Mom's UK diaries 2: TheTime of My Life


I had posted a write up by my mom on her memories of England from the 70s. Here is the link to her earlier post on England. She wrote the second post just as I left for Australia. I was too caught up with my travels, work and posts. So here you are, rather late, is the second and final instalment from UK. Please leave in your comments so that I can print them and send them to her. Hearing from you means a lot to her.



Travelling & eating across Britain

Another favorite haunt of ours was the seaside by Broadstairs in Kent. It was a beautiful city not  very far  from Canterbury. Charles Dickens, the famous Victorian novelist, lived in this city. Most Indian students have grown up reading his novels. ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘Pickwick Papers’ are some of those novels. His house was very well preserved. It needed entry free for going inside. I still remember the big writing table and the pen holder used by Charles Dickens. The house had polished wooden floor.

There was a cozy and homely restaurant nearby. Quite often we used to have crab sandwiches there. The taste still lingers in my mouth. At that time, crab sandwiches were not very common. On special occasions, we used to have dinner there by candle light. K’s dad used to have steak for which this restaurant was very famous. I always found steak to be very tough so K and I used to have something else.

Idyllic Broadstairs & busy Blackpool

The sea beach of Broadstairs was very beautiful. We used to spend the whole day there basking in the sun. English women looked very beautiful in colorful bikinis. The Britishers came to the beach with their families and dogs.

There were no hawkers on the beach. A few food stalls were there on the shore. Food was allowed on the sea side. But the English were so disciplined that they did not make the beach dirty by throwing wrappers here and there.

While on the beach, I loved to watch the white sea gulls resting on the dancing waves. Sea gulls are British version of Indian black crows. Both are scavengers and of similar sizes. Only difference is that the sea gulls can swim whereas the crows cannot.

When there was high tide, we used to pack up our things and run towards the shore. During web time, the water used to recede and jelly fish looked like punctured white plastic bags. Baby crabs crawled all over the beach. Golden sun rays of the setting sun made everything look magical.

Blackpool was another sea beach in Lancashire county, which the Indian doctors very much  liked to visit. Unlike Broadstairs, it was commercialized to attract tourists. The beaches were paved. Horse – carriages and trams ran on the paved sea beach to attract tourists. There were many shops on the beach which sold fish’n chips, seafood, costume jewellery, souvenirs etc. At night, the sea side used to be illuminated by strings of colorful lights. Casinos and a few discos were there too. A mini Disneyland type  of place was also there for the children to play.

You might think that these are very common sights in all sea beaches. But thirty five years ago even in the U.K. , the beaches were not commercialized to attract tourists. Most of the beaches were natural. Only a few, like the Blackpool, beach was commercialized to attract tourists.



The Indian doctors visited other places too besides the sea beaches. Whenever they got two or three days holidays, they used to go to Oxford, Cambridge, Lake Districts, Stratford-on-Avon and many other places by car.

Bed & Breakfasts

While on the move, these doctors used to stay at night in ‘Bed & Breakfast’. This was a unique concept for the Indians at that time. Quite often the landlords in the U.K. used to give one room of their house on rent. The rooms were very cosy and had comfortable beds. They were kept spic and span by the landlady. These ‘B&B’ were cheaper than hotels while providing all the comfort and privacy of a hotel room. In the morning , the landlady used to lay the table for breakfast, the price of which was included in the rent. It used to be a lavish spread including grapefruit juice, freshly baked bread, butter, jam, sausages, bacon, ham, poached egg, cornflakes, milk and last of all freshly brewed coffee.

Driving to Wordsworth’s home,  the Lake Districts

We too used to travel far by car whenever we got a chance. The most memorable among them was Lake Districts, the land of the 19th century romantic poet William Wordsworth. As the name indicates, this land was full of lakes which ran for miles together. I instantly fell in love with the place when I saw it for the first time. I started looking for the yellow daffodils, which Wordsworth has made world famous by writing his poem ‘The Daffodils’, ‘Ten thousand I saw at a glance!’ wrote the poet, describing a cluster of daffodils. I did find a few daffodils here and there but not a cluster of them as described by the poet. While teaching ‘The Daffodils ‘in India. I had to take out photos of daffodil flowers from my old album as daffodils do not grow in India.

We saw the river Wye and Tintern Abbey, about which I had read in Wordsworth’s poems. Then we went to see Wordsworth’s house. It was a beautiful and well preserved house with very high entry fees. All his belongings and his books were on display. One thing I remember even today is the Grandfather clock of Wordsworth’s time. It I had a cuckoo inside it which used to come out every hour and say ‘cuckoo’, ‘cuckoo’. We too waited with the other visitors to hear the sound of the cuckoo. It came out at the right time and thrilled all of us by its voice. At that moment , I felt that there was nothing else in life to ask for.

Driving to the lake District


The Land of Shakespeare

Another place that I remember even today is Stratford-on- Avon, the land of Shakespeare. I was besides myself to see the statue of Shakespeare, grapevines, orchards and foremost of all the open air Shakespearean theatres. They reminded me of all the tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare. I could imagine Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Falstaff lining up one after another.

Incidentally, when we were in the U.K, a retired British matron of a NHS hospital named Peggy Cox, gifted me a gild edged ‘Complete works of Shakespeare’ which she had inherited from her father in law. It is now nearly one and a half century old and is one of my most prized possessions.

Our Kohinoor at The Buckingham Palace

Near home in London the ‘must see’ places for the Indians were Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square, River Thames etc.

Among them the one that drew my attention most was the ‘Kohinoor diamond’ in London which the British had acquired from India. You had to enter a huge iron safe, after a lot of security check, to see the diamond. It was kept on a rotating table inside a glass top. The dazzling diamond was as big as a pigeon’s egg. As I kept looking at the diamond, I felt a pinching sensation in my mind. But after so many years, I feel perhaps it is better that the diamond is in London. At least it is safe there otherwise its fate might have been like Tagore’s Nobel prize emblem which went missing from Bishwa Bharati  University museum in W.B.

Another place of interest in London was Madame Tussauds museum, where all the statues are made of wax and are very life-like. A few statues of Indian dignitaries were there. But I do not remember their names. Gandhiji must have been one of them. Wax Statues of Bollywood superstars were not there at that time. Many of them might not have been born at that time . (That’s what they say. Ha! Ha!). What attracted my attention most was the scene of guillotine. During French revolution, many people were executed by guillotines, the killing machine. Even today it gives me goose bumps when I remember the scene

Indian doctors went as far as Wales and  Scotland. But they rarely went to Ireland as it was very disturbed at that time.

The Yuletide spirit spreads

Not only did the Indians doctors go to different places in the U.K. They also actively participated in all the festivals of the country. The most important one being Christmas celebrations.

Christmas parties were held in the hospitals too for the doctors, nurses and other staff. Wives and friends of the Indian doctors were also cordially invited

In some hospitals, on Christmas Eve, the doctors and the other staff used to take out a procession holding candles and singing carols. It was a very fulfilling experience. On Christmas day, a new born baby of the hospital used to be kept in the crib under the Christmas tree along with other usual decorations. Lunch on Christmas day was strictly a family affair for the British. The lunch usually consisted of roast turkey and boiled vegetables followed by some sweet dish. The Indians also had turkey on Christmas day but in the form of curry.

The hospital authorities sometimes arranged Christmas dinners for the doctors and their wives. Aristocracy was the keyword of these grand dinners.

The grand Christmas dinner

In the dining hall, five or six tables were joined together and covered with white table cloth. The guests would sit on both sides of the table facing one another. The table would be laid with warmed up plates and an array of spoons, knives and forks. From this array of cutlery, you would have to pick up the right spoon, knife and fork for the right food. You would also have to know which glass is used for which drink

Table manners were followed very strictly. Measured talks and measured smiles were the characteristic of these dinners. Dress code was also to be observed though I always attended these dinner parties in sarees with matching gold ornaments. The English admired Indian sarees very much and never objected to my wearing it in the dinner party. In fact, all Indian ladies at that time wore sarees in the U.K.

Usually a five course dinner was served. The first course was soup, bread and butter. The main course consisted of roast duck with lemon or orange sauce/ roast turkey or chicken along with mashed potatoes and boiled vegetables. Then came fruit salad /pudding/custard. Instead of Indian ‘paan’ (betel leaf), guests were served chocolate mint followed by coffee. The dinner ended with ‘After Dinner speech’ by the hospital chief

For the young generation of India, these table manners and etiquettes are just ‘a way of life’. But four decades ago in most of the Indian homes people did not even use dining tables. Only in cosmopolitan cities like Delhi, we had just started using dining tables. All these’ nitti gritties’ of table manners needed some practice by the Indians

Celebration loving Indian doctors celebrated Christmas in their own way by holding Christmas parties. We too one year held an ‘open house’ Christmas party in Canterbury for all the staff of the hospital. Both on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, they came in hordes to wish us ‘Merry Christmas’ and have some drinks and snacks.
K with an English doc friend of ours


Mrs Taylor. K’s Canterbury Nana

There was another regular visitor during Christmas. She was eighty year old Mrs Taylor, our next door neighbor. She would bake a Christmas cake and come to wish us ‘Merry Christmas’ along with a gift for baby K. She was the most fabulous British lady I had ever seen. She called herself K’s ‘Canterbury Nana’. She literally took me under her wings and cared for me pre and post my delivery.

On sunny days, K and I used to go Mrs Taylor’s garden, which was actually a small apple orchard. We used to talk endlessly while picking red apples from the trees now and then.

On some afternoons, I used to engage myself in knitting and Mrs Taylor used to be busy in putting laces on the border of my 6 yard long saree with her nimble fingers. We used to enjoy the sun. Sometimes we used to be visited by Mrs Taylor’s friends, among whom some were Christian nuns, who used to live nearby. On such days we used to look forward to Mrs Taylor’s home made cookies and apple pies made with the apples of her own garden

One year, we invited all the friends of Mrs Taylor, including the nuns, for Christmas dinner and served them Indian food. They loved it very much and blessed us from their hearts.

K's Canterbury Nana


‘Eating for Britain’ …Indian, Chinese & the Pubs of England

With apologies to Simon Majumdar, author of the book of the same name, son of a Bengali Orthopaedic Surgeon (!) and Welsh mother - K

Now I am going to talk about the eateries of the U.K. The first and foremost were the English restaurants. But the price conscious Indians did not like to go to these English restaurants. They  felt if they could get the same cold salad, boiled vegetable and roast/ grilled chicken in hospital mess at a subsidized rate why go to a restaurant. Moreover, they found English food to be very bland as compared to Indian food.

There were quite a few Indian restaurants in the U.K at that time. Though they were called ‘Indian Restaurants’, they were actually set up by Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan. These restaurants mostly served ‘Moghlai food’ and was cheaper than British food. The English liked the spicy Indian food and frequented these eateries quite often. The ambience was also quite good.

There was one Indian restaurant in Canterbury owned by Rehman Chacha. We became quite good friends. Sometimes he would get some special’daal’ for us when we went to dine there. It was ‘masoor daal’ with garlic ‘tarka’ specially cooked for the owner and the staff. It was very tasty. I tried to cook it many times following   their recipe but it did not taste the same.

‘Chicken tikka’, I hear , is very popular now in the U.K. and the British are thinking of taking its patent. But at that time I did not notice any special craze for ‘chiken tikka’ in the U.K.

The Chinese restaurants too did not lag behind. As we loved Chinese food very much, we used to go to a Chinese restaurant in Canterbury quite often. But we always used to take two fat green chillis (procured from local Greek shop), hiding them in my handbag, because Chinese food without green chilies did not taste the same.

There were quite a few Chinese restaurants in London near Piccadilly Circus. Here I had the best Chinese food that I ever had in my life. The moment we opened the door, the strong smell of prawns, chicken, pork, soya sauce and sesame oil greeted us and made us instantly hungry. The specialty of these restaurants was huge shrimps. When cooked, they took a big round shape. These shrimps were cooked without any batter so we could get the real taste of these shrimps. Whenever in London, I used to persuade K’s dad to take us to these Chinese restaurants. (Now I know where I got my love for authentic Chinese – K)

Here I must say a few words about the pubs of the U.K. ‘Pub culture’ was ingrained in the social system of the U.K. We have read about ‘ale houses’ even in the books written in the 14th or 15th century. ‘Ale’ was a kind of drink. These pubs also served soft drinks along with snacks. These places were more for socializing than for drinking. ‘House proud’ Britons were very shy of inviting people at home.  In the pubs, they met their friends and neighbors. ‘Dog loving’ Britons brought their dogs too. You could sit there for a long time buying only one drink.

The atmosphere was relaxed and could be compared with that of CCD, Barista and Gloria jeans in Mumbai. Some of the roadside pubs especially the ones with the 16th century/Shakespearean looked were very beautiful.

Bazars and Supermarkets

The markets of the U.K. in the seventies were invaded by the big super-stores. There was hardly any individual shops. For the Indians, who were used to neighborhood grocer’s shops and dirty, muddy fish markets these big super stores were something new. You could get everything from pins to elephants in these stores under one roof. The main stores were Marks and Spencers, Debenham, Woolworth, Mothercare and Boots (for medicine). They had their outlets in all the cities of the country. The same shops, the same goods and the same mannequins ogling at you through the big glass panes everywhere.

Apart from these sophisticated stores, there was another category of market in London. This market consisted of Indian and Pakistani shops. They were concentrated in one part of London only and looked like’ Mini Pakistan’or ‘Mini Punjab’

These shops sold Indian spices, green chillies, Indian fish,’halal’ meat as well as sarees. I still remember one Indian sweet shop which was opened by a North Indian doctor. He left his job and concentrated on selling sweets. These were excellent sweets made with pure thick British milk, pistanchio, cashews and almonds. We always made it a point to buy at least a box of sweets whenever we went to London. I do not know if that shop is still there

Now I must say a few words about the fish. Britain, being an island, got plenty of fish. I shall try to give the Indian equivalent name in taste e.g trout,salmon/rohu, herring, mackerel/hilsa, cod/bhetki, plaice/pomfret. Prawns were found in abundance.

Some times the whole shop was a deep fridge. We used to enter the deep fridge and select prawns. On some days, we used to go to the Dover beach to see the fishermen bring boast full of cod fish from the sea. Each fish weighed about 10/15 kg. It was a real feast for the eyes.

Chicken was sold with its skin on .We used to take off the skin, cut it into small pieces and fry them crisply. It was very tasty. Lamb meat and mince meat were also consumed. Beef was usually eaten only in the form of beef burgers and steaks .Everything was cleaned and packed very neatly.

The Bengali’s search for art & culture

No story of a country is complete without a few words about its art and culture.

I remember having seen a drama named ‘Oh Calcutta!’ in a theatre at London. Calcutta had not become Kolkata at that time. After watching the drama, I wondered aloud why it was called ‘oh Calcutta!’ I was told that it was just an expression. Even today I cannot understand how it can be an expression of the British. This title has been adapted by a famous chain of Indian restaurant named ‘Oh Calcutta’

I also watched many Shakespearean dramas in open air theatres of London. We saw another famous cinema named ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ . After a few years, we saw ‘Exorcist’. As children were not allowed in theatres, I could not see many films after K was born.

Every Indian at that time had a two- in- one tape recorder cum radio and a few cassettes which were mostly Tagore’s songs.

Once the Indians hired’ Royal Albert Hall’ and invited famous legendary Bengali singer Hemanta Mukherjee to perform. Another time they brought famous folk singer Nirmalendu Chowdhury to perform. This small step of the Indian doctors probably paved the way in future to host Filmfare festivals, Zee t.v./Sony t.v award functions in foreign countries e.g. Dubai, Singapore, London etc.

Hemanta Mukherjee performs at the Royal Albert Hall


Liverpool: In Beatles Territory

After this we went to Liverpool as K’s dad wanted to do M.ch in Orthopedics from Liverpool University. This was the next higher degree to be acquired after FRCS. This was a tough time for us as K’s dad had to work in Liverpool Hospital side by side for the upkeep of the family. The fees for the Indian students were much higher than that of the British students.

We were given a beautiful flat in a multi-storied building in Merseyside, which was very near Liverpool. It was an 11 storied building. We were on the top floor. When there was wind or gale, the 11th floor used to move and shake. Those days there were not many multi storied buildings in the U.K. Most of the houses were two storied .

Merseyside was separated from Liverpool by a river called Mersey. On sunny days, the river looked mesmerizing from the top floor. When the sun rays fell on the little ripples of the river, it seemed as if thousands of gold and diamond specks were dazzling.

In the beginning, we used to miss Canterbury very much specially Mrs. Taylor. Liverpool, being a city mostly inhabited by the factory workers, was not as clean and as beautiful as Canterbury. But later we got used to the place and started liking it.

We used to go to Liverpool University quite often. It used to take me back my days at the Delhi University.

We admitted K in a play school. No stress was given on formal reading and writing. Emphasis was on motor training. Children were given plasticine and asked to make different types of objects. K was very happy as he got company of other children.

Ma Durga comes to England

We did not go out much as K’s dad was very busy with his studies. But we never missed going to one place i.e Durga Puja in London.

The Indians, mostly Bengali doctors, celebrated Durga Puja in London. There was only one Durga Puja in the whole of  England. They used to hire a hall in London to hold Durga Puja.

The Indians from all over England came to London to celebrate the three day puja. It was like a re-union. People used to come from very far off places even if for one day.

Durga Puja was celebrated with all the devotion and seriousness.

The idols were not immersed in the river every year as in India. It was prohibited to throw any object in River Thames. So the same idols were worshipped the next year.

The priests were two  Bengali Brahmins who worked in London. They were not professional priests but they performed all the rituals with great devotion.

Every year K’s dad used to prepare a sack full of coconut nadus/narus and take them to the hall to be distributed among friends. These sweets were an essential part of Durga Puja. As fresh coconuts were not available, we used to make nadus with desiccated coconut. These three/ four days we used to stay in London and spend the time very happily.

After a while we left Liverpool and went to another place as K’s dad had passed his M.ch exam. We stayed in the U.K. for a few more months and then left for Iran.

This is all about our stay in the U.K as well as about the lives of the Indian doctors in the seventies in the U.K.

Durga Pujo at England


The time of my life

Looking back now, I feel that time spent in the U.K was the best period in my life. We liked the country very much. Though it was very cold, we did not mind it so much as our houses were centrally heated. The one whom we missed most was our ‘dear maid’ but we survived and learnt to do our own work. What appealed to me most were their disciplined nature and their desire to keep their environment neat and clean.

Racism, I hear, is plaguing the U.K. and other parts of the world. But in the seventies we did not face racism much though we saw a few posters here and there. People were quite happy. Jobs were not unavailable. They had unemployment allowance, old age pension and above all the N.H.S, which took care of their illness. There were also day care centres for the old and the infirm. May be all these ‘feel –good’ factors did not let racism raise its head.

Tea Party at Mrs Taylor's Garden at Canterbury with the Knife in a pram


Royalty

No story of the U.K will be complete without a reference to its monarchy. The U.K is one of the very few countries in the world which still has monarchy. People were very respectful of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. So much so that one day when Mrs. Taylor heard the song ‘God save the Queen ‘ on t.v, she immediately stood up. I felt ashamed of myself that I never stood up when I heard our national anthem in the privacy of our drawing room.

The recent royal marriage of Prince William of Wales with Miss Catherine Middleton on 29th April,11 reminds me of the first marriage of the royal family i.e that of Princess Ann. At that time we were in England. I still remember that Princess Ann was very fond of horses and horse racing. The royal wedding was covered on the t.v and the whole nation watched it with great interest and enthusiasm.

Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s marriage took place after we had come back to India, Surprisingly enough, a few days back when I was going through some old papers , I discovered a pencil sketch of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. The artist signed his name as Kalyan Karmakar dated 7th August,1981 . It was the wedding picture of the royal couple. Everything was drawn meticulously. Both wore crowns. Diana’s ears and nose were pierced with rings. She also had pointed high heels. Prince Charles was dressed in a suit with broad shoes. Diana was a bit taller than the prince. K’s age should have been 7 years at that time as per the date of the drawing . I called up K in Mumbai and asked him how he drew that sketch as we were in India at that time. He told me that they were shown a film of the royal wedding in Calcutta International School, where he was studying. That’s how he got the idea.

Drawing was not my forte though as a proud mother said 'great eye for detail. Genius' - K


Many years have passed since we left the U.K. But I still feel connected with that country. That is why I read with interest any news related to it whether it is the royal wedding, any crisis or any other ordinary matter.

Full Circle: Canterbury to Colaba

Last year (2010) in the Yacht club of Mumbai, something very interesting happened which reminded me of this English connection. Daughter –in-law Kainaz’s Jamshed Uncle, who happens to be a wonderful host, invited us to dinner at the Yacht Club at Mumbai’s Colaba . After a sumptuous dinner, Jamshed uncle like a perfect host, took us around to show the club. Upstairs there were halls for ball- dance with wooden floor. Then we came down to the huge hall at the ground floor. There I saw something which made me very elated as well as excited. They were two framed photographs which were placed side by side on the wall. On the left side was the photograph of Smt. Pratibha Patil, President of India and on the right side was the photograph of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of the U.K.

I had not expected these two photographs placed like this there. I stood in between these two photographs hoping to bask in the reflected glory of these two grand ladies. I asked K to take a photo of three of us. He obliged and took a snap with his digital camera. Later he sent me a printed photo of the same to Calcutta and made me exceedingly happy. Everybody that night wondered why I suddenly became so elated to have a photograph taken with those two great ladies. Actually, at that time I felt my English connection. Moreover these photographs symbolized friendship between the two countries.

With the Queen & Mrs President at the Royal Bombay Yacht club, Colaba


I would like to end this post by giving my wish –list . I would like this world to be a place full of love and friendship . Racism and terrorism should be a far cry. Let everyone hold his head high and live in peace so that I can say it with the English poet Robert Browning,

 “God is in heaven and all is right with the world.”

Good bye !

R.K,
KOLKATA
1/3/2011.

The author and my mother - K

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