From Bollywood to St John’s Wood

Blue Badge Guide Shivani Pareek talks about the Indian love affair with London.

It was a visit from her aunt that inspired Shivani Pareek to become a guide. “I sent her on a tour of Westminster Abbey”, Shivani explains, “something I did when I first arrived in London from Mumbai. I loved it”. But when I asked my aunt if she’d enjoyed it, she smiled sheepishly and confessed that she couldn’t understand the guide.

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“Many educated, older generation Indians are accustomed to Indian English. British English, with its local expressions and accent, can be almost impossible for them to follow. It was clear that London needed some Indian born guides.”

Shivani’s road to becoming a Blue Badge guide was a bumpy one. She became pregnant during the course, gave birth to her daughter two months before the final exams and found herself doing tutorials from the maternity ward.

But the hard work paid off and she won the annual student prize for best Tower of London guide. “The great thing about guiding Indians in London is that they feel they already know the city,” says Shivani. And while empire and immigration play an enormous part in this story, the biggest single connection is Bollywood films.

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“Many big Bollywood productions film in London – often with amusing cuts that show characters walking directly from Buckingham Palace onto Tower Bridge. It as has made these locations famous across India – Trafalgar Square, for example, is forever associated with the 1995 blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The opening scene features the main character feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square – my visitors are disappointed that pigeon feeding is now banned.

“London’s political associations with India are an important part of my tours. In the 1880s, Mahatma Gandhi came to London to study law. He was a student at UCL and his room in Bloomsbury was so cold that during winter he spent most of his time in British Library keeping warm. Though he tried to adopt ‘English’ customs – including dancing lessons – he could not reconcile himself to his landlady’s bland vegetarian food and frequently went hungry, until he found one of London’s few vegetarian restaurants.

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“Gandhi returned to London in 1931 for a political conference. The delegation was invited for tea with King George V at Buckingham Palace and Gandhi attended dressed in his dhoti and shawl. When one official remarked ‘sir, don’t you think you were a little underdressed for the occasion, Gandhi replied ‘no, the king dressed for both of us’”.

“Winston Churchill also passed comment on Mahatma’s dress, remarking that he was ‘posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the palace’. Gandhi calmly responded: ‘You never left any clothes for us’. So there is an amusing irony that a statue of Gandhi – the second one in London – was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2015, directly opposite the statue of Churchill. Gandhi is the only non-politician commemorated in the square, as he never held office.

“Across the river from Parliament in Lambeth is another statue of a celebrated Indian. The 12th century philosopher, poet and social reformer Basaveshwara is known as the ‘Father of Democracy’ and creator of the ‘Indian Magna Carta’. His bust was unveiled by the Indian Prime Minister in 2015. “One of the darker episodes in British-Indian politics took place at Caxton Hall in Westminster. Michael O’Dwyer was Governor of the Punjab in 1919 at the time of the massacre of peaceful protesters in Amritsar, which he condoned.

Some 1,000 people were shot and killed. A young orphan, Udham Singh, was present at the massacre and narrowly avoided death. “In 1940 Singh made his way to London, to a meeting at Caxton Hall where O’Dwyer was due to speak. Singh shot O’Dwyer with two bullets, killing him outright. The Indian was tried and hanged at Pentonville Prison, and was buried within the grounds.

“Many Indians are mystified by Britain’s imperialist rule. It’s the question of size that baffles them. The UK is smaller than any of India’s 29 states and they find it hard to understand how ‘such a small country managed to rule a country as big as ours’. “They are also intrigued by the wealthy Indians who have set up home in London. When the Hinduja brothers became the wealthiest men in Britain – with a fortune of some £15 billion in 2014 – their Carlton House residence became a ‘must see’ on a tour.

“In recent years, some of these London-based businessmen have become rather notorious. Vijay Mallya, the Kingfisher Beer baron, made huge losses on an airline. He owes millions in India and has been hiding out in the UK. Subrata Roy, the owner of London’s Grosvenor House hotel, mortgaged the building to pay his bail in Delhi. I am thinking of offering an infamous Indians tour. “The most famous Indian personality to have a house in London these days is Sachin Tendulkar. His residence in St John’s Wood is a tourist stop-off on the way to Lord’s cricket ground. For the Indian tourist, cricket and food are our national symbols.

“So when I tell tourists that Chicken Tikka Masala is the UK’s national dish, they just laugh. ‘If the British gave us cricket’, they say, ‘we gave them spicy food. That’s a good deal’”.

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