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Of London, Olympics and samosas

The author reminisces about the time when London was host to the Olympics in 1948, as a very different city

This is not the first time London has been host to Olympic games. The last time it hosted them was way back in 1948, immediately after the last war, when most people had other than Olympics on their minds. I happened to be in my second or third month as a young officer in the Indian embassy in London at the time and had a ring-side seat to the spectacle.

London was not then the city it is now. The whole country had been brought to its knees by Hitler’s bombs, though it had fought back bravely. We had had a terrible winter, the worst apparently in fifty years, when even the underground trains had come to a halt, and there was neither transport nor food, and we had to make do with half a loaf of bread a week and an egg every two weeks. We had to do without electricity for days on end, and often without water, as the pipes were frozen solid, but somehow we survived.

We had a new high commissioner in London, V K Krishna Menon, who was not then as famous as he later became. I worked in his office, doing odd jobs that secretaries do when they have nothing else to do, when suddenly I was asked to look after the London end of the Olympian contingent, which mainly meant hockey players and a couple of athletes.

The games were, I think, held in Wembley, a ramshackle place that had obviously seen better days, but had been spruced up for the occasion. Everything else was the same. From India came the hockey players, who had apparently done very well before the war, and were much written about in the papers, though otherwise the games did not make much of a splash. The hockey team was happy to see us, though I personally knew next to nothing about hockey, nor, for that matter, about cricket, but, of course, I knew my way around London and could give them a roaring time.

There was a special enclosure for diplomatic staff like us and, of course, free passes which we passed around to our friends. Very few of them showed up. We were ferried to Wembley and back in a Rolls Royce, which was actually meant only for the high commissioner. I do not think there were too many athletes or players and the stadium was empty most of the time.

Most of us were taken awake when our hockey team won, and that is when our real problems started. We were just not prepared for this victory – at least, I was not. When the time came for the award ceremony, we could not find enough national flags and the band, all of them Englishmen from the army, was a little hazy about our national anthem. The captain, I think was Gyan Chand, but I may be wrong. When the turn came to award the medals, we noticed that they were without ribbons – the Britons were apparently too poor to afford them or had forgotten to get them – and we handed over the medals in their boxes. But our players were too pleased to notice such minor lapses.

We decided to hold a grand reception for our victors, and some of my colleagues in the office thought we should have something special, not the usual soggy cucumber sandwiches normally served in embassies. Someone suggested samosas and jalebis, easier said than done, but where on earth would we get samosas in London, which at the time boasted only three or four Indian restaurants!

A lady colleague had a bright idea. Her aunt ran a small cafe in the city and could make them, if we could mange to supply the ingredient – flour and potatoes and, of course, sugar. Somehow we managed to get the stuff and the lady was as good as her word. We had a wonderful reception, with the players with their glittering gold medals on one side, and the equally, if not more, glittering jalebis, on the other. It was an Olympics to remember, specially when, in the evening, we helped our distinguished guests slake their thirst, after all those samosas, with that special elixir from Scotland!