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”.

Ely to India and back

AT THE CORNER OF Lynn Road and St Marys Street in the cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire, there is a shop selling used books and an assortment of ‘objets’, all in delightful disorder. This shop, with a fine view of the cathedral, ‘Cloisters’ by name, is across the road from The Lamb pub. Apart from being a lovely shop with an informative, genial owner, Barry Lonsdale, it was once home to an interesting but lesser-known military personality. His story is detailed by a blog writer named Michael Taylor (https://www.blogger.com/profile/12276420943738372719) and I have summarised it below.  

 Billett Genn (1827-1917) was a son of Billett Genn (senior), who died in 1872, and Margaret (née Austin (http://ginn-hertfordshire.blogspot.com/2014/06/). It is probable that they lived in the house that now contains the Cloisters shop. In 1841, young Billett became an indentured apprentice seaman, a seven-year contract. For reasons unknown, Billett returned to England before his seven-year term was completed. In 1846, he signed up as a trooper in the 3rd Kings Own Light Dragoons, another seven-year contract. The Dragoons had been stationed in India for several years, arriving there in 1837 (https://amp.blog.shops-net.com/10388944/1/3rd-the-kings-own-hussars.html) for the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Billett arrived in India in time to become actively involved in fighting against the Sikhs in the Punjab Campaign of 1848/49. Billett took part in various engagements including the Battle of Chillianwala in January 1849. This battle was one of the bloodiest during the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chillianwala), and one in which both the Sikhs and the East India Company claimed victory.

Genn was discharged and sent back to London in 1853, having been awarded the Punjab Campaign Medal. He returned to Ely where he became a schoolteacher in the city’s Needham School for poor boys. In 1867, he married Victoria Haylock. They produced seven children. Billett and Margaret lived at number 1 Lynn Road, which now contains the Cloisters shop. Margaret died in 1913 and Billett four years later. He was the last member of a family that had lived in Ely continuously for over 300 years. He was given a full military funeral.

Billett Genn was, at the time of his death, the last survivor of the Punjab Campaign (www.cambstimes.co.uk/news/the-story-of-remarkable-ely-man-billett-genn-is-retold-4887142). An unobtrusive plaque affixed to the wall of the shop commemorates this fact. We had come to Ely mainly to see its truly remarkable cathedral, which surpassed all expectation, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this city’s far from well-known connection with distant Punjab.

PS: The Genn family also owned The Lamb pub at some time

Himalaya Palace

HIM 1 BLOG

 

THE HIMALAYA PALACE cinema in the London suburb of Southall, an area where many people of Punjabi descent live, showed only Bollywood films from India, usually the latest releases. Being keen on these films, we often made the long trip from our home to Southall to watch them. During our regular visits to India, always including Bangalore, we take time to see Bollywood films in the country where they are created.

We were in Bangalore in December 2001 when the blockbuster film “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (ie ‘sometimes happy, sometimes sad’) was released all over India. We were staying with my in-laws,  and everyone decided that we had to see it.

We chose a cinema near the famous Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR), a long established popular eatery in Bangalore. It was decided that we should have breakfast there before seeing a morning screening of the film. So popular is MTR, that queuing is always required before getting a table. It was my first visit to this highly esteemed place and I hope my last. Everything we were served was almost dripping with ghee, which is part of its attraction for its many fans.

The cinema was a few steps from MTR. After buying tickets, we had to wait in another queue. This one was to await one’s turn to have bags searched by security personnel. I thought this was to prevent weapons and bombs from entering the auditorium, but it was not. The security people were searching for food and drinks. So-called ‘outside food’ could not be brought into the cinema because it risked reducing the sales of overpriced snacks and drinks sold by the cinema.

When we reached our seats, my sister-in-law showed me her basket, lifted a shawl within it, and revealed the sandwiches and other snacks beneath.  So inefficient were the security people that they had not delved into the bag with any seriousness of purpose.

Before the film started, my sister-in-law offered me and the rest of the family rolls of compacted cotton wool rather like those that dentists stuff into patients’ cheeks to dry the mouth. She said we might need them because the volume of the soundtrack would be very high. I declined them, and enjoyed the full impact of the sound.

At the Himalaya in Southall before the start of any film, a sign would be projected. It said something like:

“Please do not talk during the performance.”

This was a pointless exhortation because at the Himalaya the soundtrack was played so loud that even if you screamed at your neighbour, they would not have heard you.

Sadly, the Himalaya Palace (built 1929) is no longer a cinema. It closed in 2010. When we last visited Southall a few years ago, the Chinese style front of the Himalaya, complete with dragons, still existed, but its interior had become a covered market.

Nowadays, well at least before the pandemic arrived,  we watch Bollywood films that are shown regularly (at least one per week) at a Vue cinema in London’s Shepherd Bush.

Providing you miss the Friday and Saturday screenings of the latest releases, the audiences are usually minute, often less than ten people in an auditorium that can seat well over 150 people. Even before the pandemic, social distancing  was the norm during the screenings because empty seats usually greatly outnumbered occupied ones.

Most Bollywood films are long, usually over two and a half hours. So, there is an interval during their screening. The point at which the interval occurs is chosen by the film maker to leave the audience at a point of high suspense in the story.

Once during an interval at a Bollywood screening at the Vue, we sat in the almost empty cinema and heard two ladies, sitting several rows in front of us, chatting in Italian. Out of curiosity,  we asked them in Italian why they had chosen to see a Bollywood film. Their reply surprised us.

The two women were members of an Akshay Kumar fan club in Calabria in the far south of Italy. They had only ever before seen films starring Akshay on video screens.  They were staying far away from Shepherds Bush in Dulwich when, to their delight, they discovered that the film we were watching, starring Akshay, was being screened in Shepherds Bush. They had come to see one of Akshay’s films on the ‘big screen’ for the first time.

Bollywood’s films have captured the hearts of people all over the world. They were even  popular in the former USSR. When we visited Albania in 2016, we discovered that they, as well as Indian TV soap operas, had captured a significantly large audience of Albanians. These films would not have been shown in Albania prior to the downfall of its Stalinist style regime in 1991.

Until it is safe to do so again, my wife and I will have to enjoy armchair screening of our Bollywood DVDs. Enjoyable as these are, they are an incomplete substitute for ‘in your face’ full blast performances in a cinema auditorium.

The Patient Assassin

Assass

 

I love browsing in second-hand bookshops. Occasionally, I come across really good books that I had not previously known about. The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand (published 2019) was one such discovery.

The Patient Assassin is about the life and exploits of  Udham Singh (1899-1940), a pro-independence, anti-British activist. Some of his friends were killed in the notorious Jallianwalla Bagh massacre  in mid-April 1919. Under the command of General ‘Rex’ Dyer, several hundred innocent men, women, and children, were shot dead within the closed space of Jallianwalla Bagh, a walled public garden in Amritsar. Many others were injured in this cruel attack whose supposed purpose was to subdue the people of the Punjab so that they would not rise against British rule. 

Dyer died of illness in England, having been proclaimed a hero for his malevolent deed. Michael O’ Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, who thoroughly approved of what was done at Jallianwalla Bagh and other horrific treatment of Indians, retired to London.

Udham Singh had friends who were killed at Jallianwallah Bagh. He made it his mission to kill O’ Dwyer. The author of Patient Assassin, Anita Anand, traces Udham’s complex and mysterious life from the Punjab to London, where he shot dead O’ Dwyer at a meeting at London’s Caxton Hall in 1940. Ms Anand weaves an exciting tale based on her researches of Udham’s colourful and exciting life. Her book about a real person makes far more engaging reading than most fictional thrillers. 

I was very pleased to stumble across Anand’s book for two reasons. One is that it turned out to be an un-put-downable read. The other is that it chimes with something that I have been working on.

In mid 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra, who like Udham Singh came from the Punjab, shot dead Sir William H Curzon Wyllie, a retired important British administrator in India, at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. This assassination horrified the British nation and many in India. 

Dhingra had come to England study engineering at University College London several years before shooting Curzon Wyllie. He had become involved in the freedom fighting activities that were centred on India House in Highgate between 1905 and early 1910. It was Dhingra’s fatal shots that hastened the demise of India House, a student hostel and meeting place which was regared by the British as a ‘centre of sedition’.  I have almost completed writing a book about India House and its members, including Dhingra, and it should be available for sale soon. Its title will be “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.

Finding Ms Anand’s book quite by chance was a great delight for me. Unintentionally, it might almost be considered a kind of sequel to what I have just written.