Little Indias and Pakistans in England: Spaces of big nostalgia

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Call them melting pots, poster towns of multiculturalism or plain ghettos, several areas in England have turned into Little India, Little Pakistan and Little Bangladesh

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 17 Jun 2021, 10:13 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:17 PM

Britain’s tourism authorities released a ‘Bollywood map’ some time ago to help tourists from the Indian sub-continent find their way through locations where films such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham were shot. There is no similar map of culturally potent diaspora enclaves, but at least three bus operators — Thandi Express, New Bharat and New Punjab — can help create one. Their fleets daily cater to the demand for cheap travel and easier connectivity with desi music on the move. Their routes are an anthropologist’s delight, identifying exact locations where millions from the sub-continent have settled and live their lives in all the nostalgic colours and aromas of their homeland, connecting places such as Southall, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Bradford, Slough, Luton, Leicester, Coventry, Kent and east London. You don’t have to go all the way to the Victoria Coach Station in central London to board a bus to Bradford — just hop on to a Thandi coach near home in Southall.

The bus routes tap on nostalgia and sustain relationships across families, clans, business and cultures that reflect the patterns of migration over the decades. Some places or streets they connect have acquired sobriquets such as Little India or Little Pakistan due to the ethos established by early migrants, even if their population now includes a wider pool of migrants beyond the sub-continent. The diaspora communities are overwhelmingly based in England, but are also spread across the United Kingdom, with most first-generation migrants settled in industrial towns, where they worked. Over the decades, many moved elsewhere, as prosperity grew and perceptions changed. Researchers have noted that for subsequent generations of such migrants who grow up in predominantly white towns, visits to places such as Southall in west London and Leicester in the east Midlands can be a culture shock. Nostalgia plays out at various levels in the diaspora and there are degrees: strong among the first-generation migrants — growing ever stronger through social media, sub-continental television channels and the Internet — but less strong in their descendants.

Southall today is not exactly Little India. It is also home to tens of thousands of people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, but retains an Indian/south Asian ethos; Bradford is linked with Pakistan, but is also home to many whose origins are in India, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere. Similar is the case with Tower Hamlets and Brick Lane in east London, widely linked with Bangladesh. Figures from the Office for National Statistics reflect the scale of sub-continental migration, based on 2011 Census figures and 2020 country-of-birth figures of residents: the Indian ethnic group comprised 1,412,958 (847,000 of them born in India); Pakistani 1,124,511 (519,000 born in Pakistan); Bangladeshi 447,201 (251,000 born in Bangladesh) — migrating in waves over the decades for reasons such as employment, education, matrimony, family reunions and expulsions from east Africa. The Indian and Pakistani communities are now widely assessed to number over 1.5 million each.

The largest groups in the Indian community are linked to Punjab and Gujarat, while Mirpuris — mostly those displaced by the construction of the Mangla Dam in 1966 and their descendants — comprise the majority of the Pakistani community, and Sylhetis dominate the Bangladeshi community. Many first-generation migrants who improved their lot over the years have moved out of their settlements to leafy, prosperous areas, with newer migrants (called ‘freshies’ or ‘faujis’) taking their place in the older enclaves. Two such spaces that stand out in the trajectory of south Asian migration are Southall and Leicester, where besides celebrating everyday life the desi way, there is also some uneasiness between older, settled migrants and new ones, even if they belong to the same country or culture. For some, perceptions of the earlier settlements have changed over time, comparing them in pejorative terms to ghettos: Rohit, an Oxford-educated son of an Indian-origin doctor-couple in Leicester, says: “I tell my white friends I am from Nottingham, not Leicester.”

Lively, diverse Southall

Located close to Heathrow airport, where many migrants found work over the decades, Southall could not be more Indian or south Asian: cars speed along busy streets with bhangra music blaring; shops selling saris, jewellery, plastic and other goods along the arterial Broadway and South Road in scenes resembling Ajmal Khan Road of Karol Bagh more than a British high street; people gulping down paani puris, and tucking into samosas and jalebis cooked openly by the roadside; no one is far from a gurdwara, mosque or temple; and the ever-smiling local MP Virendra Sharma (Labour) walking along the streets, being stopped and greeted by almost everyone in Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu.

Near the Southall train station and Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha is the iconic Glassy Junction, reputed to be the first desi pub in Britain, where you could enjoy a pint or more and pay in Indian rupees. Set up in 1994, it figured in some Indian films and closed in 2012, replaced by a south Indian restaurant chain, but the ‘Glassy Junction’ sign remains atop the building. Such is the unique un-British environs of Southall that the Ealing council tries to market it as a tourist destination.

Says writer-journalist Sanjay Suri, author of Brideless in Wembley: “It’s as pitiable as it would be predictable that Southall should become a metaphor for ghetto very much more among Indians than others. A mark of success among the elegantly arrived Indian is to get to say you’ve never been to Southall. A pity because so much of the ease of the successful British Indian was prepared in Southall, by Southall — or ‘Sathal’ as its originally English natives pronounced it in a then correct way. Punjabis spotted the two words as spelt, how could they not, and spoke them in sequence that native Brits have since learnt. For the early migrants of the 1950s, this was not just a place in Britain; it gave them and all who followed a place in Britain far beyond Southall. This was the first post of the first migrant. This is the flagship of Indian migration to Britain. That historical energy buzzes on into the present.”

As early migrants faced racism and worse, it was in Southall that some of the first anti-racism struggles were waged and led to legislation. The Indian Workers Association campaigned against discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s on behalf of all migrants. Things came to a head when teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar was killed by racists in 1976 and teacher Blair Peach was killed during an anti-racism demonstration in 1979, prompting sustained campaigns by activists such as Suresh Grover and groups such as Southall Black Sisters. Says Shobha Das, anti-racism campaigner: “Southall has a long history of active anti-racism and mobilisation. My engagement with Southall is more recent, when I volunteered for the Southall Black Sisters. There, one senses the old political charge of the place, working side by side with activists who stand up for the rights of British minorities. Leaders like Grover and Pragna Patel, who heads the Southall Black Sisters, have spearheaded the emergence of an Asian anti-racist movement. They have not only managed the difficult task of mobilising communities to demand fairness and equality, but have also been heavily involved in improving and using equalities legislation to make British anti-racism stronger and more impactful.”

Sub-continental festivals, cricket celebrations and politics often spill out on to Southall streets, while local officials grapple with a range of crime and social challenges, including domestic violence, illegal renting, forced marriages, immigration offences, drugs, and lately issues related to the Covid pandemic. But, as Suri adds, ghettos can be reassuring places; they are your world that migrated over, which makes them a comfortable place to occupy: “The allegedly successful Southaller has stepped into the tackily moneyed Gerards Cross and other such places, but Southall’s earthy charm endures. This is where the British Indian is not fake. If they have an attitude about Southall as they do, Southall doesn’t care, it probably doesn’t notice.”

Rejuvenating Leicester

Drive for about two hours up north from Southall and you sense that the wheel has come full circle in Leicester. The unassuming city is described as the birthplace of the modern English language, where warring Anglo-Saxons and Vikings set aside their differences and lived peacefully sharing their trade and languages. But when Asians were being expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972, the Leicester City Council worried that the “entire fabric of our city is at risk” and paid for a tersely worded advertisement in a Ugandan daily, warning potential immigrants: “In your own interests and those of your family you should…not come to Leicester.” But come they did: over 27,000 of them, leaving behind their possessions to start a new life with only £50 that they were allowed to take while leaving Africa.

Today, after several race-related hoops, hard work, dialogue and close economic ties across communities over the decades, the city presents a picture of harmony, where sub-continental issues surface but rarely spill into violence. In December 1992, unlike in other places, there were no incidents in Leicester after the Babri structure demolition. Mayor Peter Soulsby (Labour) is angry and saddened at the 1972 advert, saying it represented the view of many in the then council’s leadership positions: “It’s something many of us in the Labour party were saddened by. I was elected to the council in 1973, immediately after this ewvent and those involved in placing the advert were ousted. It was very traumatic and controversial within the Labour party, but something we very quickly put right.” He now leads Leicester’s famous Diwali events and other religious occasions: “Our Diwali celebrations are some of the biggest in the world outside of India, and we can be rightly proud of them. Each year, we celebrate as Belgrave Road is transformed into a spectacle of light and colour, as we mark the victory of good over evil and light over darkness.”

The City Council says 55 per cent of its population is now non-white, with the 2011 Census showing nearly 30 per cent from the Indian ethnic group and 10 per cent from Pakistan, with south Asians represented widely in local politics, administration and culture. Until recently, Leicester was known as the home of the Attenborough brothers (Richard and David), football legend Gary Lineker, Thomas Cook and for its university and traditional manufacturing industries.

Now, it is held up as an example of how a multicultural society works, with the arterial Belgrave Road transformed as a hub of Asian business and culture, with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at one end. At the other end is Bobby’s, an iconic Indian restaurant named after the 1973 film Bobby by Bhagwanji Lakhani, who was among those expelled from Africa. The city is twinned with Rajkot since 1996. Today, all City Council documents are published in Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu; so is the welcome sign at the Leicester railway station.

The journey of Indian-origin Jaffer Kapasi is symbolic of the distance the town has travelled. He and his family arrived in Leicester in 1972 after being expelled from Uganda. He went on to achieve several milestones in business, accounting and local administration, appointed to several key roles, and was awarded royal honours (OBE) for services to business in Leicestershire. In 2016, he was appointed consul-general of Uganda by President Yoweri Museveni to encourage the Ugandan Asians to return and help develop the country. He says: “Leicester is a great city which celebrates Diwali, Eid and Christmas in grand style. It is multicultural, multi- ethnic, multi-religious, full of temples and mosques and the feeling that you are living in an Indian city. Uganda Asian refugees with business acumen made Leicester prosperous and very successful migrants of all the migrants. When we arrived in 1972, Belgrave Road was earmarked for demolition, but soon Ugandan Indians opened shops selling saris, sweet shops and Indian restaurants. We were able to compete with the mainstream community as the cost of production was low.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London.)

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