Saturday Features

Down and out in London

  • As the capital of Belayat, London looms large in the Nepali imagination. But, I learned quickly that the best way to discover London is to drink your way through it
- Pranaya SJB Rana
I couldn’t help but feel slightly peeved at how these artefacts of great cultural value were somehow housed in London. But then I came to my senses and remembered how these pieces were probably sold to the highest bidder by Nepalis themselves

Feb 10, 2018-Few drink like the English and when in London, I did like the English do. More than the grandeur of Westminster or Buckingham Palace or St Paul’s, I witnessed closer the insides of a great many pubs. There appear to be fewer places friendlier in London than a pub with a decent ale on tap. Two youngish, brown, bearded men, we walked into a plethora of pubs, from Mile End to Hayes in the west, without little mishap, except for the occasional inebriated stumble. London in the winter, cold, overcast and rainy, bustles you away from the streets and the parks and into the bars and pubs, one or two on every corner. There is, therefore, little I can report on from London that is not filtered through a haze of fine brown session ale, hand-pumped.

Still, the purpose of this column, ostensibly, is to provide a casual reflection on Europe seen through the eyes of a first-time Nepali visitor to the continent, a post-colonial reversal of the countless travelogues written by white Western visitors, both European and otherwise, to Nepal and other parts of what has now come to be called the ‘third world’, a collection of exotic locales around the globe, populated by poor but friendly people, spiritual and in tune with the earth. The spirit of this column, then, is to report on spaces made familiar to those in the farthest reaches of the globe through television, cinema and the internet and their callous, capitalistic, materialistic denizens. The stereotyping goes both ways and we do to them what they have done to us. But I am being facetious. It is not my intention to reproduce prime facie what I see but to delve a little deeper, think a little longer and refrain from indulging in the kind of idolisation of the West that is seemingly so ingrained in the Global South. Nor to pander to the reactionary opposition that seems today to unite the far right and the far left, a niggardly suspicion of everything associated with the West and its purported global conspiracy to destroy traditional values and replace them with Western or ‘Christian’ ones.

But I digress. I was reporting on London and its many pubs. Unlike the cities of the rest of my sojourns across Europe, London is perhaps the city most familiar to Nepalis, given England’s historical ‘ties’ to Nepal (the quotation marks indicate a healthy scepticism towards the bilateral nature of these ties). Upon arriving in Heathrow, past the immigration desk with the officer who held an unexpectedly friendly conversation with me on Christopher Wren and St Paul’s Cathedral, past another airport official complaining bitterly about how much she hated her job and needed to get out of there, I was greeted with the sight of three Nepalis rushing into the airport while yelling at each other to hurry up. Another couple passed conversing in Nepali and after I had related the prevalence of Nepalis in Heathrow to my friend while

inside an elevator, he remarked that the five-person family who had shared the lift with us had also been Nepalis.

As the capital of Belayat, London looms large in the Nepali imagination. The scores of Gurkha families who have emigrated there have only helped build this image larger. It is only recently, with the massive influx of Nepalis to the US as students, that America eclipsed England. Before visiting London, no one told me of its real charms—the winding alleyways, the beauteous parks, the free museums, the oh-so-glorious pubs. Most Facebook pictures of acquaintances who had visited London showed that tired old cityscape, with the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, the London Eye, Tower (not London) Bridge, etc etc. And most Facebook pictures of those who lived in London (or its environs) showed innocuous streets that could be anywhere with new cars, new homes, barbeque parties, parties with way too many other Nepalis, the stuff of every day life. And so, although I knew not what to expect, I learned quickly that the best way to discover London is to drink your way through it.

However, before the ale hits, perhaps a slight sojourn into what makes London bearable in the bloody weather (that is, except for the pubs)—the museums, all for free, as they well should be. Most of the museums I visited—the British, the Victoria and Albert, the Wellcome Collection—had something or the other of Nepali origin in it. Whether it be a glorious jewel-studded headdress that once belonged to the Kumari (British Museum), or another jade-encrusted copper crown emblazoned with the Buddha (Victoria and Albert), or an intricate Ayurvedic chart from the 1800s drawn in Kathmandu (Wellcome Collection), I couldn’t help but feel slightly peeved at how these artefacts of great cultural value were somehow housed in London. But then I came to my senses and remembered how these pieces were probably sold to the highest bidder by Nepalis themselves (possibly a Rana or a Shah) and even if they had remained in Nepal, it would have been miraculous if they hadn’t been taken apart and sold jewel by jewel by now. Forgive the cynicism but given how the reconstruction of Kathmandu’s heritage destroyed in the earthquake continues to go, there is little to inspire faith in the Nepali authorities.

Truth be told, the Nepali artefacts are a mere curiosity in these museums; there is so much more to see. The collection of fine art in the National Gallery alone is enough to occupy the art lover for days without pause. The British Museum is seemingly endless but there more than elsewhere the nagging feeling that everything housed belongs elsewhere in the world is hard to shake. The brutalist Tate Modern presents a contemporary counterpoint to the old-world beauty of the other museums and as such is one of the finest modern art museums I have been to.

Of course, all of these are the interests of a bookworm, an art enthusiast, an insouciant imbiber of inebriating beverages. Others might have taken a train to Oxford to see the university, to Kent to see the burgeoning Nepali population there, to a football stadium to catch a game. I did none of those things. Instead, I wandered London’s alleyways, littered with piss and vomit come the morning after a weekend. I sat on the Central line of the London Underground and nearly vomited myself as it alternately bobbed up and down like a bottle cork on an angry sea and undulated from side-to-side like a slithering snake. There were cousins and long-lost friends, a few days in Essex, rain and two hours in a bookstore where I walked away with an Ian McEwan. In between, many a diversion to many a pub and many, many a pint.

Published: 10-02-2018 08:26

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