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Eye on England 22-03-2009

Love and loss in London The funeral took place at Guildford Crematorium last week of Mrs Sheila Gupta, 74, mother of Ananda Gupta, who is active in Tagore-related cultural activities in London, and widow of Alak Chandra Gupta, who had been an acting Chief Justice of India. Sita’s student From Luton to Leicester Double wedding Fine judgment Tittle tattle

By AMIT ROY Brothers in arms: Manjula Sood inspects troops Knotty affair: Katie Waldegrave and Indrojit Banerji
  • Published 22.03.09

Love and loss in London

The funeral took place at Guildford Crematorium last week of Mrs Sheila Gupta, 74, mother of Ananda Gupta, who is active in Tagore-related cultural activities in London, and widow of Alak Chandra Gupta, who had been an acting Chief Justice of India.

When Ananda returned home after his first day back at work as an NHS ophthalmologist, he found the experience “very painful because all her things are still here — I can feel her presence”.

He would have found some solace, though, in the funeral service which demonstrated that among the Asian communities in Britain, none has absorbed the Christian ethos of life more than the Bengalis. In keeping with Mrs Gupta’s wishes, the part-Christian service was led by the Rev. David Hobden, chaplain at the Royal Surrey Hospital. He had comforted Mrs Gupta during her final days when she was terminally ill with cancer.

He read from Psalm 23 (“though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”) and Revelation Chapter 21 Verses 1-7. When he concluded with the truly universal Lord’s Prayer, many joined in.

Mrs Gupta had bequeathed her love of the arts to Ananda, who ensured that Rev. Hobden was followed by some of his mother’s favourite pieces of music, including an old song, Tota Pakhi Re, sung by Sikha Chowdhury — Ananda later released not a parrot but a white dove. A song, Tumi Chhere Chhile, sung beautifully by Bithi Purkayastha, left few dry eyes.

What was innovative was A.R. Rahman’s theme from the film, Bombay, played on a violin by Aritra Bhattacharya, a fresh recruit to the Household Cavalry orchestra.

Ananda was lucky in one respect. He could, at least, be with his mother during her last days. Part of the migrant experience, as illustrated in the film, The Namesake, is to get a call or a telegram from India informing the son or daughter settled in, say, London or New York that a beloved mother or father has “expired”. As Ananda will find and as my brothers and sisters discovered with the passing of our young mother when we were children, a loss in London somehow connects you for ever to the soil of England.

Sita’s student

We all remember inspirational teachers with great affection. Just as I will never forget Father Cleary at St Xavier’s in Patna, Patricia Hewitt won’t forget Sita Narasimhan at Cambridge.

Patricia, 60, who has held several senior cabinet appointments, took over last week as the new chairman of the UK India Business Council, the body which promotes bilateral trade between the UK and India.

Patricia certainly knows her stuff because she was the cabinet minister responsible for trade and industry from 2001-2005, the longest anyone has held the post since the 1950s.

In this job, Patricia was much involved with India but her introduction to the country had started four decades earlier when she was part of the influx of bright young things freshly arrived in the UK from her native Australia.

“I came here as a student in the late 1960s, read English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge,” explains Patricia. “I found myself in the extraordinary position of being a young Australian student, reading English literature at one of the oldest British universities, with a director of studies who was Indian — Sita Narasimhan was a wonderful scholar of English literature but also brought a very deep knowledge of Sanskrit.”

Patricia asks me to pass on her respects to her former tutor but Prof. Narasimhan, 80, now lives in Silver Springs in Maryland.

“I remember Patricia Hewitt but, alas, I’ve lost touch with her,” she says. Prof Narasimhan, born in Madras on June 15, 1929, is considered to be “one of the most brilliant persons in the Vangal family”. She learnt German, took a First in economics at Cambridge, then became a member of the English faculty at the university, and also made an in depth study of Hindu religious texts. In 1983, she wrote a biographical essay on another iconic woman, Joan Robinson: In the Radical Vein. A Laywoman’s Homage, in the Cambridge Journal of Economics.

From Luton to Leicester

No Muslim demonstration in Britain has given as much offence as that staged in Luton recently where a group held up banners, “Butchers of Basra”, and hurled abuse at soldiers from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment parading through the streets on their return from Iraq.

While Luton’s Muslims allowed a minority within a minority to exercise their “democratic right” to insult British soldiers, in Leicester, Manjula Sood, the country’s first female Lord Mayor, proudly inspected troops from the 9th/12th Royal Lancers before they, too, paraded through the city on their return from Iraq.

“We should all be behind the soldiers because they do their duty in very, very challenging situations,” she said, expressing the views even of Britons who opposed the Iraq war.

Some of the demonstrators in Luton, who are mainly of Pakistani origin, may merely be misguided folk but they have certainly scored a spectacular own goal.

Double wedding

When Katie Waldegrave gets back from India later this week, she will be able to focus once more on running a remarkable charity, First Story, where she is executive director.

Her job is to get well known authors to visit schools and conduct writing workshops in an effort to foster “creativity, literacy and talent” in deprived children.

This seems to be an idea worth introducing in India as well. The dream would be to get slum children, for instance, to write their own film scripts.

Katie, 28, has been in Jaipur for the Indian part of her wedding to Indrojit Banerji. The couple met at Oxford where Katie read history, Indrojit politics, philosophy and economics. Wedding part II will take place near her parents’ home in Somerset.

Katie’s father, Lord (William) Waldegrave, just appointed Provost at Eton College, was a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Indrojit works for Gordon Brown’s policy “delivery unit” at 10, Downing Street.

Katie’s mother, Caroline Waldegrave, is a well known cookery writer and managing director of Leith’s School of Food and Wine. Should there ever be a tiff between the new bride and groom, it could trigger the first recorded instance in history of a Bengali boy running not to his mother but his mother-in-law.

Fine judgment

The inclusion of Calcutta-based Mahasveta Devi among the 14 authors on the long list for this year’s £60,000 Man Booker International Prize is a tribute to the persuasive powers of Amit Chaudhuri, one of three judges.

“I’m very happy she’s there, of course,” says Chaudhuri, “but she wouldn’t have got in without the full support of the other judges.” Her novels have been turned into films, among them, my favourite, Rudaali.

Tittle tattle

Vikas Swarup’s friends in London are raising a glass of sake to him, not only because W.H. Smith’s, the UK book and newspaper chain, are promoting sales of his novel, Q&A, renamed Slumdog Millionaire, in the section for bestsellers but also to celebrate his transfer from South Africa, where he has been deputy high commissioner, to Osaka, where he will be India’s consul general.