‘The other day we had been to the House of Commons; it was a thoroughly disappointing experience. Looking at its imposing buildings, spacious rooms, wide gates and sky high towers one is struck by a sense of awe, but once inside you lose all your sense of respect.’
Thus begins our poet’s 4th letter describing his visit to the British Parliament. It is one of the most important items in a sight-seer’s list of places to visit in London. He had formed a high idea about it after his study of British history. But it did not match with his actual experience after his visits to ‘the mother of Parliaments’, the Mecca of the parliamentary democracy. From the opening lines of his letter it is clear that he enjoyed the physical beauty of the famous landmark and saw at the same time what really happens behind its grand facade. Thus our poet was not only a sight-seer but also a critical observer.
He first gives its physical description. The room in which the House assembles is very large; along its walls there are galleries like the dress circles in theatre halls - one for the newspaper reporters and the other on the opposite side for the visitors. On the floor below there are two rows of benches facing each other, five each for the ruling and the opposition parties respectively; in front of them on a chair on a raised platform solemnly wearing a wig sits the ‘speaker’ who presides over the proceedings and maintains order in the House. Behind the gallery for newspaper reporters there is a gallery for the ladies screened by Venetian blinds enabling the lady visitors to see the proceedings remaining out of public view. How very particular indeed is the Parliament about the privacy of the Victorian ladies! - was the poet’s comment.
Our poet found that the proceedings were conducted most of the times in a very childish and frivolous manner which appeared very unbecoming for an august body like the Parliament. When a member spoke many members shouted ‘yah, yah’ like beasts, giggled and did all kinds of unmannerly things. Most of the time the house was empty or many of the members present slept. Only when either an important member or the Prime minister spoke the attendance was larger, even full. He expressed regrets about much of his first impressions recorded in his travelogue about the British society for which he expressed regrets later but he never changed his opinion about the manner in which the parliament conducts its business. In a lecture delivered years later in 1906 in Calcutta the poet spoke about it in the same terms. On his first visit on 23rd May, 1879 he found an Irish member named O’Donnell speaking on Indian subjects – he was agitating against the Press Act and certain other matters. He was shouted down. The poet felt that the Irish members were not treated by the English members as their equals and the Irish members made themselves unpopular because they retaliated often by obstructing the proceedings.
On his second visit on 11th January, 1880 he heard John Bright (1811-89) speaking about the civil service and Gladstone (1809-98) submitting the petition of Indians about the taxes on textile goods and Afghan war. The very appearance of Bright, now old, commands respect. Glastone did not speak like a pedagogue but as a consummate speaker stressing where stress was needed. At the time of voting the house was more or less full. It seemed that the members voted not according the free will but according to their party directions The Liberals voted as they chose.
. In London he got some congenial companions among whom were his two sisters from the Pathuriaghata branch of the Tagore family whose father had made London virtually his permanent home This greatly facilitated the poet’s exploration of the city and its society. This we propose to relate in our next blog.