Weeks later, Brexit is still on London’s mind. Drop by at a pub, and chances are you’ll run into a group furiously debating Brexit. With ale in the system, the upper lip turns less stiff, and the exchange is boisterous. It’s not uncommon to find an elderly gent nursing a drink by himself abruptly join the group and aggressively side with those who voted out of EU. Yes, it’s an age divide, no questions. The young minicab driver of Pakistani origin is quite clearly bitter: “Old f*&%ing aunties don’t want guys like us here.” But the pub chatter tells me it goes beyond that, and the other obvious issue of immigration: prejudice. Some local goras are convinced Brits are a superior race, and therefore must “do their own bloody thing”. The pragmatists are, of course, livid. I could gather their biggest fear is that the proud British passport will end up being treated on par with downmarket South Asian passports while travelling within Europe. And this they find most difficult to swallow. Brexit may have pounded the pound but pub-owners seem to have gained.
London tabloids rage on, shredding hard-earned reputations with glee. I miss this back home: we have no tabloid culture, and even the dailies masquerading as tabloids are serious and preachy. So all through my fortnight’s stay, I grab a tabloid every day. Right now, The Sun is hammering the Lloyds Bank CEO. His crime? No, he didn’t kill anyone, gyp his employer or squirrel away millions on a tiny island somewhere. He was caught cheating on his wife. Is that a big deal, or is he the first CEO with a secret mistress? The man isn’t a public figure nor is his paycheck signed by taxpayers, so isn’t he entitled to a private life? And as long as he is not screwing his employers or his customers, it should be okay, right? Wrong. Because this is London. And tabloids here don’t worry about such minor details. They’ll go all out and have you for supper if you dare have an extramarital fling. As I leave the UK, there are calls for the banker’s resignation, and the tabloids are busy putting out bills he collected during his sexcapade, including those from a hotel minibar and spa. And to think the only one really affected by the story is the officer’s missus. Next juicy target: Indian-born MP Keith Vaz. What fun!
We stay at Hampstead, though we don’t have a million pounds to splurge. We prefer it as it’s yob-free (like comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted, “I live in Hampstead. I don’t see working-class people.”) and so largely crime-free; you are unlikely to get stabbed while walking to your B&B pad after dinner just because you are brown. Hamsptead folks are determined to remain independent and were happy to see McDonald’s and Starbucks close down. This puts a minor dent in the pocket of quid-starved Indians like me, but did I mention La Creperie for the best mushroom crepes and The Flask, a gorgeous old pub? Come 10:30 pm and Hampstead goes to sleep, even the bars and restaurants. There’s pin-drop silence at night. Just by being united in their ambition, residents have achieved the unthinkable: keeping their area un-London-like (not hard with the Heath and its ponds, the city’s lungs). Wish the big Indian cities could set their focus on something similar and give tourists an option to relax and unwind.
I usually avoid desi food in London. What’s the point of flying all the way, paying hefty UK visa fees and suffering long queues at Heathrow passport control if I shall end up eating chicken tikka masala. In any case, as we all know, there is a good chance the ‘Indian’ restaurant is run by illegal migrants from Dhaka. So good old fish and chips it is going to be. However, it is difficult to ignore the milling crowd outside Dishoom, the hot and happening Indian restaurant at the snazzy Covent Garden. And those waiting are mostly white. Dishoom’s SP? Bombay-style street food. Eh! Curiosity gets the better of us, and we land a precious table after a great deal of Bombay-style hustling. Bad idea. The interiors lack character. Dishoom is a cross between a retro Bollywood studio, a SoBo Irani joint and a fancy corporate restaurant. And it ends up being none of them. If you are looking for a slice of Bombay, as I was, you will be terribly disappointed. The vada is tasty but the pav is an English bun. The chana is passable but the bhatura is a puffed up kulcha. I am told Dishoom hires Indian and non-Indian cooks. The terrible fusion shows. But then who cares for authenticity, the queues are only getting longer.
A blink-and-miss signboard in Hampstead: ‘George Orwell. 1903-1950. Lived and worked in a bookshop on this site.’ Motihari is doing better: converting his place of birth into a sprawling museum.
Bombay-based Anil Thakraney is an adman-turned-columnist.
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