Madras in London

Moving across the Atlantic, S. MUTHIAH finds that London was a home away from home.

FLYING out of Newark we were travelling late. And with all the baggage I was toting around on an unnecessarily complicated itinerary, I was headed for trouble. And sure enough at London's Heathrow, two of the monsters failed to arrive.

Heathrow had changed quite a bit in the year's since I had last been to London and I no longer seemed suspect in the eyes of yet another Asian Immigration Officer who had obviously been put through a customer-handling course and actually smiled and wished me a good time catching up with old friends. Heathrow was not only looking livelier but it was also getting friendlier. The long wait at the luggage carousel, however, slowly dampened my spirits, and it was in a blue mood that I turned to my carrier's helpline. And who should I get there but a Madras maami, all booted and suited and smiling great promise that the bags would turn up on the next flight. Sure enough they did, but she turned her Madrasi bureaucratic best when I pointed out the damage to one of them. This was beginning to be not the most auspicious start to negotiating seven destinations in 10 days. But a glorious London summer's day helped push into the subconscious all the hassles I had had with those "maximum alloweds" even before they went walkabout.

First day out was to catch up with Gemini News Service, for whom I had been writing from the time they had started 40 years ago, following its founder Derek Ingram, doyen of Commonwealth journalists, for whom I had written in two of his earlier avatars. A focus on Afro-Asia and developmental journalism had a lot of takers in those early pre-Television, pre-dotcom days, particularly when Nehru's non-aligned doctrine had committed believers in a couple of score countries. Things had changed much since those days, but Gemini had struggled on - and still struggled on, with Derek no longer its guiding force but still an occasional contributor.

Having forgotton how to read my London A-Z alright, I wound up further from Gemini than I had planned and Shanks's mare was summoned. A brisk walk on another lovely summer's day was an inviting prospect but I had not reckoned with London taking a lesson in pavement-laying from when Madras had pavements a year or so ago and with my forgetting in those couple of years how to negotiate them. One pair of non-aligned pavement slabs sent me sprawling, flat on my face, and when a young man sprinted across the road to help me up, he offered valuable advice: Telephone the city authorities and tell them you intend suing them. You should have done it, was advice I was to hear from others over the next couple of days when London began to seem like home: dug up in many an area, mounds of earth from the digs making pavements non- existent, badly laid slabs making other pavements danger zones, and, forced on the road, finding the traffic uncaring.

There may have been no further mishaps on the roads that morning, but getting into Gemini was like trying to break into Fort Knox with all the security systems its new home boasted. Also new was all the hitech inside, but there was a surprised Danny Nelson just as I had last seen him a few years ago when he did a stint with Down To Earth in New Delhi and now he was talking of a stint in Timor or some such place, but he remembered to ask me out for lunch, saying, "I have a surprise for you too." Minutes later there was Derek - and still talking about "let's do a pub" and adding in his usual breathless way, "I'll also show you along the way a bit of London I bet you haven't seen."

Gemini is in the heart of London at its most crowded, but a few blocks down we were in Parkland in Islington where old warehouses had been converted into modern apartment blocks, offices and, most spectacular of all, an architect's home and offices with a view of the action within. A path led down and down ... and there was tree-shaded canal, its sun-dappled water gently flowing ... miles and miles, Derek said. This was the old Grand Union Canal, once a major "thruway" for goods transport, but now a bit of London's heritage and, judging by the houseboats lining it, home to scores of people in the quietest of surroundings, so quiet by the water's edge was it that you would not think for a moment that you were in the heart of London. Certainly, living on it seemed the life of Riley to judge by all that bare flesh being toasted on almost every deck by both sun and the passers-by.

A climbing rickety stairs took us to a "water rat's" pub, its grey, rough and weathered wood over a century old, furniture that seemed as old and as solid, and a deck overlooking the canal. No burly and bearded ex-sea captain presided over it; the owners were Chinese and she was NOT that day serving that very English lunch on the menu. We, however, found that lunch a few blocks away, in a much bigger pub and one still reflecting the age when franchising had not become the name of the game. Here there were good, solid trencherman's meals and all the "luving" and smiling you wanted from the two girls serving. Here was a little bit of England that had not changed - unlike those pubs elsewhere that had become franchises or under new influences.

Down Ealing, Wembley, Greenford and Harrow way in West London, they ought to be called "plubs", laughed my host. Here, where the Gujaratis and the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Punjabis appeared to be everywhere, where the underground appeared to be filled with only South Asian passengers, and where a Greenford state school taught Tamil and Indian classical dance all day long to hundreds on weekends, almost every other pub and restaurant was owned by someone from the subcontinent. The Woodlands franchise was owned by a Punjabi and had a couple of Mangalorean staff, a Chinese restaurant was owned by a Jaffina Tamil and had Kerala staff and the pub our three carloads of families crowded into was Gujarati- owned and Sri Lankan Tamil-run. This "plub" had an all-South Asian crowd in it watching an Euro Cup football tie and there were plenty of wives in the crowd, wearing sarees, salwar kameezes, but most popularly that trouser-blouse-cardigan uniform. And that is where I got an explanation for why he had called it a "plub". Apparently this pub, like many others owned by South Asians, had registered as a club. That enabled the staff to ask strangers for their membership cards and refuse entry to those without. Membership, it soon became obvious, was for South Asians and their guests only; that is what was made it possible for many of us to bring our wives and daughters here, explained one in the party. Offering as the "plub" did some of the most authentic North Indian and spicy Sri Lankan food I had eaten abroad, it would have been a pity if the women had been unable to enjoy it, appeared to be the feeling around the table.

The next day was Tuesday, and months earlier Michael Moore had decided, "If it's Tuesday, it must be the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is a bit of history I'm sure you've forgotten". To tell the truth, it was history I had never really known and, more significantly, never thought about. But it came as one of the pleasantest surprises I have ever had in London.

Tall, ramrod straight, indefatigable Michael Moore is an ex- Guards Officer whose transformation to corporate chairman and managing director of several companies is a model to follow. I first met him as Chairman of London International Group, one of whose joint ventures was Madras's London Rubber. India's forts and palaces fascinated him and every couple of years he would explore them in a different part of India. Once, after clambering all over Gingee, we came to a much smaller rock fort, Tirumayam. I had been to it as a child and every year since passed it half a dozen times. But I had never done it with Michael Moore. After scrambling all over the rock and leaping onto and off fortifications, he suddenly plumped himself down on an outcrop in the fort overlooking the western plain. And there, staring into the distance, he communed in silence with... well, it could only be the ghosts of a turbulent past when the fort was an outpost that would forewarn a kingdom, while holding up the attacking horde for precious hours. As the two of us with him twiddled our thumbs, the minutes dragged on and on. Half an hour later, as he got up and started racing down the rock, he kept muttering. "How perfectly sited, how perfect!" The Tondaimans of yore would have appreciated the compliment.

Having remembered all that in his sumptuously restored, furbished and multi-levelled old row house in Belgravia, spent too long washing my hands in a bathroom that was both art and photographic gallery, and said "No, thank you" to his offer of an evening at the Royal Opera for whose restoration his wife was chairing the fund-raising committee, off we went to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discover the surprise he'd promised me. Once inside that massive classical sprawl, it soon appeared that it was his turn now to offer me a place where it was now my turn to stand and stare.

What awed me I will leave till next Sunday where it can have space to itself uncluttered with today's miscellany.

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