Passage to London

It's been raining cats and dogs in London. June, July and August have experienced monsoon-season weather, the most severe deluge in 120 years. Russian plutocrats and Greek grandees continue to flood the city to buy up its swankiest properties, but unemployment is still rising, personal debt spiralling, and cuts in public spending ever more brutal. Shouldn't people's spirits be completely dampened?

But this has also been a summer of festivities. Londoners, barely recovered from the street parties and pop jamborees held to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, or from the will-he-won't-he drama of Andy Murray almost becoming the first Brit to win the Men's Championship at Wimbledon, are hosting the Olympics. No doubt they'll cheer on Bradley Wiggins who, earlier this month, won the Tour de France, the first time a cyclist from the UK has ever done so.

Crazy times. Yet there's nothing new about this if you believe Behramji Malabari. In The Indian Eye on English Life (1893), he wrote about London: "People live in a whirlwind of excitement, making and unmaking their idols almost every day. They seem to be consumed by a mania for novelty; everything new serves to keep up the fever of excitement.Today they will set up a fetish, anything absurd, fantastic, grotesque, and worship it with breathless enthusiasm."

Malabari was just one of the thousands of Indians who came to London in the 19th century. They were driven by wanderlust, curiosity, reverence. Some described themselves as pilgrims. The Reverend T.B. Pandian, in England to an Indian Eye (1897), claimed the city was "Mecca for the traveller in search of truth, a Medina of rest for the persecuted or the perplexed in spirit. Though centre of perpetual motion, it is still the Persepolis of human grandeur in repose. To the searcher after enlightenment it is a Budh-Gaya; a Benares for the sinner in search of emancipation."

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