London’s Tea-and-Crumpets Image Masks Gritty Reality

rise at eleven, I dine about two, I get drunk before seven, and the next thing
I do—

you’d like to know how that poem ends, look up “Regime de Vivre.” It has
nothing to do with the contents of this column except that the author is
British and I think I’m in love with him, even if he did die of venereal
disease in 1680.

morning, I wake up and read the BBC on my phone while rhythmically punching the
shower button in precisely timed sequences of three. The phone never gets wet
because the shower never works. British people don’t know how to do plumbing.
It is beyond their capabilities.

A few afternoons ago, the BBC
featured a short article about a village back home in India that had recently
discovered a mass grave at the bottom of its well. Two hundred eighty-two bodies—fully accoutered
with capped teeth, whole skulls, and Victorian rupees—were buried in a location
that government records suggest was the site at which the 26th
Native Infantry Regiment of Lahore was apprehended after murdering two of their
British commanding officers in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 

The village is asking for the government’s help for a respectful
reburial. The soldiers had apparently been shot and dumped in the well and
covered with charcoal and lime. I decided to hit up Google to uncover the particular chemical
significance of charcoal and lime so I could get some grisly historiographical
metaphor out of it, but all I got was some stuff on Pinterest about charcoal and
lime wedding décor.

think the feeling back in Claremont is that study abroad in the United Kingdom is an option that’s safe and not so exotic. It’s a fair assumption to make when you flip through the
Cambridge brochure and realize how little choice it gives you. Cambridge offers
thousands of courses, but Pomona, for some inexplicable reason, only allows you your
pick of 20. The politics sequences cover the same dead white men they do
back stateside. The literature courses dutifully stick to the mothership. The only
history you’re allowed to study in England under Pomona programs is the history
of England. The history of a country upon whose territory, just a hundred years
ago, the sun never truly set. Little old

found this narrowness regrettable, not least because it seemed that Pomona’s
way of studying at Oxford or Cambridge would only be a comic intensification of
my regular educational experience. See, when I’m at Pomona, I’m already
studying abroad, learning about a fascinating foreign culture. I suppose Claremont’s
not 80 percent white people from pretty much
exactly the same socioeconomic background. It’s not as hostile to the prospect that I’m here to do anything beyond meekly
pumping fees into the economy and going back where I came from. Then again, America
Pub popped up on my feed too. It’s fun on its own time. But you can see, I
hope, why I was not looking for squarely more of the same.

knew where to look, fortunately, and I petitioned to go there. The England I
live in does not wear robes to dinner, say grace in Latin, and eat tasteless
hunks of meat. The England I live in wears hijab, talks Cockney, and eats
takeaway chicken tikka. My institution, the School of Oriental and African
Studies (SOAS), operates out of a building in Bloomsbury from which T.S. Eliot once
ran a poetry publishing empire; every day at lunchtime, a skinhead Hare Krishna
vegan drags a cart to its front steps to feed hundreds of students free coconut

SOAS, a former training school for colonial officials, is a national
research library; the starving Ph.D. students who teach some of our classes are
paid hourly, like waiters; there are strikes and picket lines every month; the
student union lists societies for members of 50 different nationalities;
Aung San Suu Kyi went here. 

It’s gritty. It’s hybrid. This—this feels like reality. But doesn’t it say something that when looking
for a study abroad experience like this, I had to go out of my way to find it?

days after class, I step across the road and wander through the British Museum.
Sometimes I’ll take the tube to Kensington and go to the Victoria and Albert Museum to look again
at their working 18th-century mechanical model, recovered from the Mysore Wars, that shows an Indian tiger
mauling a British soldier. 

In case
you’re still wondering why I didn’t just go to Tanzania, or even better, why I
didn’t just go back where I came from—I
can’t. I’m a historian. And all the documents, all the artifacts, are here. I
went to England because it is the only place from which I can understand my
home with the detachment and
engagement that the study of polarized, marginalized places so desperately needs. 

I like that as I look back upon an empire, little England grows on me too.
Black tie balls. Samuel Smith cider. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. And the
magnificent ditties of Lord John Wilmot, the filthiest Earl to ever have lived.

 Niyati Shenoy PO ’15 studies history and is from Mumbai, India. She is studying abroad at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies in England.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply