Sunday, December 11, 2011

London Kahani

Insha's London

A basement flat in Gloucester Hotel owned by a matronly Mrs.Watson sounds an extremely scary place to live in. And that is exactly where Ibn-e-Insha stayed when he visited London in Sept 1967. I was rather lucky in terms of the location, ownership and view of the apartment where I resided. The magnificent Thames (a little tributary if truth be told) and a drawbridge greeted me each morning while poor Insha Sahib was haunted by the garbage drum and all that inhabited it, both living and otherwise.

Once I had made the all important trip to Big Ben and Trafalgar Square, I found myself on Victoria Embankment every other day. Maybe it was to say hello to poor Nelson, who stands alone while all and sundry pose with the lions. Or to lose myself in the hallways of National Art Gallery; trying to imprint the paintings on my mind or through inadequate words, in my diary.

Besides the National Art Gallery, there are a multitude of museums to explore and maybe, get bored in, especially without company. The British Museum is one such place which I, luckily, did not explore on my own. Like Ibn-e-Insha, we too made a dash for the Egyptian gallery. The whole place is death personified. There are coffins, both with and without mummies, with intricate carvings and symbols along with details of the preservation process the Egyptians used. The star of the place is an extremely well preserved mummy with nails, teeth and even hair intact (on a closer inspection one might even find mummified lice). It was a bit disturbing to see throngs of people around this nameless corpse whose soul, I’m sure, is still searching for peace, maybe within the very walls of the museum.    

Aphrodite at British Museum
Ibn-e-Insha was not duly impressed by the Egyptian artefacts, especially the agricultural tools. According to him archaeologists wasted their time digging up remains of ancient Egypt, most of the items are present and still in use above the ground in our country. I was more interested in the Greek statues, something not present in any form in Pakistan. And it is always better, both historically and optically, to look at stone sculptures of Greek Goddesses in the nude rather than a shrivelled mummy.

Loneliness never hits you as strongly as when you’re taking pictures of yourself with a self-timer. But where the camera has proved itself to be a technological wonder, it is also a nuisance at times. Unlike other picture galleries, Tate Modern does allow photography without a flash. More people, I’m sure, view the exhibits through the camera lens rather than the naked eye.

I was there one day, sitting quietly and contemplating the vivid colours of Monet’s Water – Lilies when in walked a man with a camera and a guidebook. He took one sweeping look at the room, decided Monet was a worthy keepsake, snapped a picture with his digital SLR, took out a smart phone, snapped another picture of the painting and sauntered out of the room to repeat the process. Digital age galore!

But London is in stress, not just over the Olympics but also the dwindling economy. It seems that the case was no different in 1967. Like Ibn-e-Insha I, too, contributed to the economy of Britain by making a fairly large number of purchases. As Insha Sahib said in his book, we have old historical, political and cultural links with England. If we don’t help them in times of need, who will?

P.S: Though I saw theatre plays also, Insha Sahib was lucky enough to see the great Laurence Olivier play Edgar in Strindberg’s, The Dance of Death, at the Old Vic. According to Insha Sahib, Olivier’s acting was a marvel. 

Note: The sketch and all references to Ibn-e-Insha are from his book, Awara Gard ki Diary (Travelogue)