I smile, nod, mutely move my lips, and maintain eye contact for a couple of seconds longer than socially necessary. It’s 7 AM and the three of us, strangers, are in a hotel elevator in central London. I had arrived the night before and I’d forgotten to be polite.
After breakfast, I make my way past the lobby’s heavy swivel doors onto the street. Past the pall of cigarette smoke shrouding the entrance, I jay-walk across the street into Tavistock Square through its South gate. About the size of a football field, Tavistock square is one of the many patches of greenery in central London. It’s a very old park, and like with every old city, there is a story hiding in every nook. Take the Square’s perimeter steel railing. During the Second World War, most of it was taken away to aid the war effort. Presumably, the current railing was set up again later. Field maple trees — tall, eight to ten-storeys — also line the perimeter and litter the footpath outside and the paths inside with their foliage. Squirrels the size of bandicoots flit among the trees and the park space. They feed off the garbage cans around the square, and I wonder if that has anything to do with their size. A few years ago, I saw a dog run around and settle down to potty next to a field maple tree. A few minutes later, its minder came over and scooped it all up into a plastic bag. There are clear rules about not littering the place — including, what we would argue is, manure.
Four patches of grass are delineated by a gravel pathway and people have donated benches around the place. I sit down on one of the benches and take the scene in. A couple next to me are talking in sign language. Further away, a family with kids are chasing the many pigeons in the square. A homeless man in a rain coat is muttering away to himself as he sits with a trolley full of knick-knacks.
At the centre of the square is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. It has him in a sitting posture, much like the one at the Indian Parliament. Fitting (well, not the sitting bit), as Gandhi studied Law at the University College London, a few blocks away. Surrounded by flowering plants, it’s a lovely setting (except in winters, when everything shrivels away and looks desolate). People always leave flowers and lit candles under the statue’s hollowed-out concrete base (I guess it would be heartless to call it “litter”). A few years ago, my morning routine was disturbed by a camera crew interviewing Sharmila Tagore, with the statue in the background.
The square has many trees and memorials to mark important people from the locality, or important events. There is a Copper-beech tree planted by Jawahar Lal Nehru. A Cherry tree to honour the victims of Hiroshima. The Square also has memorials for two important women: Louisa Aldrich-Blake, the first British woman to qualify as a surgeon, and Virginia Woolf. Louisa Aldrich-Blake’s memorial includes a stone bench, and was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (India Gate, the Parliament — yes, the same). Charles Dickens had lived close by, and so did Raja Ram Mohan Roy. What better place to sit down with a book?
Bloomsbury is home to a couple of universities: UCL and Birkbeck (which offers most classes in the evenings). So, some of the most expensive real estate in London rubs shoulders with student quarters. I have heard stories of tiny, but obscenely expensive apartments overlooking Russell Square. Further across the street are student quarters with posters proclaiming the virtues of Socialism and the impending Marxist revolution (raised fists and all). Sandwiched between the British Museum and the old SOAS building is Senate House, a beautiful Art Deco structure. I was visiting London during Pride week, and the Grey building’s flag mast sported a multi-colour flag. There are days when I cut across the Senate House’s lobby to reach Keppel street, which is where I work.
There are other routes too. You take a left at the Tavistock hotel’s entrance and walk across to Byng place, a beautiful, tiled pavement/road that has a spectacular church on its right, the Church of Christ the King.
A Gothic design, with many gables and turrets, the Church looks incongruously old and beautiful, even for a locality steeped in history. A few steps ahead, and we reach one of my favourite places in London — the Gower Street Waterstone’s book store. Three floors of books, knowledgable and affable staff, coffee — it has it all. I have spent countless hours here over the years, including a substantial part of my meagre budget.
You take the left at the Waterstone’s and are on Malet street. With the Birkbeck campus on the left and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on the right (well, its ‘other’ entrance — the main entrance is on a parallel road — Gower street), you walk till you have the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on your right. Again, there are a few private parks and the imposing British Museum is just a few steps away (again, its ‘other’ entrance).
In all these years, I have always taken an umbrella with me, and have used it on every trip. All that you read about London’s soggy weather and unpredictable rains — it’s true.
“Lovely! Thanks so much!”
11 AM, Mumbai International Airport. People are staring at me, I need to stop being polite.