Range of colours
Late spring in London
- Published 12.06.18
Travelling between Bengal and England means moving from one of the greenest places in the eastern hemisphere to one of the greenest ones in the western one. However, the greens of an English May and June are very different from those we see at home. Latitudinal colouration being what it is, the pre-monsoon greens in Calcutta get a slightly toasted brownish tint whereas the freshly populated branches of London trees carry a lot more of certain shades of temperate green and yellow, interrupted by the darker hues of the pines that have stayed fully clothed through the winter.
The air outside the airport is shockingly fresh, even for those of us skulking in the designated smoking area, even as the big coaches sway slowly past, emitting their diesel fumes. The one place where the air is not nice is in the Underground. Somehow, for all their efficiencies, the Tube people have not managed to bring air-conditioning to many of London's lines. When entering the tube system this means you are always unpeeling the upper layers of your clothing, and then re-peeling them as you go up the escalators into the much cooler air outside.
From Heathrow I take the long Piccadilly Line almost all the way to its other end. Getting out I haul my saman on to a bus where the travel card reader isn't working. Getting off the bus I drag the suitcases to my friend's house. It's a schlep and a half but the parsimonious sector of my soul is pleased that I have traversed the whole of London for under five pounds.
The next morning, sending up my smoke towards the jet contrails in the blue sky, I note that the birdsong is also, unsurprisingly, very different from what one gets from the trees in Calcutta. On the bus, however, the nattering of the two ladies wearing Gujju style saris is very familiar; in the corner shop the Gujarati accent is different, the man behind the counter has clearly arrived only recently from Ahmedabad and his English hasn't yet picked up the burrs of local speech. Travelling to the East End, the ear picks up more semi-familiar sounds, Sylheti and Bangla from the eastern sister-country. Ramzan/Ramadan has just begun, and near Whitechapel the assistants stand outside the eateries calling out the competing Iftar menus. I have a beer with a couple of friends in the bar directly across the road from the East London Mosque. One of them helpfully points out the various institutions adjacent to the mosque, identifying each building with various extremist groups. We go for dinner to the supposedly legendary Tayyabs nearby and the place is heaving with people who've beaten the Iftar rush. Our burra kebab aka 'lamb chops' arrive promptly, too promptly, and we send them back - they are undercooked and chewy, the marinade superficial. A change of order brings a mutton curry and a karela daal, both of which are about five out of 10. The staff is friendly and courteous so we leave the place not entirely unhappy, the soft Lahori Punjabi playing in our ears.
It's not that fooding pleasures are in short supply in late springtime in the food capital of the world: there is a reasonably priced hamburger, much missed when back home; there are different great pizzas; a friend does a dinner with a spread of the most delicious non- desi vegetarian grub; the seasonal salads and summer fruitings are glorious, another friend puts a rack of lamb in the oven and serves it with what he calls 'failed Iranian rice', both rice and Persian lamb superb; there is dim sum, there are Japanese noodles, there are Turkish kebabs. Post-arrival gluttony can add to weight and bad cholesterol but this can be countered by huge amounts of walking, averaging between seven to 10 kilometres a day, which is again something that is much missed in the world capital of anti-pedestrianism that is Calcutta.
There is much to love and enjoy in London, but equally you cannot ignore the increasingly visible homeless on the pavements, the many, many mentally troubled poor who are stumbling around the streets, the beggars being bullied away from the sidewalk tables of Soho wine bars by tough-elbowed security guards, many of whom are themselves clearly migrants from eastern Europe. In certain armpit corners of the city you can see other new immigrants from the 'Middle' East and Africa scrabbling to understand this strange country in which they have landed. In other areas you can see the disaffected white English boys staring aggressively at anyone of colour. Late at night, at one bus-stop a large white man glares at the ground in front of him before breaking into a shout, "White power!" Silence, glare and then again the ear-shattering roar, "White power!"
Politically, things are relatively quiet in the United Kingdom at the moment, Theresa May's slow-motion hara-kiri has now become a boring backdrop to everything, Corbyn is being Corbinious on various issues and attention is turned to Trump's kin, Trump himself and Kim. At a conversation at the London School of Economics, Amartya Sen and Yogendra Yadav mince no words warning us of the dire place in which India currently finds itself. At another party, experts on Rajasthan and Gujarat swap funny stories about the same dire situation. At the reception of a literature festival, someone states authoritatively that the Bharatiya Janata Party will win around 170 seats in the next Lok Sabha elections. Someone praises Rahul but says RG and Akhilesh are biding their time and not expecting to come to power in 2019, "but they will support anyone who won't destroy them".
In the cricket, Pakistan manages a great victory at Lords only to ruin it in the second test. In the tennis, Nadal marches to another red clay triumph. No one cares, all eyes are turned to the football, to the World Cup that's about to begin. Pubs and bars are putting up banners and strings with the flags of the participating countries. The local Italian pizza joints are not joining in, Italy not having made it to the World Cup probably for the first time ever. "Eh! I don't care now!" The Puglian café owner tells me. Then he asks, "Oo do you support?" I tell him not to be so disappointed about Italy, and that I don't expect India to make their first entry into the World Cup in my lifetime. English hopes are kindling though, and many people I know have temporarily put aside their club rivalries to get behind the the Three Lions crest. Walking near the old West Ham stadium I see a statue of footballers put up to celebrate England's one and only World Cup win in 1966, with local hero Bobby Moore at the centre of the group. The statue looks old and dirty and as if it's from some century far older than just the last one. I'm not going to support England in any sport ever but this time I feel warmly enough towards the English to hope they have a good Cup and at least survive the group stage.