The Petticoat Lane

ou see visitors come to London in drones for all the right and wrong reasons. They come and hear the Big Ben strike its charming note, watch the change of guard at the Buckingham Palace, visit the Tower of London and the adjoining Tower bridge with the Thames river majestically flowing down under and the Westminster Abbey and the St. Paul’s cathedral or while away some time at the Hyde Park listening to crap from nuts who deliver free sermons at the speakers corner for which their own spouse would spank them till they felt the welts on their bottoms. Watching the Nelsons Column at Trafalgar Square, a lazy afternoon at Madam Tussauds will perhaps jolt you up when you reach the section where you are treated with some horror in Victorian style. No wonder you like all what you see for there is that monarchial flair in all what is presented by the operators who are professionals in their presentation. And if you have some extra money to spare you can treat yourself a visit to the various royal palaces outside the city of London and some old castles that no longer have the support system that was essential to run these.

I was there for the simple reason that I needed to connect a flight for my journey to the East Coast of America where I was going to study Bio-Technology at the MIT at Boston. I would be a liar if I say I did not see what all I described above. But that was not on my itinerary at all. Yes I would have liked to be inside the Palace rather than outside at the gates watching the guards, dance with the Beef Eaters rather than let them watch over me as I watch the Kohinoor or see the location where the London Bridge had fallen down several times and the last one now transported to Arizona USA, brick by brick. Had the games been in progress I would plan a visit to the Oval Grounds or the Wimbledon. I was not prepared to go and visit South Hall, called little India, as I was just in from India but my host insisted and made me go through what looked like the streets of Lajpat Nagar. But soon he mentioned about the Petticoat Lane and my sensors jingled at the sound of the name. I had known about petticoats as a ladies garment but I never thought there will be a Petticoat lane in London. The British never need to wear petticoats anyway.

I had, of course, planned a visit to the numerous beer pubs located all over the town and savor all kinds of beer. I went to most of these that had fancy names that appealed to my sense of humor. I wanted to get a feel of the ale the British liked to consume and had reason to cheer at some famous celebrities who had at one time roamed these parts looking out for some refreshment. I remembered Charles Dickens who frequented the “Devils Tavern” because it was a place visited by murderers, smugglers and the ladies of the night. I went to the Grenadier in London where the officers of the Duke of Willington could be found when they were not fighting the soldiers of Napoleon. The “Ship Inn” was one other place where Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake spent some prime time of their lives. The 200 year old Shakespeare Inn, a world heritage site, serves the best ale that the Bard never tasted because he was dead. One can still see some old English charm at these places and it should never be missed by anyone who likes the good old British style of a fireplace warming up the surrounding corners as you gulp down the cold beer.

My friends had warned me about the snobbish attitude of the British and their famous stiff-upper-lip stance the moment they encounter an Asian, particularly from India, where they ruled for many hundred years. They probably had their best reasons to do so for they had a first-hand experience of knowing all about them. But I was surprised that in the few days of my stay in the city I had no such encounter with this kind of behavior from anyone. Well, may be because I did not interact with many or that my host did most of the talking anyway. Talking reminds me that speaking the English language is not as easy as I thought. Some dialects are such that even the British themselves do not understand, for there are as many as the number of counties within the kingdom.

It was finally on a warm Sunday morning that my host drove me down to the Petticoat Lane. While driving, my thoughts were interrupted by him when he said this was not on any tourist destination and was not even referred to any newcomer to the city. Although this is the oldest market, established about 400 years ago, the British were always weary of the name it carried, being a ladies garment, and renamed it as Middlesex Street way back in 1846. But it is still called by the original name and is very much on the list of buyers who look out for deals in leather goods for which it is famous. The shops open early in the morning and continue operating until 2.30 in the afternoon. On other week days it is operational on the adjoining Wentworth Street on a smaller scale. On Sundays there are about a thousand shops offering all kinds of fashion wear and other accessories as also some bargains in toys, electronic appliances and household goods. We soon neared the market and my host was busy looking out for some comfortable parking when I figured out I had reached the threshold of Karol Bagh just ahead.

That is exactly how I would describe the market. The street are narrow, the jostling crowds rub shoulders with one another and the vending carts on either side of the road eat up the space for an easy walk. As I walked down the street I found real good things that I would have liked to buy, but I was not on a shopping spree and I had no money to spare. Back in my mind I kept thinking of the ladies Petticoats that I thought I will see displayed prominently in the shops but was dismayed at not finding a trace of it. Unless of course it would be the shop run by an Indian there who would stock this commodity for some Indian ladies living there. And there were indeed a couple of shops that I did locate but I ventured no further. I did place a few things in my mental list that I could buy for my parents while inbound visiting home next year during my summer breaks.

But the Doctor in me made demands as I passed a medical store nearby that was selling medical equipment and I could not restrain myself any longer and stood there to find something that I would perhaps like. Foraging among the artifacts displayed I selected a Stethoscope that appealed to me and started bargaining for the price. Suddenly I realized that I was in a different country where bargaining may not be a practice. I looked up to my host who prodded me on to do so saying that it was in order and everyone did so at the Petticoat Lane market. It was nearly lunch time and we wound up our survey backing off in time to visit the Old Castle Street round the corner for that cold pint of beer and some grub to eat. I can only assure you I bought no petticoats at the Petticoat Lane.

Author’s Note:

When I first visited London decades ago I flew in from Amsterdam. It was the first week of April and I was carrying Knolkhol for my host who requested to bring it from there as the vegetable was not available that time of the season in London. My brother, who is a Doctor in the Netherlands, placed the veggies in a Duty Free bag of Schiphol Airport which he had in the boot of his car and I had the bag at the top of the baggage cart as I presented myself at the Customs Counter at Heathrow. The customs officer seeing the duty free bag asked me cordially if I was carrying any liquor or cigarettes (that perhaps invited a levy) and my repeated no to the question invited an anxious moment for the officer who was left with no option but to declare he would have to search the bag. He put his hand inside and brought out a Knolkhol and looked sheepishly at it for a while and asked me to kindly identify the object. I said it was a vegetable and when he asked the name I wondered what name it had for the British until at random I found myself describing the item to the officer as “MONJA”. It really didn’t matter to him and I do not know whether he was satisfied or not but I sure know my host enjoyed the delicacy for whole of the following week. I would like to dedicate this story to that nice gentleman of London, my host for the event and all I know about the city is because of him alone.

Shri B.L. Dhar was born and brought up at Srinagar. After completing his Master’s Degree in Mathematics he ventured out of the state and found a job in the Civil Aviation Department joining as a Gazetted Officer. His area of activity was at Delhi and Mumbai International airports. He was selected to undergo training at the school of aviation; Luxembourg under the UNDP program and later posted at the Corporate Headquarters in New Delhi. He had in the meantime joined the newly formed PSU, Airports Authority of India, from where he retired as a General Manager in 2000. He has written innumerable articles about aviation that was published in the house magazine. He is now settled in Delhi and keeps his interest alive in writing..

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A great job by the editors for inserting a video of the site described in the article and giving some life to my story. Thank you indeed.
Added By BL Dhar
A nice and short, to the point story.
Added By Sabita Raina