Having come so close to England we had to have a shot at it even if only for a few days. A friend of more than fifty years, Dr. Pratap Desai, had retired from the National Health Service of the UK and was residing at Margate, in Kent, virtually across the North Sea. He had been asking me to visit him. He had even rung me up at Brussels.
Pratap was with me at the College but in the science stream and we used to meet at the nets at the College. He would generally be accompanied by Sharad Dravid, another close friend. All of us would regularly meet at the nets, particularly in winters, the season for cricket at that time. We too later had summer cricket in the mornings where all of us cricketing friends used to meet and play an innings for each team composed on an ad hoc basis. Pratap and I would regularly meet till he left the college for his medical degree. He was in retirement at Margate, a harbor town in Kent.
We had to catch a ferry from Oostend in North West Flanders. It is a very old historical port town that played important roles in the 20th Century wars. During the Second World War it came under German occupation. It is called Oostend because it is situated at the east end (oost-einde) of an island. It has a promenade right on the sea beyond which we had once seen a catamaran anchored. The ferry to Ramsgate was, in fact, this catamaran. Margate was around 10 Kms from Ramsgate.
Before boarding the catamaran I got workd up because the Belgian immigration officials took away my passport and did not return ti soon enough. When I approached them I found them tinkering with it and trying to pull off the firmly pasted UK visa. When I questioned them a bit sternly they said they got suspicious as my wife and I had only one way tickets for the catamaran. When I asked them whether one had to return only via Oostend for want of any other route they realized their mistake. But the fault was not entirely theirs. The illegal Indian traffic has made them suspicious of every Indian and his motives.
The catamaran was a splendid craft with a capacity of around 300 passengers. It had a shop, a bar and a cafeteria. With its impressive dimensions the cruise on it was pretty smooth over the North Sea despite a strong breeze. Ramsgate was around 200 Kilometres away. It made it, if I remember, in more than five hours. It took around 45 minutes to one hour to get through the Immigration. It was almost 10 PM when we got out. It was summer and evening had just set in.
We were the last people to come out of the immigration. As I came out I saw a lone person, an Indian, with a hat slightly askew on his head, with impressive handle bar mustachios sitting on a bench. Dr. Pratap Desai had grown a very heavy fungus on his upper lip since I met him last – and that was quite some time ago. After the preliminaries he drove us down to Margate about 10 miles away.
He had a three bedrooms affair in what was known as Alkham Close. I had come across this word “close” perhaps in books of Charles Dickens. But here at Desai’s place I saw a “Close” from up close for the first time. It was nothing except that as you entered a lane with residential buildings on two sides there is no outlet apart from the one you entered through only because the other end was built over shutting off the lane. That’s what a close is – a street closed at one end.
Margate, once again is a historical town like its sister city Ramsgate. It has a long history of being a harbor with maritime traditions. It was an important port for the Dunkirk operations during the 2nd World War. It also has some Roman remains. It has been popular resort like Brighton and has been a traditional holiday destination for Londoners as it is only around 60 or 70 miles away from London. With Canterbury being close by it has substantial tourist traffic in summers.
There was much to talk about after those more than fifty years that had elapsed since we parted. Desai had been an early migrant to England soon after he did his MBBS from Gwalior and landed a job with the National Health Service, a more comprehensive healthcare scheme than our Central Government Health Scheme. He married into a family from Pune and had a couple of sons working in London and a daughter who was in Germany having married a German. Desai told me he had met Sharad Dravid when the latter came over to England with his son Rahul who used to play cricket for India. He had the whole team in this very house for an evening of drinks and dinner.
Desai took us out one evening to Canterbury which is just about 15 miles away. Canterbury was made well known by Geoffrey Chauser by his famous Canterbury Tales written in the 15th Century. The Cathedral is linked to the history of England as from here the Archbishop of Canterbury St. Augustine established Christianity in England. It is also famous for the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th Century. He was soon canonized by the Pope.
The Canterbury Cathedral is the most famous Christian structures in England and is now a World Heritage Site. History of the cathedral goes back to the 6th Century AD. The architectural style is said to be predominantly Romanesque and partly Baroque. Romanesque style dominated the Madieval European architecture. The Cathedral, despite its age, has all the typical features of a Christian place of worship like the knave, choir, vaults, etc. It was a sombre place to be around.
On another day, this time it was a day out, Desai drove us down to Wembley in North West London. We must have travelled over the same road as the Pilgrims and went across Greenwich, East London where Bangladeshis have a big concentration, past the Oval Cricket Ground on to the banks of the Thames and then over the London Bridge to the Westminster area moving on to the Hyde Park and the Wellington Monument. Lust a few miles away was Wembley, known for its football stadium. Wembley has a substantial Indian population and has great shopping for them in, I think, Ealing Road for ethnic affairs. There are numerous Indian food joints in one of which we had refreshments.
The other thing that is touristy here is the Swaminarain Temple. Desai took us there. It is a mammoth place with almost all the Hindu deities in the sanctum. The walls a re intricately carved. It is said that marble for this temple was sent from Italy to India to be carved and then brought back to England. We were told that even Prince of Wales had attended the opening ceremony of the temple. This was perhaps the first temple built by the Swaminarain sect, later they built massive temples in Ahmedabad and New Delhi.
On another evening we went to the Marina of Margate which is probably smaller than that of Ramsgate. It is a great place for boating enthusiasts as also thos who try their lake on gambling machines. We too worked the handles but had no luck; we, instead, lost some money.