White Chapel: Formerly Cockney, Now Bangladeshi (Satis Shroff)
We took the underground from the Embankment (green route) to White Chapel in London’s East End, previously a Cockney area, now turned Bengali. London’s East End looked dark, dilapidated, gloomy, and there were hundreds of Asian shops and restaurants in the side streets.
In one such Bengali restaurant hung a pair of enlarged photographs of a team of wrestlers from West Pakistan in decent European clothes. The few Asian customers were reading Urdu newspapers and discussing the role fo the US troops in Iraq.. Some seemed to be for, and some against it, as I could gather from snippets of conversation in Urdu. On the whole they looked like a shabby, unhappy, frustrated, miserable and rootless lot. The flair and smartness that you see among the established West End Asians in London’s tube or taxis was totally missing. It was like a ghetto and the people didn’t seem integrated with their white fellow-citizens, and it reminded me of the Turks in Mannheim and Berlin’s Kreuzberg.
They created the impression that they still clung to their countries of origin and felt neglected and rejected by mainstream-England. Even though the East End looked gloomy and sad, like the slums of Calcutta under the Howrah Bridge, there were nevertheless simple-minded Asians living there, eking out an existence with a British address, despite the poverty and hopelessness, as anywhere in their own distant homelands. After all they regarded it as a sort of privilege to be in ‘Lundun,’ as people from the Indian Subcontinent are wont to do.
At the White Chapel Underground entrance, a huddled, pitiable soul was lying on the filthy floor. An Asian, probably a Tamil from India or Sri Lanka judging from his ethnic features, was controlling the tickets from a kiosk, oblivious of the tragic human heap. Perhaps he’d seen too many such helpless creatures in his own country in his lifetime to bother about a white social case. The British government had its social and street workers, and Rowling of Harry Potter fame was one of ’em once upon a time, and there were so-called friendly Bobbies everywhere, probably more in the West than in the East End of London. The East End: that was the Bronx. And outside, a white helicopter was bringing in the British casualties from Irak to London Hospital’s rooftop landing-pad.
After a long time in Germany, it was interesting to discover the heavy South Asian character of East End. The Bengali sari shops and mannequins, the smell of puris, chapatis, sambosas and the appetising smell of masalas overwhelming you, as you walked along the narrow, dimly lit streets. It was like revisiting India. It was like being in Calcutta or in Mumbai’s Sion, Koliwada.
I felt a bit weary and lethargic for it had been a long day, doing the sights of London. I talked with Claudia about the East End because she’d already been to Bombay twice and also to Canada, Australia and a good many cities in Europe.
“I wouldn’t walk these streets alone,”she said with a serious face. “It looks so dark and foreboding. I get the creeps.”
I had to ask myself whether the Asians from the British Commonwealth were just as insecure, unhappy, frustrated and without much rights as the foreigners in other European Commonwealth countries, perhaps due to their origins and complexions, and not their acquired British passports.
We had a rendezvous at Madame Tussaud’s at the Marylebone Road with the famous and the infamous. There were criminals and heroes to be seen in wax. The entire British Commonwealth leaders were represented: Africans to the right, Indira, Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi to the left, and Chancellor Kohl and other European dignitaries in the middle of the room. The British Royal Family was almost real, though Lady Diana was a disappointment. But Princess Sarah, Timothy Dalton (007), Grace Jones were admirably done. The wax figures did thrill, shock and amuse you, especially the Chamber of Horrors in the basement. Next door, the London Planetarium had daily star shows every 40 minutes.
The next morning we went to Westminster from Paddington Station with the underground. A one-way ticket costs 80 pence for adults. It had become cold and misty by the time We reached West Minster Abbey, the scene of coronations of Kings and Queens of England since 1066 and ‘nearly as many deaths’, royal weddings and countless state occasions. Princess Fergie and Prince Andrew were married here. It is also the final resting place of countless monarchs, statesmen, poets and heroes. The Abbey, however, doesn’t seem to receive money from the state, but the collections and donations must be substantial judging from the opulence and grandeur of the Abbey.
At the Westminster Abbey, England’s dead statesmen and heroes were glorified, for you could see written and sculptured evidence. Right near the entrance gate were the buried remains of a dead unknown soldier from a long forgotten war. England’s Standard and other regimental flags hung in one corner of the Abbey, near the entrance in a fenced-in room.
I couldn’t help thinking about the Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu, which had also been the scene of King Birendra’s coronation in 1974, and the courtyard is a place of animal sacrifice during the Dasain festival in Nepal. The Royal Gurkhas behead a great number of Asiatic buffaloes and goats at an official ritual ceremony. And during the Kot massacre in 1846 Junga Bahadur Rana, the man who created the Rana dynasty in Nepal, and called himself the Maharaja of Nepal, eliminated the Nepalese aristocracy and paved the way for the overtake of power in the Himalayan Kingdom. The Shah dynasty was almost supposedly wiped out by Prince Dipendra, the crown prince. And now the Maoists and the Congress party have cut off the King Gyanendra’s power, who and his family had survived the massacre for they were conspicuously absent on that fateful day at the Narayanhiti Palace.
Was there even a single memorial for the Gurkhas who were sent to countless wars against Tibet, India, Burma, Vietnam, Congo, Malaysia, Borneo, Pakistan, China and the Falklands? I hadn’t seen any in Nepal or in India. There’s only a Gurkha Museum at Winchester, co-located with several other British regimental museums registered under a United Kingdom Charity No.272426 to commemorate and record the services of the Gurkhas since 1815.
Alone in the two World Wars Nepal sent 200,000 Gurkha soldiers to fight for England’s glory and 45,000 died in France, Gallipoli, Suez and Mesopotamia in addition to Burma, Singapore, Italy and North Africa. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) never seems to be tired to insist that the Gurkhas are an integral part of the British Army, but when it comes to human rights, pay-scales and stay-permits for Gurkhas, the MoD uses another yardstick. The excuse is that Britain’s Gurkhas are paid a pension so that they are obliged to live in Nepal. According to MoD and the Home Ministry, a Gurkha has no attachment to the British Isles. I have the impression that the Gurkhas are being treated like the asylum-seekers, and are only tolerated as long they fight for Britain’s glory, but as soon as they reach a certain age, they are obliged to return to Nepal, and not stay in Britain, the country of their choice. The British government and the National Health Service does not want old Gurkhas when they become gerontological cases, for that would cost the government and the tax-payer more money.
The Gurkhas and their children are denied a British education, and are thus not allowed to be integrated through better qualifications in the British society. The asylum-seekers who come from Britain’s former colonies are given equal rights when their papers are recognised by the Home Ministry. The Gurkhas are recognised and know for their reputation and have been publicly praised by British Generals and Royals, but when it comes to money matters and human rights, others members of the Commonwealth are more equal than the Gurkhas. It’s a sad story, which has happened again and again for the last two centuries, for that’s how long the Gurkhas have sworn their allegiance to Britian and the Queen, from the times of Queen Victoria till Queen Elisabeth II. If I were a British citizen, I’d feel very much ashamed of the treatment meted out towards the Gurkhas by the various British governments and Monarchs. The Gurkha-problem has been too long tolerated and ignored in the past.
Suddenly the ether crackled and a bearded priest beckoned the Abbey visitors to stay where we were, be silent and pray with him for the dead, injured and anxious souls and relatives and ended with: “Our Father who art in Heaven…” A touching gesture, and a prayer that had been with me since my Kindergarten and school days. The bombings in Iraq was very much with them in their thoughts, if not in the media, which preferred to show a clean, remote, sterile war. A war without its horrors and sufferings. It was a case of tampered sterility and censorship. This was the first gesture in public in London, otherwise life seemed to be going on, as though everything was normal. Business as usual.
I remember our female London guide saying: “In London we don’t take all these terrorist actions seriously. The IRA has been active also in the past, and we’ve learnt to live with it and ignore it.”What a courageous attitude I thought, the British stiff-upper lip, and never to be disheartened when the odds are against you. Perhaps that’s a lesson the Gurkhas have learned from the British, and naturally, never to complain since 200 years. To do or die and theirs (Gurkhas) is not to reason why.
Just before we reached the Buckingham Palace, we saw the scarlet uniformed Horse Guards going past and managed to take some photographs. At the Buckingham Palace we saw the Foot Guards in their grey overcoats marching hither and thither like robots. I thought about my English professor named Bruce Dobler from the University of Iowa, who had described a Gurkha armed with his short automatic gun and a razor sharp curved khukri. The professor had said that his blood had chilled when he looked at the Gurkha. He said, ‘I wouldn’t have liked to meet the fellow in a dark alley. We cracked jokes about the regular English Royal Guard with those tall, woolly hats and took photographs with them, but had respect for the Gurkha. He looked sinister and made one scared.’
At another occasion in Freiburg where I was invited to hold a Nepal transparency show, there happened to be a pair of music-students from Argentina and we were awfully curious to know Nepal and its Gurkhas because of the Falkland War in 1982. In this war the British had sent their elite troops: the First Battalion of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles and the Scots Guards and Welsch Guards, all under the command of Brigadier M.J.A. Wilson. The Argentinian press had compared the British Gurkhas as a cross between dwarfs and mountain goats and the Argentinian soldiers were apprehensive about the Gurkhas and were full of misconceptions. I had to clear the misconceptions about the Gurkhas and the Nepalese in the course of the evening.
It started drizzling and we didn’t feel like waiting for the Changing of the Guards in the rain, so we made for the small Guards Museum. I had hoped to see the Gurkhas at least on postcards. Nothing of the sort. So we went to the nearby underground station and made for Harrods for it was nearing tea-time.
On the way, I thought how delightful it was: London when it drizzled (and not sizzled). Harrods in the Brompton Road lived up to its name of being the world’s most famous and prestigious department store, for fashions, furniture, home-wares. The gastronomic section was well-stocked with all the food you could imagine. How could you resist doing a bit of shopping to suit your purse?
After that we went past the Duck Island, an island teeming with ducks, swans, quails, squirrels and pigeons. A member of a Swedish trio, who were walking ahead of them, approached a squirrel with a stick. The small squirrel was wary at first, lay low and then thrust forward. The Viking was alarmed and dropped his stick, and his two colleagues burst into laughter.
I thought we should brush up their our knowledge of geography and decided to take a boat to Greenwich. The boat was rather empty, except for a Muslim family, that you could tell from the jewellery and salwar kameez of the women and their dark, silken complexions.
There was a cold wind, but we felt we had to brave it by sitting on the deck and watch the muddy waters of the Thames. The old dilapidated warfs were a contrast to the flashy and chic West End, but were interspersed with modern buildings with expensive looking apartments, with the blessing of Margret Thatcher during her hey-days.
The sun didn’t shine. The houses or what remained of them on both banks of the Thames evoked a depressing, chilly atmosphere. There were water-buses and ferries plying alongside. We were greeted in Greenwich pier by the burnt remains of the ‘Cutty Sark‘, a sailing clipper built in 1860. There was a teacher and a parent instructing a bunch of small school-kids to draw the ‘Cutty Sark’ on bits of paper and the lady explained to her charges , “Cutty Sark was a witch and she’s depicted in front of the ship.” One had to imagine it.
‘Some witch’ said Claudia.
I exclaimed sheepishly ‘Some boobs!’
I remembered the poem “Tam O’ Shanter” by Robert Burns from her schooldays in the Himalayas, which means ‘short shirt’, in which the name Cutty Sark features. The poem has a moral for people who drink and ride home late. She’d found the poem rather amusing and down to earth in comparison to Byron, Goldsmith and Wordsworth. It had made them laugh, because the local Nepalese people were fond of that high percentage alcoholic raksi. You could vividly imagine old Tam, drunk as he was, riding like the wind with the devil behind him, and his wife reprimanding him.
The walk from the pier to Greenwich Observatory was pleasant due to the green surroundings, despite the fact that it was raining. It was a short sharp climb. Greenwich Observatory was founded in 1695 and the zero meridian passes through it. GMT is the official time in the British Isles and the basis for International Time Zone System. And each time zone is 15 degrees or an hour across. Flamstead’s Observatory dated back to 1675. There was a 5 foot Mural Quadrant by Adam Sharp built about 1710 on display. Flamsted (of star-catalogue fame) used his mural arc to find the zenith distance and time of transit over the meridian of the star called Gamma vergnis in 1698. Bradley’s zenith sector dating 1727 was mentioned along with huge collinating telescopes.
It was interesting to learn that Edmond Halley (1656-1742) the Second Astronomer Royal (1720-1742) was appointed to succeed John Flamstead in 1720. There was a transit-clock by William Hardy of London (1811) which tells sideral time (time by the stars).
Claudia and I took photographs with our legs apart over the Greenwich Meridian, as all visitors are wont to do, before it got too dark, and decided to walk through the tunnel that runs below the Thames. It was a strange feeling and rather exciting,to think that you had the Thames flowing above you.
Claudia asked with a concerned expression on her face: “What ‘ll we do when the water from the Thames starts pouring in?”
A ghastly thought that made us walk faster. There were very few commuters walking past hurriedly. A local bloke, probably a Cockney, with a bicycle walked by. He had a flat-tyre, but his spirit was high for he was humming a tune.
At the other end of the tunnel We saw a notice which read: Docklands Light Railway opened by HM Queen, 30 July 1987. The train reminded me of the Transit-affair from Gattwick to the Airport Terminal. We read another poster: Island Gardens:modern train to keep London clean.