London 2012: Pub culture and our Biradhri

When Sushil Nangia  and his  neighbourhood  friends meet for Sunday beer session  at this  Northwood  heritage pub  Raj Singh Mongia  would be very much  in  their thoughts.   His recent death has left a void and a vacant seat at the pub that cannot be filled.   The Northwood beer-and-gossip group is now down to four members –  Davy, Jaggi, Mongia  (not Raj Singh), and Nangia. They were all Delhi Janpath coffee-house regulars,  who came to the UK in the early 60s.  The coffee house closed down decades back,  but the biradhri  of its regulars bond together wherever they meet.

A handful of them in Delhi,  now retired,  continue to meet daily at  Embassy restaurant in Connaught Place.  Its  convener  S P Dutt,  a retired Air India executive and a coffee-house regular since Delhi University days,   stays in e-mail touch many more. And those visiting Delhi drop in at the Embassy to re-connect with the  biradhri.   Nangia does,  on his annual Delhi trip from UK.

His Northwood  pub group can be said to  represent the UK  chapter of the coffee-house  biradhri.  If only they have a  pub in Heaven,  I suspect ,  my friend Raj Singh would start a coffee-house  chapter  Out There as well.  Membership for this  out- of- this-world chapter wouldn’t be  an issue,  I guess.   Coffee-house notables who are  no more  include  Girilal Jain,  Satinder Singh, Richard Bartholomew, Balwant Gargi,  and O P Kohli.   Jethinder Sethi,  recalling his coffee-days in  the 1950s,  names many more, who are still around  and  ageing.  This blogger completed 74 the other day.

If anyone thinks  of creating  a Walk of  Fame for Janpath coffee-house regulars,  at a Connaught Place sidewalk, (like Hollywood Walk of Fame)  we would have plaques bearing names of ex-PM I K Gujral  ( a coffee-house regular in  early 50s),  his painter brother Satish Gujral,  Nihal Singh Inder Malhotra,  Rakshat Puri,  Rajinder Puri,  Ajit Bhattacharjee, Uma Vasudeva, K N Malik (mota),  K N Malik (chota),  Kapila Vatsayan,  Roshan Taneja, and Irshad Panjathan.

As for  the  Maliks,   a  yarn spun around how they got dubbed,  chota and mota,  has it that  someone who came  looking for  K N Malik at the Delhi Press Club was told by a bearer that there were two of them at the club. When the visitor was asked  which Malik  he was looking for, he said,   ‘the one  who worked for The Times of India‘.  To which the bearer replied,  both Maliks worked for the paper.

Visitor:  I mean,   Malik the reporter who shows up,  but rarely,  at his office.

Press Club bearer:   Both Maliks are are reporters and they are rarely seen at office.

Visitor:  I am looking for the Malik  who doesn’t exert himself much.

Bearer:  Both don’t.

Visitor:  My Malik is usually found at the Club.

Bearer:  Yes, both spend lot of time here.

Visitor:  Mine is on the hefty side.

Bearer: Both are hefty, but one is conspicuously shorter than the other.

This helped the  visitor  identify  his Malik  (the short one) and the  bearer promptly led him to the Club card-room, and  to  chota  Malik

Friday after-office hour at a pub on Gracechurch St.

If the Northwood chapter of coffee-house biradhri meets at a pub,  it is because,  in UK,  they say,  ‘A lot can happen over a pint’ (to borrow the phrase,  from the Cafe Coffee Day slogan).  To quote from a website on UK pubs,  “When it comes to doing business in the UK  then the concept of a  “pub lunch”  is something  everyone will encounter at some stage.  A  public house makes an ideal venue for a business meeting in neutral surroundings” .  I had my first  interview with a magazine owner for job in Afro-Asian Echo at a pub in Paddington rail station.  Most office-goers  drop by at their favourite pub on way home.  And in London they have thoughtfully located a pub in every neighbourhood.  Most Underground stations in Central London are well served with street-corner pubs.

A pub on Fleet Street that has been mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities  because its author Charles Dickens frequented the joint.  Among other  English literary figures who visited at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese  in their time  were Dr Samuel Johnson,  G K Chesterton,  Sir Arthur Conon Doyle,  Alfred Tennyson,  Mark Twain, Oliver Goldsmith.  Dt Johnson  lived close by, at 17 Gough Square. A note left in the pub’s website refers to a teacher of English as a foreign language who brought students to this pub for a feel of the place.

Excerpts from some  comments:  It’s like walking into a Charles Dickins  novel. The place just oozes a dark unspoilt character. The sawdust on the floors may be unnecessary , but it’s still a nice touch.

…was like walking into the set of Harry Potter film set.

…a strong smell of burning wood tinged the air, heavy with the ghosts of London’s past.

Don’t miss Polly, the parrot who lived at the pub from 1884-1926 and is now stuffed in the tap room!

Dark wooden panels, small windows, lack of  daylight, it is like entering another world.

I visited with 8 other real ale enthusiasts. The Sam Smiths was utter crap.

visited this pub with my class while on a study abroad trip.

I have enjoyed the Cheese for 40 years.

Dwarfed by the high-rise buildings,  a Victorian era building that defied development.  Close to Westminster the Albert pub, they say,  has been a favourite watering hole for MPs. The guide on our sight-seeing tour had it that the Albert had Division Bell fitted in it for the benefit of MPs at the pub, so that they didn’t miss out on voting in the House.

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London 2012: Farewell, my friend Raj Mongia

Now,  no more,  Raj Singh  Mongia,   as he was three weeks back when I met him in his quarters  at a retirement community in Northwood, England. He died in sleep a couple of days back.

The bloke betrayed no signs of excitement on  seeing me,  a visiting friend from India.  Raj Singh gave us a deadpan look when Nangia and I dropped in on him, unannounced,  on our way to the neighbourhood pub for dinner.  I had expected him to drop whatever he was doing and join us to dinner;  or else,  ask us to drop our plan, and join him for beers at his pad.  He did neither.  We spent 15 meaningless minutes,  making small talk.  The Raj Singh, that  bear-hugger pappe  type sardar that I had known 45 years  back was nowhere  there to be seen,  that day.

For the record,  the   Raj Singh I knew  had beard, a faceful of it and not the goatee he sported (as in Photo) ;  had mischief in his eyes.  He wore turban as the Sikhs do,  lived in a Shepherds Bush bed-sitter,   relished his daily pint at the neighbourhood  pub, and the saag & phulka  made by a generous landlady,  who was Bhenji  to us all.  By  ‘all’,  I mean self  and a couple other bachelor  friends who visited Raj Singh for beer and home-made phulka  on weekends.

Bhenji  is 84,  and still around at her old place.  So I heard from Nangia.  Raj Singh moved on in life,  to work on oil rigs as engineer;  to marry and to divorce;  and then to came and  live in a retirement home, where I met him on a recent visit to London.  Somewhere along the way  he had  his left leg amputated  following   infection  he acquired during  hospitalization  for something else.  Raj Singh was diabetic.

During our 15-minute meeting,  my friend on wheel-chair seemed hard put to make conversation with me –  a long forgotten friend from India.  He seemed uninterested in nostalgic natter.  I withdrew into my shell,  leaving Raj Singh to  ask questions ,  about my London visit, and make small talk about  his life in a  retirement home.  Nangia distracted him by flipping a cigarette-end  out of the window.  ‘He’s incorrigible,’  quipped Raj Singh.  They had known each other from New Delhi  coffee-house days in early 60s.

Nangia,  in a mood to  make amends,  went out to Raj Singh’s  backyard  to retrive the cigarette butt. While he was gone  Raj Singh filled me in on how strict the  matron was .   Raj Singh said she  would fine him if she were to find the discarded butt  outside his window.  We left a few minutes after Nangia returned and restored  the butt to its rightful place – the ash tray on the coffee-table.

Outside,  in the car,  I couldn’t help but  share with Nangia my disappointment on our meeting with Raj Singh. Here I was, all geared up to surprise an old friend  with a visit after four decades and a half;  and all that he could find to talk about was the cigarette butt tossed out into his backyard.  Maybe our visit held him back from watching Olympics.  The TV remained  switched on to the sports channel through our brief visit.

In retrospect , now that Raj Singh is gone,  I reckon I was harsh and went horribly wrong in judging him.  He was deadpan that day because of suffering of some kind;  because he was bottling up  something that nagged him . Though long-time friends, we weren’t, presumably, worthy of his trust so  that Raj Singh could have unburdened whatever it was that weighed  on him, that evening.

London 2012: Madame Tussauds

It used to be said about The Times,  London –   this was before Murdoch stepped in to muck up its reputation –   that no one in high places in Britain was considered truly dead  until an obituary appeared in The Times.

Of  Madame Tussauds  Punch once wrote :  No one can be considered properly popular unless he is admitted into the company of Madame Tussauds celebrities in Baker Street, London.

Among our celebrities  Tussauds   houses are Sachin TendulkarMadhuri Dixit,   Shah Rukh Khan and  Amitabh BachchanIndira Gandhi is there; her father Nehru isn’t.  I didn’t notice Mother Teresa  either.

Which makes one wonder what criteria the Tussauds adopt for including someone.  Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai were already there before Tussauds considered taking in  Madhuri Dixit –  the 6th Bollywood person to have figured at Tussauds.

You may not agree with their judgement,  but Tussauds, I believe,  factor in visitors’ suggestions before taking decision. At the exit, interested visitors can fill out a leaflet in which they can put in their choice of popular figures they  would like to see at Tussauds next. For all you know, they could do  bin Laden.  They have Hitler at  Tussauds.  It costs 150,000 pounds to put up a life-like wax model.

London 2012: Revisiting, after 45 yrs.

The title of Dominick Dunne novel – Another City, Not My Own – just about sums up my take on London 2012.  I was here before, but it was decades ago.  The London I had lived  in,  for three years in mid-Sixties, was quite another city.  A city I regarded as my own;  a city that grew on me.  This was London of the Swinging Sixties,  when men sported long hair and bell-bottom trousers and women wore mini-skirts.  When the Beatles were a live sensation.
The Beatles are now life-like wax models at the Tussads,  where I visited them with grandsons ,  as tourist  doing the sights with family.  I had another agenda in London – visiting old friends,  hoping to  re-discover  my city  in  London 2012.  More on this,  in  later posts.

In my London of  mid-Sixties I got accustomed to a daily bus trip to work,  from a Swiss Cottage bed-sitter  to Strand or Oxford Street. I looked forward to the Friday evening beers with friends at a Leicester Sq. pub.  Weekend afternoons were spent at the Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner;  and  Sunday mornings,  cozily in  bed before brunch,  poring over The Observer, The Telegraph and The Sunday Times.

The papers are there still, but I found them  reduced to  tabloids both in substance and the format.  Besides,  they are no longer published from from the  Fleet Street.   The red double-deckers  in my days didn’t carry screaming ads. To see truly Brit red buses   carrying commercial messages, not even in English,  would have been considered preposterous in my days.

I don’t know if the place still attracts provocative speakers with black,  brown,  yellow and white pigments of skin.  And their language used to be no less  colourful.  The Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park now has a plaque carrying an advisory –
Be considerate,
Be safe,
Be seen and heard, and
Be polite.
Hyde Park  is where Ghana’s  Nkrumah,  Malawi’s Hastings Banda,  and our own Krishna Menon had their early training in political activism.  Speakers at Hyde Park carried their own soapbox;  and thick skin and a quick wit would help cope with hecklers.

I didn’t try to locate our old haunt of  a  basement pub,  on a recent visit to Leicester Sq. with family. The pub where London-based friends from my Delhi coffee-house days met on Friday evenings was a noisy,  smoke-filled joint,  called,  simply, The Celler. They served German beer, in litre, instead of the customary pint.  My friend  Sushil Nangia in London said  The Celler was no longer there; and he couldn’t recall the last time he had visited Leicester Sq.  Nangia wondered how I thought of going there.  Most culprits, they say,  tended to return to their scene of crime.

But then Leicester Sq. wasn’t my idea. My daughter(-in-law)  had read about restaurants at Soho,  but it was our taxi driver who suggested Leicester Sq. if a decent meal was what we had in mind. We felt fairly famished ,  after a long walk across Hyde Park, taking in the feel and flavor of  the place, peopled by visitors to the  Olympics. London was bustling with tourist and  local authorities, reckoning that the city would host a million visitors daily during Olympics, had advised local residents  to avoid needless travel within the city, so as to lessen the pressure on public transport system.

Our taxi-driver  dropped us at Leicester Sq. Advising us against visiting Soho he, however,  stopped short of mentioning about  Soho’s reputation as a red-light area. The mention of  Soho brought to my mind  The Private Eye, once  owned by Peter Cook  who had an office at Greek St.,  Soho.  The satirical magazine, that thrived on pulling celebrity legs once announced it would publish a photo of  Herold Wilson in the nude. What the magazine carried was  the image of the then PM in khaki  knickers, baring his legs from knees down. It was’ presumably, taken when PM was holidaying .
A family photo I took at Leicester Sq. has in the background lit-up building of a movie theatre.  I remember My Fair Lady was premiered here in the Sixties and this cinema house ran the movie for well over an year. At another cinema house on Tottenham Court Rd.  The Sound of Music was on when  I first came to London in  mid-Sixties.  The movie was still playing there when I left England three years later.

And then there was The Mousetrap, the play by Agatha Christie playing the longest period at a  West End theatre. It had been on for 13 years already by the time I first went to London (1964). A Wikipedia entry carries a photo taken in 2010, to show it was still playing at St.Martin’s on West End.  The sight-seeing hop on-off bus we took passed by Covent Garden;  wish I had the presence of mind to hop off the bus, if only to update Wikipedia photo on  The Mousetrap .   The St.Martin’s website says the play has done  60 years and they are currently booking tickets online for performances , scheduled until  December 2013…. WOW.

Related posts:
Long Walk to the Venue
Liverpool St. (photo blog)