MY FATHER, BASIL Yamey (1919-2020), lived until he was over 101. Between about 1950 and 1991, he lived in our family home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. From my birth until 1982, I lived there, and afterwards I visited my then widowed father almost every weekend.
Dad was an academic, an economist, at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). He became a senior professor long before he retired.
AFTER OUR HONEYMOON in the south of India, we returned to Bangalore, where we disembarked from an overnight bus from Ernakulam (in Kerala) at about 4 am on the 26th of January 1994. Several hours later and incredibly bleary-eyed, we joined many other residents at a gathering in a courtyard of the apartment block in the city’s southern suburb of Koramangala. Mr Zafar Futehally (1920-2013), a noted naturalist and one of the senior tenants, stood by a flagpole and made a brief speech. Then, the flag of India was raised, and everyone dispersed. It was Republic Day, the significance of which was unknown to me back in 1994, when I made my first visit to India.
Now, I know that on the 26th of January 1950, two and a half years after India became independent, the Constitution of India came into effect and India became a republic, having briefly been a Dominion since the 15th of August 1947. The Constitution was drafted by a committee that was led by Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). After leaving school, he was educated at the University of Bombay, then at Columbia University in NYC, and then at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). While in London, he qualified as a barrister as a member of Gray’s Inn.
Long after 1994, I learned that Ambedkar had lived in a part of London with which I am familiar. He resided in a house near Primrose Hill and Chalk Farm, where the Roundhouse is located. In my recently published book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”, I wrote:
“Another reformer and patriot lived near Regents Park Road. He was Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), who championed India’s Dalits (‘untouchables’) and formulated the Constitution of India. Between 1920 and 1922 while he was studying at the London School of Economics and for the Bar, Ambedkar lived in a house at 10 King Henrys Road near Regents Park Road. In 2015, the house was bought by the Government of Maharashtra and was then converted into a memorial to Ambedkar. It is open to the public. Visitors can learn about Ambedkar from the well-captioned photographs on the walls of the rooms that they can wander through. The upper floor contains a re-construction of Ambedkar’s bedroom including a four-poster bed, some of the great man’s books, and an old pair of spectacles, which might have belonged to him. Other rooms contain shelves of books and various memorials to Ambedkar. There is also a commemorative plaque to India’s present Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the memorial house in November 2015. The garden contains statue of Ambedkar clutching a book (the Constitution) in his left hand. A few years ago, neighbours of the Ambedkar house complained about it, concerned that it would attract swarms of tourists.”
Although he could never have met him, Ambedkar’s home in King Henry’s Road was not far from the house in which Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) lived for several years.
The statue portraying Ambedkar statue in the garden of his former London home is typical of those found all over India. Apart from helping to give birth to India’s Constitution, Ambedkar campaigned for the rights of the Dalits (the ‘Untouchables’), as mentioned in the quote above. The Dalits were excluded from the four caste Varna system of Hinduism and considered by many Hindus as the lowest of the low, fit only for menial tasks that members of other castes would not deign to consider doing. Ambedkar, born into a Dalit caste, campaigned actively for the ending of social discrimination against this class of people. Mochis (cobblers/shoe repairers), who handle leather, are often Dalits. The best place to find a mochi is on the pavement beside a road. Sometimes, they sit on the ground surrounded by their tools and footwear awaiting repair. In other cases, they work from little stalls that can be locked up when they are not at work. These stalls often bear images of Ambedkar in honour of the man who did much to help the Dalits. What with the huge numbers of statues of him and of portraits on the stalls of mochis, Ambedkar must rival Gandhi as being one of the most frequently portrayed politicians of modern India.
So, every Republic Day, it is appropriate to celebrate the birth of the republic and the adoption of the Constitution, but we should not forget to raise our hats and flags to Ambedkar, the brilliant man who did far more than father the Constitution.
MY PARENTS, ESPECIALLY my mother, were keen that I learned to swim. It took me a long time to learn this activity. For many years, I was taken to various indoor pools to take lessons with a variety of swimming teachers, some professional and others not. One of the latter was a young Asian lady, who gave me a few lessons in the pool at the White House. This was not the famous establishment in Washington DC but a 1930’s apartment block, now a hotel, near Great Portland Street Underground station in London.
The teacher, who had no success with getting me to swim, lived in the White House and was recommended to my parents by another resident, a family friend, whom we knew as ‘Sakki’. Like my parents, Sakki was born in South Africa and my father told me that his family and Sakki’s were either remotely related and/or in business together. Both Sakki and my father were on the academic staff of the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). Sakki was the anthropologist Professor Isaac Schapera (1905-2003). He had become an expert on the anthropology of indigenous people of Botswana and South Africa. Amongst his many published works was “The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa”, published back in 1930.
Apart from providing me with one of my many swimming instructors, Sakki took a great interest in my sister and me. He gifted me several books, amongst which was several books about the adventures of Hergé’s cartoon character Tintin. These were in French and were volumes that were at the time neither available for sale in the UK nor translated into English. When I graduated with my PhD in 1976, he presented me with a two-volume book about magic, myths, and science.
In the very early 1960s, Sakki joined us on a family driving holiday in France in our smallish Fiat 1100. My mother, who had been involved in a serious car accident in the 1930s, had installed seatbelts in our car, a rare thing for the time. Sakki had to travel in the rear seat with my sister and me. Sakki had his own seatbelt (lap design), and my sister and I were strapped together in the other belt, separated from each other by a pillow. It soon became obvious to my parents that Sakki was not enjoying being confined in the rear of the car with two young children. My parents solved the problem by stopping at regular intervals at roadside cafés so that Sakki could enjoy a glass of cognac. This seemed to help him tolerate the journey, about which I remember little else.
During my childhood, Sakki was a regular visitor to our family home. He used to amuse us kids with comical verses, only one of which I can remember. It sounded to my ears something like this: “Olke, bolke, reeby, solte. Olke, bolke, knor.” While writing this piece, I looked for this on the Internet, and now know that what he was telling us was the words of an Afrikaans song that goes:
“Olke bolke Riebeeck stolke, olke bolke knor…”
Well, now, many years since I last saw Sakki, I know that what he was telling us was not his invention, as I had always believed as a youngster.
Sakki underwent surgery on his vocal cords. This affected his speech badly and drove him to avoid socialising in his later years. However, he did visit our home on at least one occasion after his voice had been affected. I was a young teenager then and I can still remember that when he spoke, all that one could hear was a hoarse, rasping, whisper. After conversing with me for a few minutes, he said to me:
“You don’t have to whisper just because I am talking so softly.”
And then he added:
“I have noticed that everyone with whom I talk gradually lowers their voice to a whisper whilst they converse with me. It is strange how the loudness of my voice affects that of people who are talking with me.”
That people unconsciously adjust their voices to match that of their interlocutors made a great impression on my young mind, and I have never forgotten it.
I do not believe that I ever met Sakki again between 1976 and 2003, when he died. By then, the White House had almost completely changed from being an apartment block to becoming a hotel. Sakki lived there until he died and was one of the place’s last full-time residents from the time before it became a hotel with a few flats.
And, just in case you are wondering, I did learn to swim eventually, not at the White House but in the pool of the old YWCA near to Tottenham Court Road station.
The Berlin Wall ceased to be a barrier between capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany in late 1989. It marked the ending of the ‘Cold War’ and the recent collapse of the former USSR.
At that time, my father made an interesting observation, which I want to sahre with you. He is a retired academic at the world famous London School of Economics (‘LSE’). The LSE had a large number of academics with an expert interest in politics. He told me that the end of the Cold War had come as a complete surprise to his colleagues, who professed to be experts on the subject. Not one of them had predicted either the downfall of the USSR or the ending of the Cold War. I was staggered by this information, and my faith in ‘experts’ reduced a bit.
So, now when I listen to ‘expert’ after ‘expert’ giving opinions on the outcome of ‘Brexit’ and the future of politics in the UK (or elsewhere), I take what they say with the proverbial ‘pinch of salt’.
Picture: The emblem of the DDR, sourced from Wikipedia