Navtej Sarna is an Indian writer and diplomat. He is presently India’s ambassador to the United States. This is the twenty-second article in our regular series of “My London”.
Professional diplomats are usually prepared to go and live in different parts of the world, coming to terms as best as they can with widely varying political and cultural landscapes, foreign languages and accents, cuisine and customs. It is part of the deal and, if one does not want to endure decades of internal torture, it is wise to decide early on in one’s career that one will not complain but make the best of each one of those experiences, and look for the positives wherever one is. Perhaps it is this mindset that still makes it difficult for me to respond easily to the inevitable question about my favourite among the several capitals – as varied as Soviet-era Moscow, Tehran and Thimphu – that I have served in. But no amount of professional rigour can completely dissolve deep yearnings. The truth is that I have always wanted to spend more time in London, and of course the quirks of human existence have conspired to prevent that. An afternoon between flights. A couple of days on a transit stop. A weekend at best, it seemed, was all that was given to me.
I thought I had finally broken the jinx when I was offered a two-year stint as India’s High Commissioner to the UK, but then destiny caught up and I was gently moved after only nine months. All too short, but enough time to leave behind a very pleasant mix of memories: long walks in the immaculate Kensington Gardens. Evenings at the Pall Mall clubs. Frequent forays to the theatre including an unforgettable Macbeth at the Globe. Lunch time wanderings in search of coffee down Fleet Street. Yoga on top of the Shard. Hot crêpes on Saturdays down Portobello Road. A well-deserved breakfast after bagging a wonderfully bound Complete Works of Shakespeare at a bargain in Bermondsey market. Waking up daily to the clippety-clop of horses from the cavalry stables on their morning exercises. Buckingham Palace garden parties. The Lord Mayor’s dinners in the City with their old world shouts of ‘Pray, silence…’. The Royal box at Wimbledon centre-court for one of the early matches. The boat race at Hammersmith…..all made for a very packed nine months, but not enough. To translate the great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib:
I have a thousand yearnings, each one afflicts me so
Many were fulfilled for sure, not enough although
When I look back, the core of my London has always been about books, one way or the other; the rest of it, all very pleasant and evocative and enriching, just falls away as penumbral decoration.
Wrapped in childhood’s cocoon, we spent long summer afternoons in India in the curtained comfort of rooms cooled by air drawn over sweet smelling damp khas panels. Our companions were adventurous English children, born of Enid Blyton’s imagination or the matchless Just William and his gang, or the less likeable but immensely funny Billy Bunter. Today, I am told, these books would fall on the wrong side of one or the other political standard, but for us, in the Sixties, they created a magic world, as unattainable as it was desirable.
I recall the sinking feeling of a book finishing and the interminable wait until the evening when one could go to the lending library, essentially a folding cupboard in the cemented market corridor, and borrow another, to savour for twenty-four hours, for a tenth of a rupee. Even the school text-books — from the nursery tales about Kitty and Rover, to the readers in middle school were all printed in England. The setting and the sensibilities were all very English and in that faraway second decade post India’s independence nobody thought it strange or insidious. If there were any gaps to be filled in a child’s mind about London, the board game Monopoly stepped ably into the breach. By the fortuitous throw of dice one bought and sold Piccadilly and Pall Mall, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and Oxford Street. In those pre-Google days, imagination brought alive all these places and ultimately it was what you imagined that stayed longest, safe from any reality checks. Little wonder then that on my first short visit in 1989, the city exuded a benign comfort. I had walked these streets before, had warm scones and jam for tea, ridden those red double-decker buses and black cabs, made friends with the Bobbies.
As if that was not enough, I was also part of a generation of Indian youth that had been introduced to not only London but all of England, complete with its idyllic Wodehosian country houses. We believed in the England of absent-minded country squires in tweeds and corduroys. We believed in the London of indolent young men of means of the Bertie Wooster variety, with brilliant valets like Jeeves hovering discreetly in the background. We imagined breakfasting in bed on kippers and herring (unheard of in India), toodling off to the Drones club for a pre-lunch cocktail before extracating oneself post-lunch from an unwise romantic liaison.
So it made perfect sense, on that first visit, to eschew standard tourist sites and instead fix an appointment at Dulwich College, the alma mater of the Master. I still remember the reverence that overcame me when a polite prefect of the school guided me to the special room created for Wodehouse in the school library and left me alone for a few precious moments with the author’s own copies of his books, his typewriter and and other personal memorabilia.
Nearly three decades were to pass until I found myself, in 2016, chasing Wodehouse again through London’s streets on a freezing February weekend. An organised walk that started at Marble Arch tube station took a motley group, united only by their passion for Wodehouse’s world, through Mayfair, Piccadilly and Pall Mall, ending up at Northumberland Street. With our collars upturned against the biting cold wind, our hands tucked deep into jacket pockets, we stood and stared at the houses on Gilbert Street and Berkeley Street where Wodehouse lived for a while and the sites of the fictional addresses of Wooster’s flat – 6A Crichton Mansions and Berkeley Mansions on 1 Mount Road, now occupied by a car showroom. Walking past several Mayfair addresses used by Wodehouse in various books we found the pub ‘I am the Only Running Footman’ at the corner of Hay’s Mews and Charles Street which inspired the Junior Ganymede Club, the gentlemen’s gentlemen club, visited occasionally by Jeeves and said to have an eleven-page entry of observations on Bertie in the club book. We paused on the site of the Bath Club on Dover street which inspired (along with the Buck’s Club on nearby Clifford Street), the inimitable Drones Club. Not far down is the bookshop into which Bertie ducked in to buy Spinoza and the site of the police station on Vine Street where our hero spends some time till matters are resolved to everybody’s satisfaction. Down St. James and Pall Mall, past various clubs, their smoking room windows, according to Wodehouse ‘filled with motionless figures, several of whom have been dead for days.’ These clubs appear under assumed names in several Wodehouse books – White’s becomes Brown’s; Boodle’s becomes the Buffers and the Athenaeum becomes Mausoleum in Something Fishy and Money in the Bank. Finally, we stopped at the site of Wodehouse’s own favourite, the Constitutional Club on Northumberland Avenue where he escaped for some quiet and to lunch with Arthur Conan Doyle: the club featured in several books as the Senior Conservative.
London was also a huge hold for anybody with a literary ambition, particularly in the India of Eighties and Nineties, before publishing in English came into its own in the country and long before the days of huge audiences at Jaipur and other literary festivals. Recognition for an author often came via London and we searched for ways to break into that esoteric world of literary agents, editors and publishers. For a young diplomat in pre-glasnost Warsaw, coming across London Calling, the BBC’s programme journal was a fortuitous break. Not only did it help me tune in more efficiently on my old, inelegant but very powerful Soviet transistor radio to the World Service, but it pointed me to the BBC’s short story programme. So my first short story, typed out multiple times on a portable Olivetti, went out to Bush House on the Aldwych and was miraculously accepted. Years later, whenever I stepped out of my office at India House next door, I could never pass by Bush House without thinking of that lucky break, no matter that by then the BBC had moved on to its more modern home.
Encouraged by that first success, I brought three more stories with me to London, convinced in my youthful naivete that all I needed was a literary agent. The rest of it, including the writing of two dozen more stories, I took to be the easy part. I recall walking up St. Martin’s Lane to an appointment with a literary agent who kindly nudged me towards mailing the stories to The London Magazine. A few weeks later I received a postcard from the then editor Alan Ross. He wrote that he would use all three. This set me on the writing path. On all subsequent visits to London, even between flights, I would make my way to the magazine’s artistically cluttered office in Thurloe Place past the V&A Museum; my London, and my literary aspirations, all centred there.
When the books came, I was always happiest when I got a chance to read at places in London: at the Royal Chelsea Hospital after tea at Colbert’s on Sloane Square, in one of the seminar rooms at the British Library or at the Southbank edition of the Jaipur Litfest. Call it a colonial hangover, or a post-colonial urge, but somehow it just felt right to bring those stories, on most of which somehow fell the shadow of the Raj, back to London.
For several Saturdays last year, in search of another book based in the days of the Raj, my London shifted to Asian and African reading room at the British Library. There I scoured India office records, maps and old gazetteers, stopping only for a coffee and salad downstairs. Many things had changed since I had last been there, the most significant being that I could now take photographs of most files and not go through the long and expensive photocopying process. As I raced through the pages, I tried not to envy those who came there everyday (not only on Saturday) and who followed their particular journeys into the past steadily and unhurriedly.
Somehow I know it’s not over yet, my journey with the reading and writing of books. There will also be other trysts with London; we know each other better now, not overly well but just enough to make it interesting.
Navtej Sarna is a diplomat and author. He graduated from Delhi University in 1980 with degrees in Law and Commerce and joined the Indian Foreign Service the same year. He has served in various diplomatic capacities in Moscow, Poland, Bhutan, Geneva, Iran and Washington . His recent appointments were as the Foreign Office Spokesman and India’s Ambassador to Israel. Presently he is serving as a Secretary to Government of India in the Ministry of External Affairs. He is the author of the novels We Weren’t Lovers Like That (Penguin India, 2003) and The Exile(Penguin India, 2008) as well as the short story collection Winter Evenings (Rainlight Rupa, 2012). His non-fiction works are The Book of Nanak (Penguin India, 2003), Folktales of Poland (Sterling 1991) and Indians at Herod’s Gate (Rainlight Rupa, 2014). He has translated Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnama (Penguin India 2011) from Persian to English as well as the Punjabi partition stories of Mohinder Singh Sarna in Savage Harvest (Rupa, 2013). He has been contributing regularly to journals and newspapers in India and abroad including the Times Literary Supplement, London Magazine, The Hindu, India Today, Outlook and so on. His literary column ‘Second Thoughts’ that appeared in The Hindu for seven years is being brought out as a collection by Harper Collins.