Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bustle in my hedgerow

Two weeks since I got to Cambridge, the world has turned upside-down, twice. Strictly from my personal point of view. The first week started unpromisingly with lost baggage, failure to open a bank account, and a sniffly cold. Then, just as things were looking up again, I had a literally shattering experience - I dropped my Samsung smartphone and cracked its "unbreakable" gorilla-glass front. In the second week, by contrast, all is bliss (except for the poor phone, which is on its way to Samsung India for repairs). Britain is back to being Britain.

That is to say, sometimes cold and rainy, and sometimes even colder and sunny. I seriously envy them their weather - the mere fact that they have it, while we in India don't (for us, one day = the next day in most places at most times of year). On sunny days in the countryside (well Cambridge isn't quite countryside, but it's a five minute walk from there) the birds are twittering, rabbits scampering and a few hardy berries and winter flowers busy growing. Frost covers the fields like a fine sprinkle of icing sugar. Moss likewise coats tree trunks, making them look like gigantic "hara-bhara" kababs. (I'll admit it's dinnertime and I'm getting hungry.)

Moss-covered tree trunks on The Avenue, Trinity College
Meanwhile, and this is a key point about Britain, the hedges are tidy. One could not imagine Britain without its tidy hedges. All Britons are trained from birth to trim hedges, but since they spend evenings at the pub and mornings suffering a hangover, they must be doing this just after midnight. Because I've never seen anyone actually trimming a hedge. And yet the evidence is unmistakable. Like the 91 GeV peak that dramatically signalled the Z-boson, the trimmed hedges are convincing evidence that Britons crawl out of their homes in the dead of night, gardening shears in hand.

So important indeed are hedges to the national culture that the British rock band Led Zeppelin, on an album whose lyrics mostly went "gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove", felt constrained to invoke their beloved countryside with lines like "if there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now" and "in a tree by the brook, there's a songbird that sings". Now although songbirds are aplenty, there has never - ever - been the slightest bustle in any hedgerow I've seen. But that must be because I don't walk around just after midnight.

Each morning I cross the Great Court of Trinity College, followed by a half-dozen pairs of watchful eyes under bowler hats, all of whom simultaneously nod and say "good morning" whenever |x-y| < 1.5 metres. Of course Trinity has more than just hedges. Its Great Court is a rectangle made up of dissimilar buildings all mysteriously flowing into each other to form an incredibly harmonious scene. The only slight touch of discord is the chapel. Too long to fit in the Court, it therefore - almost literally - smashes its way past the Porter's Lodge and comes to rest on Trinity Street. Where I can observe it if I thrust my head out of my window. Newton's lodgings were at this intersection point and if he had ever, during his long years at Trinity, come running out onto the street naked except for a ridiculous wig shouting "Eureka" (or more likely "Natura valde simplex est et sibi consona") I would have seen him. Had I been here at the time, of course. As it is, I only get to see drunken people brawling at the spot.

And so to the question everyone has been wanting to ask. What about British food? What about it, indeed. Just as "tidy" sums up the countryside, "stodgy" sums up the food. Just think of the word "pudding". Say it over and over, slowly. Doesn't it sound like something leaden that will sit on your stomach all night and induce nightmares? Well that's true enough, but puddings are actually the best part of British food. What one needs to worry about are things like pies and stews drowned in the legendary and eternally mysterious "brown sauce".

They do try to be adventurous. At the Trinity dining hall (about which more another time) they recently served Thai Green Curry. I'm not colour blind and I could tell right away it wasn't green. I tasted it and discovered they had left out the crucial ingredient. To paraphrase Cambridge's most famous local band, Pink Floyd: "If you don't put in chillies, you can't make Thai Curry. How can you make Thai Curry if you don't put in chillies?". I'll try telling that to the bowler hats tomorrow, but my days of walking through Great Court may end sooner than expected.

And there's another part of Cambridge where the Gown ends and the Town begins. There you find rows of shops called "Al Amin" and "Curry Queen" and "Al-Casbah". Most of these are run by Bangladeshi ex-auto-rickshaw-drivers. They sit in the back counting their profits as gownless Brits pop in (I LOVE this phrase! Pop in. Pop in. Pop in. You try it now.) The customers eat the hottest curries ever and drink themselves silly. Then the good Bangladeshis go home where, presumably, a civilised Bengali meal awaits them. After that they sleep well and don't even bother to trim the hedges. I can understand.


Neelima said...

Bowler hats in Trinity college? Not mortar boards? Have they changed the dress code?

I'm looking forward to the Trinity dining hall post.
As for the food, you can try teaching the cook! Or import the Bangla deshis.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Neelima: Mortar boards for academics. Bowler hats for guards. So far, no mortar boards in evidence.