Return to the Himalayas

SOUTHALL LIES NOT far from Heathrow Airport. Despite its architecture being mostly typical of dull London suburbs that developed between the two World Wars, it is far from being a run-of-the mill west London suburb. Recently, in March 2022, we visited Southall after several years since we last went there.

The centre of what was once the tiny village of Southall is about 1.7 miles north of Osterley Park house. The manor of Southall was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 14th century. Separated by countryside from its neighbours, it lay on the road from London to Uxbridge and Oxford. It was only in the 1870s that the village began expanding southwards to the Great Western Railway line. Today, the place has been fully incorporated into London and retains little or nothing of its former rustic nature.

Detail of the roof of the Himalaya Palace in Southall

On arriving by train at Southall station, the observant traveller will notice that the station name signs are bilingual; they are in both Latin and Punjabi scripts. Southall is sometimes aptly referred to as ‘Chota Punjab’ (Little Punjab). The three Punjabi brothers, Charan Singh Bilga, Jagar Singh Bilga, and Lave Singh Bilga, began living in Southall in 1938. They were followed by Pritam Singh Sangha, who opened a shop in Southall in 1954, having arrived in the area in 1951. His shop was then the only shop in west London, if not in the whole of the metropolis, purveying Indian provisions.  Pritam Singh Sangha in partnership with his friend and business associate, Jarnail Singh Hura (also known as “Ghura”), established the first known business in Southall and Fakir Singh purchased numerous houses which he rented out to his countrymen.”

Vivek Chaudhary, writing in the Guardian in April 2018, recorded:

“By the time my own father arrived in 1960, local authority records show that there were approximately 1,000 Punjabis living in Southall, nearly all men. He would joke that one of the reasons why they settled here was because of its proximity to Heathrow airport, only three miles away, and “if the gooras [whites] ever kicked us out, it would be easy to get on a plane and return home”. It was a light-hearted reference to the uncertainty that was generated by the chronic racism of the time. It was the R Woolf rubber factory in neighbouring Hayes that attracted Punjabis to Southall – the general manager had served with Sikh soldiers during the second world war and was only too happy to recruit them…”

He added:

“Punjab was partitioned by the British in 1947; part of it fell within Pakistan with the remainder in India. Punjabis can be Sikh, Hindu or Muslim, and while all three demographics settled in this outpost of west London, it was the Sikhs who came in the largest numbers and gave Southall its distinct identity.”

Chaudhary mentioned that at the time he wrote his article, although at one stage Southall’s population was 70% Punjabi, this has decreased to about 50% and the descendants of many of the original settlers:

“…have prospered and moved to wealthier pastures, replaced by new communities from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia. At its heart, though, this corner of west London remains an indelibly Punjabi town.”

And so, it is. Southall is like the Punjab and other places in India or Pakistan, but with the often-dull English weather and rather pedestrian suburban architecture. The main streets, South Road and the Broadway (Uxbridge Road), are lined with shops, small bazaars consisting of several tiny shops, and eateries. Judging by the profusion of colourful, often glittering, Indian (and Pakistani) style party clothing on sale, one might be excused for thinking that the people of Southall do nothing apart from attending ‘glitzy’ weddings.   If you wish to sample shopping as it is in India without leaving the country, then Southall is the place to do it in London. It seemed to my wife and me that the quality of the clothing on sale was high, better than much that is available in India. A Sikh salesman explained that what is on sale in Southall is made in India but unlike what is on sale over there, this is export quality.

One building is worthy of special mention in Southall, apart from the area’s gold-coloured domed Sikh gurdwaras. This is the former Himalaya Palace cinema. Built in 1929, it is unique in Britain in that its façade is in the form of a Chinese Temple. It has a pagoda roof which is flanked by dragons. It used to screen films from India’s Bollywood studios until it closed in 2010. It has now become an indoor market called Palace Shopping Centre. Fortunately, the building is protected by a preservation order and the façade is likely to remain a wonderful landmark in the foreseeable future. Not far away in a less distinguished building is another mall, the Himalaya Shopping Centre. Entering these malls, and the others in Southall, is like stepping into a typical indoor shopping bazaar anywhere in India. The air in these Southall shopping centres has the special fragrantly perfumed odour I associate with India.

Near the former cinema, stands the former Southall Town Hall, which was constructed in 1898. On its wall, there are commemorative three plaques placed by an anti-racism group called Southall Resists 40. They are dedicated to Gurdip Singh Chaggar, who was killed in 1976; Blair Peach who was killed in 1979; and ‘Misty in Roots & People Unite Musicians Cooperative’. Each of the three bears the words “Unity against Racism”.

Two freedom fighters in London’s Hampstead

PLATTS LANE WINDS its way between London’s Finchley Road and West Heath Road in Hampstead. It follows the route of a track between Hampstead Heath and West End (now West Hampstead). This track was already in existence by the mid-18th century. According to a historian of Hampstead, Christopher Wade, the thoroughfare was first called Duval’s Lane to commemorate a 17th century French highwayman. Louis (alias Lodewick alias Claude) Duval (alias Brown) who was, according to another historian, Thomas Barratt, famed for being gallant towards his victims, many of whom he robbed on Hampstead Heath. Barratt related:

“It used to be told that, after stopping a coach and robbing the passengers at the point of the pistol on the top of the Hill, he would, having bound the gentlemen of the party, invite the ladies to a minuet on the greensward in the moonlight.”

Duval was hung at Tyburn soon after 1669.

Over time this track’s name became corrupted to Devil’s Lane. A pious local resident, Thomas Pell Platt (1798-1852), probably put an end to that name after he had built his home, Childs Hill House, nearby in about 1840.

Platt graduated at Trinity College in Cambridge in 1820 and became a Major Fellow of his college in 1823. While at Cambridge, he became associated with the British and Foreign Bible Society and was its librarian for a few years. He was also an early member of The Royal Asiatic Society (founded 1823) as well as a member of The Society of Antiquaries of London. In 1823, he prepared a catalogue of the Ethiopian manuscripts in a library in Paris. In addition, he did much work with biblical manuscripts written in the Amharic and Syriac languages. Apart from being a scholar, he was an intensely religious man. He died not in Hampstead but in Dulwich.

Platt lived near the lane named after him for quite a few years. The same cannot be said for a later resident of Platts Lane, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), who was born in Moravia (now a part of the Czech Republic). Masaryk added the name Garrigue to his own when he married the American born Charlotte Garrigue (1850-1923) in 1878. A politician serving in the Young Czech Party between 1891 and 1893, he founded the Czech Realist Party in 1900. At the outbreak of WW1, he decided that it would best if the Czechs and Slovaks campaigned for independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire. He went into exile in December 1914, staying in various places before settling in London, where he became one of the first staff members of London University’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, then later a professor of Slavic Research at Kings College London.

In London, Masaryk first lived in a boarding house at number 4 Holford Road in Hampstead (http://tg-masaryk.cz/mapa/index.jsp?id=285&misto=Pobyt-T.-G.-Masaryka-1915-1916). In June 1916, he moved from there to number 21 Platts Lane, which was near to the former Westfield College where his daughter Olga was studying. The house, the whole of which he rented, became a meeting place for the Czechoslovak resistance movement in England. Masaryk stayed in Platts Lane until he departed for Russia in May 1917. It is possible that he returned there briefly when he made a visit to London in late 1918. On the 14th of September 1950, the Czechoslovak community affixed a metal plaque to the three-storey brick house on Platts Lane, which was built in the late 1880s. It reads:

“Here lived and worked during 1914-1918 war TG Masaryk president liberator of Czechoslovakia. Erected by Czechoslovak colony 14.9.1950”

Actually, Masaryk only used the house between 1916 and 1917. The year that the plaque was placed was a century after Masaryk’s birth year. The day chosen, the 14th of September, was that on which he died in 1937.

Not too far away from Masaryk’s Hampstead home, there is a place on West End Lane that used to be called The Czechoslovak Club before it became the Czechoslovak Restaurant and currently Bohemia House. Here you can see a portrait of Masaryk and enjoy yourself sampling Czech beers and food. The establishment is within the Czechoslovak National House, which was founded as a club in 1946.

The houses where Czechoslovakia’s freedom fighter lived in London still stand in Hampstead. However, that is no longer the case for another freedom fighter and founder of a new nation, who lived near Platts lane on West Heath Road, the wealthy barrister and founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948). In the 1930s, Jinnah practised law in London. One of his biographers, Hector Bolitho (1897-1975) wrote (in 1954):

“One day in June 1931, when Jinnah was walking in Hampstead, he paused before West Heath House, in West Heath Road. It was a three-storied villa, built in the confused style of the 1880s, with many rooms and gables, and a tall tower which gave a splendid view over the surrounding country. There was a lodge, a drive, and eight acres of garden and pasture, leading down to Childs Hill.

All are gone now, and twelve smaller, modern houses occupy the once-pretty Victorian pleasance. Nearby lives Lady Graham Wood, from whom Jinnah bought the house; and she remembers him, on the day when he first called, as “most charming, a great gentleman, most courteous…

… In September 1931 Jinnah took possession of West Heath House, and he assumed the pattérn of life that suited him. In place of Bombay, with the angers of his inheritance for ever pressing upon him, he was able to enjoy the precise, ordained habits of a London house. He breakfasted punctually and, at nine o’clock, Bradbury was at the door with the car, to drive him to his chambers in King’s Bench Walk. There he built up his new career, with less fire of words, and calmer address, than during the early days in Bombay.”

It was at West Heath House that Jinnah entertained Liaquat Ali Khan (1895-1951), another of Pakistan’s founding fathers and its first Prime Minister, who had arrived from India. Bolitho wrote:

“A great part of the fortunes of Pakistan were decided оn the day, in July 1933, when Liaquat Ali Khan crossed Hampstead Heath, to talk to his exiled leader.”

Bolitho recorded that Liaquat’s wife recalled the occasion:

“Jinnah suddenly said, ‘Well, come to dinner on Friday.’ Sо we drove to Hampstead. Іt was a lovely evening. And his big house, with trees—apple trees, I seem to remember. And Miss Jinnah, attending to all his comforts. I felt that nothing could move him out of that security. After dinner, Liaquat repeated his plea, that the Muslims wanted Jinnah and needed him.”

At the end of the evening, Jinnah said to Liaquat:

“’You go back and survey the situation; test the feelings of all parts of the country. I trust your judgment. If you say “Come back,” I’ll give up my life here and return.’”

Jinnah returned to India in 1934, and Pakistan was created in August 1947.

Judging by Bolitho’s description, Jinnah’s Hampstead house could not have been very far from the house which Masaryk rented in Platts Lane, which, like Jinnah’s garden, is close to, or more accurately on, Childs Hill. I have found Jinnah’s house marked on a map surveyed in the 1890s. It was located on the west side of the northern part of West Heath Road, about 430 yards north of Masaryk’s residence on Platts Lane.

It might come as much of a surprise as it was to me to learn that the founders of two countries, each of which was founded soon after the ending of World Wars, both lived in Hampstead for brief periods in their lives.

Boy meets girl: dining in Bradford

BRADFORD IN YORKSHIRE is a vibrant multi-ethnic city. Many of its inhabitants have their roots in the Indian subcontinent. We found that many of these people with subcontinental ancestry regard themselves as neither Pakistani nor Indian, but Kashmiri.

International restaurant in Bradford

When we first visited Bradford a few years ago, we were itching to try the local restaurants serving what is generally called “Indian food”, regardless of whether it has been cooked by an Indian, or a Pakistani, or a Bangladeshi, or even a Kashmiri. As we drove from the station to our hotel in a taxi, we asked the driver, who was of Kashmiri descent, where he thought we would get good Indian food. He recommended ‘X’ in Bradford and ‘Y’ in nearby Shipley. A couple of other people, of whom we asked the same question, both recommended X. With three different recommendations for X, we decided to book it for that evening.

When I phoned the restaurant, a lady answered. I asked to book a table for two. Then, she asked:

“Is it two males or a male and a female?”

Puzzled, I replied:

“A male and a female.”

When we reached the restaurant, we were given a nice table. We had arrived at X with high expectations and good appetites. It was a pleasant restaurant with obliging staff. However, we were served one of the worst meals I have ever eaten in a restaurant serving Indian food. After this experience, we did not try another ‘Indian’ restaurant in Bradford.

During that unsatisfactory meal, the head waiter or manager came up to our table to ask if all was well. Politely, we replied that it was, but my Indian wife, who had seen ladies entering the restaurant but disappearing up a flight of stairs, remarked:

“I have noticed that apart from those little girls with their father, I am the only woman in this room. It does not bother me, but it is a bit strange.”

The head waiter looked perturbed and said:

“Sorry, so very sorry. You should not have been given a table in here. I was not aware of your arrival. Had I greeted you, I would not have seated you in here. It is reserved for men, and sometimes they can get rowdy. Can I move you to another table?”

We said that we were happy where we were. After the man left, we wondered how it was possible that men could get rowdy in a halal restaurant that clearly did not serve alcohol. At the end of the meal, we noticed that there was another section of the restaurant where men and women could dine together, a sort of ‘family room’. We also noticed that groups of women unaccompanied by men were directed to another part of the restaurant on the floor above. While the food at X was memorably poor, the experience was far from dull.

Recently, in September 2021, we revisited Bradford. There, we met our Polish host. Remembering our unfortunate experience at X, we thought it would be fun to try something different, a Polish restaurant perhaps. We asked Pavel if he could recommend one. To which he replied:

“There used to be a Polish restaurant here, but it’s closed. Anyway, I don’t like Polish food. You should eat curry here. Try the International. It’s just around the corner and gets good reviews on Tripadvisor.”

In view of our previous ‘Indian’ meal in Bradford, we entered the bustling International with some trepidation. When the food arrived, our fears evaporated rapidly. We were served some of the best ‘Indian’ food we have ever eaten in the UK. The portions were enormous, and we noticed that at every other table, diners were taking home the remains of their meals in packages. We also noticed that at almost every table, diners had ordered chips (French fries) with their ‘Indian’ dishes. The restaurant’s owner, the son of its founder who opened it 50 years ago, told us that in Bradford:

“These young people eat chips, pizzas, and burgers all the time; sometimes they don’t even eat curry.”

We asked him whether the International was an Indian or a Pakistani restaurant. He told us that it is the latter, but he and most of his staff are Kashmiri.

Tandoori king prawns at the International

We enjoyed the International so much that we returned there for dinner on the following day. Once again, we enjoyed first class food served in huge portions. Thinking of the tandoori king prawns and lamb chops makes my mouth water as I write this piece.

On both occasions, we sat at tables on the ground floor. On the second evening, our table was next to a staircase leading to an upper floor, which we were told was used for parties. Both waiters bearing trays loaded with dishes of food and also customers continuously dashed up and down the stairs. At one point in the evening, a group of heavily bearded Asian men dressed in loose fitting robes, Pathan suits or similar, began ascending the stairs. One of them looked down at us, an Asian and European dining together, and we saw him smile and then heard him say:

“Boy meets girl.”

Triumph of the ego

jinnah

Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) saw the realisation of his ambition, the formation  of a sovereign nation for Indian Muslims: Pakistan, a year before he died as its supreme leader. Jinnah was a brilliant barrister and orator. His brilliance is described by Rafiq Zakaria in his book “The Man who divided India“. The author, clearly recognising his subject’s skills, does not rate him highly as an individual. His lucid, well-reasoned text makes this very clear.

At first, Jinnah, who was always attracted to politics, strove for Hindu-Muslim unity/harmony in pre-independence India. Various factors, including his disapproval of the anti-British Khilafat uprisings of India’s Muslims following WW1, led to him being sidelined by both the Indian National Congress and the main Indian Muslim political groupings. This led to him leaving India and establishing a legal practice in London and also attempting (in vain) to become involved in British parliamentary politics. 

Returning to India after a few years in London, Jinnah recommenced his struggle to become prominent in the Indian polical scene. To do this, he abandoned the idea of working for Hindu-Muslim unity for the opposite – the alienation of India’s Muslims. This proved successful. Under his leadership of the Muslim League, he promoted the idea of a separate sovereign state for India’s Muslims by indoctrinating his followers to believe that as the Congress became more powerful and when the British left India, Muslims would be at the very least dominated by the Hindus. By 1947, when the British gave up their hold on India, the formation of Pakistan, a sovereign state for Indian Muslims, was guaranteed.

The formation of Pakistan was associated with mass movements of people: Muslims into Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs out of the newly created country. During this ‘Partition’, there was massive loss of life and much irreversible misery both in Pakistan and India. Furthermore, Pakistan was not one contiguous territory, but two widely separated portions: West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Zakaria describes how Jinnah, the great leader of the  Muslims, was really a very unobservant Muslim. Throughout his life, Jinnah ate pork, enjoyed alcohol, hardly knew the Koran, and never learnt Urdu, the language of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. According to Zakaria, Jinnah did not hold his fellow Muslims in high regard, to put it mildly. It appeared to me while reading the book that Jinnah took advantage of Muslim fears of possible domination by the Hindus to further his ambitions of achieving political prominence, which were indeed successful.

Zakaria uses the last few chapters of his fascinating book to discuss the legacy of Jinnah’s creation, Pakistan. He paints a gloomy picture. Having espoused the idea of the separateness of the Muslims, and promoted the idea that the Indian Muslims were a ‘race’ or ‘nation’ separate from their non-Muslim Indian neighbours, Jinnah, like his hero the Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, decided that Pakistan should become a ‘modern’ secular state rather than some kind of Islamic entity. He wanted to govern Pakistan using the model of British imperialism, which the Indian subcontinent had just freed itself. This has not happened in Pakistan; it is now an Islamic state.

Zakaria emphasises that far from unifying India’s Muslims, Jinnah’s creation of Pakistan has achieved the very opposite. The Muslims of the subcontinent are now divided between Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Many families have members now separated by international borders. Many Muslims in India continue to live with the fear that they are somehow threatened by the Hindu majority in the country.  In addition, within Pakistan itself, different factions of Muslims (Sunnis, Shias, and others) are in permanent conflict with each other. In Bangladesh, there are also problems. And, if that were not bad enough, the political situation in modern Pakistan is extremely unstable and life there is far from peaceful. From what I have read in Zakaria’s interesting and highly readable book, Jinnah’s dream of unifying India’s Muslims has turned into a nightmare.

To conclude, it should be mentioned that Zakaria, an Indian Muslim, has served the Indian Congress Party, which opposed Jinnah in the years before independence,  as a high-ranking official. Despite that, I felt that his book attempts quite successfully to give a balanced view of Jinnah and his politics without concealing his own views.