Monday, September 8, 2008

Explorations Around King's Cross

Monday, September 8, 2008

The best part about exploring London is that you never know what you will come across every time you venture outdoors. There I was, at the start of the day, believing that all I was doing was registering at my local public library (Holborn Library) so I could gain access to some fun reading and viewing (fiction, magazines, DVDs) and at the British Library (for access to some serious manuscripts, documents, letters) when I made so many interesting discoveries.

First of all, the British Library sits right next door to St. Pancras, the venerable old Victorian railway station, near King's Cross, that is vaguely reminiscent of Victoria Terminus in Bombay--all red brick and towering grey granite. Contrasting completely in architectural style, the British Library is modern, even futuristic, on the outside. Inside, it reminds one of a cineplex, all glass and silent escalators and balconies in tiers like the decks of a ship. There are even some sail-like objects that float near the mezzanine. I couldn't quite decide whether I liked the design or not.

Readers and researchers were all over the place--seated on the many chairs outside the reading rooms, working silently on their laptops or taking a breather on the benches on the landing. After my registration was complete and I was the bearer or a proud new ID card with my picture on it, I visited the Humanities Reading Room that was filled almost to capacity with scholars. There was a hushed silence about the place as everyone seemed to be deeply absorbed in their projects. In a couple of days, I shall call for some material myself, then hope to start my research by the end of the week.

Since there was a special exhibit on The Ramayana at the British Library, I could not resist visiting it. And how enchanted I was by what I saw. The entire manuscript of the Sanskrit epic, known as The Mewar Manuscript and commissioned in the 16th century by Maharana Jagat Singh of Udaipur was on display. Done in the style of the Rajasthani miniature painting, it spelled out in minute detail the various trials and tribulations of Ram and Sita. A story that is long familiar to every Indian child, the epic has become known internationally, thanks to a recent television series that was a mega hit in India. I intend to send my students to see this amazing exhibition in order to introduce them to the colorful characters that populate India's ancient epics and to see the connection between similar western epics in which good triumphs, ultimately, over evil.

Unable to resist the temptation to see St. Pancras Station from within, I hopped over next door and entered the international section from where the Eurostar trains bound across the Chunnel to Paris, Lisle and Brussels depart. I was amazed by the manner in which the old Victorian structure has been reconfigured to fit in these ultra-modern trains. The ceiling is a grid created by glass and concrete and the station has been divided into tiers quite superbly. I simply cannot wait to cross the Chunnel by this supremely modern mode of transport. Shops and restaurants line the main concourse and I was delighted to see Le Pain Quotidien which is my favorite chain of coffee shops in New York. Naturally, I felt compelled to nip in to buy myself a large jar of their Belgian Praline Spread--absolutely yummy on raisin bread. If they have other London outlets, I have yet to discover them.

I then took the escalator to the mezzanine to study and indeed to touch the wonderful bronze sculpture of Sir John Betjeman, the poet whose love for England's ancient architectural monuments led him to campaign for the preservation of so many of them including St. Pancras Station which, incredibly, someone wished to demolish. Thanks to his efforts, the Eurostar Terminal came into being and the rest of the massive building is in the process of being converted into a five-star hotel whose opening is scheduled for 2009. Sculptor Martin Jennings has created a portly depiction of Betjeman, coat tails flapping in the wind, one hand clutching a battered attache case, another used to shade himself from the glare as he squints into the sun. Engraved around the sculpture are these lines from one of Betjeman's poems:

And in the shadowless unclouded glare
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sea-line meets the wash of air

His name is also engraved around the circle on which he stands, not thankfully on a pedestal, but at eye level to the viewer, with the words, "John Betjeman, 1906-1984 , Poet who saved this glorious station".

I also discovered the Waitrose at Brunswick Square, a very hip mall in Bloomsbury, not too far from where I live. I did pick up some more mouthwatering goodies from there and carted them back on the 12 minute walk to my flat.

Coincidentally, I was watching a murder mystery entitled "Death at Nine" starring Emilia Fox on TV in the evening when I realized that the concluding scene was set at St. Pancras Station to which the murderer goes, buys a ticket, boards a train and attempts to escape to Brussels. How bizarre I thought, that just this morning, I was actually there in the flesh exploring that very stretch of London space and remembering the encounter I had in Simla, India, when I was thirteen, with Lady Penelope Chetwode, wife of none other than Sir John Betjeman. Indeed, I had first heard about him from her and so many decades later, there I had been, perusing the sculpture that has been created in his beloved London as a permanent memorial to his passion for beautiful buildings.

I felt as if I had come full circle.

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