#14 being “happy” : Pharrell Williams, IPC and other theories…

“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hats off to Pharrell Williams! No, really.

What poets, painters, philosophers, psychoanalysts and their ilk have spend several wasted lifetimes trying to decipher, Pharrell did in precisely 4.08 mins, in a way that the world stopped and took notice, then plunged headlong into the jive, totally ‘getting it’ when he likens ‘happiness’ to a room without a roof.

Genius.

It’s that time of year when happiness figures prominently in our list of wishes, being the underlying theme to virtually anything we catagorize as a ‘resolution’ and nail to our masts. Makes you wonder if there are others like Pharrell who’ve cracked it, this deeply mysterious state of being where Life is a sun-dappled beach and we’ve worked out EXACTLY how to keep the dark clouds away. Forever.

So what is happiness – a journey ? an elusive destination ? the light at the end of the tunnel which enables us to haul ourselves over burning coal, believing that a bottomless pool of bliss lies just there, over on the other side ? Are there countries and cultures that make it slightly easier for us to be happy ? If yes, what’s the quid pro quo for it?

Like crime rate, religious fervour and political leanings, is happiness something that can be classified and quantified, then dressed in graphs and pie charts. Can it be ascribed to ‘theories’ that make it decidedly easier to understand and pursue..? Does it help if you’re a man / woman, black or white?

I got thinking about this whole ‘country, culture and happiness ‘ thing at the last Parents’ Meet just before Christmas. This time, a small note had been sent out by the school which mentioned something about “IPC” or the International Primary Curriculum which the British government was already in the process of rolling out across all State Schools in the UK. The teachers seemed hot and bothered, keen to discuss the matter and garner reactions from home.

Turns out, the Government has noticed, for some time now, a stark difference in the way Primary School kids are taught here, vis a vis Asia. They figured that pushing kids harder at the Primary level, like Asians do, invariably leads to a better grounding, thus greatly improved results in Secondary School – a belief fuelled by comparison.

Asian Kids In Secondary School Vs British Kids In Secondary School, ON AVERAGE.

It’s also no secret that Grammar Schools here have a staggeringly high percentage of non-whites who sail through stringent entrance exams each year. A Grammar School being that happy ‘truce’ for Secondary Education where nothing else counts but merit – wedged between posh Private Schools ( charging anything from £3000 to £10,000+ per term ) and totally free State Schools where ‘catchment’ is the only consideration.

Hmmmm, there must be SOMETHING about the way these Asian kids are taught, specially back in their own countries. Let’s imbibe a few bits from their model and see where it takes us – that’s essentially what the government here is saying.

And BEHOLD the reaction!

My 7 years old’s teacher, an Asian herself, sat us down with a big smirk and announced – “Parents, it’s all-change from here! Your child will now be doing a lot of the Year 4 stuff in Year 3, which means learning their Times Tables faster, up to a higher number, more reading, harder spellings, comprehension…” she seemed delighted.

And, frankly, so was I.

My kids go to a school that’s been rated by OFSTED ( the ones who monitor standards in education every few years ) as “Outstanding” and yet they get far too little “homework” for my liking. My 10 year old, in his penultimate year of Primary School, is assigned homework ONCE A WEEK ; a mix of tasks in Numeracy and Literacy that take no more than an few hours of his time. Officially, just TWO HOURS of homework IN A WEEK, for a TEN YEAR OLD! To anyone from India, that’s sacrilege.

Of course, these kids could do more! At this age, their minds are like sponge, soaking up anything and everything they are exposed to. They could be pushed a lot harder and be motivated ( threatened with punishment? ) to get into a discipline of doing ‘homework’ every single day as we’ve all done, all our lives ! More so, as there are no ‘exams’ of any sort in Primary School, barring two SATs –  in Year 2 and Year 6. Those too, mainly to gauge the aptitude of the student and put them in some sort of League Table for the sake of statistics.

Ms Raza in Year 3 seemed jolly pleased that her class would now have to pull up their socks and I could see why.

Then I made my way to Year 5 and suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

Ms Ogden seemed more upset than annoyed, to be honest. I naturally assumed that she didn’t particularly take to the idea of more planning and paperwork these changes would bring for the teachers, adding to their weekly woes.

Then she began to speak,

“Parents / Carers…it’s almost Christmas but I have bad news, she began. It is with deep regret that I tell you this – we are going for a concentrated push towards achieving a higher level in Year 5 , “IPC” or something like that, they’re calling it, she sneered.

WHY the need for it, I don’t understand, she continued in the same vein…after all, these are just 10 year olds, still only KIDS…they NEED Art and Music and PE and everything else that will now be slightly compromised, in the name of this, this…. “IPC”…Primary School is where they should draw and sing and paint and play as they learn…SO important for them to do all these things NOW, before “life” takes over.

What’s the point of pressing for better grades if it turns them into robots and takes away the joy of learning? Each one of them is different, each one unique…NOW is the time to let them blossom, allow them to seek out their interests…THIS is the time to learn social skills that will last them a lifetime, learn to be kind and caring, to work as a team, to eat properly, say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’, to swim and ride and do handstands and cartwheels and roundoffs, to use their imagination, play instruments, make models, read and be read to……frankly, I DON”T see the point of all these changes that will do little besides make them stressed and frustrated at SUCH A YOUNG AGE…it’s incredibly sad, I know, but it’s got to be done…I am so so sorry. I shall try to still keep it as fun as possible, so they don’t start hating their last few years here.” she finished, visibly upset.

I sat there speechless.

What does one say to that ?

Clearly, it’s a “culture” thing to some extent, isn’t it, all this business of “marks ( grades ) and results” NOT BEING the ‘be all and end all’ of “education”. It is a concept alien to me. Sure, we had Music and Art and PE and School Trips and Concerts, we had loads of fun, like children elsewhere in the world but we were NEVER allowed to forget that it was ALL about getting the highest “marks” and “coming first in class” – everything else was secondary, even in Primary School. The ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ got sorted right at the onset, a hierarchy very hard to break out of as the school years progressed – perhaps a life-lesson learnt much too soon ( as I look back now ) …

“HAPPINESS COMES FIRST” is scribbled in bold letters outside Nursery at my kids’ school in Barnet. We walk past it everyday, paying little heed to what it implies.

I think I’m beginning to understand it a little better,  though I’m still not sure what the IDEAL Primary School Curriculum might be.How do you even compare the two systems or decide what’s best in the long run, what makes us ‘happiest’ in the end. Not wealthiest or most famous / successful but happiest ?

And then again, as Mrs Patmore remarked in Downton Abbey, “Sympathy butters no parsnips”. I guess the same could be said for happiness 🙂 Sometimes, we need to be pushed to our limits ( whether or not in Primary School – the jury’s out on that ! ) to discover what we’re truly capable of. The pursuit of excellence is happiness too.

Again, the age-old quest for the H word….

Ending this post with a brilliant piece by Hilary Mantel on grief, rather her rereading of A Grief Observed by C S Lewis, the complete antithesis to what we seek everyday.

Perhaps it is by observing grief that we can learn to appreciate, truly appreciate and be grateful for our blessings. Perhaps it is the easiest way to be happy. To be reminded of the things that could’ve easily gone wrong but haven’t. Yet.

Wishing you, my dear reader, luck and happiness, however you may chose to define it, for 2015! Here’s to dreams, sunshine and a steaming hot cappuccino – always a good place to start looking for ‘happiness’

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/27/hilary-mantel-rereading-cs-lewis-a-grief-observed

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#10 Us & Them – A Class apart

A divide as old as Time –  haves Vs have-nots, Plebeians Vs Patricians, Proletariat Vs Bourgeoisie, Working Class Vs Middle Class Vs Aristocracy.  Toffs, Sloanies, Chavs….the labels are endless.

The differences, rather deep.

And now, very pronounced.

The Class System has recently come under a lot of scrutiny here following a spate of incidents which gave me,  a relative outsider,  an interesting insight into the British way of life. In 1516, centuries before Martin Luther King Jr confessed to the world “he had a dream” –  Sir Thomas Moore wrote a book about a fictional Island Society in the Atlantic Ocean with near-perfect qualities in his book,  Utopia. By a strange Dr-Who-meets-Beam-Me-Up-Scotty type miracle, if he were to arrive at the pearly gates of Heathrow today, he’d be a very disappointed man.

The Class System – essentially, distinctions in money and mannerisms that pigeonhole us from birth, has always existed. No matter who we are or where we live, we learn our place in society very quickly and we aspire to the next level, openly or otherwise. It’s a fact. WHAT we’re willing to compromise and stake for the sake of getting to the next level, and what we DO once there, that depends on WHO we really are on the inside. More money  =  Bigger house ? Better car ? More ( exotic ) holidays ? Larger collection of books,  jewels,  Birkin Handbags,  more donations to charity… THAT’S where we differ. On the assumption, of course, that acquiring wealth is the only way of sneaking into the haloed portal of the Upper Class – a whole different arguement for another rainy day.

A simple tweet ( below ) from Labour politicain Emily Thornburry last week provoked widespread fury in Britain. Fury, because it was seen as naked contempt for the patriotic, hard working middle- classes. It aroused a bit of bafflement too, among those who had NO idea why this picture was deemed so ghastly, in such poor taste!

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Thornburry promptly lost her job –  because she had tweeted a picture of a working-class home covered in England flags, seen as condescending and snobbish when ironically, she’d herself been brought up in a council house.

In addition, The Guardian helpfully informed us that “the St George’s Flag had always had a complicated history in England and its association with Far Right politics, though fading, is still one that resonates with some. The idea that the flag is synonymous with anti-immigration feeling – and that Thornburry’s tweet was drawing attention to this – also explains why she got into such hot water on the day an anti-immigration party was on course to winning a by-election in Rochester.”

It was beginning to make some sense. I

t’s impossible not to be acutely aware of the fact that broadly speaking,  politicians in the UK represent the priviledged, upper crust of society  ( a thin but deeply influential wedge of the pie ) It’s not an impression or conjecture, it’s a FACT.  Everyday we’re fed articles on elitism in government, deriding the “Eton Set” currently in power deciding the fate of the nation. It’s quite an ALARMING statistic actually, feel free to read more…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2235719/Britain-run-private-school-elite-study-shows.html

David Cameron, when asked the price of bread, famously said, it cost “well north of a pound”, then defended his ignorance of the correct cost by saying he baked his own! In the wake of the “pasty tax” furore in 2012, George Osborne became the butt of all jokes when he admitted he “couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to Greggs for a pasty”. Of course, he couldn’t! Probably his butler and footman would make the same confession too because they clearly aren’t the sort of people who go to Greggs – a high-street chain selling “affordable” pasties to the millions who seek / need AND in all likelihood, can afford ONLY that.

The next day, David Cameron, wanting to be seen as one of masses, compounded his folly with the words, ” I’m a pasty eater myself. I go to Cornwall on holiday. I love a hot pasty. I think the last one I bought was from the West Cornwall Pasty Company. I seem to remember I was in Leeds station at the time. The choice was to have one of their small ones or their large ones. I’ve got a feeling I opted or the large one and very good it was too.”

Turns out, the West Cornwall Pasty shop in Leeds Station closed in March 2007… Oh dear, dear ! Almost a case of “Too many Etonians spoil the broth”, as Michael Gove not-so-covertly suggested while shedding light on the Education System – the bastion of British elitism!

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2581299/Eton-mess-Michael-Gove-attacks-ridiculous-number-wealthy-ministers-Cabinet-claims-exclusive-developed- world.html

Reminded me of the anecdote from  POSH PEOPLE : INSIDE TATLER  on BBC 2  ( a look at the day-to-day running  of TATLER – a society magazine which has been catering to the privileged few for the last 300 years  ) On the show, the Earl Of Glasgow recounted an incident involving one of his ancestors. “After a rough night in a Country Pub, he once sent a waiter flying through a sheet of glass. Later, when his staff brought the shaken, injured waiter to his table and asked, very humbly, what they should do with him, he boomed – ‘ just put him on the bill !”

THAT’S the kind of eccentric, irreverent behaviour we’re talking about at the far ( upper ) end of this spectrum. Hopefully, a thing of the past!

The funny thing is that while on the one hand, we love to pin the blame on the elite and ridicule their excesses, we secretly long to be made privy to the goings-on in their world. How else does one explain the existence AND popularity of TV shows like MADE IN CHELSEA,  INSIDE CLARIDGE’S,  LIBERTY OF LONDON.

The basic premise of each of these shows is exactly the same – ” just look how the other-half lives! ” Documenting the extravagances of the privileged few, it’s an amusing, voyeuristic, often unsettling glimpse into the world of those who’ve been blessed with far too much money and don’t know how to spend it. You don’t necessarily hate them because it’s not about crooks and their ill-gotten gains but real people who were either born into aristocracy and wealth or came to seek and find their own fortune in this world. Doesn’t stop them from being foolish, insecure, insincere, vain, smug, funny, witty, beautiful, friendly… or any of the other things the rest of us are. But it’s an eye-opener.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/posh-people-inside-tatler-bbc2–tv-review-9880618.html

Conversations with my English friends on the differences in Class and Caste always evoke strong views. So does “arranged marriage” – I tell them that the Caste System ( the BANE of Indian society ) stems historically from the JOBS that people did, not necessarily the money they had.  Perhaps the Class System here evolved exactly the same way.

Even in today’s India, the MATRIMONIAL columns in our dailies are fair indicators of how the ‘Caste’ card is played out ; the desire to marry rich is not at all the same as the desire to marry into the “right caste”. People may aspire to both or none.

Hidden in those matrimonial adverts are messages lost to those unfamiliar with the rules of the game ( much like Emily Thornburry’s twitpic! ) “WANTED :  a tall,  fair,  homely,  Convent-educated,  Khatri girl for handsome,  MBA Khatri boy, only-son with 6 figure salary….” is something you are very likely to come across on a weekly basis in any newspaper.

It says more about India than all the books you could find in the British Library!

While “tall and fair” are VERY COMMON personal preferences,  “homely”  alludes to a girl who doesn’t harbour any serious career aspirations and will unquestioningly give up work for kids and family.  And “Convent-educated”  in no way points to someone who can belt out hymns with effortless ease like Sister Maria in The Sound Of Music.  Oh no!  It merely seeks someone who speaks good english and will add prestige to the “family name” ( most likely to be educated in a Convent school, the equivalent of a Private school here ! ) “Khatri” is the all-important caste, in this case.

And behold the prospective ( handsome ) groom ;   what a catch ( as we are lead to believe )

An MBA ( hence the 6 figure salary – a guarantor of all creature comforts ) of the right pedigree and oooooh, an ‘only son’  – which is again an oblique reference to the fact that he will inherit the family wealth, ALL of it.  Won’t have to share it with siblings or others in a “joint-family” system – another ‘delightful’ Indian phenomenon, mercifully losing ground with each passing day.

The debate on Caste and Class is always an intense and interesting one because it is about WHO we are, WHENCE we’ve come and WHERE we’re headed. Everyone can relate to it and have opinions on it. In some shape or form, it’s been the ‘MOST trending thing on Twitter’ in the UK for the past week, owing mainly to Emily Thorburry, then POSH PEOPLE.

I end this post with a small clip from one of my favourite TV shows – WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, where celebrities trace their family tree. This one features Stephen Fry. As my favourite writer / broadcaster / actor / comedian / raconteur,  Stephen,  says at the start – ” Of course, I want to discover that in fact I am a descendent of Heinrich Heine, the Jewish German Poet and that I have a blood that is as intellectually and aristocratically refined as it is possible to be but I’m most certain of course, to find out, as all human beings that….well, in the end, if you go back far enough, that I’m just another ruddy peasant” If THAT doesn’t put everything into perspective ! 🙂

#8 “so here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun…”

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2014-11-20 08-1.24.58Oxford Street, 20th November 2014

 

“So here it is –
Merry Christmas,
Everybody’s having fun…”

The chorus from the Christmas No 1. by Slade ( Merry Christmas Everybody, 1973 , my year of birth !  ) which kicks-off all things White & Wintery for us – you hear it on the radio, in the supermarket, wafting in the cold night air and you just know Santa’s on his way. Again.

Changing the lyrics ever so slightly could also be a fair indication of how things roll in the Autumn months
“So here it is –
Merry Christmas,
Everybody’s raising funds…”

It never fails to fascinate / amaze / amuse/ move me ,  to see how many people come together at Christmas time for acts of charity to raise money and extend a helping hand to others.
Perhaps it is this festive camaraderie that brings out our most charitable side.

Gazing at the glitter and sparkle festooned across London at this time, heeding the call of the High Street to loosen the purse strings, coming home with a truckload of baubles that you did not need but couldn’t resist, confessing to dreams of mince pies swathed in Brandy sauce and desperately trying to find a hiding place for wrapping paper that cost you more than the present ( ok, that’s just me! ) – Autumn is the time for falling leaves and rising debt, such is the allure of “Christmas Shopping”

It is also the time when Britain reminds me, year after year, why it is still GREAT.

A clutch of worthy causes and charities that champion them abound ( more than 150,000 if you’re into stats )  – the British Heart Foundation, Oxfam, Cancer Research UK, PDSA, Mind, AGE UK, Bernados for Kids, Shelter, RSPCA, NSPCC, Water AID, Macmillan UK, Greenpeace, Poppy Appeal – these are some of the biggest charities, with outlets on every High Street selling secondhand wares for our money in addition to organising marathons, bake-offs, blood donation camps, galas, comedy nights and coffee mornings…there’s always something on !

However, there are TWO phenomenal ( annual )  fundraising events I’ve been witnessing since I arrived here and I can’t praise them enough!

They leave me with the same question every year  –

WHY can’t we have something like this in India?

Do we lack the resources – NO.
Do we lack the will – CERTAINLY NOT
Could we pull it off if we really tried – HELL, YEAH!
What’s stopping us then – Ermmmm, er, well….it’s complicated.

Let’s talk about the two events first.

The first, CHILDREN IN NEED – is for, well, exactly what it says, needy children.

It’s the BBC’s baby with a staggering £600 million raised since 1980 for the sake of disabled children and young people in the UK and people volunteer to raise money in the wildest possible ways  – ( I shall wear my pyjamas and cycle backwards for 3 hours in the freezing rain or similar ) schools pull out all the stops and ask you to come in fancy dress + a donation ( at least a pound  ) but the icing on the cake is the Telethon – when all the channels of the BBC collaborate for a  L -O-N-G  night of entertainment – from about 7.30PM  until the wee hours of the morning.

This is where pop stars, football legends, actors, singers, stage and theatre artists, newsreaders, comedians, statesmen, butchers, bakers, candlestickmakers….everyone gets on the telly to act, sing, dance, mime, play the fool and have fun.
A telephone number flashes across the screen all evening and the stars plead with us to pick up the phone and make a donation. Simple!

The sum on the cash till ( money raised on the night ) goes up and up before our very eyes as the show progresses. Setting records year after year, WE raised in excess of 32 million this year and we’re still counting….

Everyone pitches in and no one is spared – THIS was decidedly one of Tony Blair’s BIGGEST MOMENTS in the public eye when he was PM. What a performance !

 

 

We’re also told AND shown exactly HOW the money is spent every year and WHY it is crucial in changing the lives of disadvantaged kids in the UK. This is the bit where everyone’s left fighting tears because it demonstrates HOW MUCH we can do, WHAT A DIFFERENCE we can make to the lives of others of only we DO IT TOGETHER with a plan that works.

A tenner from me won’t change the world, but even a pound from 61 million Britons, just imagine….

COMIC RELIEF is much the same – the name aptly salutes the pair behind it – comedy scriptwriter Richard Curtis and comedian Lenny Henry who simply wanted to help the famine victims in Ethiopia in 1985. They rounded up some famous friends, put a show together, urged  people to donate and from there, it grew into an annual TV gala studded with comedians and all manner of celebrities, raising a laugh AND serious amounts of cash for Africa and the UK each year.

Comic Relief also lead to Sports Relief ( for disabled sports men and women  as well as for the overall encouragement of sport, specially among those who can’t afford the training ) and it championed the Golden Pound Principle – basically, EVERY POUND raised is spent on charitable causes, with ALL operating costs paid for by sponsors. Or by the interest gained on cash waiting to be distributed!

A fantastic cause, a great laugh with comedians trying to out-do each other every year…

And oh, more than £650 million in the kitty since Ethiopia and 1985 !

Stick with this sketch till the end and you will laugh until you cry, I promise…

 

 

What fascinates me is the EASE with which you can embrace them and make a donation. Agreed, that the BBC has tremendous clout, not many can boast such an intricate, all-permeating network. But it’s heartwarming to see how it uses it to facilitate fundraising on a massive scale, nationwide.

We’re made aware of Children In Need and Comic Relief looming large through posters, print and TV ads months in advance. Supermarkets start selling official merchandise, schools and offices pitch in, banks allow you to make donations at the ATM, there are easy numbers you can call or text your donations to, addresses you can send off cheques to, fundraising kits you can order, bills you can round up to the nearest pound ( or more ) towards donations.

And if none of this appeals to you, you could simply drop your loose change into a sealed and secure charity bucket practically at every street corner!

The message is SIMPLE  – Get up and DONATE. we will do EVERYTHING within our power to make it as EASY for you as possible…and tell you EXACTLY where your money is going. No red tape, no bullshit –  JUST DO IT…

Who wouldn’t.

People here may think of it as normal but coming from the Third World as I do, I marvel at such professionalism.

And this is EXACTLY what India needs – a concentrated, organised, annual nationwide effort to raise awareness AND funds for the many, many social causes that could benefit from it.

Of course, we already have numerous charities in place, we have countless celebrities giving their time and money to help the poor and disadvantaged, anonymous benefactors across the country changing lives, we have millions of nameless, faceless bravehearts toiling in the heat, fighting corruption, discrimination, political agenda, social stigma and dogged ( misplaced ) beliefs to bring food, water, shelter, education, health and dignity to those who’ve almost given up on life – and they do it, not for the fame or to see their names on the Queen’s Honours List, ( just saying…) Oh, no!

They do it for the sake of charity alone. And against all odds. Mostly anyway…

Yet there’s nothing, NOTHING that happens annually AND on a national scale with the support and blessing of the government!

No, not merely after an earthquake or a Tsumani or despicable acts of sexual violence, religious unrest or devastating floods.

But EVERY YEAR, come rain or shine.

An evening of fun and fundraising for the entire nation to enjoy and contribute to – perhaps a LIVE SHOW which is beamed across all TV channels, is picked up by radio, supported in Print, endorsed by the government with the added financial blessing of all Corporate powerhouses –  the mind boggles at the amount 1.2 BILLION people could accomplish if they got their act together.

Forget the rest, if Bollywood and Cricket alone joined forces to stage an annual song and dance gala appealing for funds, we’d all be sorted in a day!

If only,

there’s no intent to political gain

no religious/sectarian/caste/class spin put on it

no mile-long queues or complicated procedures hounding those who wish to donate

no ego clashes between A Khan, S Khan and SR Khan or any other Star Who Matters to derail the whole show and defeat the cause!

And

if there’s complete transparency in money matters and a genuine will to make a REAL difference.

It will take a miracle, perhaps, but India is a country where miracles happen everyday….

I patiently wait for this one.

I’m a girl of strong opinions. What I love about my adopted home, Britain, I ADORE – their acerbic wit, their unique brand of self-deprecating humour, their admirable style of fundraising are a few examples.

Then again, there are things that make my blood boil.

Like the Tower Of London charging me  £ 22.00  for a fleeting glimpse of the KOHINOOR.

WHAT ??

TWENTY-TWO QUID to see something which is MINE,  to start with….( not mine, personally, but you know what I mean…)

YOU MUST BE JOKING !!

Let’s stick to fundraising…

 

#7 heart is where the home is…

When was the last time you were caught in a swirl of nostalgia? In the middle of nowhere…perhaps thrown off-guard /  blown away?

It happened to me recently while queuing up to order my food at Leon’s in Brentcross.

There I was, standing behind three others in the queue and patiently waiting my turn when my eyes wandered, as they often do, and I happened to look down.

In a flash, I went back four decades.  BOOM !!!

A mosaic of patterns under my feet, specially the two in the picture below, were the EXACT SAME patterns ( in the same colour palette too ) from my grandparents’ home in Calcutta, about 5000 miles from where I stood that moment.

This was my childhood staring back at me. At the most unexpected place imaginable in London.

BRENTCROSS !!!

2014-11-17 21.38.39

I was born in Calcutta but never lived there since I was raised in various other cities  ( wherever my father was stationed as a Civil Servant to the Government Of India ) –  mostly, in Delhi.

To me, Calcutta  =  Holidays, spent at my grandparents’ sprawling house EVERY summer with a brood of uncles, aunts and cousins gathered from the far corners for a month of revelry.

The house, ‘Notun Bari’ (  literally, New House ) was built in the span of a year in 1934-35   ( in pre-independent India ) by my Great Grandfather ( father’s mother’s father )   Subodh  Chandra  Bose,  a distinguished Attorney-At-Law practising at the High Court in the glory days of Calcutta.

A man of refined taste, he may have had a grander vision for the house to begin with,  but hastily ordered its completion for the sake of his ailing parents who sadly passed away shortly after moving in.

Looking at Notun Bari, you could sense that my great grandfather had  clearly commissioned someone with a penchant for English / European design. Sure enough, the architect Dwijendra Nath Ganguly, was not just his close friend but also the Chief Engineer of Calcutta Corporation who learned and honed his craft in London.

Spread out over two floors with a mezzanine , a small out-house ( rather room ) in the far end of the courtyard as well as a Prayer Room on the terrace, this house was unmistakably grand.

I’m certainly not comparing it to Lord Grantham’s ancestral abode in Downton Abbey but it was definitely very ‘Downton’ in its sensibility if not size! No question.

With high ceilings, huge windows to allow an abundance of light and air ( some windows adorned with patterns on stained-glass, some frosted ) it had wooden shutters on the outside to keep away the sweltering heat ( seen often in homes of rural France ) and  boasted many features alien to a typical Indian home at the time.

Right at the entrance was a small cloak room, almost an antechamber for my Great Grandfather’s clients who were known to pop in every now and then to discuss ‘cases’ or for friends and neighbours stopping by for a quick chat, in no need of lavish entertaining in the main living room.

Bathrooms, and there were many, were a novelty in Indian houses at the time ( the 30s ) One would usually have to relieve oneself in an “Indian-style toilet” ( basically a hole in the ground with a bucket of water+mug at an arms’ length ) which was always built some distance from the main house, maybe ’round the back of a courtyard or right at the bottom a sprawling garden, depending on where and how you lived at the time.

Many shared a common “toilet”…somewhere in a field or by the river ( even to this day in rural India, alas! )

Notun Bari had toilets on every floor, in fact the one on the ground floor, decidedly Western.  With a sink, a urinal, a commode, a huge and I mean HUGE bath tub as well a shower – it was big enough for a game of football, or so it seemed to me as a child. I feared drowning in the tub which seemed endlessly deep, always brimming over with cold water, stored for purposes of washing yourself by scooping out water using a mug as no one was expected to relax and recline in it “as the English would” – it was far too wide and deep for it anyway !

Subodh Bose lived in exalted company  –   surrounded by academics, intellectuals, bureaucrats and ( future ) revolutionaries of the time, many with similar lifestyles.

In fact, the house of the Chief Justice of the High Court,  a few doors down on the same street,  even had its own lift.  And a remote controlled lock to the main entrance. Imagine that, James Bond!

But back in  Notun Bari, ‘grandeur’ also took  the shape of two kitchens  ( specifically for vegetarian and non-vegetarian purposes ) a pantry for storing food and utensils, hallways dotted with armchairs and tables for resting as lazy summer afternoons passed you by….  discreet staircases and doors for the army of servants –  chefs,  drivers,  cleaners,  maids,  the general handyman, the rubbish collector etc  to let themselves in and out of the house with minimum fuss.

The furniture, oh the furniture…intricately carved, as you would expect, and stunningly beautiful.

Mostly  in dark Burma teak, a lot of it was custom made for each room. Huge four-poster beds which we often had difficulty climbing as little kids because they were so high and stacked with thick mattresses, bolsters and pillows…simple hat racks / umbrella stands tucked away in corners with amazing detailing on them, ornate dressing tables with marble tops, beveled, rotating mirrors and drawers down the side which could all be individually locked.

Dining tables of grand proportions and sofas that you could lose yourself in –  one made of woven wicker and wood.

Arms chairs that reclined, arm chairs that swirled, arm chairs big enough to sleep in, regular straight-back chairs, corner tables of different shapes and sizes and heights, study tables, “office” tables with glass tops, heaving bookshelves ( and NO Bengali home is complete without them! ) – expertly made to fit into specific nooks and crannies.

Narrow tall triangular tables to sit snugly in corners, propping up a visitor’s jute bag, for that glass of water and platter of sweets or for placing the telephone  ( another novelty ! ) The telephone number was Burra Bazar ( Exchange ) 1419, the same as the number plate on the Baby Austin in the garage – WBA 1419.

Such style!

Even my grandmother’s Organ, smaller than a Grand Piano but just as impressive, added to its ‘period’ charm.

A tastefully furnished, artistic house and how we took this for granted…

On a mantlepiece downstairs stood a marble bust of a little boy, Sukumar Bose –  the rightful heir, had he successfully battled  Nephritis and not died at the tender age of 11. He was my grandmother’s only sibling, an older brother she lost in 1929 when she was herself barely 10.

Heart-wrenching tragedy amidst all the beauty!

Framed photographs, often studio-portraits of various members of the family, calendars with gods and goddesses on them, decorative antlers and huge clocks clung to the walls at regular intervals. I remember a framed print of The Laughing Cavalier somewhere upstairs and a Grandfather’s Clock too with an hourly ‘Westminster Chime’ on it ( perhaps echoing the Big Ben ?! )

And then there was a “Showstopper” of a wardrobe in one of the main bedrooms on the first floor. An en-suite with three huge windows and five doors along the sides, this room clearly took pride of place.  Alongside the four poster bed which took up the sprawl of  the room, it had two things which captured my imagination as a child because I’d never seen them in any other house.

A huge square safe ( locker ) in wrought iron in which I’d seen my grandmother store the family jewels and important papers and money for as long as I can remember. Forget prospective thieves ever removing it ( or its contents ) whoever brought it up to the first floor and installed it there needs to be given a badge of Bravery in my book!

My grandmother, Thakuma, who came to own the house after her parents  ( and she convinced my grandfather to move in there when her mother became too poorly in the 70s ) –  walked around with a big bunch of keys tied to the drape of her saree slung across the shoulder – the jingle-jangle of the metal keys alerting everyone to her presence much before they could see her.

The key to the safe was in that bunch, as was the key to the most spectacular wardrobe ( or cupboard, as we say in India ) I’ve ever set eyes on (  and I have been looking at the furniture in Downton  v e r y  carefully! )

I’m not sure how practical it was in terms of storage for all I ever got was a glimpse of the dark, forbidding insides but the exterior had  full-length mirrors on each door, mounted on a solid frame of dark wood, patterns of leaves, flowers and birds all intertwined, along the side.

A  shimmering blob of cut-glass served as the door-handle next to a tiny key hole. And on top, the wooden head of a deer with its antlers fanned out, guarded this masterpiece –  adding to its height and making it impossible to be moved elsewhere  as the doors to the room weren’t tall or wide enough for it to pass.

Probably my Great Grandfather’s way of saying – he, who inherits the house, shall inherit the wardrobe too!

And proof, if proof was needed, that it was assembled, if not crafted by carpenters and masons in that very room. Talk about bespoke design…

And last but not least –   the FLOOR of Notun Bari, the WHOLE  REASON for this story – unforgettable, when you’ve spent 20 summers on the trot sprawled out,  playing, resting, reading, laughing and crying on that floor.

Each room had a distinct design, in a variety of  colours, textures and material. Much the same way as many homes here in England have distinct wallpaper. Over a long period of time, it is etched in your brain, never to be erased. And you can identify it anytime, anywhere…

There was patterned stone work at the entrance, chequered black and white marble flooring in the hallway upstairs which ran along the entire length of the house ( the same design as St Paul’s Cathedral – immortalised first, by Princess Diana then, Kate Middleton ; the train of their wedding gown sweeping along this chequered pattern as the world watched and collectively sighed…And I sat staring at the telly, thinking…OMG…Notun Bari !!!! ) –  red and yellow sandstone, either on its own or set in a mosaic.

All this could have been slightly bizarre to an outsider, aesthetically,  though we never questioned it nor thought of it as odd –  having crawled, then walked on those patterns the same way my father had.

This was a house to remember. And remember with a lot of love and affection.

ALL OF THIS came flooding back to me within seconds in Brentcross….

The pattern on the left ( the picture above from Leon ) –  could well be a room in Notun Bari which must have served many purposes over the years but during my youth, was the dining room upstairs. And the pattern on the right, the main entrance to  No1,  Old  Mayor’s  Court –  its official address.

The events in Brentcross  also took me back to a trip to Chichester some years ago . We were passing a village outside Guildford, driving past a row of quaint cottages when the balcony design on one cottage ( pic below ) took my breath away! It was our balcony from Calcutta again…the same arched terracota which projected out over the pavement, just above the garage in Notun Bari.

Suddenly, gazing at the balcony in this very English village, the landscape didn’t seem so distant or unfamiliar anymore.

Bits of my past were embedded here, across the fields of England, albeit in the guise of balcony and flooring. How wonderful !

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There is a piece of that glorious heritage however, which I’ve been immensely lucky to bring over and cherish, even in my tiny London flat. A circular corner table with a top that comes off. Its three legs are the shape of three elephant-trunks that are screwed into the top.

My kids know they’re not allowed to mess about on “Mum’s antique table” coz I never fail to remind them just how lucky they are to be able to unpack and assemble bits of LEGO on it today –  FIVE GENERATIONS  down the line from its original home in Notun Bari.

If this wooden corner table could talk, HOW MANY wonderful stories it would tell….

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