TGC Travel Series: From Calcutta to London – The Raj Inside Out




1. Land of Curry and Yorkshire Pudding

This is the first installment of a series about a journey that is very personal to this writer.

Having been born in London, I spent the first five years of my life here, going to public school before being brought to Canada by my parents. I was brought up as an English boy, and my parents were proud of this fact – it continued as I approached my teens.

With close friends and my mother’s younger sibling as well as her aunt living in the U.K., we made many trips back. London was our regular stop-over on our annual journey to Calcutta in December/ January.

As I approached my teens, I learned that the country of my origin, India was ruled by the British for over two hundred years. Like many Indo-Canadian parents, mine took me to see the Oscar-winning movie ‘Gandhi”, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley. The film’s emphasis on the Quit India movement as the prime impetus behind Indian independence, and absence of Subhas Chandra Bose, whose impact on the freedom movement was surely worthy of mention in the film, galvanized many Bengalis outside of India to reflect on the contributions revolutionaries like Bose, who advocated military resistance to British Rule.

My community in Ottawa was no exception. At Sunday Bengali Heritage Language school and through my own research, I learned that the change in capital city of the Raj from Calcutta to Delhi had everything to do with the activities of daring men and women, villains, some would say, tucked away in North Calcutta, the unplanned un-British part of the city that had been left to the chaos of Calcutta’s ever-bulging ‘native’ population. I read about how while Gandhi and Nehru were imprisoned in relatively decent jails like those in Shimla, Bose, like other revolutionaries, had been jailed in Mandalay and kept under inhuman conditions where he contracted tuberculosis, perhaps deliberately so – as was the practice used by the Police of the Raj to eliminate the most dangerous enemies of the Crown.

The more I learned, the angrier I got. And, I began to resent – loathe my British roots.

On one visit to London, by then a rebellious teenager, I got into an argument with my grand uncle on the merits of the campaign of the Indian National Army (INA), Subhas Chandra Bose’s revolutionary army, which was trained and deployed by imperial Japan. The argument was concluded by him saying “What’s your problem, anyway – YOU’RE BLOODY BRITISH!!” Naturally, he was alluding to my birth in London, and my ever-present right to British Nationality.

It would be a right I refused to claim, though my parents and others around me urged me to do so, in case I should ever wish to study or work in the U.K. My small and silly act of protest – that I would not obtain a British passport simply for the benefits that would accrue to me for doing so.

Decades passed, and as I worked across the length and breadth of North America, even as far South as the US Protectorate Puerto Rico, I began to realize that in my character, an essential “Britishness” had set in long before I was cognizant of it. One of my bosses remarked that my writing style, my choice of vocabulary, sentence structure, too, was all a result of my British Schooling. But I hadn’t studied there for long. My quiet and polite comportment, calm exterior, and the comfort I took in discipline – I came to realize these might well be traits instilled in me during my first five years of life – in London.

If Sigmund Freud, whose ideas are much the object of criticism, today, was right – and the personality if formed by five – then my personality might well be regarded as English through and through. It was never a concept that I embraced but soon grew, grudgingly to acknowledge the possibility of its validity, if not outright accepting it.

As I started to take writing seriously, I was drawn to London. I was put in mind of the words of acclaimed Canadian Writer, Morecai Richler when he wrote about how he learned to become a writer in London – a city for writers. I would soon understand his viewpoint and agree with it. Amidst the grey skies, rain, wind, the people crashing into one another, the sound of the trains and smell of fish and chips (and other less English fare) a writer can retreat into himself in this environment almost organically.

This was something of a contraposition of my attempts to write in Calcutta. Now, let me be clear (lest I incur the ire of Calcuttans, who would seek to wound me with irony): I cannot emphasize enough the degree to which I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Calcutta for being a place where I could land during a creatively difficult period, somewhere I could become motivated to write, again (I had stopped writing for close to a decade by the time I relocated to Calcutta from Canada). But, writing in Calcutta is difficult. The noise, the pollution, the struggling nature of life – it saps one’s strength and wrenches one out of that mental space where words flow so sweetly. It is little wonder that most Calcutta-based writers retreat to the quiet and scenic solitude of Hill Stations rather than attempt to finish their work in what is increasingly becoming the city of Bandhs and Bustee rules.

When my parents and later I lived in London, the place was very British: steak and kidney pie, sausage and Yorkshire pudding, etc. It’s not that this Britain doesn’t exist today – it flourishes in the country – it’s just that increasingly this Britain is no longer representative of London, which has become something of a city-state.

For many years now, the most popular dish has been “curry”. The places in London where native Britons are not a dominant presence is growing. And, notions of being British are changing. In the U.K. of the 70s, the label British Asian was unheard of but, today, this moniker is comfortably used by those whose roots are drawn from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, to name a just a few.

Hence, arriving in London, after so many years – this time to stay for a while – was something of a culture shock. Like many a return journey, I was going back to an image of London, which I had snapped as a still though the lens of mind’s eye. The place had by now become very much an imaginary homeland as the culture of it had evolved – and the still frame in my mind stood in stark contrast to the London I encountered on the street. Ironically, this was not a dissimilar homecoming experienced by me in ‘returning’ to Calcutta – a home from which I never really hailed but which housed, to a great extent, my cultural identity.

Back to London: In this multiracial, multicultural, multi-religious compound of “mates” and “cheers” and “bloody ‘ell”, I was left to find comfort, a sense of being at home in a place I never thought I would see again: a W.H. Smith book store. The chain, now extinct in Canada, bought out by Chapters Indigo, was founded on Little Grosvenor Street, London in 1792 by H.W. Smith and his wife. His son W.H. Smith inherited the fledgling bookshop, and expanded, forming the company W.H. Smith and Son. The chain was the first giant of literary retailers, and pioneered the invention of the ISBN catalogue system, which today, is used globally to reference books for sale.

These facts, which I only happened upon via the internet, in writing this article, had nothing to do with my affinity for the book chain. No…W.H. Smith reminded me of the refuge which I had taken many times in a North American upbringing where the culture of my roots was regularly marginalized by the culture of my adopted home (well I should say forced home, for it was not my choice to live in North America, that right was my parents’). A creative child, locked away in the imaginary recesses of my mind, W.H. Smith allowed me to enter worlds created by others: authors. And I read, constantly.

The sight of the store at Liverpool Street Station in London was a signpost – one which I could use to orient myself, guide my journey, at least from a cultural perspective. For the London of my childhood had dissolved into a massive hostile and noisy metropolis in the intervening decades. And, I could scarcely recognize the place.

Londoners are invariably in a hurry as one will clearly observe in the underground or on the street. Much like New York City, if someone were to fall on the street, they would more likely be stepped over rather than helped. This is London’s loss to the mercenary characteristics of global commerce. In this respect, Canadians are more traditionally British than Londoners.

London is loud and no longer very English with Russian, Czech, Italian, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic crowding the subway amongst announcements on a loudspeaker of stations to come and the ubiquitous advice to “Mind the Gap.”

While in Canada, a person of colour, whether Black, Brown, Yellow – or shades in between, is more likely to be treated well by another person of colour, this seems not to be the case in London. As an ‘Asian’ I was generally treated alright by people who shared my origin as ‘Asians’ – BUT, surprisingly, I was treated universally worse by blacks than whites. In fact, more so than fellow Asians or Blacks, I was treated more congenially by European extracted White Londoners, which is something that was crumbled the architecture of my expectations. As I looked for references chronicling this phenomenon, I found that Mark Townsend of The Guardian had written about it, years ago:

“Only a few experts had observed that the scramble for the scant resources of Britain’s deprived inner cities was a catalyst for conflict between competing communities. For the vast majority, particularly the government, racism remained a strictly black and white issue. Even the Commission for Racial Equality has failed to research the issue of inter-ethnic racism. For its part, the Home Office is accused of ignoring repeated warnings of conflict between black and Asian communities from its most senior strategist into race relations”

I found real kindness in bearded Muslim Bangladeshis – shouldn’t they hate me, a Bengali Hindu? Not so. Common cultural references in an increasingly global world where American culture dominates, seemed to unite us beyond religious lines. This was personified by a shopgirl at a cosmetics store. Hearing my wife whisper to me in Bengali, the lady shifted from English to her more comfortable language, knowing my wife and me also spoke it, noting “The Bengali spoken by people from Kolkata is very sweet.” My wife replied, “As is the Bengali spoken in Bangladesh.” Sufficed to say, this is not an exchange that would occur in the sub-continent where, even my own in-laws deride the Bengali spoken by “Bangals” (those whose roots are from East Bengal, now Bangladesh) as a corrupted form of the language.
I have been told it is the same for Punjabis across religious lines in whose discourse the merits of Lahore biryani are debated against those of the Lucknow and Hyderbadi variants.

Similarly, in Brick Lane, where Bangladeshi restaurants abound, and where my wife and I expected to find authentic East Bengali cuisine, wherever we ate, we were chased by that ubiquitous concoction of spice and oil, a common gravy known generically as “curry”.
This all leads me to conclude that British Asian is the wrong term – they would better be called Curry Brits, united by that common gravy.

The British, it seemed, almost seventy years after dividing the sub-continent, had seemed to unite her people in a common cultural mix – in London. Who would have thought?

Stay tuned for more on our Europe trip, including a Rickshaw Ride from The Eiffel Tower to the Louvre in Paris as we compare the City of Joy to the City of Lights.

©The Global Calcuttan
All Rights Reserved