Home away from home for Indian students

THE AREA AROUND FITZROY Square was richly supplied with restaurants serving good Indian food during the 1970s, when I was studying physiology and then dentistry at nearby University College London. My Indian friends, all students, introduced me to the delights of the Diwan-i-am, the Diwan-i-khas, and the Agra restaurants around Fitzrovia, all of which served superb food that was far better than that which could be found in most other Indian restaurants both in and out of London. The two Diwans have long gone, but I believe the Agra has been revived. Another place to which my Indian friends took me to enjoy Indian cuisine was the self-service canteen of the Indian YMCA at the north end of Fitzroy Street.

Students from India, formerly British India, have been coming to study in London since the 19th century.  Whereas now people of Indian subcontinental origin are commonly seen in the streets of London, in earlier years there were not so many of them about and their presence aroused both curiosity about them and prejudice against them.  For the Indian students of yesteryear, London, its inhabitants and their habits, must have presented them with puzzling experiences. Mahatma Gandhi arrived in London in October 1888. After a few weeks, he took a room at 20 Barons Court Road. His landlady was an English widow, who had lived in India. Gandhi gave his reasons for choosing to stay in a family:

“It is generally thought desirable to live in families in order to learn the English manners and customs. This may be good for a few months, but to pass three years in a family is not only unnecessary but often tiresome…” (Quoted from “Gandhi in London” by James D Hunt).

However, lodging in an English family had its pitfalls. It was difficult to lead a regular student’s life; Indian food was not served; and most landladies knew nothing of Indians and their ways of life. Gandhi, like many other students from the Indian subcontinent moved into single rooms. In 19th century London, student hostels were a rarity, and those catering to Indian students were non-existent. At Oxford and Cambridge, Indians, like the rest of the students, were housed in college accommodation.  

India House, one of the first (if not the first) hostels in London dedicated to accommodating Indian students was opened at 65 Cromwell Avenue in Highgate in 1905, as part of a protest against the unpopular Partition of Bengal and because its founder recognised the lack of places where Indian students in London could find a ‘home away from home’. It was financed by a wealthy barrister and Sanskrit scholar from Kutch (now a part of Gujarat), Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930). As I have described in my book “Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)”, India House soon became a nucleus for anti-British agitation by Indians aiming to free India from British rule. Unlike Gandhi, many of the freedom fighters who met and/or lived in India House, few of them were averse to employing violent methods to oust the British. Soon, it attracted the attention of the British security organizations. Indian students, in general, were regarded with some suspicion by these organizations because there was a fear amongst the British authorities that many of them might have been sympathetic to efforts to liberate India from British rule. There were other official fears such as Indians becoming involved in miscegenation. Things came to a ghastly head in 1909 when Madan Lal Dhingra, who was closely associated with India House, murdered a high-ranking colonial official, who had worked in India. India House was closed soon after this assassination was carried out.

Conspiracies, especially those being hatched in India House, led to the setting up of the Lee-Warner Committee in 1907 “…to Enquire into the Indian Students Problem in the United Kingdom”. One of its recommendations was to set up a hostel for Indian students, who had just arrived in London. Clearly, this was to be under the supervision and ideological control of the India Office and a ‘rival’ to India House in Highgate. It and several other government-approved organizations in London (e.g., the National Indian Association and The Northbrook Club, both established before India House) were designed to provide useful assistance to Indian students, but also to ‘keep an eye’ on them. At this point, I should point out that despite the fears of British officialdom, only a small percentage of students from India were involved in, or even remotely interested in, what was then regarded as ‘sedition’; most of them wanted to better their economic status.

On the 20th of October 1919, Kanakarayan Tiruselvam (‘KT’) Paul (1876-1931), first Indian National General Secretary of the National Council of YMCAs in India and 11 others met in London to explore the idea of establishing a hostel in London for Indian students studying in the city (“YMCA Indian Students Hostel: Triumph of Faith: 1920-2010” by John Varughese).  KT Paul, born in Salem (now in Tamil Nadu), was an Indian Christian leader. In 1920, he published an article critical of the horrendous behaviour of the British in the Punjab (e.g., the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919). However, despite this, he like many other Indians, believed that India’s best hope for the future was by maintaining links with western Christianity and contact with the British (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._T._Paul).  The meeting decided to set up a hostel for 100 students, 75% of whom should be Indian, and for up to 500 non-resident, Indian members. Thus, the Indian YMCA in London came to be born.

The first home of London’s Indian YMCA (‘IYMCA’) was not in Fitzroy Street but in Shakespeare Hut, a now non-existent half-timbered building in Keppel Street near to the University of London Senate House. It was leased to the IYMCA by the Shakespeare Society. During WW1, the so-called hut was used for entertaining troops from New Zealand. In 1924, it was demolished to make way for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (www.ymca.co.uk/about/feature/vintage-photographs-ymca-shakespeare-hut).

In 1923, the IYMCA moved out of the Hut and acquired the freehold of numbers 106-112 Gower Street, which was then fitted out to become a hostel with 40 rooms, a restaurant, a library, and recreation facilities. As had been the case in the short-lived India House in Highgate, the hostel in Gower Street hosted many meetings during which affairs relating to India and its future were held. Unlike those held in Highgate, the meetings were far less militantly revolutionary in Gower Street. Many students came to hear and discuss with a wide variety of prominent Indian leaders. In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi addressed members of the IYMCA in Gower Street. Other still well-known leaders of the Indian independence movement who made appearances at Gower Street included BR Ambedkar, Sarojini Naidu, MA Jinnah, Subhas Chandra Bose, J Nehru, and Pandit Malaviya, to name but a few.

On the 23rd of September 1940, three of the four houses that made up the IYMCA were destroyed by bombing. One student was killed, and five others injured. The hostel moved to temporary premises leased from the University of London at 25 and 26 Woburn Square. The booklet containing the hostel’s history records that in 1946 while inter-communal tensions were frighteningly high in pre-Partition India, the marriage of a Hindu to a Muslim woman was celebrated at the hostel. After Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Henry SL Polak (1882-1959), donated 300 books to the hostel, the nucleus of what was to become its MK Gandhi Library. Polak had been a friend and associate of Gandhi when the Mahatma was in South Africa.

When University College London offered to exchange land, which they owned near Fitzroy Square, for the site of the bombed hostel on Gower Street, the offer was accepted and planning for a new hostel on its present site began. With finances coming from many sources in India and elsewhere, construction began, with Indian High Commissioner VK Krishna Menon laying the foundation stone in 1950. The building designed by Ralph Tubbs (1912-1996) was opened on the 24th of March 1953. Tubbs tried to harmonise his building with the fine architecture in nearby Fitzroy Square. I think he did a good job. Although of a completely different architectural style, it does not clash with the fine buildings designed by Robert Adam, which line two sides of the square.

Since the inauguration of the hostel in Fitzroy Street, it has been visited by many celebrities including Jawaharlal Nehru, Queen Elizabeth II, JRD Tata, Harold Macmillan, Indira Gandhi, the Indian National Cricket Team (1971), Harold Wilson, and Lord Mountbatten. Apart from visits by celebrities, the hostel and its extension (opened 2004) has been home to many students from India and elsewhere. Despite the Christian basis of the YMCA, the hostel caters for people of all religions. In addition to providing accommodation, both long-term and for short stays, the Indian YMCA canteen is open to all, when there are no restrictions imposed by the Government during the covid19 pandemic. It provides something closer to home-cooked food rather than fancy restaurant fare.  

Had the Indian YMCA, or even the short-lived, discredited India House in Highgate, been in existence when Gandhi, a vegetarian, arrived in London in 1888, he would have had no difficulties with finding food to his liking from the start of his sojourn there. I have heard from people who have stayed in the hostel in Fitzroy Street that it is reasonably priced, conveniently located, comfortable but not luxurious. What more could one want?

Eating spaghetti in Baroda

I ENJOY ITALIAN FOOD. Very occasionally, I discover Italian restaurants abroad that serve authentic Italian dishes, food that makes no compromises to non-Italian tastes.

Back in the 1980s, Giovanni’s in Chatham (Kent, UK) was an oasis of superb food in the then desert of mediocrity, the Medway Towns. Apart from other beautifully prepared dishes, his spaghetti with pesto was perfect. Unfortunately, Giovanni’s, a justifiably expensive place pf good taste, went out of business several years before I ceased practising as a dentist in the Medway Towns in about 1993.

Grahamstown in South Africa was another surprising place where, in 2003, we discovered a remarkably good Italian eatery rin by an Italian family. I do not remember its name but it was near where we were staying on Somerset (?) Street. I doubt tje restaurant still exists.

Manhattan is rich in Italian eateries. One which we visited by chance on a street in East 50s, was superb. I forget what we ate, but after we had eaten we read the reviews hanging on the window. We might have missed this restaurant’s gastronomic treats had we read the review which related that the establishment’s prices were “vertiginous”. The reviewer was not kidding.

When Unity Mitford was in Munich in the 1930s, she developed a crush on Adolf Hitler. His favourite restaurant in Munich was the Osteria Bavaria, an Italian restaurant, which still exists but has been renamed Osteria Italia. Unity used to sit in the Bavaria at a table near to that occupied by Adolf, and was often invited to join him and his dining companions. In the early 2000s, I had a meal at Adolf’s renamed restaurant, which has retained much of its original decor. The Italian food served there was magnificent. I was amused by the establishment’s apt motto: “In touch with history”.

One of the best Italian meals I have eaten in London was at Asaggi near Westbourn Grove. Another memorably good Italian place I have tried is Zafferano near Knightsbridge. I forget what I ate, but that evening Sean Connery also ate there as well as the shorter of the Two Ronnies (British comedians). Sean Connery ate in a private room, guarded by a waiter, who told us: “We ‘ave to be careful this evening. We don’t want no trouble with James Bond.”

In India, there are plenty of restaurants offering Italian inspired food, but most of them produce disappointing dishes. Chianti in Koramangala (Bangalore) is one notable exception. I have eaten there at least twice, always most satisfactorily. Their food is very close to authentic Italian cuisine. However, the branch of Chianti in MG Road is disappointing.

It was two visits to Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat that prompted me to write this piece. The Fiorella in a hotel in the Alkapuri district serves truly excellent Italian food. It was set up by an Indian chef, who had trained in Italy and worked in restaurants there for more than fourteen years. Ravichandra, who became a master chef in Italy, qualified to supervise the running of kitchens in Italian restaurants, was employed by the hotel in Baroda. His brief was to set up a restaurant serving Italian food that made no compromises to pander to local tastes.

Fiorella is the successful result. We first ate there in early 2019, when Ravichandra was in the kitchen. Then, we returned in January 2020, by which time he had left. We were sad to miss him, but overjoyed to discover that, even without him, the food is still a great gastronomic delight. It is a case of ‘when in Baroda, eat as the Romans do’.

Going vegetarian in Gujarat

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There are many vegetarians in India, particularly in Gujarat.

I am primarily an omnivore, who enjoys meat and fish.

In many of the places we visited on a seven week visit to Kutch and Saurashtra, it was difficult or even impossible to find restaurants serving non-vegetarian food. I spotted street stalls where omelettes were made to order – and they are very delicious – and barrows where un-refrigerated kebabs were on display in the hot weather, awaiting grilling.

In Kutch, I enjoyed the delicately prepared, tasty vegetarian thalis. In Saurashtra, thalis were less attractive to my taste because of their oily-ness and over use of sugar or other sweeeners. However, Gujarat is a paradise for snackers. All over Gujarat, you will find places selling a variety of delicious farsan (savoury snacks). My favourites include: dhokla, patra, ganthia, sev, bhel puri, chewda, dahi puri, khandvi, and pani puri.

Therefore when I wanted something more substantial, I resorted to eating readily available South Indian specialities such as dosas and curd vada. Or, I ordered pizzas. The pizzas, which would look strange to a Sicilian or a Neapolitan, were delicious despite the fact that the cheese used was not remotely similar to mozzarella. I suspect it was often the industrially prepared Indian Amul product. By the way, Amul was a dairy company established just after Indian Independence in Gujarat, inspired by ideas suggested by Sardar Vallabhai Patel, an important statesman and politician born in Gujarat. Getting back to the pizzas, what made them delicious was the tomato sauces used on them. These were not run-of-the-mill out-of-the-can industrial products. They were usually sauces made in the restaurant using fresh tomatoes and herbs and appropriate spices. Indian Chinese food, even if vegetarian, is also an option.

Well, although I am not a fan of veg food, many people fall in love with the various meat-free and egg-free cuisines of Gujarat.

 

Feeding the poor

A few years ago, I was on Calcutta during the August monsoon. As I waded through the filthy rain water flooding the streets of a bazaar area, I noticed that at quite a few clothing material shops run by Moslems there were huge pots of rice and dal or curry. These were manned by shop staff. They were doling out this food to various poorly clothed passers by.

I asked what was going on. One shop keeper told me that during Ramadan it was considered virtuous to feed the poor while the faithful Moslems upheld their required daily fasting. This charitable activity impressed me.

During a recent visit to Ahmedabad in February, I passed an eatery, whose signboard read Muslim Kifayat Hotel, hotel being Indian English for restaurant.

Kifayat is the Urdu word for ‘sufficiency’. It may have other meanings in Hindi.

The restaurant under discussion is on one side of the enormous market place that extends from the Bhadra Fort through the three arches of the 15th century Teen Darwaza and beyond.

Rows of benches are lined up on the pavement in front of the open fronted restaurant. Often, these are occupied by people, who appear to be extremely impoverished. Food (all vegetarian) is prepared at the front if the restaurant in huge pots and a tandoor oven.

One of the men running the Kifayat Hotel explained that the meals they served – dal, rice, freshly cooked rotis, and vegetables – are normally priced at 40 rupees, but poor people pay no more than half of that amount.

Later while exploring Ahmedabad we spotted other eateries like the Kifayat Hotel, and like that place they had rows of benches in front of them. Often, these seats were quite crowded with men, women, and children.

I have yet to discover whether the charitable eating places we saw on Ahmedabad are self-financing or to some extent assisted by charitable institutions.

P.S. just before publishing this, I visited a Hindu temple in Koramangala, Bangalore. Every Thursday, lunch is provided free of charge to anyone who turns up, regardless of their religious belief.

Going vegetarian in Gujarat

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Travellers visiting Gujarat should be aware that the majority of food served in the state is vegetarian. In bigger places like Ahmedabad and Baroda, finding non-vegetarian food is less of a problem than in smaller places. If you visit Bhavnagar, the Nilambagh Palace Hotel serves very good food – both veg and non-veg. Many people hanker after Gujarati thalis, but I am not one of these people. Those who are not on the Gujarati meals can easily find well-prepared south Indian vegetarian food like dosas, idli, and vada. Pizzas are also widely available, often with excellent tomato sauce made with fresh tomatos. 

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Gujarati thali

Another thing to consider when planning your trip to Gujarat is that it is a dry state: alcohol is not served in any public places. It is possible to get a permit (I have no idea how) to be allowed alcohol ‘for medical purposes’ (!)  Gujaratis and others desperate for booze can cross the border into either Daman or Diu, both of which were Portuguese colonies until 1961. Now they are administered not by the State of Gujarat, but by the Central Government of India – they are Union Territories. Alcohol is freely available at almost duty-free places in these tiny places, both of which are well-worth visiting.

 

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A mug of chhas

If you are thirsty, there are plenty of soft drinks available including the refreshing watered down yoghurt drink chhas (also known as ‘buttermilk’). Tea is the prevalent hot drink. We found it hard to get decent coffee, let alone any coffee. Most Gujaratis in Kutch and Saurashtra seem to be keen tea drinkers.

 

Discover more about journeying through Gujarat in Adam Yamey’s new book:

GUJ LULU PIC
Paperback available from lulu.com, Amazon, bookepository.com, Kindle, or order it from your bookshop [ISBN: 978-0244407988]