A restless summer

In London, you know that summer has arrived when the sky is overcast, your umbrella becomes your favourite accessory, you head home groggily every night from a party and friends from India are as visible as the red double-decker. So, in this last one week one has already met Harish and Meenakshi Salve, Suhel Seth, Shobhana Bhartia, Soli Sorabjee… to name just a few.

And this is why I love summer here — not only can one talk about the politics of this city, there is more than enough interaction to make sure you are well abreast of the latest shenanigans back home, as well.
However, while the Indian government has got itself into some convoluted yogic postures over their “fast-track” policies, the British government is not far behind with a whole series of U-turns over their proposed plans. And there may be more flip-flops to come as there is a fear that a summer of discontent is lurking around the corner.
So far, the British government has been “forced” to take the decision to cut the deficit by slashing public spending, and this can never be a popular move. As trade unions threaten to go on strike in the United Kingdom to express their unhappiness over new pension policies and the severe cuts, I am reminded of a time when the Left-leaning parties in India would similarly organise public demonstrations to paralyse the economy. (It doesn’t happen that frequently anymore does it? I wonder why.) Has that space for those pressure groups in India been occupied by civil society movements as well as babas and swamis? In Britain, trade unions are still very active and it is also no secret that they largely support the Labour Party, which is now in the Opposition. Thus, while the latter may not publicly endorse every demand of the unions, it will certainly suit them if the coalition government is embarrassed. So are we heading for the good old “chakka jam” out here?
This weekend might be the start of the protests as apparently Tube workers begin seven days of walk-outs leading to a rather horrid time for millions of commuters. The Royal Mail workers have threatened to stall work next week over proposed cuts to some of their centres, followed by a strike call by various teachers’ unions around the end of the month… even prison officers are threatening to disrupt work. There may also be strike action by National Union of Journalists over cuts to the BBC and so on. Some estimates show that overall 750,000 workers in various departments, including immigration and taxation, might just take to the streets to focus attention on their grievances and exhibit their anger with Prime Minister David Cameron’s government. Since much of this action will take place in London, perhaps it is time to pack away that umbrella and look for less stressful, sunnier climes.
Perhaps one could join a yoga group in India? Any suggestions? I believe there is a really great “protest pranayama” now being taught somewhere in Hardwar.

Meanwhile, central London came to a halt the other day, too, but for completely different reasons. There was a fire in a building near the Waterloo bridge at Aldwych, leading to blocking of all routes for hours. But for those of us who were attending the celebration of the women’s achievement awards at India House, hosted by Poonam Surie, the high commissioner’s wife, it became a real battle to reach the venue as the police had cordoned off the entire area. Many of us tottered along in high heels through little alleys and cobbled pathways to reach the venue; they don’t call Asian women gutsy for nothing. We dodged the fire brigades and the smoke to celebrate with samosas the wonderful function that was organised by the Women’s India Association of the United Kingdom.
The three women who were being honoured well-deserved their place in the limelight. They included the well-known, multi-faceted Baroness Usha Prashar, and also the very bright 22-year-old Firoza Ahmed Nekiwala who is a Labour councillor from Newham, London. Getting into politics at such a young age while juggling her studies must be quite difficult, I asked her. Young Firoza, however, gave me a big grin and said it was “hard” but then it is obvious that she is managing extremely well. It is wonderful to see young people here enter politics without being supported by money or dynastic power. When will India catch up with this trend?
The third achiever that afternoon was the amazing Asha Khemka who heads the West Nottinghamshire College, one of the biggest in Europe, with over 20,000 students. Her story is also truly inspirational as when she arrived in Britain she had to teach herself English. She was a housewife and the mother of three children, but persisted in improving her own skills, till what she is today — a full-fledged educationist.
The number of Asian women who are breaking barriers is growing. As are the platforms on which they are given recognition for their hard work!

However, life would not be complete if we did not have a conversation about cricket. I have to confess, I am probably the last living person on this planet who does not watch or follow the sport, but I am always willing to learn. So on another (drizzly) afternoon some of us accumulated at the Nehru Centre to discuss Soumya Bhattacharya’s crisply analytical book Why India Can Never Do Without Cricket. What was interesting for those like me who are not cricket crazy was that the dialogue covered not just the sport in its ever-changing avatar but also issues of development, corruption, identity and media... and one realised that, perhaps, cricket is only a metaphor for real life. Just about everything in this world seems connected to it! Well done, Soumya, you have made me a cricket convert!
And I would add that not only can India never do without cricket, but cricket, too, can never do without India!

Kishwar Desai can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

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