A LONDON YEAR - An international city that has also long been an Indian city
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- Published 28.07.12
On the last day of June, I went to the nearest branch of the NatWest Bank and paid the sum of 43 pounds and 94 pence, this being the money I owed to the Westminster City Council. With that act I formally ended a year as a bona fide, tax-paying resident of the most interesting city in the world.
New Yorkers may contest this judgement, but despite the many attractions of the Big Apple, London still holds the edge. For one thing, the architecture is more appealing. The buildings are elegant, and on the human scale. They speak to you in a way that skyscrapers cannot. The city’s crescents and squares lend it an eccentric charm that the straightforward grid of Manhattan does not contain. And there are many more parks in London, as well as water bodies of various shapes and sizes.
London is also, in social terms, at once more diverse and more integrated than New York. On its streets and subways, Arabic and Hindi jostle with English and French (and, increasingly, Polish). New York, by contrast, is essentially monolingual. (To be sure, first-generation immigrants speak their language at home, but on the streets at least it is mostly all English). At the same time, in London, blacks and whites and coloureds are less rigidly separated by social class or place of residence. As a result, there are more mixed groups in the parks and restaurants of London than in the parks and restaurants of Manhattan.
I would have enjoyed my year as a Londoner in any case, but I enjoyed it more because of where I lived. I had rented an apartment in Maida Vale, a leafy neighbourhood that is a short walk from Lord’s, the loveliest of cricket grounds, and a slightly longer walk from Regent’s Park. In my native Bangalore, the footpaths have long since been claimed by cars. Unable to walk on the roads any more, I am forced to exercise on the treadmill. On the other hand, on every clear day this past year, I would walk past Lord’s to Regent’s Park, take three or four rounds of the lake before walking home by another (and equally attractive) route. The exercise took an hour, the pleasure made purer by the Hindustani classical music that I listened to on my iPod.
I was fortunate in where I lived, and luckier still in where I worked. I was teaching at the London School of Economics — an institution, which, in terms of antiquity and academic prestige, is ranked slightly below Oxford, Cambridge and the great American universities of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and MIT.
The LSE has, however, one inestimable advantage over those other places of learning — it is located in a city in the centre of the universe, and thus regularly visited by scholars from Asia and Africa, North and South America, and of course Continental Europe. Its location and its attractions mean that a Mozambiquan historian wishing to travel to Brazil is very likely to route his journey via London. So too the Indian sociologist travelling to San Francisco or the American political scientist studying the Congo.
Making use of this strategic location, the LSE showcases a more impressive series of public talks than any other institution in the world. Harvard or Columbia might have specialists from other universities coming in for departmental seminars, and occasional public lectures for a wider audience. But the LSE has, during term time, as many as four different public lectures every day. The student, professor and alert private citizen are all spoilt for choice. Thus, on the same evening, one might have Paul Krugman speaking in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, the lawyer who attended on Nelson Mandela speaking in the Old Theatre, and an expert on Egypt speaking at the Hong Kong Theatre.
Living as I do in Bangalore, a placid, even-tempered city not known for the vigour of its intellectual life, I took full advantage of my temporary good fortune. I heard more good talks in a year than I would in my home town in a decade, perhaps several decades. I listened to (and was educated by) several superb lectures on the Arab Spring, attended an excellent panel on Latin American politics, and heard a learned (and witty) disquisition on the relative merits of the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes.
London is an international city which has also long been an Indian city. The first desis who passed through or lived in London — in the 17th and 18th centuries — were sailors, sepoys and domestic servants. They were followed by maharajas and nawabs and, from the 19th century, by students and professionals.
To the historian of modern India, London carries a special significance, for it bears the imprint of the remarkable Indians who passed through its streets and houses. Rammohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore spent extended periods in the city. The Grand Old Man of Indian nationalism, Dadabhai Naoroji, lived here for several decades, in which time he served a term as the member of parliament from the London locality of Finsbury.
The LSE, where I taught, is the alma mater of, among other people, V.K. Krishna Menon, K.R. Narayanan, and B.R. Ambedkar. Just north of the LSE is Holborn, which once had a vegetarian restaurant that a young M.K. Gandhi regularly patronized. Just south-east of the LSE is the Inner Temple, where Gandhi articled to become a lawyer. Gandhi returned to the city he had known as a student in 1906, 1909, and 1914, travelling each time from South Africa. He came back one last time in 1931, to plead the case for Indian independence.
On each of these visits, Gandhi spent several months in London. He walked a great deal, and talked a lot too. He was deeply attached to the city, and had many friends in it. During the World War II, even as he prepared to launch a final ‘Quit India’ campaign against the British, he wept at the prospect of Westminster Abbey and the House of Parliament being damaged or destroyed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
My office at the LSE was in Columbia House, which is on the north side of the curving road known as the Aldwych. Across the road was India House, the office of our High Commission in the United Kingdom. This past Republic Day, January 26, I had to meet a friend for lunch at the India Club, a place allegedly founded by Krishna Menon and where he certainly spent much time during the 1930s and 1940s. To get to the Club, I had to walk past India House, where a small group of elderly, bearded demonstrators were shouting slogans such as “Who is the greatest terrorist? India!” and “Indian Occupying Forces — Leave Kashmir!”
As I walked past the diasporic nationalists, I saw a young man taking photographs, these no doubt to be uploaded on the internet or conveyed to the press. I ducked past the protesters, and turned into the narrow lane that was to take me to my destination. Here I passed a bust of Jawaharlal Nehru, recently re-erected after it had been damaged by a band of Sri Lankan Tamils protesting against India’s role in their homeland. It was altogether a very London experience, made more curious (and poignant) by the fact that Nehru, whose statue dominated one side of the temporarily besieged Indian Embassy, was of Kashmiri origin himself.