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The London That Was

The times have changed, and London is no longer the peaceful place with polite interactions

Throughout the six-odd years I lived in London after the last war, I never heard anyone raised his voice or utter a swear word. It was always please, thank you, and, occasionally, when the weather was right, God bless you. I don’t think I ever picked up a quarrel with anybody, or vice-versa. Neither did I tell people to go to hell. It was all very polite even when you were dealing with an ex-sergeant who had just returned from the war minus an arm, or a landlady who had lost her husband.

You went to a florist or a fruit seller, and it was always like this.
“Can I help you, Sir?”
“A pound of apples please and half a pound of cherries, please”
“Here you are, Sir, and how are you doing this morning?”

My color didn’t make much difference either. Apparently, it now does. In last month’s riots in the city, there was virtually an open confrontation between some young Londoners and the police, and between blacks and whites, something unheard of in our days. Actually, there were few blacks then, the only blacks and browns being us Indians, so we had to be an our guard all the time, even though many of us lived in posh suburbs like Hampstead or South Kensington. We studied in “royal” colleges and lived in-house as paying guests of earls and viscounts, who had come down in the world after the war and were reduced to running hostelries for impecunious Indian students.

Every morning, the marquis’s wife or daughter left our breakfast tray outside the door, complete with porridge and smelly kippers, a ghastly combination guaranteed to spoil your day. But the lady, whose husband had probably served under Lord Mountbatten and lived in one of those vast bungalows near the vice regal house in Delhi, was politeness personified. It was almost certainly the first time she was serving an Indian, instead of the other way round, and to rub it in, I always made it a point to be extra polite.

After I started working, I had to take rooms of my own in far-off areas like Clapham, Fulham and Wandsworth, the very places which were set on fire in last month’s riots. Clapham used to be a genteel, lower middle class place, full of old women living on their old age pensions, and extremely grateful for the few pounds we gave them every week. But times have moved on, and the genteel old women have given way to muscular blacks from Jamaica and Trinidad, and may be young jobless Britishers spoiling for a fight. Last time I was there, I saw them hanging around tube stations in a row, some with big sticks and possibly other things, waiting for someone like me, with a few pounds in there pockets, and unsuspecting smiles on their faces. Had I not ducked back into the station, I would have been beaten up. In fact, I was beaten up, not in London, every time I visited the city of light. They were not after me but my cash, which I promptly placed into their hands and made my gateway.

Money is very scarce in Europe now, which is not what it used to be. I made some calculations, and discovered that we Indians - or at least a certain class of Indians-are much better off than some Londoners or Parisians, which makes me wonder why some Indians are so keen to emigrate there. Things have changed enormously in the last 10 years, which may be the reason why London is not what it used to be and why Londoners go on rampage every now and then and take it out on people like us when we visit their cities.

London used to be too polite a place, so polite and courteous that I often felt like making trouble just to live in things up. Even when some of us tried to pick up a fight, we were laughed off. But, alas, that was aeons ago, and times have changed. And when times change, you have to grin and bear it!