As mentioned in the last column, at the end of a long tiring flight, as the aircraft was making its descent, I saw London ablaze in lights under a blanket of snow. The captain announced the local time and temperature on the ground but neither helped to lift my low spirits. The local temperature was below zero and the time was approaching midnight.
Suddenly, I was seized with fear, a sense of uncertainty and utter loneliness, having realised the magnitude of the task I had undertaken and the risks I faced. I was entering a strange and cold city where I didn’t know a soul at that hour of the night, with precisely twenty pounds in my pocket, not knowing what will happen when I had spent my entire capital. Toying with the idea of catching the first available flight home, I looked at my documents, passport, health certificates and finally the flight ticket as the plane landed on the ground with a thud; I only had a one-way ticket to London. That was all my brother could afford!
As I went through the immigration formalities, I felt that everybody in the orderly queue, which had formed spontaneously, was watching me in the brown, ill-fitting coat, making me look comical and I was highly embarrassed. I collected my suitcase, put it on a trolley and walked out to the airport bus to Victoria. The red, amber and green traffic lights, which I was seeing for the first time, kept me occupied and kept my stress level at bay until the conductor came to collect the fare, which was one pound. As I got off the bus, I asked the driver how I could get to the Indian Students’ Hostel in Guildford Street and he advised, “Take a taxi, lad.” Little did he know that I had a limited budget!
I toyed with ideas of getting to my destination through cheaper means of transport but the fact that I was a stranger and the freezing temperature precluded it and ultimately I decided to hire a taxi. The taxi took me to the hostel, where I arrived at about 3am. After pressing the bell continuously for five minutes, while snowflakes were falling on me, I saw a saree clad irate Indian woman come out of the door and she greeted me with, “Fine time to arrive on a cold miserable night.”
To further aggravate her mood, I remembered Janmohamed’s famous last words before I boarded the plane.
“Send us a telegram as soon as you reach there; none of us will be able to sleep until we have received a telegram telling us that you arrived safely.” There were no emails or mobiles then.
So I said to the woman, “I need to send a telegram home.”
“The nearest post-office is in Leicester Square. You better go there in a taxi,” she replied. Luckily, while this conversation was going on, the taxi-driver was waiting for his fare and listening to it and he said. ”Hop in the cab, Squire and I will take you there.”
At about four in the morning, I was back at the hostel and realised that my capital of twenty pounds was drastically depleted! The place was not centrally heated and I did not have coins to put in the metre. After resting under the eiderdown, wearing my famous coat for a couple of hours, I washed myself and went down for breakfast. I saw the same irate woman, in a better mood now, serving eggs, bacon and sausages to Indian students who lived there. I had only booked for a week, hoping to find a job within that period. I fell in conversation with the residents and said to them. “I am here for three years during which period, I hope to get my FRCS.”
One of them replied to my horror:” Almost all of us have been here for five years and haven’t managed to clear the Primary.” He was referring to the primary fellowship examination, a fact which traumatised my morale further. After breakfast, I walked to ‘India House’ in Adelphi to see the Student Advisor and registered myself as a new arrival, as advised by classmates at GMC. ” He is there to help Indian students,” they said.
After a long wait, I managed to see him and told him of my problem which was to obtain a hospital job quickly. His reply was reproachful.
“You chaps arrive here thinking that the streets of London are paved with gold and hospital jobs are there for the asking.”
Highly depressed, I went to the library and read Indian newspapers with heavy nostalgia, contemplating my next move. The warden of the hostel had already asked me to pay my charges for “bed & breakfast” and I thought it was time to cash my ‘chitti’. Knowing the poor state of my finances, I went to the bank area in the tube with a lot of help from strangers, found the right address and presented the ‘chitti’ to a kind looking gentleman, sitting in a dark dingy office heated by an open fire and illuminated by electric lights.
He read the ‘chitti’ and promptly gave me fifty pounds in crisp new notes. I felt mighty rich and made my way to the Indian High Commission where I knew, from my visit that morning, that they served lunch for half a crown. After enjoying a hearty meal of curry and rice, I decided to walk back to the hostel to catch up the sleep I had missed the previous night. As I walked on Southampton Row, on the way, I checked up at Wimpy if they needed any casual staff. In reply, the manager assured me. “We always need dishwashers daily.”
This was typical of my anticipatory and organised nature, in case I did not find a hospital job before I spent my fifty pounds. However, the exigency did not arise because a chance encounter changed my fortune in London for the immediate future.