‘Right ho, then,’ was all that my friend Sushil Nangia said as he saw me off outside Waterloo Station on that May morning in 1967. I was leaving London for good, and had chosen to do it overland in a 12-seater van, with six others – two men, three women and a girl child. Compared to the turnout Kini had at New Delhi station when he set off on a hitch-hike to London, my send-off from London, heading home to New Delhi, was a quiet affair.
In fact, I wasn’t expecting anyone to show up, as I had taken leave of my friends the previous evening. Sushil surprised me, by turning up at the Waterloo station parking lot,our designated departure point. To be there that early, to meet me for a few minutes, Nangia had sacrificed his Sunday morning that one usually spent breakfasting in bed and poring over the bulky Sunday papers. But then Nangia is a peculiar guy in the Bertie Wooster kind of way. And he was among the more unpredictable of the friends I had in London those days.
For all you know, Nangia might have turned up to make sure that I wasn’t bluffing about undertaking this crazy overland exercise. Kini is intrigued, not by my mode of transport, but by my decision to return to India, at a time when thousands were prepared to sell their assets back home, even risk their lives to come and live in the UK. More on that, a little later.
Nangia was among my contemporaries who settled for permanent residency in England. He was then a clerical officer at a London county council office, a secure and pensionable civil service job. And with a felt on his head and rolled-up umbrella, and sporting a wire-frame pair of spectacles, he looked a brown sahib down to the tip of his polished black shoes. With such a start ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ Nangia must have retired as a Whitehall busybody. I lost touch with him. Wonder if he wears braces, like Larry King.
Nangia and I have known each other from college days. And we usually found ourselves at the same coffee-house table, presided over by ‘Speedy’ (S P Dutt), who was to be known, years later, as Barkha Dutt’s dad. Nangia and I had come to Britain around the same time, along with a group of other coffee-house regulars. During ‘Speedy’s’ occasional trips (he then worked for Air-India in New Delhi) we used to gather at India Tea House (Oxford St.?). Like at the Delhi coffee house, we spent hours at London Tea House whenever Speedy came on his visits.
At the Waterloo parking lot Nangia made small talk with Brian, and asked how we discovered each other. Well, I met Brian through the New Statesman personal column, advertising an India trip overland, by the shortest sensible route. The trip, Brian cautioned, was not for those who expected to be ‘carried’ by others in the group; who were not prepared to accept some heat and discomfort; and definitely not for those who couldn’t ‘get along’ with strangers.
Brian promised to transport us in a brand new 12-seater van, which I learnt later was funded mainly through our contributions, as down-payment on a vehicle loan. I don’t remember how much he charged, but it was less than a hundred pounds per head, excluding visa fees for Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. I couldn’t get Pakistan visa. Flew from Kabul to Amritsar, to rejoin the rest who drove through Pakistan.
We paid for our food and accommodation, wherever Brian chose to make a night halt. In Tehran, Istanbul and Kabul we spent a couple of days or more. We split into companionable sub-groups for dining and doing the town. Brian, Carol (a student nurse on way to catch up with her boyfriend in Sydney) and I happened to club-up.
Kini wants to know why I returned to India, at a time when every thing started going for me. A two-word answer to that would be, ‘home sickness’. It was true I had not planned on getting back. Like Kini with his wishful thinking, of marrying Francoise Sagan, my dream was to move on, from England, to places before settling down at Sao Paulo. Though Kini didn’t get Sagan, he did marry someone suitably French, I was wider off the mark in my dreaming. I have settled down in Mysore(my Sao Paulo).
One’s dreams have a way of getting blurred with changing realities. My reality, after three years in England, was an intensified pull of my folks back home, coupled with a certain new-found fondness for India, and all things Indian. I don't know why our Bharat began to look mahan when I viewed it from London or Darlington. The other factor that bothered me was that I was beginning to get accustomed to a cushy lifestyle and creature comforts. And felt the longer I got used to them in the UK the tougher it would have been for me to get back. That, on my return,I discovered an India that wasn't that mahan was quite another matter.
A question I would like to ask Satish, Subash, Sushil, and Kini, who have made the UK their home is this. Has the thought of getting back ever crossed your mind ?