Indian in England

Musings of a student

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

My world, my universe, my well

BOURNEMOUTH -- my world, my universe… my well -- is associated with two great personalities besides me:

Geoffrey Boycott and Bill Bryson.

I am not sure how exactly Geoff is involved with my kingdom by the sea (must ask him the next time we get together), but a web site I stumbled across accuses him of being one of Bournemouth’s ‘famous sons and residents’. Since he confesses to birth in Yorkshire, I guess he must fall into the ‘resident’ category.

With Bill, I know what it is all about. Bournemouth offered him his first job as a journalist, when he persuaded The Daily Echo to hire him as a sub-editor a couple of decades ago. He stayed here for two years, editing kitty-party copies. I know this for a fact because Bill himself told me so.

Which all goes to show what a fine place Bournemouth is. Very warm and welcoming. Honestly.

We have seven miles of golden sand. We have a clear, clean bay that tempts you to tear off your clothes and plunge in. We have sun… or so I am told, and I am beginning to believe it as we creep up on spring.

We also have a record number of aged people living in a record number of care homes. This prompts unkind outsiders to call our little town ‘God’s waiting room’, but what attracts the aged to Bournemouth is precisely what makes it so special.

I think they coined the word ‘quaint’ especially for Bournemouth. It’s in the air, this ‘quaintness’ I am talking about, a mixture of timelessness and charm and serenity and wisdom that quilts you in happy listlessness. It’s like sitting in your grandfather’s lap, playing with his white beard.

There is not an awful lot happening, but somehow you feel content with the situation, and as far as I know, not many residents go rushing to London, or any place else, in search of excitement.

In fact, just the opposite. People from other places rush down to Bournemouth for a quiet weekend. The wealthy, including stars of all stripes, have villas by the sea, and Tony Blair holds his party conference on the beach -- or as close to it as he can -- occasionally.

To cater to the visitors, we have 103 hotels (approved by the Bournemouth Tourist Board), 44 guesthouses and 18 self-catering apartment units around the town. And 293 restaurants (of which 24 are Indian), 101 pubs, six wine bars, 37 nightclubs, and 41 cafes.

All this, unfortunately, makes Bournemouth an expensive place. Accommodation prices are comparable to those in London. For my single room in Springbourne, I pay £260 a month, which supposedly is a bargain -- and I live in an attic, though a cosy one at that.

But then, that has always been the case with Bournemouth. It started life as ‘a select retreat’, thanks to an infant who died on his parents one fine day in the late 18th century. This forced the father, a squire by the name Lewis Dymoke Grosvenor Tregonwell, to take the mother, Henreitta, for a holiday to recuperate.

Tregonwell was possibly a smuggler. He was also a captain in the Dorset Rangers, the ‘protectors’ of the coasts this side against the French, who are within hailing distance.

He brought his wife down to Bournemouth, which was then called either Bourn Bottom or Born Chine. She loved the place, and ordered hubby dear to make suitable arrangements for permanent residence.

Tregonwell obeyed. He bought eight-and-a-half acres of prime land for £180 (now that is what I call a bargain), built her a house by the sea, and proceeded to become the official ‘founder’ of Bournemouth.

Of course, the initial settlers tried their darnest to keep the town to themselves. But by 1930, middle-class suburbs were firmly established, and today we are 163,444 happy souls (490 of Indian origin, 98 Pakistani, 212 Bangladeshi, and 719 Chinese) living here.

No, make that 163, 445. I arrived after the census.

PS: Thanks Lebi, Anita, Priya, Meggie, Daniel, Nikita, and Chakra for your warm welcome. And newcomers, step this way for a minute, could you?

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Warmth... in a cold country

THE first person to put up with me in Bournemouth was Prasanna, a warm-hearted computer science student fast disappearing under the rigours of his course. He had made the mistake of answering one of my pleas on the university’s student message board, and I promptly latched on to him.

He lives in a two-storeyed house, roomy but weeping under the onslaught of eight students: seven Indians and one Turk. A hurricane had obviously finished a striptease there just as I arrived. It had also visited the kitchen for a quick meal before leaving by the back door.

Despite the situation, Prasanna and his friends -- Girish, Navin, Phani, Janardhan, et al -- went out of their way to make me feel at home.

“You can stay here if you like,” Prasanna said. “If you don’t, take your time to find a good place. No hurry.”

David Bradshaw of the Bournemouth Media School, one of my supervisors, was similarly helpful. There is a spare room at home, he said, and he certainly could put me up till I found a place.

Fortunately I didn’t have to bother him. I was able to move into a cosy room in about a week. Nonetheless, his and Prasanna’s offers were touching -- welcome warmth in a cold country.

THOSE jeans that threaten to fall off you, low-rise hipsters I think they are called, those are the craze here.

At my university, girls seem to live in them (except at pub-time, when they climb atop six-inch ladders, all legs, in black). They wear flimsy belts with lots of holes or metal bits, presumably to hold the jeans up, but there is no way those contraptions could hold anything up. I am certain they actually use some sort of skin adhesive.

A sustained survey -- made possible only by the depth to which hipsters plunge -- also reveal thongs (gosh, I hope I have got this right) are quite prevalent. A bit uncomfortable, it looked to me. Like, walking around with something stuck between your teeth.

The other craze is streaked hair. Any colour goes, and the more startling the better. A combination of purple, yellow and green is most favoured.

Rings and studs -- on nose, lips, ears, navel, wherever -- need special mention. As do ‘pillow-hair’.

By ‘pillow-hair’, I mean precisely that. It is the guys’ fashion statement. Initially I thought they left home in a hurry and had forgotten to comb. Then I caught a cool guy in the loo, painstakingly teasing his hair with water into a frightful mess. He looked quite pleased with himself when he finished.

RACISM, I had been told, is a favourite pastime in England.

They don’t seem to play that particular sport much over here in Bournemouth (pronounced ‘Bon-moth’, with unnecessary vehemence attached to the first bit), except for poking fun at Americans endlessly, though two Indian friends tell me some idiots shouted the usual rot at them once.

In my three months in England, I have had only one such experience. And that was in wintry Leeds -- 235 miles by road from Bournemouth, where my wife is studying -- while on a desperate job-hunt.

Noticing ‘Wanted: Assistant’ in a fish stall in the Kirkgate market, I switch on my irresistible charm and approach the middle-aged proprietor. She is serving a customer, mouth split in a stiff smile and stale sales-talk.

I wait. She turns to me. The smile freezes.

I am looking forward to being her assistant, I say. She looks at me with obvious distaste.

“I can give you an application form if you want,” she says at last, and waits for me to say, oh, no, that’s all right, and disappear. Instead, I say, yes, that would be nice.

She stares some more. Hands me a form. Turns back to her fish.

Perhaps she was only objecting to my face. Perhaps.