Wednesday, July 12, 2006

To London, with 12 shillings in pocket

(Appeared in Zine5, June 2002)

In 1964 I gave up a secure government job in New Delhi, for an uncertain future in London. I was then 26, an age at which you think you know all the answers. Now, at 62, (in 2002 when this piece was done) I know that I don't even know all the questions.

I went to England on a labour voucher. Those days, citizens of the Commonwealth countries could migrate in search of job to England on a voucher issued by the British ministry of labour. It didn't promise a job, but guaranteed a dole for a work-permit holder till he found employment. Getting a labour voucher posed no hassles for those with an university degree. And it was convenient for many educated unemployables from India and former African colonies to find their way to England.

Some of them, with a political agenda at home and flair for public speaking, went on dole for as long as they could and spent time promoting their pet cause at the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner. It is the only place that guaranteed unfettered freedom of speech. You could even abuse the royalty. But then you could be taken for a crank. There was this middle-aged Irishman, who blamed his permanent unemployment status to the Royal Navy recruitment board. George brought his own soapbox to the Hyde Park corner on Saturday afternoons and held forth on his pet grouse against the armed forces.

"I volunteered for military service," said George, "when bombs were falling all over London." He was rejected on medical grounds. A naval doctor who examined him said, "George, your teeth are bad." To which George responded, "Doc, I am going to fight the enemy, not eat them." The recruitment authorities remained unpersuaded. And George has been telling this story ever since at the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner.

The work permit listed my occupation as 'journalist'. It took me over two years to get a job on a British newspaper. Till then I did an assortment of odd jobs. Which included a two-week stint as a packer in a clothes wearhouse; and a clerical officer ( a civil service job) in a post office savings bank.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) allowed a work-permit holder three pounds sterling as foreign exchange for travel. This was my pocket money during the 10-day boat trip from Bombay to Genova in Italy and an overnight train journey from there to London. That I was left with 12 shillings when I reached the London Victoria station, at the end of the 12-day journey, spoke for my scrupulous money management. In violation of the currency regulations I carried some Indian rupees, but the only place en route where I could convert it was Karachi.

M.V. Asia, a Lloyd Triestino boat, sailed into Karachi a day after it left Bombay. I went ashore with a group of passengers to get a feel of the Pakistani city. The moneychanger at the port exchanged our rupee for an equal amount of Pakistani rupee. However, a paanwalah in Karachi city was eager to give two Pakistani rupees for every Indian rupee we offered. Indian paan that he imported/smuggled was considered a delicacy there.

My friend Satish Kohli (we used to live in the same neighbourhood in New Delhi) who was to meet my train at Victoria that afternoon wasn't there. Finding myself friendless in unfamiliar London, without an address to go to and with no more than 12 shillings in my pocket didn't do much good for my spirits. Satish did turn up eventually (he had been held up at work) and took me home to his bed-sitter at Golders Green.

London tended to grow on me. And even when I found work at a newspaper in North-east England I used to travel to spend a weekend in London every other week. I was in England during the 'swinging' sixties, when the Beatles were a rage, and the Twiggy look was in vogue; when girls, in mini-skirts, went for a boyish cut and boys wore long hair. But there were things where change was inordinately slow in coming. Sound of Music was on at a Tottenhamcourt Road cinema house (the year was 1964). The movie was still running when I left London three years later! Agatha Christie's Moustrap was playing for the 13th year at a London theatre.

The first job I got through the employment exchange was that of a proof-reader at a North London printing press. They don't keep you on dole for more than six weeks at a time. If you don't find anything worthwhile within this period, you have to take up whatever job they offer you at the labour exchange. And journalists were not recruited through labour exchange.

I didn't last for more than three weeks as a proof-reader. On the third pay-day (they pay weekly, on Fridays) I felt that my envelope was heavier than usual and on counting the cash I found there was twice the amount I got as weekly wages. This was their way of showing you the door. My supervisor, a Pakistani, later explained to me over a drink that the manager who had bungled on a job work chose to make a scapegoat of me.

My next job was with India Weekly, brought out by a group of London-based Indian journalists and supported by the Indian High Commission. P N Haksar was deputy high commissioner and Salman Hyder, who retired as foreign secretary a few years back, was in the mid-sixties a first-secretary (information) at the High Commission. India Weekly was the brainchild of the then London bureau chief of the Calcutta daily Hindustan Standard, Dr. Tarapada Basu. He managed the weekly, with voluntary contributions from S K Shelvankar of The Hindu, Iqbal Singh of the Patriot and Shisantu Das of the Indian Express.

My position at India Weekly remained unspecified. So was my job description. I wasn't given an appointment letter. I was paid through office voucher an amount that was not much higher than what I would have got as dole, if I had registered myself as unemployed. You could call my stint at India Weekly sweat labour. But I cheerfully endured it. It kept me away from the humiliating dole queue.

1 comment:

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

I asked for a treat and I got one! Having been there in the swinging sixties, with the beatles at their Zenith! Thats a rockers dream come true. Wish I could go on a time machine, just for a visit! Yeh Dil Maange More, Sir!