Friday, December 23, 2016

An English summer

That was not a bad year after all. How can it be, when London appeared on the horizon, and I lapped it up. That was a great year. Memories of London still stay with me. Until the next time, of course. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

In the News No More - My piece in the Sunday Magazine, The Hindu

My piece on the last two journalists to check out of Fleet Street in the Sunday Magazine of The Hindu

The last newspaper on London’s Fleet Street downed shutters in August, turning the U.K.’s iconic newspaper hub into just another street

It was summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and one half of London’s Fleet Street was awash in sunshine. Long shadows fell on the other. I could see St. Paul’s looming large at the end of the street, but that could wait. It was Saint Bride’s Church that I was looking for.
Famously called the Journalists’ Church, it is still dubbed the ‘spiritual home of journalism’ in the United Kingdom. Still, because Fleet Street, once the hub of the newspaper industry in London and the U.K., is today just a term used collectively for the British press.

The Street has gone pale for decades now, and in August, the last two journalists working on Fleet Street left the building. They had been working at Sunday Post , a DC Thomson publication, which lately closed its London offices.

Darryl Smith, a Fleet Street journalist with 25 years of experience, and Gavin Sherriff, with over 30 years of work, became celebrities. After all, they were the last two to leave the Street, which has a history that dates to the Roman era.

It was in the early 16th century that the Street became associated with the printed word. Wynkyn de Worde, a publisher and printer, set up the first printing press on Fleet Street in the yard of St. Bride’s Church. Why the church, you wonder? Simple. Fleet Street was where the clergy, among the most literate of all classes, lived.

As I steppedinto St. Bride’s Church, all was quiet. There was an exhibition in the Crypt, and what an eye-opener that turned out to be. The Crypt itself was discovered after the Church was bombed during the time of the Blitz (World War II) and the floor of the church was destroyed. The Crypt was excavated in 1953, and it is said that many skeletal remains of those who perished during the Great Plague of the 17th century are contained there.

There are old gravestones, coffins and some engravings and sketches worth a look. One of the exhibits that caught my attention was the front page of The Evening News with headlines about the bombing of the church.

Having taken in the history of the church, I continued walking on the Street to stop at a blue plaque — the first London and English daily newspaper The Daily Courant was published in a house near the plaque way back in 1702. The first issue of the Courant was brought out on March 11 that year. That marked the beginning of the newspaper industry on the Street.

My next stop was the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub that came with huge recommendations. This historic pub, the signage says, was rebuilt in 1667, making it among the oldest in London. The pub finds mention in A Tale of Two Cities as does Fleet Street. Stepping in, I found a dark entrance lit by golden lamps, a fireplace and wooden benches. I ordered my ale and walked down to the cellar full of surprises — old wooden barrels, caskets and vintage bottles all adding charm to the place. To think this was the pub that Sydney Carton leads Charles Darnay to “down Ludgate-hill to Fleet Street, and so, up a covered way into a tavern.” Travel guides invariably recommend a visit to this pub, and although Fleet Street hacks perceive it as “touristy”, the pub is a great experience. I, for one, loved the fries that came wrapped in paper reminiscent of old newsprint.

Talking about pubs and Fleet Street, you can’t help but talk of Michael Frayn’s definitive Fleet Street novel, Towards the End of the Morning (first published in 1967). In his introduction, Frayn writes of how the Street “had its own characteristic smell”. “I can catch the delicious ghost of it in my nostrils now, and at once I’m back at the beginning of my career, struggling to conceal my awe and excitement at having at last arrived in this longed-for land.” He goes on to say that it is not just the smell of newsprint that the Street signified, but the “warm beery breath from doorways with titles above them as familiar as the mastheads on the papers themselves...” Every paper had its own go-to pub, according to Street experts. Printer’s Devil for The Mirror , King and Keys for Telegraph , and so on.

For Sherriff, who calls himself the last Fleet Street chief reporter, the go-to pub was always Cock Tavern. Over email, he tells me, “I remember my early days when all the pubs were full of journalists exchanging gossip. Today we do this via Facebook, Twitter, etc.”

Ask Smith, the other journalist who said goodbye to Fleet Street, about his favourite pub, and he reveals, “It will probably make some of the old journalists who worked on the Street in the past 314 years choke on their real ale if they knew that one of the last two journalists on the famous old Street never had anything stronger than a lager shandy. That said, I did like The Punch Tavern, just because of the history of the place. It has been open 200-odd years (at least) and still has the same frontage as you walk in. I love the history of some of the buildings on Fleet Street. When you see old photos you can make out all the same buildings today, even if they are now sandwich bars, bistros and financial institutions.”

During my walk on the Street, I stopped at an address that said 72-78 Fleet Street (Chronicle House). It is now full of offices; wealth management firms, recruiters, and costs lawyers, among others. I went online and found an old image that says Chronicle House was marked as a public air raid shelter during World War II.

But change is at the heart of all life, and Fleet Street is no exception. After all, River Fleet, which gives the Street its name, is today just a sewer. The character of the Street has seen constant flux, and naturally so. No man ever steps into the same Street twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man, with apologies to that great philosopher Heraclitus.

Savitha Karthik is a freelance journalist, blogger and content writer
based out of Bengaluru.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

London Love

When you love something too much, it becomes painful to even talk about it. That's how it is with London. I just can't muster up enough strength to even look at the photographs, lest they remind me of how wonderful the fortnight in London was. But, am trying, and here are my five favourites for now:

The tube: Tapping the Oyster and walking down the stairs/elevator and then looking this way and that to figure out which is the Westbound and Eastbound. Getting into the train followed by the familiar 'Mind the Gap', watching people in their trenchcoats and their workday faces. Grim, largely, boisterous or chatty, rarely. Getting off nonchalantly and exiting to the street to find sunshine!
Ah, love you London!

Walking the streets: Rain, yes, take out umbrella...oh no, gone, fold it and shake it furiously at a corner like a typical Londoner. Soak in the sunshine. Walk, walk, walk. Oxford Street, Regent Street, Fleet Street, Nottinghill, Piccadilly Circus, Baker Street, Camden Lock, Borough Market, Greenwich, the Mall...just about everywhere.

Sainsbury, Pret-a-Manger, the cafes, the many restaurants: I loved the convenience of just walking into a Sainsbury, doing the self check-out (mostly the husband who became an expert) and walking into a Pret-a-Manger and picking up salads, fruits, shakes...The cafes, the restaurants, (I still think of the salad at the Camden branch of Mildreds), the English breakfast, the scones and teas.

The bookstores: Walking on Charing Cross Road, and randomly stepping into Foyles and marvelling at the books, the sheer range. It somehow made me feel very important browsing through all the books there and later enjoying a coffee at the cafe. Walking in the South Kensington area and stepping into an independent bookstore. Buying a book on Shakespeare's Globe. Checking out Waterstones! Heading to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street and spending an entire afternoon there, with bits and snatches of conversations in the background. That typical British accent.
Makes me want to go back to London. NOW!

The parks: Kensington Garden, Hyde Park, St James' Park, Greenwich Park...It's amazing that this lovely city has so many green spaces to relax, have a little picnic, go cycling or rest your weary legs after all the walking.

Of course, London meant much more than this, but like I said, there are some things so close to my heart, am even scared to say it to myself. Did I say cricket and Lord's? No, that's for another day. Not ready yet. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Walking down Fleet Street

One of London's most iconic streets, if you are a literature lover or a journalist or anyone who has anything to do with words. That's Fleet Street for you. The St Bride's Church, designed by Christopher Wren, located on this street has a lot of history associated with it. It is called the Jounalists' Church because of its location. Some of London's oldest papers were born on this street. When we walked into St Bride's, it was all quiet. We were the only visitors and the place was being renovated. Yet there was a free exhibition on. We enjoyed looking at old newspaper extracts, the history of the Church, clippings of how the Church was bombed during the WW II, how it was destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt etc. It was next door to this Church that the first printing press in London started to function as well.

Our second stop on Fleet Street was the pub that came with many recommendations in books such as the Lonely Planet. The debate continues on whether it is the oldest pub, but for sure, it is among the oldest. The Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub. Established in the latter half of the 16th century. Visited by such greats as Dickens, Mark Twain, Oliver Goldsmith and Dr Johnson. In fact, the pub finds a mention in 'A Tale of Two Cities', one of my favourite Dickens classics. What more did we need? We slaked in and found dark rooms lit by golden lights, an ancient fireplace, wooden benches, the works. That's not it, there are spiralling flights of stairs that take you down under, into the basement. And more surprises. Old wooden barrels or caskets, some really old photographs and old bottles that once contained ale all added to the ambience.

The atmosphere is magical and you begin to wonder how things were in the old days. What did Dickens think of it? What did he drink here etc.

On the way down to the basement, a guy bumped into me, spilling some of my ale. He told me he'd get me a drink, I refused and let that be. A good thirty minutes later, he comes over and gets me a drink. He needn't have done that, and  I told him as much, but he said that he was a nice Canadian and  would have done that because he spilled my drink.

Meanwhile, for company, we had a warm Anerican couple visiting London for a few days, and we hit it off rather well. Over a couple of drinks, we shared our London itineraries and impressions.

Oh and by the way, our fries came in tiny tin buckets lined with old newspaper print sheets!

In the end, a good time was had by all at the Ye Olde Cheshire pub.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Romancing Kolkata

My piece in the Deccan Herald

Romancing Kolkata

It was a humid December afternoon when I landed in Kolkata. As the yellow taxi made its way through labyrinthine roads, I tried to take a deep breath and search for the Kolkata I had imagined from Tagore poetry, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland or Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire. 

I strained my ears for Rabindra Sangeet, bits and pieces of which I had listened to, on the Doordarshan of my childhood. Why, I even looked for the Kolkata of Saurav Ganguly, with the distinct voice of Geoffrey Boycott — “He’s the Prince of Calcoottar” ringing in my ears! 
It became an obsession over the next few days to look for the familiar sights of the famed city I had only seen on television and read about so far. And I found them as well. First, as we walked along the wide footpaths near the Victoria Memorial and the extremely well-curated museum inside. Then, as I walked along Sudder Street and took a turn to enter Mirza Ghalib Street, I chanced on a gramophone playing a melody I couldn’t recognise. My mind was transported to a far-off place and I couldn’t shake myself off, but a hand-pulled cart (another Kolkata image stamped on my mind) passed by, and I had to make way. I even saw the little board on a building compound (Armenian College) that indicated that novelist of the Victorian era, William Thackeray, was born here!

Walking the streets

I repeated the addresses on Chowringhee Lane, even as images from 36, Chowri-nghee Lane, another film I watched as a kid on Doordarshan, kept coming back to my mind. 
Later, as I walked to Park Street and stepped into Flurys, I knew I was entering another venerated Kolkata space. The tea house was started way back in 1927 by a Swiss couple, and everyone who has grown up in Kolkata has a favourite Flurys memory, it seems!
My Kolkata quest also took me to Nahoum’s, a Jewish bakery in New Market, which was started in 1902, and moved to the present address in 1916.

You throw a stone in Kolkata, and it is bound to hit a heritage spot. I gazed at the Writers’ Building, where the clerks of the East India Company once sat, I took in the amazing details of Esplanade Mansion, the GPO building, and even walked into the Eden Gardens. Howrah happened and the picture-postcard-pretty Vidyasagar Sethu. 

Walking on Muktaram Babu Street with crumbling buildings and shuttered windows, I stopped near Marble Palace. The mansion was built in the 19th century by merchant Raja Rajendra Mullick. A guide showed us around the palace, parroting the names of painters and their works, and pointing out design elements, sculptures and objects of art — in the manner of guides I had seen before, speaking on auto mode.

At Jorasanko

But there was one important pilgrimage to be made. And, so off to Jorasanko Thakurbari I went. Finally! Rabindra Sangeet in the background, the beautiful red exterior, its lovely green shuttered windows, wonderful inner courtyard... 

We walked from room to room, taking in the details — the floors, slatted windows, the robes of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the many paintings, the ceiling, terraces with intricate metal work, the red pillars on the exterior and the white interior pillars... Did he stare out of this window? Did he stand on this terrace? Did he write his poems here, I asked myself as I walked from one room to another.  

Jorasanko Thakurbari was where the great poet was born and breathed his last. As I walked along the terraces with the cool floors, I felt as if the very air was heavy with poetry, ideas and musings of the poet.

Coffee & more

My thirst for the Kolkata I imagined also took me to College Street, and the Coffee House, apart from the home of Subhash Chandra Bose, a portion of which is now a museum. At Coffee House, Kolkata came alive. I could feel the magic in the air — this was the hub of Kolkata’s brightest minds. This was where the quintessential adda (hangout) happened. This was the haunt of Tagore and Bose and Ray and every other prominent Bengali one could think of. 

I had finished my coffee and shingara, and it was time to leave, but I knew I had somewhat found the Kolkata I had looked for. Back home in Bengaluru was where I really romanced Kolkata, as I watched the Ray classic, Charulata. Jorasankho was coming alive in a manner it didn’t when I was actually there. On my laptop, ‘Ami chini go chini tomare o go bideshini’, Tagore’s verse sung in Kishore Kumar’s voice, played on loop. “I know you well, oh my lady from afar,” the city itself seemed to tell me!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Revisiting an old love: Blossom Book House

This afternoon, I went to Blossom Book House on Church Street after a gap of some months. Felt like visiting an old love, but it was an effort to rekindle the old magic. Has the book-buying experience changed? Or have my circumstances changed? 

Blossom Book House, Church Street, a sanctuary once, an old love now

I first discovered this bookstore about 13 years ago, in 2002, when it was a small one-room store in Brigade Gardens. When I was working as a sub-editor in a newspaper on MG Road, I'd end up at Blossom during the famed 5-6 pm 'thindi' break. Blossom was a sanctuary for me. I didn't have too much money to spend, but would end up buying a nice second-hand one for about Rs 50, and come back to the desk, in time for the post 6 pm rush. Work on the State Desk was dull and dreary sometimes, and we had to edit poorly written copies or make page after page on old systems that often hung! And the endless translations from Kannada to English. Going to Blossom became a ritual, a bright spot in an otherwise dull day.

I discovered several authors, revisited old favourites and generally enjoyed taking a deep breath, and smelling the smell of old books stacked haphazardly.

But today, I realised that the book-buying experience has changed. Thanks to social media and access to so much information online, I realised I have forgotten the joy of serendipity. What it feels like to discover an author...What it feels like to buy a book 'just like that'...Today, I whip out my smartphone and look for lists. Wishlists on ecommerce sites, Booker lists, FB pages of famed authors, New Yorker, the Guardian website. Not that we didn't access to the Internet in 2002/2003. Just that we didn't have smartphones, apps, social media, sample pages...whole new game.

So, today, when I looked at stacks of 'The Year of the Runaways', I felt nothing. Because I already knew it was written by Sunjeev Sahota; I have read his interviews, and I know why it is displayed prominently. The Booker. The Indian-Origin. 

Today, going to Blossom is the cool thing to do. People get self-conscious as they carry baskets of books, go to the billing with their stacks and look around as if to say, "See, have been to Blossom! And see, that big bag of books is mine!"

Anyway, am drifting. I wanted to linger on and just browse, but unfortunately, I already knew I'd gone there to pick up Anjum Hasan's 'The Cosmpolitans', an invite to the book launch of which stared at me on my FB wall. I went in, looked at the new Salman Rushdie title, the Anuradha Roy title...but because I had already decided it was Anjum's book I wanted to buy, I didn't linger on. Was it because it was no longer a sanctuary from dreary work that I didn't linger on? Was it because I didn't have the time for serendipity? 

I am yearning for that aha! moment, when I randomly walk around, pick up a book, come back home and find that this was the one I had been waiting for! Maybe I should just give my old love a little more time. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When the #Emergency was clamped in India...25-06-1975

The Indian Express edit page was left blank in protest against the Emergency. Photo courtesy: The Indian Express
25th June, 1975. One of the darkest days in Indian democracy, when the Emergency was declared. Growing up, I was fed on a steady diet of anecdotes from those days.  Both my parents worked in Central government offices, so I have heard a million stories about the disciplinary action taken by authorities during the Emergency. Of office gates being closed, so people wouldn't leave before 5.30 pm etc. And stories of colleagues speaking against the government at bus-stops in hush-hush tones. Of the louder ones asked to keep the volume down. My parents recall how they'd have to take a day or half a day's leave even if they were late to work by a few minutes. They recall how union leaders would be put under suspension, and many people dismissed. Some were even demoted as part of disciplinary action.

They also talk of how it was when the Emergency was lifted eventually, and Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister lost the elections after that. My family loves talking about 'those' days. A neighbour's family, my mom tells me, screamed in delight when they heard on radio that Indira Gandhi was trounced. My dad tells me that his family which till then had bought other newspapers switched to the Indian Express, which came out with the now famous empty editorial.

Growing up, dad would also tell me about that famed statement by BJP man Advani, then of the Jan Sangh, that the media "crawled, when they were asked to bend." I have also heard many stories about George Fernandes and Advani going underground. Advani spent time in the Central Jail, Bangalore. I also have heard stories of Snehalatha Reddy, the charismatic actress/theatre person and wife of Pattabhi Rami Reddy, film-maker, who helped George Fernandes in those dark days. Snehalatha herself was arrested, and eventually died during the Emergency. My dad was telling me the other day that he bought her diary which was published as a booklet. Today, I did a google search and found the diary here:

Here is a heart-wrenching entry from that diary:

"{Terrible days 
28th July
29th "
30th "
1st August}

"In a real dark night of the soul, it is always 3 'o' clock in the morning day after day" These were the times I wanted to die really die - "

Many were detained under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act or MISA, and had to spend time in jail. However, Indira Gandhi had to fall and the Congress was wiped out in the 1977 elections. It is another story that Indira would come back and become Prime Minister and stay on till 1984 till she would be assassinated. Was she forgiven by the people of India in spite of her draconian style of governance? Was it the weakness of the combined Opposition? The answer could be a combination of reasons. There are no certainties in politics. Today's hero is tomorrow's villain, and hero back again. There is also no telling what the voter thinks. There is a lesson in all this for today's disposition as well. Nothing is set in stone in Indian politics.