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Literary London, then and now, through Indian eyes

United Kingdom
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1882 Reynolds Map of the East End. by Birkbeck History Department

Mari Marcel Thekaekara reflects on England’s capital city and how its people, food and cultures have ebbed and flowed over the years.

I love London. It’s one of the most vibrant, alive, multi-cultural places I know, though New York is probably a close second. I first arrived in London when I was all of 21. Walking down Oxford Street felt as though I was at the centre of the universe. For middle-class Indians who read more Dickens and Jane Austen and Shakespeare than Indian writers, because we inherited a colonial education system, it's like coming home.

In the early seventies, Jug Suraiya, who worked with the Calcutta Statesman wrote a superb piece on serendipity, the almost indescribable experience of arriving in London and finding everything so familiar because we'd been brought up on a steady diet of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes which made King’s Cross, St.Pancras and the 7:43am to Paddington more familiar than the trains from Trivandrum, Thanjavur or Tellicherry, to the average Calcuttan or Bombayite.

The city has, of course, changed enormously in the last 40 years. In the early seventies, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square teemed with tourists. They still do. But then, you heard a cacophony of languages – Japanese, Italian, French, Spanish, German and various American accents from the Boston Brahmin to the Texan drawl. Merely standing in Piccadilly and watching the world go by was an exhilarating experience.

Today entering the tube has a different feeling. You hear a bewildering mixture of east European languages, together with Russian, Chinese, Bengali and African languages. Many of them belong to immigrants, asylum seekers or EU arrivals in search of better prospects. On tube and bus journeys, there was so little English spoken that I was stunned. There are several stories in that, but we'll leave these for another day.

For people like us, who read so much British literature as part of our school syllabus, it’s pure joy to stumble across a plaque which informs you that William Blake lived here. The East End is filled with the lanes and by-lanes from Oliver Twist, the old Dickensian maze completely re-populated now by Bangladeshis. Where have all the Cockneys gone, I wonder? Brick Lane was made famous to the younger generation through Monica Ali. And Bengali cuisine is more easily available than Fish n Chips.

A friend once drove us through Austen territory. The Lake District is beautiful beyond words and you can understand Wordsworth’s lyrical waxing only if you live through an English winter to watch the first flower emerge through the frozen earth. A host of golden daffodils takes on a new meaning, incomprehensible to an Indian, African or Jamaican school child who, inured to lush tropical greenery, cannot imagine the bleakness of an English winter and the lifting of spirits, the pure joy that spring brings with the first snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells and crocuses. Recently, we visited the Robbie Burns museum near Glasgow. His tiny, modest house proclaimed humble origins. Centuries ago, penury implied peasant origins, and a denial of education. Yet Burns is read and loved all over the world. How, I wondered did he produce such poetry? It’s a fascinating puzzle to pursue.

Bath and Bristol are lovely towns. Architect friend James Bruges however, is a political person. He pointed out that all those beautiful Corinthian pillars and charming Georgian houses came from ships that brought enormous wealth, part of which included profits from slavery. A sobering thought that provides a somewhat different perspective from the genteel ballrooms, dancing, romantic interludes or promenades of Pride and Prejudice!

I wish we in India could preserve and treasure our historic ancient buildings and monuments the way Europeans do. But I was dismayed to see a proliferation of ugly modern buildings emerging around St. Paul’s Cathedral, disfiguring the once beautiful skyline.

Perhaps it’s inevitable. Slowly, inexorably, the times they are a changin'. Even in sunny England.

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