Navtej Sarna

My London

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Navtej Sarna is an In­dian writer and diplo­mat. He is presently In­dia’s am­bas­sador to the United States. This is the twenty-sec­ond ar­ti­cle in our reg­u­lar se­ries of “My London”.

Pro­fes­sional di­plo­mats are usu­ally pre­pared to go and live in dif­fer­ent parts of the world, com­ing to terms as best as they can with widely vary­ing po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural land­scapes, for­eign lan­guages and ac­cents, cui­sine and cus­toms. It is part of the deal and, if one does not want to en­dure decades of in­ter­nal tor­ture, it is wise to de­cide early on in one’s ca­reer that one will not com­plain but make the best of each one of those ex­pe­ri­ences, and look for the pos­i­tives wher­ever one is. Per­haps it is this mind­set that still makes it dif­fi­cult for me to re­spond eas­ily to the in­evitable ques­tion about my favourite among the sev­eral cap­i­tals – as var­ied as Soviet-era Moscow, Tehran and Thim­phu – that I have served in. But no amount of pro­fes­sional rigour can com­pletely dis­solve deep yearn­ings. The truth is that I have al­ways wanted to spend more time in London, and of course the quirks of hu­man ex­is­tence have con­spired to pre­vent that. An af­ter­noon be­tween flights. A cou­ple of days on a tran­sit stop. A week­end at best, it seemed, was all that was given to me.

I thought I had fi­nally bro­ken the jinx when I was of­fered a two-year stint as In­dia’s High Com­mis­sioner to the UK, but then des­tiny caught up and I was gen­tly moved af­ter only nine months. All too short, but enough time to leave be­hind a very pleas­ant mix of mem­o­ries: long walks in the im­mac­u­late Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens. Evenings at the Pall Mall clubs. Fre­quent for­ays to the the­atre in­clud­ing an unforgettable Mac­beth at the Globe. Lunch time wan­der­ings in search of cof­fee down Fleet Street. Yoga on top of the Shard. Hot crêpes on Satur­days down Por­to­bello Road. A well-de­served break­fast af­ter bag­ging a won­der­fully bound Com­plete Works of Shake­speare at a bar­gain in Ber­mond­sey mar­ket. Wak­ing up daily to the clip­pety-clop of

horses from the cavalry sta­bles on their morn­ing ex­er­cises. Buck­ing­ham Palace gar­den par­ties. The Lord Mayor’s din­ners in the City with their old world shouts of ‘Pray, si­lence…’. The Royal box at Wim­ble­don cen­tre­court for one of the early matches. The boat race at Ham­mer­smith…..all made for a very packed nine months, but not enough. To trans­late the great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib:

I have a thou­sand yearn­ings, each one af­flicts me so Many were ful­filled for sure, not enough al­though


When I look back, the core of my London has al­ways been about books, one way or the other; the rest of it, all very pleas­ant and evoca­tive and en­rich­ing, just falls away as penum­bral dec­o­ra­tion.

Wrapped in child­hood’s co­coon, we spent long sum­mer af­ter­noons in In­dia in the cur­tained com­fort of rooms cooled by air drawn over sweet smelling damp khas pan­els. Our com­pan­ions were ad­ven­tur­ous English chil­dren, born of Enid Bly­ton’s imag­i­na­tion or the match­less Just Wil­liam and his gang, or the less likeable but im­mensely funny Billy Bunter. To­day, I am told, th­ese books would fall on the wrong side of one or the other po­lit­i­cal stan­dard, but for us, in the Six­ties, they cre­ated a magic world, as unattain­able as it was de­sir­able.

I re­call the sink­ing feel­ing of a book fin­ish­ing and the in­ter­minable wait un­til the evening when one could go to the lend­ing li­brary, es­sen­tially a fold­ing cup­board in the ce­mented mar­ket cor­ri­dor, and bor­row an­other, to savour for twenty-four hours, for a tenth of a ru­pee. Even the school text­books — from the nurs­ery tales about Kitty and Rover, to the read­ers in mid­dle school were all printed in Eng­land. The set­ting and the sen­si­bil­i­ties were all very English and in that far­away sec­ond decade post In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence no­body thought it strange or in­sid­i­ous. If there were any gaps to be filled in a child’s mind about London, the board game Mo­nop­oly stepped ably into the breach. By the fortuitous throw of dice one bought and

sold Pic­cadilly and Pall Mall, Hyde Park and Buck­ing­ham Palace, Tower Bridge and Ox­ford Street. In those pre-Google days, imag­i­na­tion brought alive all th­ese places and ul­ti­mately it was what you imag­ined that stayed long­est, safe from any re­al­ity checks. Lit­tle won­der then that on my first short visit in 1989, the city ex­uded a be­nign com­fort. I had walked th­ese streets be­fore, had warm scones and jam for tea, rid­den those red dou­bledecker buses and black cabs, made friends with the Bob­bies.

As if that was not enough, I was also part of a gen­er­a­tion of In­dian youth that had been in­tro­duced to not only London but all of Eng­land, com­plete with its idyl­lic Wode­hosian coun­try houses. We be­lieved in the Eng­land of ab­sent-minded coun­try squires in tweeds and cor­duroys. We be­lieved in the London of in­do­lent young men of means of the Ber­tie Wooster va­ri­ety, with bril­liant valets like Jeeves hov­er­ing dis­creetly in the back­ground. We imag­ined break­fast­ing in bed on kippers and her­ring (un­heard of in In­dia), toodling off to the Drones club for a pre-lunch cock­tail be­fore ex­tra­cat­ing one­self post-lunch from an un­wise ro­man­tic li­ai­son.

So it made per­fect sense, on that first visit, to eschew stan­dard tourist sites and in­stead fix an ap­point­ment at Dul­wich Col­lege, the alma mater of the Mas­ter. I still re­mem­ber the rev­er­ence that over­came me when a po­lite pre­fect of the school guided me to the spe­cial room cre­ated for Wode­house in the school li­brary and left me alone for a few pre­cious mo­ments with the author’s own copies of his books, his type­writer and and other per­sonal mem­o­ra­bilia.

Nearly three decades were to pass un­til I found my­self, in 2016, chas­ing Wode­house again through London’s streets on a freez­ing Fe­bru­ary week­end. An or­gan­ised walk that started at Mar­ble Arch tube sta­tion took a mot­ley group, united only by their pas­sion for Wode­house’s world, through May­fair, Pic­cadilly and Pall Mall, end­ing up at Northum­ber­land Street. With our col­lars up­turned against the bit­ing cold wind, our hands tucked deep into jacket pock­ets, we stood and stared at the houses on Gil­bert Street and Berke­ley Street where Wode­house lived for a while and the sites of the fic­tional ad­dresses of Wooster’s flat – 6A Crich­ton Man­sions and Berke­ley

Man­sions on 1 Mount Road, now oc­cu­pied by a car show­room. Walk­ing past sev­eral May­fair ad­dresses used by Wode­house in var­i­ous books we found the pub ‘I am the Only Run­ning Foot­man’ at the cor­ner of Hay’s Mews and Charles Street which in­spired the Ju­nior Ganymede Club, the gen­tle­men’s gen­tle­men club, vis­ited oc­ca­sion­ally by Jeeves and said to have an eleven-page en­try of ob­ser­va­tions on Ber­tie in the club book. We paused on the site of the Bath Club on Dover street which in­spired (along with the Buck’s Club on nearby Clif­ford Street), the inim­itable Drones Club. Not far down is the book­shop into which Ber­tie ducked in to buy Spinoza and the site of the po­lice sta­tion on Vine Street where our hero spends some time till mat­ters are re­solved to every­body’s sat­is­fac­tion. Down St. James and Pall Mall, past var­i­ous clubs, their smok­ing room win­dows, ac­cord­ing to Wode­house ‘filled with mo­tion­less fig­ures, sev­eral of whom have been dead for days.’ Th­ese clubs ap­pear un­der as­sumed names in sev­eral Wode­house books – White’s be­comes Brown’s; Boo­dle’s be­comes the Buf­fers and the Athenaeum be­comes Mau­soleum in Some­thing Fishy and Money in the Bank. Fi­nally, we stopped at the site of Wode­house’s own favourite, the Con­sti­tu­tional Club on Northum­ber­land Av­enue where he es­caped for some quiet and to lunch with Arthur Co­nan Doyle: the club fea­tured in sev­eral books as the Se­nior Con­ser­va­tive.

London was also a huge hold for any­body with a lit­er­ary am­bi­tion, par­tic­u­larly in the In­dia of Eight­ies and Nineties, be­fore pub­lish­ing in English came into its own in the coun­try and long be­fore the days of huge au­di­ences at Jaipur and other lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals. Recog­ni­tion for an author of­ten came via London and we searched for ways to break into that es­o­teric world of lit­er­ary agents, ed­i­tors and pub­lish­ers. For a young diplo­mat in pre­glas­nost War­saw, com­ing across London Call­ing, the BBC’s pro­gramme jour­nal was a fortuitous break. Not only did it help me tune in more ef­fi­ciently on my old, in­el­e­gant but very pow­er­ful Soviet tran­sis­tor ra­dio to the World Ser­vice, but it pointed me to the BBC’s short story pro­gramme. So my first short story, typed out mul­ti­ple times on a por­ta­ble Olivetti, went out to Bush House on the Ald­wych and was mirac­u­lously ac­cepted. Years later, when­ever I stepped out of my of­fice at In­dia House next door, I could never pass by Bush House with­out think­ing of that lucky break, no mat­ter

that by then the BBC had moved on to its more mod­ern home.

En­cour­aged by that first suc­cess, I brought three more sto­ries with me to London, con­vinced in my youth­ful naivete that all I needed was a lit­er­ary agent. The rest of it, in­clud­ing the writ­ing of two dozen more sto­ries, I took to be the easy part. I re­call walk­ing up St. Martin’s Lane to an ap­point­ment with a lit­er­ary agent who kindly nudged me to­wards mail­ing the sto­ries to The London Mag­a­zine. A few weeks later I re­ceived a post­card from the then edi­tor Alan Ross. He wrote that he would use all three. This set me on the writ­ing path. On all sub­se­quent vis­its to London, even be­tween flights, I would make my way to the mag­a­zine’s ar­tis­ti­cally clut­tered of­fice in Thur­loe Place past the V&A Mu­seum; my London, and my lit­er­ary as­pi­ra­tions, all cen­tred there.

When the books came, I was al­ways hap­pi­est when I got a chance to read at places in London: at the Royal Chelsea Hos­pi­tal af­ter tea at Col­bert’s on Sloane Square, in one of the sem­i­nar rooms at the Bri­tish Li­brary or at the South­bank edi­tion of the Jaipur Lit­fest. Call it a colo­nial han­gover, or a post-colo­nial urge, but some­how it just felt right to bring those sto­ries, on most of which some­how fell the shadow of the Raj, back to London.

For sev­eral Satur­days last year, in search of an­other book based in the days of the Raj, my London shifted to Asian and African read­ing room at the Bri­tish Li­brary. There I scoured In­dia of­fice records, maps and old gazetteers, stop­ping only for a cof­fee and salad down­stairs. Many things had changed since I had last been there, the most sig­nif­i­cant be­ing that I could now take photographs of most files and not go through the long and ex­pen­sive pho­to­copy­ing process. As I raced through the pages, I tried not to envy those who came there ev­ery­day (not only on Satur­day) and who fol­lowed their par­tic­u­lar jour­neys into the past steadily and un­hur­riedly.

Some­how I know it’s not over yet, my jour­ney with the read­ing and writ­ing of books. There will also be other trysts with London; we know each other bet­ter now, not overly well but just enough to make it in­ter­est­ing.

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