Monday 25 March 2013

Why it is difficult to dislike the British (Sunday Guardian)

The Taj Hotel at St James Crowne Plaza in London.
he Tatas have always been proud to be Indian, and they are not afraid of advertising that fact. The Tricolour flutters prominently in front of the St James Crowne Plaza in London's Buckingham Gate. The hotel matches the buildings around it in its wealth of tradition. Many parts of London seem as though time has stood still over the past two centuries, with venerable buildings (or at least those that survived the Nazi blitz) maintained to look exactly the way they must have been in the times when this city was master (or mistress) of more than half the globe. Crossing London Bridge at night, watching its crenellated towers and the magical play of shadows upon its ancient chain links, the visitor to London expects to see horse carriages rather than Jaguars and BMWs sweep past. Across is the Tower of London, where once severed heads of grandees hung, their faces to those crossing the bridge as a warning to them and to others not to carry dissent to the point of rebellion. This columnist has as big a chip on both of his shoulders at the bad manners of the British in incorporating India into their empire, but it must be admitted that these melt away when confronted with the way in which tradition has been maintained here, including the canter of what seemed to be more than a hundred horses coming from one of the gates of the Palace grounds and escorting a carriage up a leafy street. Sadly, most motorists were too far away to recognise those who were escorted by the Queen's Bodyguard, all of whom would have been easy prey for a single artillery fusillade in these more modern times. And as for security drills, entering Westminster for a meeting was a simple matter of a personalised greeting at the door, before being escorted to perhaps the same room where the maps sent by Sykes and Pico were first discussed nine decades back.
The St James hotel is, in the classic British way, understated but elegant. Fortunately for those used to civilised (i.e. vegetarian) fare, the breakfast buffet has enough such options, more so than other hotels, which apparently regard vegetarians as dangerous fetishists not deserving of any concession. On Wednesday, there was even Maharashtrian "poha" at the morning buffet, although as yet the incomparable "idli" has yet to make an appearance. The staff comes from across the globe, with the usual preponderance of East Europeans, who are almost as friendly as their Indian co-workers. However, whoever has remodelled the guest rooms at this particular Taj seems to have an inordinate liking for Japanese bonsai. Even the suites seem the same size or smaller than a standard room in the older stately hotels in India. Jumping out of bed or flinging one's arm skywards may cause an orthopaedic doctor to get some good business.
Being an occasional journalist, this columnist cannot resist having a chat with diplomats in any Indian embassy abroad, and he has found almost all of these to be both pleasurable as well as informative. The Indian Foreign Service has a wealth of officers superbly well-informed about global trends. In the past, it was the Indian envoy in Tehran (K.C. Singh), who foretold this columnist the future advent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the
Presidency, when the then Tehran mayor was totally off the radar screen of international observers of the Iranian political scene. Sadly, it proved impossible to get across to the High Commission of India in London. The email address furnished on the website either bounced or went serially unreplied, while each time a call was made to the High Commission, a disembodied voice would dolefully mutter that office times, Monday to Friday, were from 9.15 a.m. onwards. This at around 9.35 a.m. the first time and 9.50 a.m. the next. Of course, voicemails went unanswered. Clearly, the High Commission of India to the UK is so caught up in the swirl of VIP visits to London from India that it has ensured its inaccessibility to lesser mortals. In this, it shares a trait common to a mercifully few others, who are in various diplomatic positions, of regarding any dialogue with non-VIPs from back home in the boondocks to be an avoidable chore.
Despite not having a chat with the High Commissioner, London has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, whether it be presenting a contrarian view on the Arab Spring at Chatham House or talking to the faculty and students of the small but picturesque Buckingham University or a chat about the Anglosphere with bankers in the City of London. Saying nasty things about those perfidious Brits is going to be a tad more difficult now!

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