea on offer, but soon began to enjoy it. I think that this is because it is made differently from that which is served in the UK.

In India, tea leaves are boiled vigorously with milk. Often additives such as sugar, crushed ginger, cardamom, mint, and lemon grass are added to the hot bubbling mixture. After a while, the boiled milky tea is passed through a strainer, often cloth, and served in cups. The resulting drink is a harmonious blend of the flavour of tea and the additives. In my opinion, it tastes quite different from, and much better than what is served in England.

I have visited India many, many times since 1994. Apart from developing a great fondness for the country and its people, my tastes in food have changed for the better as a result of my exposure to life in India.

TAXI DRIVER

Like London, Bombay is heavily dependent on workers who were not born in the city. This is the case for most of Bombay’s multitude of taxi drivers. Many of them came to the city from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

During a long journey from Colaba in South Bombay to Bandra, we spoke to our cab driver, ‘P’, from UP. A well educated man, he has been driving his black and yellow taxi in Bombay for well over 20 years. For most of the year, he drives for 14 hours per day, 7 days a week. His wife and children live in his village in UP. Much of the money he earns pays for his children’s education.

P owns his taxi and has a small house in Bombay. Occasionally, his family come to visit him in Bombay. Thrice a year, P visits his village in UP. There, his family have land where they grow a wide range of vegetables such as carrots, cabbage,potatoes, aubergines, rice, wheat, and more. While he is away from Bombay, he hires a driver to work his cab.

P feels that the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is good for India because he seems to be reducing corrupt practices amongst the country’s civil servants. Another good thing that Modi has done, P told us, was to ensure that everyone including humble village people have bank accounts. In the past, state benefit payments were given to the panchayats (local village councils) to be distributed amongst the intended recipients. The panchayats usually deducted an amount from the beneficiaries’ payments and kept it for themselves. Now that everybody has a bank account, the state pays the people without intermediaries and be sure that the recipients receive the whole of the amount intended for them.

In P’s words, the Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi is “… lacking in talent”

P said that people in UP spend too much time worrying about what their neighbours have achieved and criticising them jealously instead of getting on with life. As he put it: “They don’t care about what they eat in their own homes, but instead what their neighbours are consuming .” People in UP are lazy, P said, they do not want to work; they just want to drag you down. In contrast, he said, people in Bombay are too busy working, trying to make a living, to care about what their neighbours are up to.

Although P has prejudices, which he barely concealed, he is intelligent and knowledgeable. At one point in our journey my wife mentioned two brothers, whom she had once known, and said that they were named after twins in the Hindu myths collected in the Mahabharata. “Madame,” the taxi driver said politely, “They appear in the Ramayana.

Later, when my wife told P her name is Lopa, which is short for ‘Lopamudra’, our driver immediately recounted the mythological origins of that name.

P, like many other drivers of black and yellow taxis in Bombay, is keen on conversing with is passengers. In contrast, most of the drivers of Uber cabs in Bombay, whom we have encountered, tend to be sullen and reluctant to chat.

MOTHER IN LAW

This story was related to me by a good friend. She suggested that I publish it on my blog because it illustrates certain attitudes still prevalent in India. I have changed the details for obvious reasons and will tell it in the first person.

This happened during my days as an undergraduate student in the early 1970s. Those days, we were all hippies, often high on dope. I had a fling with Raj. Nothing came of it.

Later and quite by chance, I found myself enrolled in the same postgraduate course as Raj. We got together again, and I became pregnant. Although we weren’t married, I wanted to keep the child, who was conceived out of love, not as a result of rape.

One day, Raj, without informing me where we were going, took me to his parent’s home. I was not dressed appropriately for such a visit, to meet a boyfriend’s parents. I was in shirt and jeans, wearing non matching socks and tatty sneakers.

When we arrived at his home, not only were Raj’s parents waiting to meet me, but also various of his uncles. Raj’s mother, let’s call her ‘Mom’, made me sit beside her and the men left the room.

“So, where did you do it?” Mom began, “was it in a hotel?”

“No, in my room at the hostel” I replied, wondering why she needed to know.

“Oh, in your room… very liberal,” she commented.

“And how many times did he do it?” Mom enquired.

Irritated, I replied:

“Too many times to remember.”

Then, the men returned to the room where we were sitting.

Raj’s father addressed me formally: “My son has been unjust to you. We will honour you by asking you to marry him.”

Raj and I were duly married. Just before our wedding, Mom took me to be examined by a gynaecologist. I was surprised as I had already consulted one before I was introduced to Raj’s parents.

Years later, it dawned on me why Mom had taken me for the gynaecological examination. She was probably checking that I really was pregnant, and not falsely claiming to be with child in order to entrap her son into matrimony.

To save face, Mom always told people that my child was born three months later than its true birthday.

Read what you wish into my friend’s story, but try not to be surprised by it. After all, deciding ones spouse by means other than by arrangement is still relatively uncommon in India.

The Old year in flames

The ending of the old year and beginning of the new one is celebrated all over the world in a variety of ways and at different times of the modern calendar. For example, the Chinese, the Gujaratis, the Parsis, the Jewish people, and the Russian Orthodox all celebrate the start of a new year on different dates. People, whatever their personal beliefs, also celebrate the end of the year on the 31st of December.

Cochin, which is a historic port in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was a Portuguese colony for a while in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Papaanji (spelling varies!) is named after a Portuguese word meaning ‘old man’.

Every year, a giant Papaanji is erected in a centrally located open space in historic Fort Cochin. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the Papaanji is stuffed full of dry straw and fireworks. The roads around the open space are closed to motorised traffic. Despite this, a few youths on motor bikes manage to enter illegally.

After sunset and during the evening of the 31st of December, the area around the Papaanji fills with vendors and ever increasing numbers of people. Some of these merrymakers wear masks and others wear glowing red devil’s horns.

During the few minutes before midnight on the 31st, unbelievable numbers of people gather. The strong tide of people resembles a powerful surge of water such as you might expect if a large dam has just been breached. The crowd adds much noise to the cacophony of sound being relayed over various loudspeakers. Several times, I was almost knocked over by this human tsunami.

At midnight, the crowd became even noisier when flames began leaping from the ignited Papaanji. First, I could only see billowing clouds of smoke. Soon, frightening flames became visible. Then, bursts of stars appeared as the fireworks exploded.

Within minutes, the conflagration and fireworks ended. The old year, represented by the Papaanji, had been burnt out to make way for the new one. The crowds began to thin out a little, but despite that, it was quite hazardous trying to leave the area.

For an hour or two after midnight, boisterous revellers created much noise in the streets. The whole affair seemed to be generally good natured.

I am glad that I have seen the Papaanji aflame, but once in a lifetime is enough for me.