Wanderlust in London: a reflection on ‘homing’, from East to West End
by Sara Bonfanti
Snapshot after snapshot, this long post narrates the pilot fieldwork conducted by the author in London last October. Trailing the conspicuousness of British south Asians, ethnographic reflections emotively charged approach some of the puzzles that these heterogeneous diasporas have experienced while making home in Britain’s capital city.
Reluctant to leave _ I have been to London several times indeed, the capital city that our Erasmus generation elected icon of European cosmopolitanism. Giving in to their insistence, I had even taken my children there last summer, on a trip that was supposed to initiate them to the British Grand Tour of global urban horizons. Yet, for once, I did not feel thrilled at the idea of going back to London for a preliminary HOMInG fieldwork; my mind already set on Birmingham, the barycenter of the ‘Curry triangle’, as my main field site in the UK. As an anthropologist who believes in the mantra *large issues, small scales*, I pondered: how could I map a maze for undertaking some pilot ethnographic work in such a large, populous and restless city? A jumble that never allowed me to feel at home in spite of recurrent visits, and where I had no substantial contacts, apart from unknown names of potential informants shoveled from well-intended professors?
Looking right _ My embodied foreignness came soon to my senses as I kept stumbling over the warning painted on the pavement for naïve travelers, whose left and right-hand traffic sense operate in the opposite direction, so that they risk being run over at every crossing. ‘Look right’ flashed and grilled me on any corner. Was I meant to look simply in the right-hand direction for my own sake, or beware of the right wing of political winds blowing stronger, or else learn to gaze in a vague ‘right, appropriate’ way? Perhaps I’d better look eastward, pointing to where the River Thames falls, after flowing through the city towards the North Sea (irrespective of the drilling then going on throughout the municipality in order to mend or prevent unwanted leakages in the water pipe system). What then, if I beheld eastward on a standard (i.e. Western centered) world map or on the plan itself of the City of London?
Stranded in Newham _Tracking my reference groups from the Subcontinent for the ERC-Homing research, and building on my long-term engagement with Punjabi Diasporas, I drifted towards West Ham, searching for a place in the borough of Newham, northeast London, where I had been advised Indo-Pakistani communities lived. On a breezy evening, I got off at Upton Park, and rejoiced mingling with the crowds who were shopping after worktime in the many ‘Desi stores’ along Green Street (in and out of warehouse and convenience stocks displaying thali plates of all sorts). Eventually, I rang the doorbell of the terraced house where I was supposed to sleep over (after concluding a private b&b arrangement with the host the week before). Through the windowsill, I could glimpse a line of small and large shoes neatly paired, and a woman cautiously peeping at me, before she sent her two young daughters to greet me at the door. The elder one, a pre-teen, smiled quietly while listening to my plea for accommodation; the latter, a very young girl, rode out barefoot on her small purplish bicycle, bustling loudly. As the first kept nodding her head, like many south Asians do when trying to articulate a gentle but resolute refusal, her elder brother came rushing from the street, and stuttered their message in a more definitive way. Sorry as he was, there was no room for me to stay at their home: their father, with whom I had concluded my sojourn online, had left for Pakistan six months earlier; their connection had been interrupted since, and his phone rang a dead call. In his new role of paterfamilias in charge, the guy regrettably confirmed they would not host any stranger in their home, nor he knew how I could get sorted that night. At dusk, I found myself wandering through Newham with a tingling luggage and asking passers-by for alternative housing solutions. Quite unanimously, they all diverted me to Romford Road, where a stripe of cheap guesthouses stood, with not-so luring welcome signposts.
Rattling emotions _ I picked the first inn that seemed decent enough for a couple of nights, entered the hall and found a flock of men at the reception desk who kept staring me at once astonished and amused as I explained my needs and unexpected turning up (in a Brit-Pakistani hostel) after being turned down (from a Brit-Pakistani family). Between the white moon of a faded green flag and a similarly torn portrait of Queen Elisabeth II, that was the beginning of my first HOMInG fieldtrip to London. There I spent two nights, meeting by chance some other guests: most Punjabi men of all walk of ages, none apparently on vacation, all recently moved to London and still imprecisely seeking for work and accommodation. Apart from the stale smell of fags I couldn’t quite bear, in spite of no-smoking signs pinned on the walls, never mind the lack of heating, the place was not bad, for the relatively little money it cost. Yet, the second night I slept there, a feeble but tireless jingle awoke me, and I found with a certain revulsion a rat in my trash bin: turning on the lamplight, it sonically flushed away down my immaculate washbasin! The morning I checked out, I bumped into the cleaning lady, wrapped into a black dupatta covering her head, armed with a hoover and an inviting smile. Although her English was poor, I tried to alert her about the mouse in my room, but I couldn’t quite figure out if she did not understand me or simply shrugged, as to say that was no news nor big deal. After all, isn’t London supposed to be inhabited by almost seven millions people and possible as three times many rodents?
Host-watching _ The following days, I was lodged by a young man, born in London from Bangladeshi parents, who was as much responsive on texting using his mobile phone, as virtually absent in the house itself. His flat mate, a legal practitioner in Canary Wharf, was slightly keener on entertaining hosts, and a box chocolate won her over. As we sat at their dining table from Chittagong, unwrapping Cadbury’s bites, we discussed a bit about the place. Their house bore the effort of making its dwellers feel at home: gross pictures and plaques welcoming guests and reaffirming the warmth of homeliness were almost excessive. Especially considering another main feature of the building: in every single room (except for the bathroom, alas!), landlord Mohan had mounted a small camera to keep surveillance and thus, in his view, to ensure people’s safety. Instead, despite the house being tidy and comfortable, I felt uneasy and controlled. Apparently, he took that measure after burglars had broken in and taken away valuables and electronic devices, ruining the place earlier this year. Episode which I could just imagine, given the scrappiness of back gardens along the avenue, which made a nice ride for parkour; although CCTV systems were installed all over the residential slot, declaring it a neighborhood watch zone. The chamber where I slept, originally planned as a sitting room in an ordinary English two-floor terraced house, had been converted from a daily prayer area into a bedroom for occasional paying guests. Although the furniture was essential, a large quality carpet stood there in a corner pointing southward and I guessed the owners still kneeled there at Salah times, when the room was not occupied. To gain extra income by putting on rent a portion of one’s home is an activity many long-term immigrants seemed to have taken up (especially in recent years, since Airbnb social platform has made this business much easier). Rumors want that Bangladeshis have done the same throughout East London, starting from their historical neighborhood in Tower Hamlets: they bought City Council estates, improved them, and began letting places to newcomers; a chain of sub owners and sub letters have come next, some say with opaque dealing and misdeeds. When a Saturday night I was invited out by another Brit-Bangla fellow, who then took me to the plainest of British pubs close just out of Brick Lane, I took advantage of a ride across Whitechapel and noted how many financial activities had sprung up close to the East London Mosque, the modern infrastructure of zakat, or alms-giving. That noon though, it was not the adhan I heard, calling Muslim worshippers to pray, but a young man attracting people to Altab Ali memorial park (a Bangla textile worker, victim of a racist murder in the 70s), who sold his music between protest and busking.
Drawing our (s)kin-stories _ Under a proverbial English drizzle, I spent two days exploring Newham: roving through its lanes (where kids rode past me yelling on their bikes), shopping at a local Tesco’s which catered for south Asian culinary tastes (including fabulous frozen samosas), and timidly entering a range of worship places, from Islamic centers to Ramgarhian Sikh ones. One afternoon, spurred by a public advert and invited in by a charming youth, I joined a “henna party” in the public library on Green Street. That was the first moment I somehow felt at home in London, reminiscing my Indian women friends and the way they gently squeezed the same tiny tubes of henna smearing on our skins, whose sour and sweet aroma permeated the air. Past shelves filled with a few books in English and many in Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu, whose front covers addressed female readers, a cozy parlor had been arranged. A counter offering juices and biscuits, as well as homemade snacks prepared by participants, led the way to a sitting area with soft sand cushions. Sat there, half a dozen of south Asian women and girls, master artists in body painting, were drawing flowers or fancier designs on the hands and forearms of many other women and kids (girls and boys alike). A soft Pakistani teen composed a simple but elegant mehndi tattoo on my left hand, commenting on how nicer it looked on my not so pale complexion. While Black, Brown and white women placidly waited in line for their turn to be beautified, their kids were busy at completing arts tasks. Diwali just gone past the week before, Halloween incoming next weekend. I couldn’t resist helping younger ones in making their paper-lanterns, to hang up and light the darkest of nights, and I couldn’t help smiling over the prints prepared for the occasion: elephants and peacocks alongside with bats and pumpkins.
Waiting for my mehndi to dry out, I approached a small crowd of elderly ladies, mostly grandmas who had taken their grandchildren there and were chattering away. In fact, many aged people attended the library all day; some just sat there reading newspapers and reviews, others surfing the internet. One of the vibrant grannies (a lady in her sixties whose granddaughter was a cheerful British Caribbean young girl) explained: a good community center was a place that made feel everyone welcome, giving people a chance to share their time with no hassles. I found the same atmosphere and vision at the EKTA reception office in Manor Park (hosted in a Catholic-run community space). EKTA is a spontaneous association that aims to bring together groups of isolated or frail Asian older people living in Newham. Set up in the late 80s by an active retired woman who had migrated from India in her youth, and continued to date by a bunch of committed volunteers, EKTA has provided for generations of elders in the area, not exclusively south Asians. Among their projects: healthcare awareness, community storytelling and prevention of elderly abuse. Hamari Kahani (lit. Our Story) was the drama initiative about to start up again this autumn, and I could not wait to get back and enjoy these elders’ performances… with the aid of an interpreter!
I took the Tube to move westward and left Upton Park, facing a graffiti on the wall that sounded like an omen “knowledge: a weapon against mass distraction” (under which the real gash was the garbage there dumped).
A gentrified interlude _ For a few days, I spent some time in Central London, where I attended lectures or visited exhibitions relevant to my research, and met scholars with whom to share doubts and excitements. Among them, a brilliant researcher at LSE, whose expertise as a mother of four and a family mediator working with refugees coming from her own homeland (Pakistan), gave me lived insights I could not foresee. These activities were part and parcel of my fieldwork, although not immediately recognizable as canonic ethnography. Yet, wouldn’t a photographic collection by an Indian diaspora queer artist, or an exposition at SOAS denouncing the exploitation of Adivasis and Dalits (tribals and outcastes) behind India’s economic boom, count as ethnographic observation? I felt weird as I began to take notice of fellow visitors’ reactions and read all the messages that previous ones had left in amaze or rage (in any language I knew, or posting them to my friends worldwide to get translated)… And again, wouldn’t sipping a golden smoothie with my heroine among East African Sikhs, and swallowing down her every single word as it was my source of enlightenment, make my most memorable brunch homing in London?
Learning to pray _ The friendly advice of such an expert ‘cartographer of diasporas’ took me to Brent, where I emplaced for the rest of my trip. Northwest London, down the road from Wembley Park, was a curious discovery; boarding on the Jubilee Line, the northern I went locally, the southerner the population seemed to be globally. In Willesden Green, a quiet super-diverse area, thriving with a concoction of shops, eateries and holy places, where long-term Irish emigres lived next door with Black British from the Commonwealth and newer flocks of (not only south) Asians, my host was an amiable middle-aged woman who had moved to the UK from Sri Lanka almost thirty years ago. Up on a hilly avenue, Priya owned a large semi-detached house, where she lived with her sister and younger son. After running the place for a few years as a small hostel for international students, the two siblings revamped the house and resorted to host only tourists, whose short stays and swifter requests they could meet easily, and did so with exquisite kindness. Twice I came back from my ethnographic wanderlust and found my host offering me Masala tea, a tray of fresh fruit and unexpected recommendations, about where to go, what to do and the places to avoid. Priya would lead me in her own sitting room (instead of the tiny kitchen arranged as a facility for guests), made sure I comfortably sat on her handstitched sofa, and started chatting away.
We talked a lot about lived spirituality and established religions. We discussed my visit to the Neasden Temple, where I mingled with devotees at darsan time, most of whom were not Londoners but had come from elsewhere on a British trip to the most lavish Hindu Mandir outside India (and grinned scheming when they managed to snatch a picture despite prohibition in the realm of ecstatic vision). She deplored the nearby presence of a similar Buddhist ‘fake’ shrine: run by Americanized monks, which could not compete with the ‘pure’ ashram in the countryside where she occasionally went with her kindred (and where she promised she would take me to meditate some day). Walking into my room to fetch me a charge adaptor, and finding that I had carelessly placed a holy book she had gifted me next to the Quran, she summoned me on the perils of the Islamic community in London, which, she sensed, had taken over the city, turning pre-existing Churches into Mosques and converting people to their faith. (Nonetheless, the conversion of Christian churches into places of worship for other creeds was a recurrent urban realignment in any borough of London. The visible sign of religious encounters in architecture warmed me up and made me sigh with relief). In fact, my copy of the Quran came from the London Central Mosque, where I had attended a one-day intensive course on Islam, reserved to newly or potential converts. On a Sunday, instead of celebrating Mass like I used to (raised in a not-so practicing but Catholic family), I took part in that training with other fifty people, men and women of diverse backgrounds and with various reasons for being there. Among them, I struck up a friendship with a young Filipina migrant, hired as a fundraiser for the charity Islamic Relief. Mirroring each other, we tried to incorporate the bodily rhythm of doing Salat: bending, kneeing, prostrating and raising, over and over again, in the small pray room reserved to ladies. Walking out together and heading for a coffee, we shrouded into our headscarves, with fallen leaves twirling around us in Regent’s Park.
(H)Ealing misunderstandings _ In the language of policy-makers, Priya once stated that ‘parallel communities’ lived side by side in London, neither avoiding nor engaging with others. She proffered examples; I couldn’t come up with convincing explanations. That same Sunday, thousands of people dressed in saffron flocked into Southall, celebrating Nagar Kirtan on the birthdate of the first Guru of Sikhism. Notices had been posted all over the city, included the train lines which connected Ealing to Westminster, expressly the shuttle linking Paddington Station to Heathrow Airport, which is run by Tata, India’s premier automotive industry. Southall lives up to the expectation of being West End London’s ‘Little India’; the oldest Punjabi settlement in Britain, it has kept growing in numbers, changing demographics, redesigning its urban landscape. The are no rickshaws nor buffalos crossing its roads, but London cabs and double decker buses connect to the City that overgrown village which greets visitors at the station with signs and adverts in English as much as in Punjabi. The railway tracks splits Southall in two. Havelock Road leads to the magnificent Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, where I spent a weekday morning inebriated with the sunbeams peeping from the decorated windows, and shared with a few other women and elders (assuming men were at work) the best langar I have ever tasted after Anandpur Sahib in Punjab itself. To reach the British Golden Temple, I took a few steps amid the blocks of history: past “The Dominion” library and community center, the Indian Workers’ Association and the towering residential estate built by TSR, ‘Asia’s Finest Foods’ global supplier. The Green instead takes to the Broadway: an overly crowded boulevard, where stores and offices cater in a way or another for a mixed south Asian community (be it a pharmacy with Ayurveda treatment, a beauty parlor for skin lightning, an astrological consultancy or a bridal shop sponsoring the next annual Asian wedding event in London. Just a very personal and critical selection).
Walking through Southall Public Park, where kids chased grey squirrels while their elder siblings listened to loud Bhangra music with amplifiers, I perceived the repeated generational turnovers. Residential properties in the borough literally aged and diversified as much as their dwellers. Within a short walk, I went past gloomy decadent chalets, as much as middle class estates, from fine lodges to brand-new apartment slots, and also found two homeless men sleeping rough in a dusty alleyway. Opposite the local town hall, an advert lured (wealthy) Indian expats to invest in the real estate market back in India. ‘Home is where the heart is’ was the trite spot. Not always home is a place of solace, I thought as I finally arrived at the premises of SBS. Southall Black Sisters was another association I had been suggested to meet; founded in 1979, this poorly funded, radical women’s group has since become synonymous with Black-British feminism for decades. In the waiting room, a couple of anxious women, attending to be heard, drifted their sight away as I tried to meet their eyes. What right did I have to stand there in their presence, knowing nothing about their tussles, with my westerner’s attitude, not even British, and looking down at them from my not-engaged academic posture? I honestly felt I’d better take off. Then a young Brit-Sikh volunteer came up to me, she apologized the veteran activist I was meant to see, as previously agreed, had been called for an emergency, but let me free to wander around and made sure I took an appointment next month. I walked out with a pile of leaflets and a treasured book under my arm: “From Homemakers to Jailbreakers”; I had much to learn about before coming back to SBS and pretend I could discuss of gender inequalities, racial discrimination and domestic violence among a social reality I did not know. Before leaving Southall, opposite the Railway station, an orange sign grabbed my attention: Des Pardes, Home&Away. That was the title of the first monograph I’ve ever read on Punjabi communities in Britain, and there were the headquarters of the first weekly ever published in Punjabi language since 1965 in London. I knew then where I had to return, home&away.
A Farewell _ Next morning, while I was leaving from Stansted airport, I spotted a flamboyant Indian young couple with their baby taking selfies in the tacky store Glorious Britain, UK’s premier gift and souvenir retailers of ‘authentic British ideal mementos’ (quoting from their website). Then I finally recognized what I had somehow discovered without being fully aware of it: do we really need a contingent reason to travel to London, or even to move there? Isn’t it just because of the attraction that this modern vernacular cosmo-polis, between its lost Imperial grandeur (Brexit placet) and present multicultural riddle, notwithstanding violent intersections, keeps enticing us all, south Asians leading the way, going westward this time?