Oklahoma! in London
A London Street Scene
Never in my wildest imagination did I think that I would have to spend an entire week in London on my way to America, but that’s what ended up happening. Upon arriving in London, I was supposed to take a connecting ship, the ss United States, to New York. But I was informed that this ship would not sail as planned due to a longshoremen’s strike in New York City. I was re-booked on a German ship, the ss Breman, that was leaving a week later. The extended stay was going add to my expenses, but I had no choice.
Mohan, my roommate on the T/N Sydney — the guy who had helped me with my luggage — recommended that staying in the YMCA would be cheaper. He was planning to stay there for a few days before moving on to his college outside of London.
I accompanied him to the YMCA. I was assigned one of the inside rooms, without a window. It was my first time living in a city outside of India. I felt self-conscious. I wanted to behave properly. I wore a tie, the only one I had, all the time as was advised by Babu Mama’s friend Kirloskar in Hyderabad. Kirloskar had spent a number of years in London as a medical student.
It was difficult to know whether it was daylight or evening because London was cold and dark all the time. I heard they were having a bad winter that year. It was the beginning of January. It probably was early for snow; at least I didn’t see any. The streets were cleaner than in India and the traffic moved in a disciplined pattern. There were no rickshaws, bicycles, or animals on the streets, and nobody spit on the sidewalks. The underground railway was well planned with color coded lines, making traveling easier.
Map of London Underground Railway
In a way being stuck in London worked out well because I could plan to visit Surendra Gupta, my friend from high school and engineering college; Kishore Afzulpurkar, a family friend; and Dr. Shiv Samban, my father’s colleague at the Regional research Laboratory in Hyderabad.
Surendra was staying with his relatives in a London suburb while attending the Imperial College of Science and Technology. Before leaving Hyderabad I had informed him by a letter of my plans. He wanted me to bring a bag full of stuff he had left behind that he could not carry with him because of weight restrictions on airplanes. I wanted to be nice to my friend, but I felt it would add an unnecessary burden to carry extra bags.
“I tell you Acchu,” Babu Mama had said, addressing me by my nickname, “Keep the bags here and tell your friend they fell overboard on the ship.” He was joking.
I called Surendra at his aunt’s home and informed him of my change in plans. I had informed him that I could not bring his bag. Now that I was meeting him in person I felt a bit uncomfortable thinking he would be upset with me for not bringing it. He didn’t seem to mind. He picked me up at the Y and we took the train to his aunt’s house. I spent a day with him and had a delicious home-cooked Indian meal for the first time in more than two weeks.
Kishore was in London for his graduate studies in Material Science. He shared a small apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood with another Indian student named Deshpande. When I called him, he invited me to come over for dinner one evening. We sat in the outer living room that was sparsely furnished. When Deshpande found out that I was on my way to Oklahoma he got up and removed an LP record from a stack by the fireplace. I noticed that the sleeve of the LP had a picture of a handsome cowboy wearing a Western suit and a white hat, sitting in a horse-drawn surrey carriage with a fringe on the top. A pretty young girl, dressed in a grey full-length dress with padded shoulders and donning a large matching hat was sitting next to him. They both seemed to be in love and happy going wherever they were going.
“Do you know there is a famous show on Broadway in New York called Oklahoma?” He asked. I said no. I had no idea what Broadway was.
“You will love this,” he said as he placed the record on the gramophone and moved the arm so the needle was at the beginning of the track.
He was right. I loved the music as soon as it started. The room was filled with a cheerful, melodic song:
“Oh! What a beautiful morning,
Oh! What a beautiful day…”
I have a beautiful feeling
Everything’s going my way”
The tune was uplifting and joyous. I found myself humming the words as I listened. There were several other songs on the LP that had similar lilting, feel good tunes. I didn’tunderstand some of the words at the time but, years later I saw the movie version of Oklahoma starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones and understood the entire story.
When the record was playing, the room got a bit cold. Deshpande got up and put some pennies in a slot by the heater. When it got cold in Hyderabad we put on sweaters. A heater to heat the whole room was a novelty.
“You have to keep feeding this, otherwise the gas will be shut off,” Deshpande said.
I smiled. The LP was still playing.
The last song was a chorus that started with the words:
“Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain”
It ended with a loud chanting of each letter O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A followed by a thumping group rendition of: Oklahoma – O K
I felt good, knowing I was going to a famous place – one that had inspired such an artistic creation worthy of notice by the world outside America. I was sure this song received a standing ovation from a live audience.
I thanked Kishore and Deshpande for a memorable evening and went back to the Y.
When I was not visiting anyone I walked the streets in the vicinity of the Y. Once I had lunch in a busy restaurant that had a long counter. I couldn’t understand the server’s accent and didn’t recognize the items on the menu board, so I ordered pastry and tea, ate quietly, and left.
One afternoon, Mohan came to my room and asked if I was interested in going to a movie in the vicinity. I didn’t want to spend money unnecessarily, but having nothing better to do, I went along.
“What movie is it?” I asked on the way.
“It’s a ‘blue’ movie that one cannot see in India,” he replied.
I had no idea what he was talking about. It turned out be a black and white documentary on nudist beaches that showed men and women playing volleyball. The picture quality was grainy. I thought the whole thing was boring.
I couldn’t get in touch with Dr. Shiv Samban. Later he wrote to me at my University Of Oklahoma address saying he was too occupied and could not meet me.
My week in London passed by faster than I expected. When informed of the one week layover, I was not sure what I was going to do and how I was going to spend the week. Meeting Surendra, Kishore and Deshpande put me in good spirits.
On January 10th I took a train from London to Southampton and embarked the ss Breman on my way to New York City.
Author’s notes: The source of images used in this story was the internet.