Thursday, January 22, 2009

Meeting Anglo-Indians in Norwood and my First Film in the UK

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I left my flat early this morning to make my way by bus to Selhurst where I intended to interview Frank Bradbury for my Anglo-Indian study. When we had chatted on the phone several weeks ago, he had invited me to a meeting of the 'South London Anglo-Indian Association' which takes place in Norwood every Thursday. I was pleased to accept the invitation as I had hoped that this meeting would allow me to network with other Anglo-Indians whose life histories I might also examine as part of my research.

While I can use Britrail lines to these distant outposts of London, I prefer to use my monthly bus pass which allows me to travel anywhere within the bus network, in a sense, for free. Naturally, it proves to be much more economical for me to do my research this way--though it means an extraordinary amount of time has to be allotted to get to and from these places.

Those dreaded road works everywhere (starting with High Holborn itself) made me reach my destination a half hour later than I expected. Still, Frank took my tardiness in his stride, meeting me at the nearest bus stop in Selhurst and leading me to his place. Over a welcome cup of coffee, we spent a good hour talking about his personal history which I found fascinating and so different from that of most of the Anglo-Indians I have been interviewing. His attitudes, his views, his opinions, were also very thoughtfully expressed and it was easy to see that I was in the company of a rather different individual. This made for a very refreshing encounter indeed. I still stagger when I think that he is 72 years old, for he does not look a day over 60. It is not merely the matter of his looks which belie his age--it is his vigour and his zest for life (which can lead one to believe that he is 50) which really had me spell bound.

After we had spoken for about an hour, Frank drove me about five minutes away to St. Chad's Catholic Church in Norwood where the South London Anglo-Indian Association rents space for a weekly meeting. I was astounded to find over a hundred people (if not more) in the large hall that includes a kitchen at the far end and a small stage at the other. The space was filled with what we would call 'seniors' in the States (I believe the word used in the UK is 'pensioners'). They sat at long tables with their snacks and drinks spread out before them. Behind the kitchen counter, I spotted my friend Joy Riberio who told me she was in-charge of getting together the "tea"--which actually turned out to be what we, in the States, would call "lunch"! Frank did the disappearing act at this time but Joy was kind enough to introduce me to Gloria St. Romaine (don't you just love her last name?) who, in turn, introduced me to Rita Lobo at whose table I found a seat.

In my role as observer, I took in the goings-on at the meeting but I did participate vigorously as well. There was a round of Bingo (6 tickets cost a pound). I have never played with more than one ticket at a time, so I had a hard time keeping track of the numbers I had scratched out on my tickets! Still, it was fun. The prize money was based on the number of tickets sold and they were rather handsome.

Lunch followed for 3. 50 pounds a piece. Not only did Frank not treat me to lunch (after having invited me to the meeting) but he had forgotten to inform the organizers that he was bringing a guest along. Joy again very kindly took me under her wing, but she too had to confess that she was afraid there would be no food left for me as the estimated amounts cooked were based on the number of individuals who signed up for the meal at the previous meeting. I felt like Oliver Twist as I hungrily awaited leftovers and the green signal that would enable me to obtain a meal as I was starving by this point. When I got the OK nod from Joy, I went up to the counter, paid my money and returned to my seat with a heaping plate of yellow rice and a Meatball Curry with a few bits of salad which was almost over by the time my turn arrived!

The rice and curry was delicious and every one seemed to enjoy it immensely. The announcement was made that Chicken Biryani would be on the menu next week and on hearing this, the participants decided whether or not to sign up for a meal. Lunch was followed by dessert which is part of the package--this afternoon, there was a fruit cocktail topped with whipped cream--but by the time I went to the counter to claim my dessert, it was all gone!!! Can you believe it? I was very disappointed as I had found the curry spicy and would have been grateful to end my meal with a sweet.

The calling of raffle prize numbers followed. Most of the participants had purchased these tickets when they entered. I believe the tickets cost a pound each. They donate all sorts of items as prizes--bottles of wine, packets of biscuits, boxes of chocolates...and these are distributed as prizes. The money collected from these raffle items are used to support Anglo-Indian charities in India--a lovely idea. While the privileged elderly Anglo-Indians in the UK enjoy a good time during their twilight years (Blair, are you reading this???), they spare a thought for so many of their less fortunate counterparts in India who are struggling through a harrowing old age.

Another round of Bingo followed (another pound a piece) and though I tried my luck again, I was not rewarded with Beginner's Luck! Between the lunch, raffle and bingo, the members circulated amongst themselves, caught up on the joys and trials of each other's Christmases and trips to India and generally cemented age-old friendships, many of which go back decades to their days in India. I found it very interesting to observe the customs and traditions of this community and I was heartened to see how happy their appear as first-generation immigrants in the UK.

Then, I was on the bus again headed home for a swift rest and to check my email. After a very short nap, I left my flat again, this time to take the Tube to Green Park to keep my appointment with my friend Rosemary Massouras to see Slumdog Millionnaire, the movie that has received so many Oscar nominations. We met at the Curzon cinema on Curzon Road right behind the quaint Shepherd Market off Piccadilly. I realized as I entered the gigantic theater that this was my first ever movie in the UK and the reason I have never seen movies in a theater here is because the tickets are so prohibitively high. I mean at 12 pounds which is 2o dollars, I have always rather paid double and seen a quality show at the West End instead. In the States, a movie costs me no more than 6 dollars, so I was astounded at the prices here. Still, for this movie I was willing to make an exception.

A few minutes later, we were joined by Rosemary's friend Lizzie Rodgers who lives in Whitchurch, near Oxford. She turned out to be a truly delightful person--warm and thoughtful. She was also the most struck by the movie and throughout our dinner that followed at Sofra, a Turkish restaurant close by, she could not get the movie off her mind. Indeed, it was, for me at least, a deeply disturbing film. It is being advertised as a "feel-good film" and for the life of me I cannot see what a Bombayite can feel good about after watching this film. It is brilliantly made, no doubt, and Danny Boyle has captured with marvelous authenticity the vigour, color, energy and vibrance of Bombay which is a relentless assault on all one' s senses. Indeed, the sights and sounds of Bombay have been so superbly captured and transferred to screen that I often winced at the naked realism of the shots. In that respect, the music by A.R. Rahman, which exhibited the complicity of many different traditions, including Middle Eastern, Islamic and Bollywood, ingeniously added to the mix.

However, I found the first half of the movie unbearably dark and intense and there were points at which I thought I would throw up because the stark inhumanity of the city has been portrayed so brutally that it made me feel physically ill. There is no way that anyone who lives in India can feel proud of the manner in which the country and its ethos has been depicted. The utter lack of human rights or dignity, the brutality of the police force that includes interrogation under torture, the filth and degradation of slum life, the ruthlessness of the villains and their treatment of women was so abjectly lacking in any kind of hope that I felt deeply ashamed of being an Indian which watching the movie. As other movies and literary works have done before this (Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay, for instance, Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, Suketu Mehta's Forbidden City), this movie lays bare the hidden underbelly of Bombay. Yet, it always saddens me that while such creative works bring international awareness to the conditions prevailing in Bombay, they never seem to achieve anything concrete or constructive. There is no reform, I mean, that emerges from these works, in the same way that, say, the novels of Charles Dickens actually led to the Reform Bills in Victorian England that eventually changed the face of Western society completed and led to the eradication of human rights' abuses. The people of India do not seem to achieve anything from this repeated merciless exposure of their country's ills other than the ability to cringe under such glaring spotlights. This is why watching such movies leaves me feeling far from good and instead deeply saddened and this was how I felt as I left the theater last night.

At dinner, at Sofra, we were joined by Lizzie's young son, Dominic, a publisher, who turned out to be a very bright and articulate young man. We chose the 'Healthy Dinner' from the vast menu which consisted of eleven small nibbles--a sort of meze sampler--and a bottle of red Tuscan wine. It was a good meal but by the time the really delicious non-vegetarian kebabs made their appearance (the lamb and the chicken kebabs were really good), I was too full and could not do them justice.

A very interesting and unexpected encounter occurred while I was dining. A lovely blond girl standing near the door reached across our table and said to me, "Excuse me, but aren't you Professor Almeida"? I replied that I was indeed and, in a few minutes, I discovered that Sophia was one of my students at NYU who had taken my South Asian Civilisation class many years ago during her freshman year in New York. I was delighted that she recognized me in the dimly lit restaurant and she was delighted to renew acquaintance with me in London, of all places. It seems that she is now in London on business. I gave her my card and she promised to get in touch with me so that we can have lunch together sometime. My dinner companions were very impressed indeed that I ran into a former student so suddenly. I remember Sophia well. Her family hails from Greece and she had been fascinated by my course on South Asia. I still remember the lovely 'Thank you' note she had written me at the end of the course and the box of Godiva chocolates that she had gifted me at the time.

At the end of our meal and lively conversation, I took the bus home from Piccadilly and by 11.30, I was in bed and dropping off to sleep after what had been a very productive day indeed.

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