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London and we

Swinging and dynamic, a capital shaped by the cultural eccentricities of immigrants

London and we

Like any other large city, London, still one of the most important state capitals of the world, keeps changing with time. But faster is the change in the ways it is seen by the millions of the people visiting it every year, especially from former colonies such as Pakistan.

Two Muslim Rajputs from Punjab decided to visit London while Queen Victoria straddled the throne of the empire on which the sun never set. They took up residence in a three-storey hotel. Looking down on the street from his large window in the morning, one of the old Rao Sahiban was horrified to see a gori mem sweeping the street. The sight was unbearable. Without losing a moment he came hurtling down the stairs, ran up to the sweepress, snatched the broom from her hands, and exclaimed: “Who has asked your honour to sweep the street when your obedient servant is present here?”

The old landlord had gone to London to see what the city of the Queen Empress looked like. For him London was the centre of the world. From there came the ‘wadda laat saab’ who single-handedly ruled India from Peshawar to Raskumari, and who had saved the native landlords from the clutches of the Company’s thugs.

Many of the young men who followed the old Raos to London wanted to be sophisticated versions of ‘the obedient servant’. Some of them went to Oxford or Cambridge to acquire the qualifications required for entry into the elite civil service. But they would often return to London and rub shoulders with fellow Indians who were trying to be enrolled as barristers-at-law. Their foremost objective was to fit Macaulay’s definition of the educated men from the largest and the richest crown colony.

London also began attracting petty Indian princes who fought protracted battles in the Privy Council for their share in their ancestors’ lands or who merely wanted to enjoy tea parties at the house of a retired bureaucrat or army officer they had known in their own country.

Most of these young men, sometimes joined by an enterprising woman, were keen to absorb the British culture. They joined clubs, went to theatre and opera, played cricket, spent weekends in the countryside, or crossed the channel to see how the French, the Dutch or the Germans were carrying the White Man’s Burden.

The present doyen of the Pakistani men and women of letters living in exile in London is Prof Amin Mughal, the English-language teacher of Islamia College and Shah Husain College fame. Living in London since 1984 he has explored a major part of the city by foot, in daytime and on cold nights, and is a better guide than the publication A to Z.

The world had not yet discovered the system of passport controls or immigration sleuths. This gave quite a few men and women from our subcontinent an opportunity to start having ideas about freedom. These people dressed like the English, spoke like the English, dined and danced like Englishmen and at the same time wanted to be free of bondage to them.

A long stream of our political activists — Dadabhai Naoroji, Tayyabji, Iqbal, Gokhale, Gandhi, Rehmat Ali, Jinnah, Nehru, Mohammad Ali, Liaquat Ali, Iftikharuddin, Zafarullah Khan, et al — had their baptism in the politics of freedom and self-rule in London. And it was in London that the final decisions about the partition of the subcontinent were taken.

Also it was in London that a group of young writers delineated the literary and cultural path to freedom, redemption and self-realisation when they founded the Progressive Writers’ Association.

Another stream of visitors from the subcontinent discovered London as a land of opportunity, especially after the Second World War. They relieved England of shortage of manpower, cleaned roads and scrubbed railway platforms, operated lifts, checked tickets on trains, and did many other manual jobs. The educated ones among them taught the 3Rs in schools or filled gaps in the National Health Service. They had neither the time nor the inclination to imbibe the culture of London; instead they started changing the face of London and its lifestyle in their own image.

These immigrants not only helped the British economy to recover from the effects of the war they also established their own dynasties and their children and grandchildren found their place in London’s councils, one of them becoming Lord Mayor of the city. They also added patches of their culture on the ways of the English, including educating them in the ways of keeping women in bondage.

London was a little perturbed when Muslim clerics arrived in droves, thanks to the Home Department’s concession to religious preachers. Of course, the latter did a roaring business performing nikahs and presiding over religious ceremonies and deciding who should own the mosque in East London — the building that had been built as a pagan temple, was converted into a church, then turned into a mosque and then the fight for its occupation began.

West Brompton station. — Courtesy alamy

West Brompton station. — Courtesy alamy

The Libyans, Pakistanis, and Bengalis became its custodians. London took all this in its stride.

London was also large-hearted enough to let Southall become a super market for subcontinent’s goods, especially food items, the masalas and halwas, in particular. The air began smelling like the pickles market in Delhi’s Fatehpuri or Karachi’s Bolton Market. Large parts of East London were taken over by migrants from the subcontinent. The bazaars were like at home, so was the film music played at eateries and the Englishmen were rarely visible.

After 1947 the government of Pakistan had to deal with some malcontents who raised slogans of democracy and social justice. Some of them tried to mislead workers while some others started organising journalists. Thus, a new face of London was discovered — a haven for political dissidents that had only one address in Pakistan — the prison. Hamza Alavi sought breathing space in London followed by Eric Rahim and both put more miles between them and Karachi by moving on to Edinburgh where both won fame as outstanding academics.

But Mohammad Afzal and Abdul Shakoor remained loyal to London. While the former trained the Londoners in keeping their books of accounts in order, Shakoor Sahib, one of the founders of Pakistani’s journalist unions, taught Britons English and spent his life in a quiet corner in Ealing.

The present doyen of the Pakistani men and women of letters living in exile in London is Prof Amin Mughal, the English-language teacher of Islamia College and Shah Husain College fame. Living in London since 1984 he has explored a major part of the city by foot, in daytime and on cold nights, and is a better guide than the publication A to Z.

He may be away from Pakistan but Pakistan is never removed from his mind. Better informed about Pakistan than most Pakistanis (journalists and politicians included), thanks to his super-smart cell phone, he devours a good number of Pakistani newspapers before leaving his bed for the first of the dozen or so cups of tea he needs to neutralise the previous evening’s intake. If you want to know what Nazir Naji or Wajahat Masood had written two months earlier, just phone him. But he has stopped advising the politicians. He knows them better.

Many Pakistani politicians too have found London an ideal place to spend their days of adversity, the most prominent of them being Benazir Bhutto. Ataullah Mengal stayed there for a long time. It was in London that Jam Sadiq Ali thought of what he did to his former party on his second incarnation in Karachi. Now Altaf Husain is a permanent feature of London life and the Pakistan government cannot understand why the Baloch dissidents can walk around freely in that city. And it was in London that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif signed the Charter of Democracy, promising to keep the third party out of power; they had obviously hoped that a deed signed in London would last longer than an understanding reached in the quicksand of Karachi.

The professionals trained to keep tabs on undesirable politicians pay special attention to London for it they do not find anything against their targets they can accuse them of hatching a London Plan. And everybody now knows about the opportunities London offers for opening off-shore companies and getting one’s name into Panama Papers.

Some other Pakistanis have also left their mark on London. Agha Hasan Abedi, for instance. Thanks to him Altaf Gauhar established a foundation in London that tried to guide the third world rulers in the art of statesmanship and reveal to them the benefits of sticking together. And Iftikhar Arif ran an Urdu Markaz where literary activity flourished, while it was frowned upon by Pakistan’s military rulers, and poets in exile, led by Faiz and Faraz, could revive themselves in the company of Zehra Nigah, Majid Ali and Mushtaq Yusufi. 

Despite the efforts of immigrants from the subcontinent and other Commonwealth countries to change London according to their whims, the city has been changing, and changing rapidly, on its own steam. The city’s architecture has changed. Huge, horizontally laid structures, raised on large blocks of stone and concrete are giving way to high-rise, smartly defined structures, in which glass is profusely used.

The transition is easily understood if you observe BBC’s move from a massive brick and mortar Bush House to a huge glass and aluminum cupola with a vast fluid space. You get a taste of 21st century efficiency but you miss the old world’s esprit de corps.

The eating places too have changed completely. If you wish to find a fish and chips haunt for which London was once known, you may have to cover half of the town and yet you may not succeed. The Italians came in a big way and covered the whole of London with pizza and pasta joints. McDonald’s and KFC are challenging them but they are still way ahead.

Ever heard of Hyde Park? The park is there and so is the speaker’s corner. But speakers are a dying breed now.

What has not changed is the wonderful tube, and for this the locals and visitors both are grateful. They do not know what they will do without this mother of all underground trains (though Budapest’s is somewhat senior in age). But the commuters are no longer the same. The newspapers that you saw in almost in each passenger’s hand have been replaced by the cell phone.

But then London is not the only place where you find the people so self-centred as to make you wonder whether the title of social animal given to human beings long, long ago needs to be revoked.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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