London Years (1955-56)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Jalil, a former civil servant and a retired member of the
World Bank Staff, writes from Washington.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005