The East Enders

“Now this is the site where the body of Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was found,” declares Emily, my guide at the Eating London food tour. That gets our complete attention. Standing in front of the modern car park at White’s Row, we silently contemplate Mary Jane Kelly’s gruesome end.

In London’s East End, there is no getting away from the Ripper legend.

Jack the Ripper was by no means the world’s scariest or most prolific serial killer, but he was certainly one of the most famous during his time and remains so after all these years. This is largely due to East End’s reputation by the mid 19th century for being a hotbed of vice and villainy.

London’s East End has gone through extremely tumultuous changes in London’s recent history. Today, it is one of the most vibrant, Bohemian districts I have visited, in a city that promises a delight in every corner. Yet, the streets of East End remain off the radar for most tourists and even locals.

East End

Nicole Monaco of Eating London Tours initially explored various London boroughs before settling on this neighbourhood for their first food walk. She says, “While each was unique in its own right, I couldn’t go past the East End. It is an area so rich in its roots and so culturally diverse that I knew there was no other choice!”

The walk begins at Spitalfields market, one of the oldest in London and most prominent landmarks of this borough. At 10.30 am, Spitalfields is buzzing, with sellers of antiques and bric-a-brac, artisanal cupcakes and organic soups, handmade jewellery and designer clothes, setting up shop.

Spitalfields

I find the Eating London walk fascinating not just for the food – after all, nobody equates Britain with gourmet meals – but for the passion Emily brings to her stories of East End’s intense history.

The East End has always been welcoming of immigrants and many of them have left a mark on its food scene. First, the Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing France came in around 1685. On our way to Brick Lane, we walk past the grand houses of these fine silk weavers on streets which still bear French names. Then the Irish workers arrived in the mid 1700s seeking employment in the London docks and later on, escaping the local potato famine.

The East European Jewish community fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia found this area a safe haven and stayed there for almost a century from 1880 to 1970, making it one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Emily points out the grand ‘Soup kitchen set up for the Jewish poor’ building that fed over 130,000 Jews even in the beginning of the 20th century.

Soup kitchen

BagelsWe come across remnants of the area’s Jewish heritage later on in the walk at Beigel Bake – where bagels are boiled before being baked in traditional Jewish style – in Brick Lane, famous for staying open 24 hours a day.

Brick Lane

Thanks to popular culture, any mention of Brick Lane immediately brings to mind its Bangladeshi community. Here, it does feel a bit like walking in a market in Mumbai’s Dadar or Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar; the tall tower of Jamme Masjid in the distance, little money transfer kiosks with names like Deshforex and shops selling colourful quick-dry saris. We are here to taste curry – and Britain’s national dish of Chicken Tikka Masala – at Aladin.

Desi shopping

Desh Forex

For me, the highlight of Brick Lane is the stunning street art, including UK’s own Banksy and Eine, Belgian artist ROA and Chilean Otto Schade. And the cheerful chaos. If the main street is home to conservative Bangladeshis, the narrow lanes surrounding it attract hipster Londoners with their quirky cafés and trendy boutiques.

Street art

Graffiti

Boutique

PuddingAnd what is a London food walk without the usual suspects? So, we have bread and butter pudding served piping hot, with generous lashings of vanilla custard, at The English Restaurant.

There is ‘fish and chips’ at Poppies, which is no ordinary cod but a winner at the National Fish and Chip awards. In a country with over 10000 “chippies,” this is no mean feat. I find Poppies enormously charming: the jukebox, the waitresses in cutesy red costumes and the wall posters with Cockney rhyming slang (brown bread for dead, pen and ink for stink).

Chippie

An interesting stop is St John Bread and Wine, which prides itself on its “nose to tail” philosophy. Simply put, its popular chefs follow a democratic – if queasy for me – cooking policy of “no body part left behind.” Luckily, that morning, we are offered only a cured bacon sandwich or poached pear in yoghurt sauce.

My favourite is the final stop at the super tony Pizza East, which I think is the perfect metaphor for this neighbourhood’s gentrification. Sitting on the uncomfortable high stool, I muse on the fact that, from pudding made from stale bread to salted caramel chocolate tart, the East End has come a very long way in just over a hundred years.

***
~ This was published in the Mumbai Mirror on Sunday, September 28, 2014 as ‘Community Meals’ – read it in pdf form here

~ For more information on this fun food walk in the East End, check out the Eating London Tours website. I went on a food walk with them in Rome a couple of years ago and found that fascinating too. Here is what I wrote about it then – Roman Banquet for Outlook Traveller

Remains of the day

Among the stories at the ‘Voices of the First World War’ exhibition at the Brighton Museum, is that of Subedar Manta Singh, who served with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. Manta, along with over a million other Indian soldiers, went to war over a cause that had no relevance for him, for a king who was not really his own. During the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, Manta was hit by gunfire while trying to rescue his friend and fellow officer Capital Henderson. Although he was shipped to England to be treated at a hospital set up just for such injured, he died of blood poisoning soon after.

Manta Singh did not live long enough to write letters to families and friends about the war he had just seen. Thousands of Indian soldiers did, from the trenches and from the British hospital they were sent to for recovery. Just back home from the UK, I read some of these in ‘Indian Voices of the Great War,’ edited by David Omissi and published by Penguin.

One of them wrote in January 1915 to a relative back home in Punjab, “Do not think this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata about our forefathers.” He was, in all likelihood, writing from the battlefield in France. There is no record of whether he survived what came to be known as the Great War.

Another. “There is no telling whether the war will be over in two years or in three, for in one hour 10,000 men are killed. What more can I write?”

Wounded
(image courtesy: Imperial War Museum image archives)

Brighton museum

This year marks the centenary of the beginning of World War I, a war that started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo and engulfed the entire world within weeks. Britain became involved in the war immediately, and having no policy of conscription, sought the help of voluntary troops from its colonies.

VolunteersAnd so, just two months later, a massive Indian army was sent to the front in France. Huge amounts of raw material, including cotton, jute and leather were sent along with handsome cash contributions – to the tune of a 100 million pounds – by the princely states.

While the foot soldiers themselves felt bound by their loyalty to a distant ruler (King George V), nationalist leaders pushed for increased participation in the hope – spurred by Britain’s promises to this effect – that India’s war efforts would ease their demands for home rule. That the rulers went back on their word following the end of the war, leading to great resentment among our leaders, is another story, not for these pages.

Indian participation in the Second World War is well documented and acknowledged but there is almost no public recognition of our involvement in the earlier war. Not even in India. How many of us even remember that New Delhi’s India Gate is a memorial to those Indians who lost their lives in this war? For, the Indian army fought not only on the Western front in France and Flanders in unfamiliar territory, against an enemy who spoke strange languages, in harsh winters but also later on in Mesopotamia and East Africa.

Now, a hundred years later, Britain has decided to honour these forgotten footnotes of its great war; over 70,000 Indians were killed and an equal number returned home wounded. Over the next four years, the Imperial War Museums have planned more than 500 new exhibitions and 1500 events all over Britain, to commemorate the war.

One of them is the exhibition at the Brighton Museum, where Manta Singh’s is an Indian voice among those of English men and women touched by the war. I have gone there after a tour of the Brighton Royal Pavilion just down the road; an opulent, fairyland structure built by King George IV in 1823 to serve as his palace. It was converted into a military hospital for wounded Indian soldiers in 1915 – over 4000 were treated there in three years – with separate kitchens and prayer areas (not to forget funeral rites) organised for Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers. We do not know if the ornate chandeliers, lush tapestries and gilded mirrors reminded them of home, as the British PR machinery hoped, but soldiers certainly wrote back home of “never being so happy.”

Pavilion
(image courtesy: Brighton-Hove Royal Pavilion, Museums and Libraries website)

Back in London, at the recently reopened Imperial War Museum, revamped at a cost of £40 million, a Spitfire aircraft and a Harrier jet suspended from the ceiling greet me in the main atrium. Relics of the war. By the end of two hours at the First World War galleries at the IWM, I have barely scratched the surface of the thousands of photographs, artifacts and digitised documents.

Harrier Jet

Hardships

And at the British Library, there is a stunning collection of memorabilia from the war: personal stories of fathers and mothers, friends and comrades-in-arms; letters written from the field just before the march into that fatal battle, letters written from home that were never read; cartoons and poems that were meant to boost the ever-sagging morale of the troops.

Letter

Perhaps the most voluble expression of Britain’s intent is the installation of 888, 246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. Called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, each of these crimson poppies is meant to serve as a symbol of remembrance for a fallen British and Colonial soldier.

Poppies
(image courtesy: Visit England)

ChattriHowever, I keep thinking back on my evening at the Chhatri near Brighton, where 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died at the Brighton Royal Pavilion – Manta Singh included – were cremated. Although it merits a few words on the Visit Brighton website, most locals have not even heard of it. There are no signboards or convenient public transport to it. Access is only by a long walk – or as the website says, “via a bridleway (walk, cycle, horseride)” – from the nearest bus stop or car park.

It stands forlorn and desolate in the rolling downs of south England, somewhat like those soldiers themselves who died far away from the familiar, warm trappings of home. How can we forget?

(chattri image courtesy: Visit Brighton website)

INFORMATION

~ The best collections of First World War material

~ Information on the Imperial War Museum and British Library exhibitions

~ List of WWI commemorative events across Britain

~ Visit Brighton website

This was published in the September issue of Outlook Traveller. Read it in pdf form hereRemains of the day

Friday photo: South Bank

I am off next week to one of my favourite cities in the world – London. I am there on work for the first few days. And then… a quick weekend trip to Leeds, a couple of musicals, a morning food walk, lots of catching up with friends, revisiting old haunts…

This Friday, from a rainy-sunny summer afternoon (the kinds that only London can see) from South Bank:

London

Memories of London: The buskers are abusking
Also see: Friday photo series

Friday photo: Juxtapose

I have a new photography page up on my website where I have put together a few photostories and galleries. Have a look some time

It has one of my favourite themes: Juxtapose – I always keep an eye open for seemingly incongruous elements that sit side by side and tell a new story all their own. This is a collection of a few such images, from which I have chosen today’s Friday photo.

A summer day at London’s South Bank…

Juxtaposed

Also see: Friday photo series

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