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

Ignorance is bliss

DURING MY UNDERGRADUATE student days in the very early 1970s, a good friend, who is now my wife, suggested that a group of us should visit one of the then very few Japanese restaurants in London. The one we chose was in St Christopher’s Place, close to Oxford Street.

We decided to order sashimi, raw fish. I chose to have a plate of tuna sashimi. I had never eaten raw fish before, but after my first bite I decided this was a very superior way of serving fish. The sashimi was more than delicious. I would have loved much more than the five neatly cut pieces of tuna, which was the portion size. However, I could not afford that luxury.

The five bite sized pieces of tuna cost £7. And, in the early 1970s that sum could pay for a lot of food or other goods. For example, a Penguin paperback book cost 12.5 or 17.5 pence and a gallon (4.5 litres) of petrol was well under £1.

I was left hungry after our visit to the Japanese restaurant, and had to assuage my appetite at a fast food outlet.

Today, the price of Japanese food in London has dropped relative to what it was almost 50 years ago. Outlets like Itsu can provide a satisfying Japanese set meal for little more than £7. Better quality Japanese restaurants are justifiably more expensive, but not usually way out of reach, as was my plate of sashimi in St Christopher’s Place.

We used to visit a lovely Japanese restaurant in Holland Park side street. It was run by an elderly couple from Japan. It closed when they retired. For a year or two, we did not eat Japanese food in London.

One Saturday evening, we were watching a play at the National Theatre. It was not satisfactory. So, we walked out after the first act. We decided to drive to Ali Baba, an Egyptian eatery near Baker Street.

On the way, I thought that if we were to see a Japanese restaurant, we would stop and eat there. I stopped the car outside a Japanese restaurant near Bloomsbury and suggested to my wife that we ate there. She agreed and we entered the small eatery.

We looked at the menu and then looked at each other across the table. By chance, we had walked into a very (no kidding) expensive place. We were on the point of walking out when I said to my wife:
“Let’s eat here. I will enjoy it if I don’t see the bill. You check it, and I will hand over the card.”
Ignorance is bliss, and so was the food.

Pictures taken at Harima restaurant in Bangalore, India

A writer’s confession

HIG 2 BLOG

NOBODY IS PERFECT, not even yours truly.

I was a pupil at London’s Highgate School when I was studying to take state examination, then known as ‘O Levels, taken by 16 year olds. I was studying for 9 subjects, but decided to drop one of them, German. Its grammar was beginning to defeat me and to jeopardize my chances of success in the other 8 subjects.

German was not the only language that was causing me trouble as I approached the O Level exams. Unknown to me and possibly unnoticed by our English teacher, Mr B, my command of written English was insufficient for me to pass the English Language O Level exam. It was the only O Level that I failed. I passed the other subjects, but without displaying much academic excellence.

My failure to achieve the pass marks in English Language cannot be blamed on anyone except me, but there were factors that predisposed me to downfall.

During the examination, I attempted an essay that asked the candidate to discuss whether or not it was fair that pop musicians often earned more than nurses. Being by nature somewhat contrarian, I decided to write an essay in defence of the high remuneration of pop musicians. This idea, to which I no longer subscribe, expressed with poor grammar and spelling, cannot have made the person marking my paper feel sympathetic to me.

The other predisposing factor was our teacher Mr B. He was far more interested in using class time analyzing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than ensuring that all of his charges were proficient in basic skills such as grammar and essay writing.

Failing English Language did not prevent or delay my commencing the subjects in which I was to prepare for the A Level examinations that were required for admission to university.

One of my three A Level subjects was biology. The senior biology teacher was Mr S, affectionately known by his first name George. He set us three essays per week. On Saturday mornings, we had a double-length period (one and a half hours) with him. During this, he went through our essays, pointing out their good points and bad ones. The essays of one student, ‘P’ were particularly dreadful. His spelling was awful as was his punctuation: there was none except a full stop at the end of each foolscap page. And, to my annoyance and surprise, P passed English Language O Level at the same time as I failed.

Six months after failing my English Language O Level, I took the exam again. I passed with a good grade. I believe that I had learnt a great deal about essay writing from George’s Saturday essay critiquing sessions. I shall always be grateful to him.

On Saturday mornings, parents thinking of sending their sons to Highgate were shown around the school. The biology laboratory, where the essay classes were held, was on the tour. George, who was a genial old fellow, allowed us to relax during the Saturday morning classes. However, he always told us that if we heard the door to the laboratory being opened, we were all to act as uf we were concentrating on something serious while the parents peered in.

On Friday afternoons, we had a three hour practical class during which, for example, we dissected the parts of dogfish not required by fishmongers. Friday lunchtimes found George drinking in one of Highgate Village’s numerous quant pubs.

George used to arrive at the Friday afternoon practical classes having drunk far too much. For the first hour of the class, he was a menace, arguing with anyone unwise enough to approach him. After about an hour, he used to sit down and fall asleep. The last two hours of the class were supervised superbly by George’s deputy, Mr Coombs.

George was a wonderful teacher. He inspired his pupils’ enthusiasm for biology. Like my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, his range of interest extended from microscopic intracellular detail to the whole organism. Once, when walking to the Dining Hall with George, he stooped down and picked up a fallen tree leaf. He asked us what kind of tree had produced it. None of us knew. He said:

“That’s the trouble with you youngsters. You know all about DNA, but you cannot recognise a leaf from a plane tree.”

George was, as far as we knew, probably celibate. When we reached the part of the biology syllabus that dealt with human reproduction, he told us:

“You know all about this. You can read up the details in the book.”

I have wandered from my starting topic somewhat. Maybe, you were beginning to believe that I was trying to distract you from my sad performance in English and from thinking that, given my record, I have great ‘chutzpah’ writing and publishing books.

Picture shows coat of arms of Highgate School, founded in 1565

The Gay Hussar

THE USAGE OF THE WORD ‘GAY’ to refer to same sex relationships dates back to the 1960s.

Before this time, back in 1953, Victor Sassie opened a Hungarian restaurant in Greek Street in London’s Soho district. It closed a few years ago in 2018.

Apart from serving Hungarian specialities, the Gay Hussar was a popular meeting place for politicians.

My father was often invited to meet his colleague, friend, and occasional co-author the Hungarian born (Lord) Peter Bauer at the Gay Hussar. Dad was not too keen on the fare at the restaurant because he found it too rich and a bit heavy. I only ate there once. I thought that the cooking in Hungary was better than that on offer in Greek Street.

The Gay Hussar was not the only Hungarian eatery in Soho. The other was Csarda in Dean Street. This closed long before the Gay Hussar. It is one of my few minor regrets that I was never able to eat at the Csarda.

The ‘unearthing’ of an ashtray from the Gay Hussar is what prompted me to write about this no longer existing restaurant.

Eye and brain

MEMORIES TRIGGERED BY A PHOTOGRAPH RECENTLY TAKEN NEAR OUR HOME

I first met Catherine during the final year of my BSc in 1973. She was teaching mammalian reproductive physiology. After that, I met her again in 1977 when I began studying dentistry and also attended weekly etching and engraving classes taught by my mother’s cousin Dolf #Rieser. Catherine was another of Dolf’s pupils, and one of his best. I stopped attending these classes on 1982, when I moved to Kent.

Occasionally, I visited Catherine and her husband Brian in a street near where this picture was taken, a street close to our flat.

In about 1994, when Lopa and I had been married a few months, we ‘bumped’ into Catherine in a street quite by chance. We invited her and Brian to dinner. Thus began a close friendship between them and us.

Soon after our daughter was born, we had major building work done in our small flat. Catherine and Brian kindly let us stay at tjeir place for a few weeks.

Catherine employed an elderly lady called Bridie to do ironing several days a week. Bridie and our young daughter fell in love with each other. Catherine suggested that Bridie would probably be a good babysitter for our little one.

Although Bridie was well into her eighties, she was alert and very sprightly. When our daughter was old enough to attend school, Bridie would often collect her and look after her at home until we returned from work.

Bridie was (is??) a committed Roman Catholic. Our daughter, even when a toddler, took a great interest in matters theological. One day, Bridie told our daughter that if you are good in life, then you will go to heaven when you die. To which our daughter, who has an Indian mother, replied:
“Well, us Indians never die, Bridie. We just keep coming back again.”
This indicated an early appreciation of the concept of reincarnation.

Sadly, both Brian and Catherine are no more than memories now. However, whenever we walk in the streets near where they used to live, we remember them vividly. Dolf Rieser left this life long before ourvtwo friends. As for Bridie, we have no idea. If she is still around, she would have passed her hundredth birthday long ago.

The leaning tree

LATE 18 leaf

“A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS” It is not known exactly when this well-known sentence was first used, but an article in Wikipedia suggests that one of the first times it appeared in print was in an advertisement for a Texan newspaper, the “San Antonio Light”, in 1918. I do not know whether I can write a thousand words to put the attached picture in context, so you will have to make do with what I am able muster.

Just over a year ago, my wife and I were ‘wintering’ in India. We left our daughter looking after our flat in Kensington. One day, she sent us a message informing us that one of the old trees in our street had toppled over in the middle of the night.

The tree that fell always looked precarious as its trunk leaned over the road at quite a sharp angle, making it tricky to park a car next to it. A neighbour told us that it had done so for well over a century. His evidence was that the very same tree can be seen leaning over the road in an old photograph of our street taken about 150 years ago. So, the tree was not inherently unstable.

Many years ago, while walking through woods with my old PhD supervisor (and by then a close friend), he pointed out the variety of shapes and inclinations of the tree trunks around us. He wondered how a tree ‘knew’ how to grow in various directions whilst maintaining a centre of gravity that stopped it toppling over. Clearly, our late lamented leaning tree ‘knew what it was doing as it had been leaning seemingly precariously for at least a century and a half.

After we returned from India, there was a bare patch where the tree had stood for so long. A neighbour, who makes it his business to find out in detail what happens in our small street told us what befell our tree. The local council decided to move the position of the curb and so to widen the pavement around the tree, the idea being to narrow the road at that point and thereby prevent parking next to the tree.

Unfortunately, the workmen assigned to carry out this job managed to cut through part of the tree’s root system. This destabilised the tree, which then fell over across the street. While falling, the tree damaged a first-floor balustrade and terrace on a building across the street. Luckily, there were no human casualties.

For some months, the site of the fallen tree remained treeless. Then, a small tree with a slender trunk, a sapling, was planted by the council. Day by day, we watched it producing leaves. These changed colour in the autumn, looked sickly, and fell off, leaving a sad looking spindly tree. Then, we spent another winter in India.

When we returned in late February this year (2020), the young tree was still standing and still looking lifeless. As the weeks passed, we were very pleased to see buds forming on its slender branches. These buds have grown in size and are, at last, unfurling to reveal the tiny leaves seen in the photograph.

It is pleasing to see that even in these troubled times, nature has something positive to lift our spirits.

Well, I have reached about 580 words, not quite a thousand. However, as the saying goes, I hope my photo is worth at least a thousand words and is something to enjoy.

Watching

It gives me great pleasure and sense of wellbeing watching the ducks, moorhens, geese, swans, seagulls, and other fowl, swimming in or sitting close to the water bodies on London’s parks.

Sometimes, I have spotted rarer birds such as herons, cormorants, and pelicans (in St James Park). Golders Hill Park in northwest London used to have flamingos. I do not know if they are still there.

I often wonder what the birds think about the humans, who come to visit them, that is if they think at all. Are we good company for them or simply an occasional source of welcome food waste?

It does not matter to me whether or not they think, so long as they are there to give us all a pleasurable experience and that they are enjoying life in an avian kind of way.