Autumn ramblings

September 22nd, 2008 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in London | 1 Comment »


Today, September 22, is the Autumn Equinox, when night and day are of nearly equal length everywhere on earth. From tomorrow, in the northern hemisphere, the nights will become longer than the days, and the earth’s tilt will carry us towards the long evenings of winter.

Today, summer is officially over, and autumn is here. The bright sunshine of the last few days has been replaced by a muted, cloud-filtered light. The leaves of the horse chestnuts are already a mottled brown, as though rusted in the rain; smooth, brown conkers and their spiny casings lie among the fallen leaves. The silver birches stand stark and bare. The leaves of the oak trees, always the last to fall, have turned brown at the edges. The squirrels are busy, frantic, gathering the fresh green acorns as they fall to the ground, rushing to add them to their hoard, stored safely against the lean, dark months of winter.

For me, the changing seasons mark the passing of Time. The earth, tilted, spinning on its axis, on its fixed journey round the sun - the image brings with it a relentless, ruthless idea of Time. Time does not regard my griefs, my joys. It does not know that I exist. Whether I would stop it, extend it, or whether I would beg it to go faster, Time will not comply. It will move at its own measured pace.

Sometimes, though, Time breaks its measured tread. It flies so quickly that I do not see it go. It does not seem that it has already been a month since I was in Delhi, negotiating my way through streets clogged with traffic, in the sweltering sauna-like heat that descends upon the city as the monsoons begin to taper off. It does not seem that tomorrow my daughter, Vipasha, will be fourteen.

And then, there are days that do not end - days that I spent sitting by my mother’s hospital bedside, days spent in worry and grief, and sometimes even, days spent in hope.

Once in a while, Time stands still. Those are the moments to celebrate - and to be afraid of, for those are the moments of truth, the moments that change us forever. Such moments are rare, they happen perhaps once in a lifetime. When they do, hold them. Remember them. They are what makes life what it is - a celebration of the spirit.

Writing this piece, I have been drawn into a world of thoughts and memories, which are too many, too much mine, to share. I look up to see that the morning is over, that while I have been rambling, reflecting, writing, the sun has moved, the light has changed - and Time has passed.

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‘Knives to grind…’

June 23rd, 2008 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, Children's Literature, India, London, Mumbai | No Comments »


Memory, how it works, and  why it works the way it does, is a mystery that no one has solved yet. Why do we remember some people and not others? How is it that we can recall some events with complete clarity and some events not at all? Colours, textures, even the smells of certain moments stay with us forever -  consciously, so that we can recall them at will, or subconsciously, so that a sudden trigger brings flooding into our minds, people, places and events we thought we had forgotten.

This morning, as I pottered around the house, fixing breakfast for the children, hanging out the washing, making a cup of tea for myself, I thought, suddenly and for no apparent reason at all, of the old guava-seller who used to be a regular feature of my winter holidays.

The old man would turn up on our doorstep, a basket of green and yellow guavas balanced on his head. To my seven-year-old eyes, he looked really really old, though perhaps he wasn’t much older than sixty at the time. He would be dressed in a dusty, white dhoti and kurta; he had wispy grey hair and untidy whiskers, and wore a pair of round spectacles with lenses so thick that they seemed opaque. He would cut the fruit into quarters, and sprinkle it with a black masala that gave off a sharp, pungent, but oh! such a delicious smell. If it turned out that the guava was a deep pink inside, and sweet, I would be delighted - for that was my favourite kind of guava. If the guava turned out to be ordinary, boring white inside, then my mother would admonish him, and insist that next time, he must bring the pink ones.

Steam-of-consciousness style, this memory triggered off thoughts and more memories of the other, itinerant pedlars who would come to our door or call their wares on the streets of my childhood. There was the potter, balancing an amazing number of earthern pots on his head, pots that would keep our drinking water cool in the hot summer months and flavour it with the taste and smell of clay. There was the knife-grinder, who would carry off all the kitchen knives to be sharpened, and return them an hour later, their edges gleaming. And the balloonwala, with his bright yellow, pink, blue and orange balloons bobbing along behind him. He would call to the children, Pied-Piper fashion, by blowing on a shrill, squeaky whistle, and when enough of us had gathered round, delight us with the strange four-legged beasts he fashioned out of thin, tube-like balloons that he bent and twisted as he pleased without them popping.

But my favourite was the kalaiwala, the man who came to ‘galvanise’ the kitchen pots and karahis. With a puff of his bellows and a sizzle and a hiss, he would turn the old, beaten, copper vessels, into shining silver ones. It was the closest thing to alchemy that I have seen.

Though I no longer see the kalaiwala, or hear the whirring of the knifegrinder’s wheel that often, I know that should I need them, I will still be able to find them, in a corner of some busy market, or down a narrow lane or gully in the older parts of India’s megacities where the past continues to exist quite regardless of the present.

Some vendors and their trades continue to flourish even into the modern way of life. The vegetable-vendor, the flower-seller, the milkman, the bread-wala, and the green coconut-seller continued to be regular visitors to my flat in Mumbai many years later. With a small child and a household to run, I was deeply grateful for the service and convenience these vendors provided.

When I moved to London, I moved fully prepared to face a life quite empty of such luxuries. ‘You’ll miss this service in London,’ friends had warned. ‘Nobody brings anything to your front door there.’

They were wrong - I get fresh milk delivered to my doorstep every day, and groceries as often as I like.

And, along with the convenient, I also get the exotic - the knifegrinder (yes, here too!) who asks ‘Need anything sharpened, luv?’; the fishmonger who offers me fresh fish and goes away shaking his head at my incomprehensible, vegetarian ways; and strangest of all, a few weeks ago, a smartly-dressed, middle-aged woman selling - manure!

Yes, manure. For my garden. At £2.50 a bag, knocked down from £6.50, an offer I should not refuse. When I do refuse, she points out that it will help to break up the clay in my garden, and ‘besides, all your neighbours ‘ave bought some.’ When I still hesitate, she hands me her business card. ‘A’right then,’ she says, ‘that’s me number there. Ring me if yer change yer mind. Anyway, I’ll be back in the autumn.’

Of course, such exotic visitors are few and far between.

Street vendors and itinerant pedlars had once livened the streets of London much as they had enlivened the streets of my childhood. They disappeared with the coming of the twentieth century.

Fortunately, in London too, the past continues to exist into the present - though in a different format. If one searches for them, the street vendors of London can still be found preserved in miniature books that consist of pictures of the various street-sellers with their cries printed beneath, and a verse describing them. The criers call out such wares as muffins, hot chestnuts, fresh herrings, eels, strawberries, cherries, primroses, matches, and newly-printed ballads. There are also pictures of knifegrinders, milkmaids, and chimney sweeps with their boys.

These books came to be known as the Cries of London. Most of these books were published between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, and many of them were for children.

London Cries are also mentioned in the fifteenth century poem, ‘London Lickpenny’(written perhaps by John Lydgate):

Hot pescodes, one began to cry,
Straberry ripe, and cherryes in the ryse;
One bad me come here and buy some spyce.

The Cries of London are available today - as prints, and posters, online on ebay or with specialist websites, and with rare books sellers.

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‘Tis the night before Christmas

December 24th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, Christmas, India | No Comments »


…and all through the house, not a creature is stirring, not even Alfie, the school hamster, on his annual visit to us over the Christmas holidays. It is very still and very quiet; the only sound is that of the tapping of the keys on my keyboard, and an occasional grunt from the central heating. Outside my window, the streetlamp shines yellow through the thickening fog. There is not a soul in sight, not a man, not a woman, not a child. Not even a cat, not even a fox, not even a bat. Perhaps, if I stay very quiet, I’ll hear the bells on Santa’s reindeer - the thought comes unbidden to my mind, and I have to stop myself from peering hopefully up into the sky.

I don’t celebrate Christmas any more, not since I grew up, not since I moved to London. I do not like the cold and the damp dark of winter, the sunless days, the foggy nights. The frenetic activity that accompanies the ‘silly season’ wears me out, and all I want to do is snuggle into a burrow of blankets and hibernate the winter away, till sun and warmth return once more.

So, why am I checking the sky for Santa, I ask myself?

Because my children do, even though they’re ‘all growed up’? Because I love the sound of sleigh bells? Because I like the idea of an old man in a red suit and white beard flying through the night, with a sackful of toys for the world’s children? Or because I’ve always waited for Santa, ever since I was a child myself, and some things do not change?

Christmas for me was not always so dull. I grew up in Calcutta, a city that celebrates all festivals with great enthusiasm and good cheer. Christmas, I remember, was no exception. The city would break out into a glad frenzy of music and dance and theatre, of late nights and good food, and chocolates and cakes and presents wrapped in pretty red paper. The central circle in New Market would be full of fake Christmas trees of all sizes, covered with tinsel and cottonwool snow. Tiny cottonwool Santas with long beards and floppy red hats would be on sale, to be bought individually or by the box.

The Midnight Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral, or even in my school chapel, would be thronged not only by members of the Christian community, but by Calcuttans belonging to all religious communities. We’d wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with the same joy that we wished each other ‘Shubho Bijoya’ or ‘Id Mubarak.’

The last time I spent Christmas in Calcutta was twenty years ago. I don’t know if those fake trees and cottonwool Santas are still being sold in New Market, and whether Park Street is still lit up the way it used to be when I was small. I hear though, that the Calcutta spirit is still alive, and that Calcuttans of all shapes, sizes and religious hues still wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with the same glad happiness of my childhood. In a world that is becoming more and more divided by religion every day, it is reassuring to know that the spirit of secularism has not died out entirely.

I know that there is no Santa, no reindeers flying through a starlit sky, and that if I look out of my window again, I will see only swirling fog. But I do know that good wishes there are in plenty - for peace on earth and good will to all.

So - Merry Christmas, everyone!

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November 20th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in London, Shakespeare, The Tudors | 5 Comments »


Shylock. A thin, bent figure, with almost more venom and hatred and hurt in him than his old, frail, frame can take. He is a villain, rotten to the core, who tries in a most evil and unforgiving manner to take Antonio’s life and so revenge himself on the merchant: he hates Antonio, because he is a Christian and because he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance in Venice.

Yet I cannot help a grudging sympathy for him.

He is a Jew, proud of his religion and his ‘tribe’, and therefore subject to the cruel anti-Semitism of medieval Europe.

He is a father betrayed most callously by his only daughter, who walks out on him without a backward glance, to marry Lorenzo, a Christian.

And ultimately he is completely destroyed by a law that some in today’s world would consider unduly harsh: though the Duke of Venice grants him his life, he decrees that half his wealth should go to Antonio, the other half to the state. Shylock, beaten, begs:

Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.

Antonio magnanimously quits the fine for one half of his goods, provided that Shylock will let him have the half to render it, upon his death, unto the gentleman, that lately stole his daughter, and that he do record a gift, here in the court, of all he dies possess’d, unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.

Antonio is merciful, yes. And Shylock does not deserve such generosity from him.

But Antonio has one more demand - he declares that, for this favour, Shylock should presently become a Christian.

This breaks Shylock’s spirit, and makes me question this ‘mercy’ that Antonio shows the old man.

Shylock is a product of his own hatred as much as he is a product of the discrimination of the times. He refuses to show Antonio any mercy, and declares that he will have his flesh

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

I look at the world today, and ask: how many Shylocks are we still creating, how many Antonios do we still have, and how many Courts of Justice still exist that are as ‘merciful’ as the court of the Duke of Venice?

I do not like the answers that I get.

william shakespeare


more by Shakespeare

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South Bank…

November 20th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in London | No Comments »


It is late. The city hums softly, in standby mode. The day’s frenzy has subsided, and the crowd of tourists and office workers have given way to crowds of men and women spilling out of theatres, pubs and restaurants.

I walk along the river. Across, St Paul’s, its dome illuminated, glows a tarnished gold . The river laps gently at its sides, the lights from Victoria Embankment, Charing Cross, Westminster glimmering, reflected on its dark surface.

A swirling, noisy, laughing, crowd sweeps me up and carries me along – to decant me gently at the steps of the National Theatre. The crowd flies off and vanishes into the night, as suddenly as it had appeared. Where had it come from, which theatre, which pub? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. The night is still again. On its edges are the lights of the cafe, where late-night theatre-goers in evening dress are dining alfresco on the terrace.

I turn and walk towards Waterloo Station.

The underground passageways that connect the South Bank to the station are home to some of London’s homeless. The men lie bundled up in blankets and sleeping bags, fast asleep. The bright neon lights of the passageways show up the peeling plaster and scuff marks on the walls. I read Sue Hubbard’s poem backwards as I ascend once more into the night air.

Then a run for the train on Platform 2, and home to quiet suburbia.

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A walk into the past

November 19th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in London, Napoleon, The Tudors, Wild places | 2 Comments »


It is quiet on the Common, and very beautiful. The sun is shining warm and mellow out of a clear blue sky, gilding the trees with gold. The grass is still green and patterned with the gold and silver of fallen leaves. A bird calls, a squirrel rustles amongst the trees. It is autumn now - the time of year that I love best, especially when I can be out for a walk on the Common.

Perhaps it was a day as beautiful as this when, nine hundred years ago, Gilbert the Norman first viewed his new estate of Merton. He was an important man at court, and King Henry I had given him many honours - made him Sheriff of Surrey and Sheriff of Huntingdon and also given him the Manor of Merton. Maybe it was Merton’s beauty that made him decide to live here  - because, unlike other lords of the manor, Gilbert did live on his estate.

Gilbert was also a devout man, and in 1117 he founded Merton Priory with the help of the Canons of Huntingdon. Hence Canon Hill, the origin of the name of my Common, Cannon Hill Common. It has nothing to do with guns, though antiaircraft guns were installed here during the Second World War.

The Canons did not like the site chosen by Gilbert, and moved the Priory to the banks of the river Wandle. Gilbert used to take a great personal interest in the Priory - he would visit the Canons frequently, always making sure that they were never in want. He ensured an increase in the Priory’s wealth and lands through his contacts at court. It was said that Queen Matilda herself had visited the Priory with her son - who was later drowned at sea while trying to save his sister’s life. Gilbert finally became a Canon himself and joined Merton Priory, where he died. Strangely though, he is not buried here.

Today nothing remains of Gilbert’s beautiful Priory except a single archway. Merton Priory was destroyed in the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII. 

Henry VIII broke away from the Pope and set up the Church of England with himself as its head.  This made it possible for him to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. It also made him rich, because he could now claim for himself the wealth of the old monasteries, most of which he demolished. One such casualty was Merton Priory.

The Priory was pulled down and its stones used to construct the foundations of the Nonesuch Palace at Epsom. Henry VIII built this palace for his third wife, Jane Seymour and lost interest in it after her death in 1537. More than a hundred years later, Charles II gave the palace to one of his various mistresses. This lady had no use for it, and the building was torn down. The stones used to build Merton Priory were used for other buildings one of which is the bandstand at Epsom.  And that is where they are today. On the original site of the Priory there now stands a large supermarket.

The lands of the Priory passed into rich private hands. One Richard Thornton bought the area where the Common is today as well as the adjoining lands in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Richard Thornton was called the ‘unknown millionaire’ - when he died he left behind a fortune of three million pounds, most of which went to his relatives and was soon wasted. Richard Thornton built a large mansion, Cannon Hill House in 1770 for himself, his ‘housekeeper’, his children and his sister and her family. The earth for the bricks came out of the Common - Thornton filled the hole he had dug with water and stocked it with fish. The lake still attracts ducks and geese and sometimes swans, though fishing is no longer allowed there. Cannon Hill House was demolished towards the end of the 19th century.

Richard Thornton’s origins were humble. His father was a poor Yorkshire farmer, and Richard himself made his money running the blockade imposed upon British ships by Napoleon. He supplied hemp procured from the Baltic to British ships. His great opportunity came in 1812 when he became the first person to know of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia through one of his ships. He sold his hemp at very high prices and made his fortune before the news of Napoleon’s retreat brought down the price of hemp in Britain.

Thornton was a generous man and did much for the villagers and the surrounding areas. However, he is remembered today only by a single road named after him, Thornton Road, in Wimbledon, where he had held some property.

In 1924, George Blay, the man who is responsible for what the area looks like today, bought the estate. He undertook to build two thousand houses in the area, leaving seventy-five acres of open ground as a common. He received a government subsidy of £75.00 for every house that he constructed. The houses were designed by an architect called Taylor, who has not been heard of before or since. The housing estate was completed in 1939.The houses sold for £700.00 to £910.00. Each house had a front and rear garden, but the kitchens were small and not very well designed. I ought to know - I live in a Blay house! Blay had sold 54 acres of open ground to the local authorities for £17,500 in 1925 - and it is this land which is called Cannon Hill Common today. Blay disappears into history with his fortune - no records tell where he went or what he did after this project.

Today Cannon Hill Common is owned and managed by Merton Council. It is not a common in the strictest sense of the word, but more an unfenced park. It consists of woodland, meadows and the lake created by Richard Thornton. Oak and horse chestnut, willow, birch and ash are some of the trees that grow here. Many species of birds live and breed here. The red fox can also be seen, usually in the evenings but sometimes during the day as well.

The Common lies behind my house, and has given me many hours of peace and beauty.

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