Monday, October 27, 2008

Messin' Around on Red Double Decker Buses

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What do you do when you awake to a washout of a day with rain streaming down your window panes? What do you do when you have a foot ailment that prevents too much standing or walking and a friend from America in town? Why, you mess around on the double decker buses, of course. In fact, you study your bus route map and find the one that takes the most circuitous route around the city so that you can offer your friend a sight seeing tour without getting into the downpour.

So I met Ian outside St. Paul's Cathedral--which allowed both of us to pay a visit inside. He arrived with a steaming cup of Starbuck's Tea in his hand, having overslept and missing his full English breakfast; but then he thankfully remembered that he had gained an hour through the night as we set our clocks back.

I, remaining oblivious to this fact, had called him at his hotel at 10 am, only to discover that it was still 9 am. Still, with the extra hour working in our favor, we walked to Ludgate Hill--me gingerly, trying not to put too much pressure on my feet--where I was thrilled to see the old Routemaster buses plying on the opposite side. These are the red double deckers sans doors. You jump on and off at will through the back door, clinging on to the bar for dear life. It's the kind of double decker bus with which I grew up in Bombay and they take me nostalgically back to those childhood days when that was my only mode of conveyance around the city.

Route No. 11 arrived before long and we clambered upstairs to start our ride along Fleet Street, once synonymous with the biggest names in British newspaper publication. Then, of course, when the Fourth Estate discovered that they could not wire up those old graded buildings for modern telecommunications, they departed, lock, stock and barrel, for Canary Wharf where the concrete jungle emerged to tower over the Thames. The name Grub Street still holds good and Dr. Samuel Johnson's home still lies hidden in a crevice behind one of the alleys, approached quite easily through his favorite watering hole, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese.

Then, we were at Trafalgar Square, offered a quick glimpse of a choir singing on the bleachers as the bus turned into Whitehall, allowing a peak at the Horse Guards and the tourist throngs around them. When Big Ben and Westminster drew into sight, Ian got visibly excited and told me that Jenny and Kristen, his wife and daughter, who will be in London with me for a few days in December en route to Bombay, should take this bus ride too. Through Victoria and Sloan Square and then the King's Road and Fulham, we trundled slowly as the rain poured down more copiously.

At this point, mention of Harrods came up and Ian asked me if I had seen the Diana-Dodi Memorial in the store. I told him that I hadn't yet been to Harrods since my arrival, six weeks ago, in London. "But I'd love to go today, if you'd like to", I said. "Sure", he agreed, "but what I'd really like to do is go for chaat to this Indian place that Jenny and I always visit when we are here in London. I even found the phone number for you". And so we decided to peak into Harrods, then take the Tube to Euston Square to go in search of Diwana Bhel Puri House on Drummond Street.

On the No. 14 bus heading towards Knightsbridge from Fulham, we rode through Old Brompton Road and Fulham Road and I felt that old urge tug once more at my heartstrings to get off the bus and explore the shops on foot. Then, I remembered my disability and suppressed the urge that had put me in this position in the first place! Another day perhaps.

We also passed by a double row of mounted police trotting down the road on horseback wearing the flourescent green waistcoats of security personnel. I wondered where they were headed when just a few meters away, we started to see throngs of people progressing in the same direction, strangely attired in uniform navy blue and white colors. "This has to be some kind of sporting event", I told Ian, as the crowds gathered strength. Then, right enough, the bus was held stationery in traffic created by the big football match being played that morning at the Chelsea Football Club's Stadium which appeared on our left. The navy blue and white are the colors of the local home team and the fans were out in droves to cheer their favorites. It was fun to see that--the navy blue umbrellas, the striped blue and white scarves, the two-colored jerseys and cardigans and sweat shirts. The English sure do love their football and passions run wild when the home team is on the field.

The bus stopped right in front of Harrods, where, to my astonishment, I realized that Christmas had already arrived! Giant red wreaths decorated the main floor that, recession or no recession, financial meltdown or no meltdown, credit crunch or no credit crunch, was simply choked with buyers or mere window shoppers, or just browsers--who knows? What I do know is that we had to literally elbow our way through the throngs to get to the back of the parfumerie where a small escalator led us downwards to the Diana-Dodi Memorial.

Immortalized in Italian marble, pictures of the star-crossed lovers form the focal point of a small monument that is made solemn by the use of candles and a lilting fountain. What I thought was a little too much, however, was a diamond ring placed in the very front in a glass case. Was this the ring that Dodi al-Fayed was supposed to have given Diana only days before their deaths? Well, that to me was really a bit much. It is one thing to remember one's son and his girl friend through a memorial but, in my humble opinion, to try to perpetuate the myth that the two were engaged to be married by placing that ring in the public eye is in bad taste.

Before long, we were headed Underground to Euston where we found Diwana easily enough and passed on the weekend buffet to make a meal of the chaat and kulfi. With sev batata puri and dahi bhale, a mixed platter of starters, mango juice and malai kulfi, we were replete and ready, once again, to walk out into the rain. We parted company soon after, with Ian heading for his conference and me going home, feeling extraordinarily fulfilled from having had such an interesting afternoon.

Back home, I graded a batch of student papers before settling down to watch some great TV--Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit is in serial form on BBC1 (I had always dreamed of spending my evenings in London curled up with good Victorian fiction on the telly and tonight I have Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure to anticipate, thanks to Love Films.Com). Then Stephen Fry came on offering his Tour of the American States which continued yesterday with his sojourn across the Deep South. This is truly an interesting look at American life because Fry has avoided all the cliches and is presenting glimpses into aspects of Americana with which even I am unfamiliar--such as voodoo in New Orleans, the country's largest penitentiary in Kentucky, and Morgan Freeman's club Ground Zero in Mississippi, Home of the Blues.

One long chat with Llew later, I called it a night.

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