Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 38 | March 18, 2005 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Straight Talk
   Food for Thought
   In Retrospect
   Slice of Life
   Time Out
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   Write to Mita
   New Flicks

   SWM Home


In Retrospect

The London Years (1955-56)

A Few Anecdotes

Azizul Jalil

The house at 47 Wiltshire Road in Brixton was a short bus ride from the underground station and the famous cricket stadium at Oval. Rooms were large and inexpensive compared to the Earls Court or Swiss Cottage areas where some of us later lived. Six students from East Pakistan occupied the entire house in the mid-fifties. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Colombo, would provide our Sunday lunch at a small extra cost.

There were various combinations of occupants as people finished their studies or moved elsewhere. They included AMM Khan, Abdul Matin, Musharraf Hossain, Shahbuddin Mahatab, Sarwar Murshid Khan, Gholam Rabbani, Abu Imam, Ali Akbar and I. There were some East Pakistanis who did not venture to stay in that house, such was our reputation in matters of merriment and weekend activities. One such person who later did a PhD in Biochemistry once told me that he had only one head on his shoulders and could not afford to risk it by staying at 47 Wiltshire Road.

One day Ali Akbar forgot to shut off the faucet of the kitchen sink as it had frozen in the morning when he left for the London School of Economics (LSE), where he was studying. The weather improved in the afternoon, the pipes started thawing and water started to fill the sink, overflowing all over the bathroom floor. Eventually part of the ceiling of Rabbani's room under the bathroom came off with a big bang. Sarwar Murshid Khan, our teacher at the Dhaka University living next to my room on the ground floor came and asked me if I knew the reason for the sound and the momentary shaking of the house. I had no idea. I ran upstairs, stopped the faucet and managed to retrieve Rabbani's half-complete PhD thesis from his room, which was ankle-deep in water.

During the time his room was under repair, Rabbani had to sleep on the floor of my room. We had parties and dinners on a few occasions. Dr M N Huda, then a Nuffield Fellow and his wife Qulsum Huda, Enayet Karim, then in the Pakistan High Commission and his wife Hosna Karim, our friends Ishtiaq and Sufia and occasional visitors from East Pakistan would join us.

At the time I was an LSE student and quite active in the various societies and student politics. Eminent people from the UK and abroad would come to the LSE. One day in 1955, Bandaranaike, prime minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) came to speak to us. He was a short man and we put him up on a small table so that we could all see and hear him. Bandaranaike was at Oxford in his student days and was a former president of the famous Oxford Student's Union. LSE had a high academic reputation and Bandaranaike satirically told us that he did not have the opportunity to study at the LSE. Instead, he was "educated at the comparatively inferior institution of Oxford".

LSE students had a reputation for liberal and left wing views. The Suez war broke out in 1956. Many of us considered an imperialist war waged by Britain and France on the sovereign rights of Egypt (then under the leadership of Gamal Abdul Nasser) and its control of the Suez Canal we were very agitated. Students from the LSE and other institutions and the British Labour Party followers held an anti-Suez war rally at the Trafalgar Square. We strongly denounced the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden and his policies. After the rally, we marched in procession shouting slogans towards the residence of the prime minister at No. 10 Downing Street. As we came near it, suddenly mounted police charged us with their big horses from all sides. Some of us took shelter in the close-by Underground station where they could not follow us. Some students were injured. Eden reportedly said that the pressure on him was so much that he felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through his bedroom. Nikita Khrushev, the Soviet leader threatened to send missiles at the British troops and Eisenhower and the American president failed to support the Anglo-French invasion. Eden resigned and the invasion fizzled out. It was a great victory for Nasser and the Egyptian people.

From the LSE and the Inns of Court, students of the Sub continent used to go for their lunch to the nearby India House (the Indian High Commission was located there). The menu was to our taste and prices were affordable. There were two eating facilities, both serving entirely Indian food. One was a restaurant-type that we jokingly called the House of Lords. There, food was good and served at the table. The lunch would cost five shillings. We went there only on occasions as a treat. The other one, named by us the House of Commons, was a cafeteria, with long lines. Food there was reasonable and would cost, depending on selections, about two and a half shillings.

In 1955, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister addressed the students at the India House. I went to see and hear Nehru, whom I had never seen before. In the rotunda, we all, including Nehru, sat crossed-legged on the floor covered with white sheets. Nehru's friend V.K. Krishna Menon was the High Commissioner. He introduced Nehru who was wearing his trademark cream coloured sherwani, churidar pajamas, cap and a red rose bud. He took off his cap as a courtesy. Though bald, he was a very handsome man. His politeness and charm was unbelievable. He leaned modestly as he greeted us, the young people, with folded hands. His speech was moving and patriotic with a grand vision for India's future. For me it was a memorable experience.

In the same year, Prasanta Mahalanabis, then vice-chairman of the Indian Planning Commission had come to London. As was the tradition those days, eminent people would somehow find time to address the students. The London University Indian Students' Association had arranged a meeting in Mahalanabis's honour. Malcolm Muggeridge, the Punch magazine editor and Krishna Menon also came along. Muggeridge told us a few off-colour jokes. A sikh student, who was the secretary of the Association spoke first. Then Krishna Menon bluntly commented on the secretary's speech. It was "without any drama, without any punctuation". Mahalanabis, who was at that time busy drafting the five-year plan of India which he called a plan frame, emphasised austerity, savings, capital investments particularly in heavy and basic industries in the public sector and development based on indigenous resources. A renowned statistician, his mastery of the economic policies and the factual details and numbers was most impressive.

By 1955 Ghulam Mohammad, the Governor General had become all-powerful. He had hand picked a so-called "cabinet of talents" and invited Suhrawardy, the East Pakistan Awami League leader to join that cabinet as the law minister. Suhrawardy was recuperating in Switzerland and came to London on his way to Karachi, then the Capital. Suhrawardy met the Pakistani students. I attended the meeting. In answer to a question upfront as to why he was joining a dictatorial government, he gave an account of his long fight for democracy in Pakistan. The country was in a crisis and obtaining a consensus for a new and long-delayed constitution for Pakistan was an urgent imperative. He had to answer the call of his country and help in that effort.

Many of us in the audience were not convinced at all. We felt that Suhwarardy was compromising principles for a small reward of a cabinet position. Eventually after the new constitution in 1956, he became the prime minister of Pakistan. Suhrawardy was forced to resign after a year by the then Governor-General Iskander Mirza without an opportunity to demonstrate that he still had a majority in the parliament. Such indeed was the state of democracy in Pakistan!

Azizul Jalil, a former civil servant and a retired member of the World Bank Staff, writes from Washington.



Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005