By Vali Jamal, PhD
Navyn Naran writes lyrically about it – and deservedly so, as it was a special place, beyond a jamatkhana; as she also says, a home away from home for people who had just come to the capital of the British Empire. There was accommodation upstairs, so it was indeed home to some. His Highness the Aga Khan said at his UK Golden Jubilee banquet that there were in 1957, at the start of his Imamat, only a hundred or so Ismailis in the whole of UK, almost all in London. We were very conscious of that, and that we had come to England. We wore a suit always, even shopping – Oxford Street, of course. Everybody did. Indian restaurants were a rarity and finding bhajia at nandi was a treat. If you were nice to Baby Bai or Mrs Gulamhusein Pirbhai you got invited to their home after jamatkhana ceremonies were completed, and then it was a feast.
I came to England in 1958. It was a Friday and my brother took me to Palace Gate. The prayer room was full by the time we arrived and so we just stayed out in the foyer. I was very nervous as the jamat were mostly from the upper classes, with “accents” to go with, whereas we were from the early democratic crowd, trailblazing in A-levels and university. The rich boys were content to round up their schooling at public schools, in readiness to join their father’s business. Some went to inns of court, which in those days you could enter without A-levels. Girls went to finishing school to learn social graces in readiness for their assigned roles as socialite wives. So the jamatkhana was pretty exclusive then and remained so till more boys and girls from the middle classes came abroad for studies, often aided by bursaries from the Aga Khan education department.
I myself went off to the provinces for my A-levels and university studies. I came to London for weekends for shopping at Cecil Gee and later on Carnaby Street, but always one goal was to be at Palace Gate for the Friday services. I was sure to find a dozen of my friends there, also from the provinces, and we compared notes about studies and our lives in “digs”, by now numerous enough and confident of our place in the echelons of higher learning to scoff off the toffs. People lingered for long on the footpath (as we should say in correct English) after the prayers. Every now and again a bobby would come by asking the people “to move on, please.” It was always please. It was “morning, thank you, and good bye” in the shops. Afterwards we’d troop into the nearby Italian restaurant la Tosca and order up spaghetti bolognaise, waited on unaccustomedly by dhodia waiters, who we later learnt were Greek Cypriots. It was a learning process through and through – going to restaurants; being served by white people; not all white people were English – and twirling the pasta!
New Year’s was special at Palace Gate. There was a gala dance in the basement. Boys came in their gangs and girls in their todis. They sat lined up against opposite walls. At the start of the item a couple of boys in tandem would muster up enough courage to stride to the opposite side and request a dance: “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” Girls who were experienced in such matters would just burst out laughing. During the dance experienced boys would ask: “Do you come here often?” only to LOL (as we say now: laugh out loud) that it was just a cliché. Life-long partnerships were formed there and I have to confess including mine.
The floors upstairs were given over to hostel rooms – like dharamshalas at home. You had to share. Monsieur Tutti looked after that side. He had been an ADC to Prince Aly Khan, who in reality was the owner of the Palace Gate property. Tutti spoke English with a French accent and smoked horrible-smelling cigarettes (which we later learnt were French favourite Gauloise). One Saturday night after frolicking in town, four of us friends had bundled into a room taken by Mansur Lalani. Suddenly a sharp knock on the door. We scramble to dissimulate. Monsieur Tutti: “Wey are you making so much bruit – eh, pardon, comment on dit? noise – and wey are so many of you here?” We went like: “Noise?” Tutti just showed us the door, including Mansur. We went and slept on the heating-grills at Paddington Station, prodded by the police every hour “to move on”.
I make it a point to pass by everytime I come to London.
Date article posted on Simerg: May 4, 2011
© Simerg.com and Vali Jamal
Vali Jamal’s article is part of Simerg’s continuing series on Jamatkhanas which was launched recently with Jamal’s own memorable piece Remembering Kampala Jamatkhana: Special in so many ways. His period of stay in the UK when he would make frequent visits to Palace Gate were as follows: 1958-1960, Norwich City College; 1961-64, Trinity College, Cambridge; 1967-68, gap year in London. His reference to Navyn Naran at the beginning of his piece is for her absorbing poem 5 Palace Gate.
Simerg welcomes comments on this article and invites readers to submit distinct pieces on any one particular jamatkhana. Please click The Jamatkhana: A Place of Spiritual and Social Convergence for an introduction to the series and links to other articles.
About the author: Dr. Vali Jamal was a Senior Economist at the International Labour Organization of the United Nations from 1976 to 2001. He completed his BA at Cambridge University and PhD at Stanford University, California. He is currently working on completing his book on Ugandan Asians. He invites contributions for the book which he expects to publish sometime in Autumn 2011. Please write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also visit his blog www.vivaeastafrica.blogspot.com.
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