We treasure the variety of our diverse multi-cultural World City of London. Of all the festivals, Diwali, the Festival of Lights, appears to be the most optimistic and exuberant and have the greatest sense of spectacle with fireworks, dancing, music and some great food. It is also a celebration that our Hindu, Jain, Sikh and (some) Buddhist neighbours are very happy to share so, like St. Patricks Day, it is a celebration for all who want to join in and nowhere is this invitation more obvious than in a unique part of West London called Southall Broadway.
Diwali is one of the occasions when the multicultural identity of India finds its expressions. While Hindus celebrate it to mark the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya, Sikhs celebrate it as ‘Bandi Chhor Diwas’ or the celebration of freedom and the Bengalis perform puja for ‘Shakti’- Kali Puja.
When I first came to London I lived in Hounslow in West London near to Heathrow Airport. Hounslow and the adjoining area of Southall in the London Borough of Ealing have very visible Asian populations and businesses so much so that they are dubbed “Hounslowstan” and “Southallistan!” The lot of an immigrant is often a lonely one cut off from your country and family and having to establish a new life in a country where you lack support networks and connections.
It was to be so for me facing my first Christmas alone in London in a shared house in Hounslow. My landlord Paul was Sikh and like many Indians adopted his western forename for convenience, his real name was Bandishabir. I got to know him well and like many in the area he worked at Heathrow in catering. A couple of months in London and I was facing my first Xmas Day alone as friends had gone back home when Paul appeared at the door with a tray covered in foil. He had organised a full Xmas turkey lunch even down to the Christmas pudding and a miniature bottle of wine, no doubt intended for a plane! Often he would call by the house and ask if I wanted to join him for a pint – he kept his cigarettes in the fuse cupboard and he explained his mother-in-law lived with them so he could not smoke or drink at home. Indeed if I didn’t have the price of a drink he would buy me one such was his desperation to get “out.” I have never forgotten his kindness and afterwards living amongst and working with Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Tamils, Muslims and more in this diverse city of London I got to know and appreciate their cultures well. There is a general rule in life if you treat people with respect they’ll reciprocate.
Often I would find myself at weekends heading over to Southall Broadway once a dull suburban High Street but now transformed by the grit and resilience of immigrants into a gloriously cacophonous and colourful bazaar. Here you’ll find women in colourful saris, street food stalls selling samosas and Indian sweets, and bright fabrics hanging in shop fronts. Bhangra music fills the air and the streets bustle with activity from the thriving local economy, making for an unforgettable visit.
When you see these thriving communities in West London today it is easy to forget that they are largely the result of two tragedies in modern 20th Century history, the disastrous partition of India in 1947 and the expulsion of Asians from East Africa 40 years ago. The tragic partition of India resulted in many deaths. Nowhere was this felt more sharply in the Punjab and Gujarat the two Indian States bordering Pakistan and in the beautiful State of Kashmir with its Hindu Maharajah and largely Muslim Population. Three fifths of the Punjab, the bread basket of India ended up in Pakistan and the once mixed and intermarried communities of Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Farsi’s (The Indian name for Zoroastrians) divided on religious lines. The same happened in Gujarat where Britain’s first trading colony in India was established at Surat. The British colonial project reengineered the world with crops such as rubber, tea, coffee and (lest we forget) opium being transplanted from continent to continent and people also to provide the labour, black slaves from West Africa to the Americas, Chinese Coolies on ships and Naval bases, Tamils to Ceylon, Sikhs and Gurkhas in the British Army and Gujaratis to Tea and Coffee plantations in Africa.
Some of the consequences of this colonial immigration began to unwind in East Africa on 4th August 1972, when Idi Amin gave Uganda’s Asians (mostly Gujaratis of Indian origin) 90 days to leave the country. The motivation for this remains unclear. Some of his former supporters suggest that it followed a dream in which, he claimed, God told him to expel them. Whatever the case, Amin defended this expulsion by arguing that he was giving Uganda back to the ethnic Ugandans. Similar anti-Asian feeling was stoked up in Kenya and Malawi.
Last weekend 40 years on, before collecting a friend from nearby Heathrow Airport in West London, I found myself once again in Southall Broadway in the midst of one of London’s many celebrations of diversity. Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, East Europeans, Irish and English and much more mingle and enjoy the sights, sounds and colours of this thriving community created by the hard work and belief in family of these same East African Asians who arrived here destitute and penniless forty years ago.
West London’s Southall has strong Indian and Pakistani roots mixed with communities from all over the world. They were attracted to Southall as there was already an established Asian Community there from the 1950’s, housing was cheaper and it was close to Heathrow. As an immigrant community having to battle prejudice and excluded from the networks and without banking support many Asians set up their own businesses to recreate the prosperity they enjoyed in East Africa. One example of a Southall entrepreneur is Gulam Noon. Sir Gulam (now Lord) Noon came to Britain in the 1960s to set up a Royal Sweets factory in West London. In 1980 he moved again, this time to New York, where he did extensive research, with the backing of the Taj Group of Hotels, into the technology required for the bulk manufacture of Indian frozen food. In 1984 he returned to London to expand his confectionery business and assess the market for Indian ready meals and launched a ready-made curry company in 1988 with just 11 staff.
His friends and family suggested he buy six vans to distribute the product to local stores, but Noon had bigger ideas. He went to Birds Eye which, a year later, gave him his first order. He took on 70 more employees. Then, within a matter of months, Sainsbury’s placed an order for 2,000 meals a week. Later he decided to go upmarket with a “Bombay Brassiere” range designed to mass-reproduce dishes from the celebrated London restaurant of that name. Within 14 years his workforce in Southall’s unemployment high-spot had grown to 800 people. In 2006 Prince Charles opened Noon’s new state-of-the-art factory – the only one in the UK to have Microban walls and floors. It cooks 1.5 million curries a week. The business turned over £105m in 2005. Gulam Noon’s story is exceptional but not untypically repeated on a greater but more often on a smaller scale by a community which has retained its entrepreneurial spirit and is held together by the glue of strong family loyalties, dedication to education and shared values.
There’s a huge range of places to eat and drink in Southall, particularly Punjabi, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and South Indian restaurants. Vegetarians have plenty of options to choose from. If you have a sweet tooth, you can try a traditional snack from one of the many bakeries, or head to Creams for Italian gelati, Belgian waffles and milkshakes. I am not stranger to the area last week headed to the bustling family restaurant Gifto’s Lahore for a Bhuna Gosh (Mutton Curry) which could not be beat served on a Karahi, the iron skillet which gives us the English word curry. Then next door to Creams for one of their famous ices which looked a lot smaller on the menu than in reality! For eating and drinking you are not short of choice here, I could have headed across the road to Chaudhry’s XTC who as well as their large restaurant have a banqueting hall and a traditional colourfully decorated Pakistani bus to collect your party, to the Adana family’s Brilliant 2 for typical Punjabi fare or to Glassy Junction for Cobra beer. A “Glassy Junction” is a Punjabi term for a pub where you meet your friends for glassys and until its recent closure this was the only pub in London which accepted Indian Rupees as well as the local currency!
There’s no better time to visit Southall than around the Eid festivals (Eid al-Fitr to mark the end of Ramadan or Eid al Adha to mark the end of Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca) or around the Festival of Lights or Diwali. It is generally celebrated in late October or early November, at which time Southall becomes a hive of activity as the local community prepares for one of the biggest festivals of the year. Diwali is celebrated by the Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities and represents the victory of light over darkness. It is in fact celebrated by them for different reasons. Originally a Hindu festival celebrating the return of Lord Rama from exile it is also celebrated by Jains to mark the attainment of nirvana by Mahavira in 527 BCE and by Sikhs to mark when the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind ji was released from prison by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in October 1619 with 52 Hindu kings and they were welcomed to the Sikh sacred city of Amritsar by the lights of Diwali. This third day of Diwali is celebrated by Sikhs as Bandi Chhor Divas (“Day of Liberation”).
Over the five days of Diwali these different motivations coalesce into a festival of light and a celebration of shared humanity. Think of an Indian Xmas but with more lights, fireworks and better food you won’t go too far wrong. And if you go to Southall Broadway to celebrate to the Bhangra beat you’ll do even better!
- Diwali ki Shubhkamnayein (दिवाली की शुभकामनाएं): Hindi
- Diwali Mubarak (દીવાળી મુબારક): Gujarati
- Tuhanu diwali diyan boht boht vadhaiyan (ਤੁਹਾਨੂੰ ਦਿਵਾਲੀ ਦੀਆਂ ਬਹੁਤ ਬਹੁਤ ਵਧਾਈਆਂ ਹੋਣ ): Punjabi
- Happy Diwali! Angrezi
- Deepavali Nalvazhthukal (தீபாவளி நல்வாழ்த்துக்கள்) Tamil
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