Passage to London

The city may not exercise the degree of sovereignty over the Indian imagination it once did. Early visitors were driven by wanderlust,curiosity,reverence

Written by Sukhdev Sandhu | Published: July 30, 2012 3:44:16 am

It’s been raining cats and dogs in London. June,July and August have experienced monsoon-season weather,the most severe deluge in 120 years. Russian plutocrats and Greek grandees continue to flood the city to buy up its swankiest properties,but unemployment is still rising,personal debt spiralling,and cuts in public spending ever more brutal. Shouldn’t people’s spirits be completely dampened?

But this has also been a summer of festivities. Londoners,barely recovered from the street parties and pop jamborees held to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee,or from the will-he-won’t-he drama of Andy Murray almost becoming the first Brit to win the Men’s Championship at Wimbledon,are hosting the Olympics. No doubt they’ll cheer on Bradley Wiggins who,earlier this month,won the Tour de France,the first time a cyclist from the UK has ever done so.

Crazy times. Yet there’s nothing new about this if you believe Behramji Malabari. In The Indian Eye on English Life (1893),he wrote about London: “People live in a whirlwind of excitement,making and unmaking their idols almost every day. They seem to be consumed by a mania for novelty; everything new serves to keep up the fever of excitement.Today they will set up a fetish,anything absurd,fantastic,grotesque,and worship it with breathless enthusiasm.”

Malabari was just one of the thousands of Indians who came to London in the 19th century. They were driven by wanderlust,curiosity,reverence. Some described themselves as pilgrims. The Reverend T.B. Pandian,in England to an Indian Eye (1897),claimed the city was “Mecca for the traveller in search of truth,a Medina of rest for the persecuted or the perplexed in spirit. Though centre of perpetual motion,it is still the Persepolis of human grandeur in repose. To the searcher after enlightenment it is a Budh-Gaya; a Benares for the sinner in search of emancipation.”

There’s something puffed-up and simpering about that kind of statement. Many more Indians headed to London out of ambition and self-interest. Students went there to read subjects such as law,medicine and engineering in the hope of later joining the Indian Civil Service. They saw the capital as the club of clubs: they sought to get as near to power as they could,to enter the fast track,the inside lane of imperial society.

The English metropolis was seen as more worldly than anything India had to offer. That,for parents of would-be students and sojourners,was a problem: they begged their sons not to cross the kala pani,warning them that London was a moral cesspit,a temptation-trap of meat,booze,and shamelessly attired women. To go there was to be lost,socially dead.

But there are worse things one can do than be lost in a city. To be lost,to wander off the straight and narrow,allowed Indians to experiment and live a little. Famously Gandhi,while studying Law between 1888 and 1891,became keen on fashion and took dancing lessons. A countryman who met him during this period dismissed him as “a nut,a masher,a blood — a student more interested in fashion and frivolities than in his studies.”

Indian students in London didn’t just fandango the nights away. They met up,discussed ideas,argued passionately about their nation and its various forms of unfreedom. Though they embraced the city’s liberalism,they knew it was something of a mirage. A character in Sajjad Zaheer’s A Night in London (1938) proclaims: “Even if here,in England,Englishmen polish our shoes,and Englishwomen fall in love with us,all of us are thought of as worse than slaves east of Suez.”

Zaheer’s novel is set in Bloomsbury,a hotbed of radical dissent,and full of “Red Indians”,the name given to that cadre of young men and women who found that being at the heart of empire fired their passions. They all wanted to slay the dragon of colonial Britishness and spent much of their time giving angry speeches,publishing and distributing seditious pamphlets and campaigning for Home Rule.

One of Zaheer’s friends and a co-founder of the Progressive Writers’ Movement was the future novelist Mulk Raj Anand,whose 1981 memoir captures both the allure and the impossibility of London. He confesses: “I had come here looking for something I could not define,to end my remoteness,to become part of the intimate circle of creative men.”

But when he met the toffs and grandees he found they loved Rudyard Kipling and had never heard of Iqbal. They were only marginally superior to other Londoners he’d met: “Those men who owned vast factories and planted their feet on the necks of others. Each one a John Bull who stood like a colossus on the map of the world.”

Much has changed in the years since Independence. Indians,often working class,flocked to London working in manufacturing,retail and construction. They were less invested in the idea of the city than in its lived reality; they also tended to stay there for decades rather than decamping back to India. These days they’re seen as a model minority,a self-sufficient group that’s perceived as being less of a threat to the nation’s well being than Muslims or migrants from Eastern Europe.

Does London exert the degree of sovereignty over the imaginations of Indians that it once did? Adventurers and economic migrants alike are more likely to head to Dubai,Abu Dhabi,Jackson Heights in New York,campus towns at Stanford and Harvard. Other gold-rushers go east rather than West and move to Shanghai and Beijing where they work as cooks,hotel doormen,yoga school managers.

London may still be the publishing capital of the world,but it’s no longer a citadel of imperialism; that accolade belongs to Washington DC. For a few weeks it will use the Olympics to showcase its groovy,creative,post-industrial self. Is this just bread and circuses though? Mere window dressing to conceal the austerity the majority of its inhabitants will face in future years? We shall see.

Sandhu,professor of English Literature at New York University,is the author of ‘London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined A City’

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