Republic Day

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.

Ambedkar in Bangalore

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.

Died in vain

THE FOCAL POINT OF GOLDERS GREEN (in north west London) is where Finchley Road meets Golders Green Road and North End Road. Here, there stands a monument to those inhabitants of Golders Green who lost their lives in the two World Wars.

The monument’s basic design is typical of many British war memorials erected all over the British Empire during the 1920s. Standing on a square base, this type of memorial resembles a tall obelisk, truncated by not rising to a point. The monument, which doubles up as a clock tower, in Golders Green, was erected in 1923. It includes lists of the names of those who were killed during each of the two World Wars.

A similarly designed memorial (but without clocks) was erected in Bangalore in 1928. It stands on a triangular traffic island at the intersection of Residency and Brigade Roads. It commemorates members of various battalions and regiments of the Madras Pioneers, who fell in the following campaigns: East Africa 1914-18; Mesopotamia 1916-18; The Great War; and The North West Frontier 1915.

The monument in Bangalore bears no names, but only numbers. For example, in Mesopotamia the following fell: 1 British officer, 3 Indian Officers, and 69 “NCOs and Pioneers”. For each campaign the statistics are given in both English and Tamil scripts.

Most of those men of Golders Green, whose names appear on the memorial there, were most likely volunteers, who believed that the British Empire had to be defended. I wonder if the same could be said for the Indian soldiers who are commemorated on the monument close to one of the busy shopping streets in central Bangalore.

Many Indians sacrificed their lives for the British Empire during the two World Wars and other military campaigns designed to maintain British dominance in the world. Unlike the men of Golders Green, many of the Indian victims were fighting for a cause in which they had no interest and from which they could expect little or no benefit, especially during First World War.

A great tragedy, which accounts for much loss of Indian life during WW1, was the belief amongst many Indian leaders (including MK Gandhi during the last months of the War) that by helping Britain to fight they would be rewarded with reforms that would bring India closer to self government. Indians had been as good as promised increased freedoms in exchange for fighting in the First World War. Although, many Indian lives were lost in WW1, these sacrifices were not considered by the British to merit any loosening of their grip on India, the jewel in the crown. Indeed, the opposite occurred. One needs only remember the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919 to see what I mean.

I found it sad that whereas in Golders Green, the dead are remembered by their names, in Bangalore the monument only records statistics. In 1928, the individual Pioneers were, apparently, not important enough to be remembered as individuals, members of families like those in Golders Green.

Matterhorn

It is hard to say which is my earliest memory. I believe it was going to St Albans church hall in Golders Green (in north-west London) to collect orange juice with my parents. I was born in 1952. In the early 1950s, the government supplied young children orange juice free of charge. The juice, which was free of the ‘bits’ that are found in many of today’s orange juices, was supplied in glass medicine bottles with cork stoppers.

 

MATTER 1

St Albans church hall in 2017

Another early memory dates back to 1955. We had just disembarked from an ocean liner in Cape Town. There were tram-like tracks embedded into the concrete of the quay. Adventurously, I put my foot into the groove of one of the rails, and then could not remove it. This caused quite a commotion as my mother carefully detached me from the rail along which large cranes travelled. This might be an actual memory, or someone may have told me about it later.

I do remember my first morning at primary school, which I entered aged 4 years. My parents took me to Golders Hill School on the first day along with my little friend Anthony. We stood next to each other in the front row of the assembled school. Suddenly, another boy, a complete stranger, pushed himself between Anthony and me. He said: “I want to be your friend.” He was Nick, and we remained friends for almost twenty years. I have only seen Anthony once since that day at school.

Every day at Golders Hill began with assembly. We were lined up in rows while our names were called out. We were required to answer in Latin: “Adsum”. As I did not start learning Latin until after I had left the school, I had no idea why we were required to say this peculiar word, which I later discovered means ‘I am present’.

Following the roll-call, we had to recite something, which to my young mind began with something that sounded like “Our father widgeartahev’n”. This recitation included many other words that were new to me. No one ever explained why we were saying this, or what it was. It was years later that I realised that we had been saying the Lords Prayer at high speed.

 

MAT 2

Golders Hill School in 2017

During the morning assembly, we stood facing the teachers and the then Head Mistress, Miss Davis. The latter used to cycle to school with her three corgi dogs stuffed into the basket at the front of her bicycle. The dogs spent the day resting in her office. On the wall behind the teachers and facing us pupils there was a black and photograph of a snow-topped mountain. Why it was there, I never found out, but unlike the other mysteries of roll-call, we learned that the mountain in the picture was the Matterhorn.