A Small Bengal, NW3 | Amit Chaudhuri | Granta

A Small Bengal, NW3

Amit Chaudhuri

About five or six years after the war ended, and soon after India’s independence and the beginning of the end of the British Empire, Belsize Park in the borough of Camden became home to a number of Indian, mainly Bengali, students. They lived in neighbouring houses, and were often neighbours in the same house; they talked with, and jostled, and cooked for, each other, and had small rivalries and sympathies between themselves; but they knew they were a transient lot, because they were here to pass exams, and very few intended to stay, to get swallowed by the London that had become their temporary home. Time went by quickly, although, in retrospect, the procession of years would sometimes seem long.

Strangely enough, while Kilburn came to be known as a black and Irish area, and Golders Green a Jewish one, Belsize Park was never identified with its Bengali student population. Perhaps this was so because it was made up of itinerants rather than emigrants; most had left by the mid-Sixties – if not England, then at least Belsize Park. They were mainly young men and, now and again, women, in their late twenties or their thirties, diligent and intelligent on the whole, who had come to study for professional examinations whose names seemed to have been invented to enhance their job prospects: Chartered Accountancy, Cost Accountancy, MRCP, FRCP, FRCS. For these Bengalis, at least, there was a romance about degrees that had the words ‘Chartered’ or ‘Royal’ in them which will now probably seem absurd. The few who stayed on in England were often the ones who hadn’t been able to get the degree they’d come here to acquire; they couldn’t face their mothers and fathers without it; thus they drifted into the civic life of London, became railway clerks or council officials, or moved elsewhere, and eventually bought a house in Wimbledon or Sussex or Hampshire; at any rate, they left Belsize Park. Those who stayed on had their reasons – ‘staying on’: those words had possibly as much resonance for them, though for entirely different reasons, as they did for the last Anglo-Indians – and none of those reasons, it is safe to suppose, had anything to do with an overwhelming attachment to England.

But most studied, and left; and, in Belsize Park, the emphasis was on exams and recreation. They’d brought Bengal with them though Bengal itself had become a state of mind, partitioned into two, half of it in India and half of it East Pakistan. They fell into a routine of buying ‘wet fish’, shopping at Finchley Road, going to work, listening to Tagore songs, in between bouts of memorizing the pulmonary functions of the heart or the intricacies of taxation law.

Some of the students had wives, and were newly married. The wife, like Draupadi in the Mahabharat, who married five brothers at once, not only played wife to her husband but often to all her husband’s friends, making food for them, being indulgent to them when they were depressed, exhorting them to study hard, and generally lightening the air with her feminine presence. Later, the men would always remember these surrogate wives, the Mrs Mukherjis and Mrs Basus and Mrs Senguptas. In India, the new wife comes to her new home and is greeted by her husband’s family and a way of life both pre-arranged and untested; every couple must, in the end, make what they will of their own lives. Here, in Belsize Park, the making of that life was both more naked and more secret; the new bride would be received not by her in-laws, but Cost Accountants-to-be and would-be surgeons and physicians. She would come not to her husband’s house but to a bedsit with wallpaper and cooking hobs which was now to be her own, and which cost three pounds and ten shillings a week.

Among the tenants was a young man who was supposed to be studying Chartered Accountancy but was actually doing everything but study. He was thinner than normal; his mother had died when he was seven years old. When he had left India in 1949, he had been twenty-seven years old; he had lost his homeland with Partition; and he had got engaged to his best friend’s younger sister. In 1955, she travelled to London with her younger brother to marry the young man. They, my parents, were among the people who lived in Belsize Park in the Fifties.

In a photograph taken at the time, my mother leans over my father, who is reading a newspaper; she hides her hands behind her back because she has been kneading dough. In another picture, apparently taken soon after the wedding, my parents have just arrived in Shepherd’s Bush and are standing on the steps of a house, seeming slightly unfamiliar with each other though in fact they have known each other from childhood, my father dressed in the bridegroom’s white dhoti and kurta, my mother’s sari draped over her head. They have recently walked round the holy fire in a town hall near Euston Square. Now they would be reacquainted with each other as husband and wife; my father would rediscover his lost mother’s affection in the woman he had married; they would travel in Europe; they would make friends among their neighbours; my mother’s singing voice would acquire a new fame in Bengali circles; her reputation as a cook would be established.

Both, in the first years of their marriage, went out to work in the morning, and had their daily meeting-places outside work hours; during break-time, my mother would hurry to Jermyn Street, where my father worked for a few years in the Accounts Office of India House, and they would go for lunch or tea to the Lyons restaurant nearby. Once a week, they would have a Chinese dinner at the Cathay restaurant; watching, through a window, Piccadilly outside. Nearer the exams, my father would study at home while my mother went out to work as a clerk.

Without a harmonium or any other accompanying instrument, my mother would keep practising the Tagore songs that she had learned as a child, in Sylhet, which had become part of East Pakistan. Her singing was full-throated; her voice would carry in the silent afternoons; once, the spinster landlady, Miss Fox, came down to complain.

Then, in 1961, a year before I was born, my parents left for Bombay; my father had, after passing his exams, got a job that paid for his and my mother’s fares back; the ship would take two weeks to reach India. As the ship sailed forth, my mother (so she tells me) stared at the cliffs of Dover to imprint them on her memory. In a year, she had conceived, and, at the age of thirty-seven, she gave birth to her first and only child in Calcutta.

This is what they left behind. Haverstock Hill leading on one side to Hampstead, and Belsize Avenue sloping downward to Swiss Cottage and Finchley Road on the other. Other lives begin; other stories; and the human capacity to create is at least as strong as the capacity to forget.

Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, including Friend of My Youth. He is also a musician, poet and essayist. His new book, Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, will be published in 2021 by Faber & Faber in the UK, New York Review Books in the US and Penguin Random House in India. Ramanujan, his new collection of poems, will be published by Shearsman Books in 2021.

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