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.


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: Lunch was on Kini

Way back in the 60s when Kini T R  and I worked for a magazine in London – Afro Asian Echo – we used to  lunch together at Oxford St. (at neighbourhood Wimpy Bar ? Do they still have them ?)  Kini usually paid for our meal; I was tight-fisted on more occasions than I cared to remember.  Early this month,  revisiting London after 45 years,  I looked up Kini at Herne Bay, Kent.  And the lunch was on him.
His French-born wife Catherine (we hadn’t met till that day)  lined up pilau rice, cheese-on-tomato, salad, fruits, and red wine to wash it all  down with.  Kini is fond of his wine, said Catherine.  She had earlier  picked us up – Nangia and me – from the railhead in Herne Bay,  made us lunch,  and was to drop us back at the station for our train  to London.  Kini, weak and ailing,  relies on  Catherine to do the running-around in and outside their house.

Catherine, Kini  had said , would await us in a sky blue Fiat.  We spotted each other right away.  Sushil  Nangia and I were the only passengers on the 10.52 from Victoria, London,  to get down at Herne Bay, Kent.  On the drive home Catherine filled us in on her seaside town,  and how she and Kini came to make it their home,  after 40 plus years in London.
Herne Bay station,  on  Kentish coast.  The train takes 90 mins. to London;  and there is one every 30 mins. from here to victoria station

We spent some four hours –  Nangia, and I –  with Kini  reminiscing.  On my return to  Chennai  I got mail  from  Kini saying,  ‘it seems like a tear-jerker when one has to accept that we are never likely to meet again in person.  I share his sentiments, though I couldn’t bring myself  to saying so when we took  leave from him at Herne  Bay the other day.  Kini’s  Chronic Fatique syndrome (CFS) virtually immobilizes him.  And his only window to the world  around him  is the Internet.  And for a few brief months we stayed in touch through a blog-to-blog,  which prompted Kini to articulate his hitchhicking experience,  from Delhi to London – a 40-day saga, over 45 years back.

It was some  five years back that I first heard  about his health  condition,  when Kini e-mailed to informed me about his move from London to a chalet bungalow  in Herne Bay, Kent, ‘geriatric town where one is more likely to see dear old ones scooting about on electric scooters  than young lads on noisy motor-bikes’.  His e-mail ended on rather disprited note – ‘ uncertainty and hope fills our lives at present’. Kini’s ailment , they say, is incurable.  What’s is worse,  medical science has yet to figure out the why and the how-come  of his nagging  pains in chest and legs,  of his incessant  sleep problem.  Of late  Parkinson’s  has set in,  making Kini rely on Levodopa  (Sinemet),  a drug that relieves him of distressing symptoms for a limited time.

Kini said he took extra dosage in view of my trip,  so that he could,  hopefully,  spend a couple of hours at a stretch without having to retire to  bed because of fatigue –  “I was – to tell the truth,  apprehensive about your visit to Herne Bay – worrying whether you could endure it,  and whether I could,  with my discreet dosage of dopamine”.   I am 73 and Kini can’t be faulted for associating age with some form of ailment.

As it turned out,  our meeting was engaging,  reflective,  and it triggered memories of men and matters long dead or forgotten.  I noticed Kini had even  listed out some  talking points, just in case we fail to cover them .  As we parted Kini handed me a few issues of Afro-Asian Echo – a collector’s item –   that he had thoughtfully preserved.
The magazine,  of 1966 vintage.  Was published by a Nigerian who had fled to London following rioting in Lagos, and assassination of prime minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (on our magazine cover).

Kini commissioned articles,  from Subhash Chopra,   Adil Jussawala,  and Farrukh Dhondy.  They were no big names then.  Dhondy, writer, playwright,  social activist,  widely known among British Indian community for his stint at BBC Channel 4,  was a student at Cambridge when Kini got him to write for Afro-Asian Echo.  Adil a poet and writer,  who was then,  I believe,  teaching English for a living in London of mid-Sixties.  Subhash Chopra worked at the business desk in The Times,  London,  after stints in a couple of provincial dailies.  Chopra has since authored two books – Partition – Jihad and Peace;  and India and Britannia – an abiding affair.
  On racial prejudice Farrukh Dhondy wrote of insulation of the student community at Cambridge.
A foriegn student rarely faces the despair that haunts the working immigrant when he looks for a place to stay in, or for employment, or for ways to keep up with living. Most colleges ensure that strange faces fit in and are absorbed. They send African, Asian or West Indian students to landladies who confess to having no race prejusice.

When I went to North East England for work,  my newspaper – The Northern Echo – had advertised and interviewed  my prospective landlady to ensure I wasn’t exposed to racial prejudice in my neighbourhood during my stint in the newspaper at Darlington.  In fact the landlady and her husband met me at the station to take me to our residence when I first arrived in  Darlington to take up the newspaper job.

After lunch,  as Kini and I were on our nostalgia  trip  down the memory lane,  Nangia offered to do  the dishes,  and make coffee.  We were waiting for Catherine to return from a meeting of the local Workers Education Committee.  As Kini put it, besides taking care of him she finds  time for weekly Arts group meetings;  for learning skills as a water colourist.   Kini once wrote that Catherine was so enamoured with Herne Bay and Canterbury cathedral  that she spent  there as much time as she could,  hoping to become a knowledgeable guide to visiting friends and relatives.

Catherine would have loved to show us around her town,  if only we had time. On our drive back to the station to catch the 16.32 to London  she talked about her familiarization trip to India,  and of the time she spent at Kini’s village in Mangalore.  This was quite a while ago.  Catherine wasn’t sure, if  they would have another chance to do India.