SOUTHALL 3.0: WHEN HOME HAPPENS…
A follow up of field working in West London, June 2018
by Sara Bonfanti
There comes a time when one’s fieldwork is no longer alien, and yet it has not been fully domesticated. That’s exactly when you need to let whips and brakes go… and embrace the full potential of serendipity. 3rd fieldtrip in Southall, whose home is it by now? UK’s premier Little India, more and else than that, a (not so cosy) nest for many, a provisional lodging for me. For a few days, I sleep over at a Sikh family place.
Just a block behind the main Gurdwara in Havelock road, I find myself in a residential cul-de-sac, winding up in an elevator within a pretty standardised aspirational middle class condo. Tiptoeing along anonymous white-washed hallways, Sikh insignia on the doors remind me whose homes open behind. My hosting lady, Manuk (born in Amritsar, in England for a decade), works at a Heathrow airport’s terminal, as a cash assistant in a leading branded store. Doing shifts, she often has to leave her two small daughters in custody of childminders after school, though she fears that this external presence in her home might be menacing the sanctity of her household, or just the proper raising of her kids, second-generation Punjabi little girls. As a practical spying device and a form of digital ritual protection, she has installed mini cameras around the house and checks the nannies on duty from her workplace (switching on the app on her mobile phone whenever she takes a break; that’s the banality of CCTV, Goold et al. 2013). We get on really well, I feel cocooned by her friendly mothering attitude, and enthralled by the way she talks about her husband: a real masculine turbaned Sikh man, as she likes to tease me. A Kashmiri Sikh, Subjan is a head chef in an inner London city restaurant; north Indian cuisine is his specialty, but he does not disdain the French flair. The only night of the week he is off from work, we all have dinner together in their sitting room. Then, exceptionally it is Manuk who cooks on the hobs, while the food director rests on the sofa relentless giving her instructions at a distance. “Add broth to that stew: the lamb is drying out!” Their jolly culinary scene is a prelude to more marital skirmishes which flow later on, as I try to interview the spouses in tandem. The atmosphere fires up when in-laws are thrown into the conversation: living homeland thousand miles away, and yet displayed on the pictures hanged on the wall or just at a Whatsapp’s length, somehow embedded in a diasporic family life (with an unlikely reproduction of patrilineal control).
Past the railway station, I am meant to see a spokesman from the Gurdwara in Park avenue, whom I had met months earlier and rely on as a wonderful informant. Less pompous than its twin newer edifice, this ground floor temple is easily accessible by the road, and crowded 24/7 with a throng of elderly Sikhs coming for langar and pray. As we wait outside the main prayer hall for the treasurer to join us, Paolo and I instinctively move apart from our seats: a Sikh lady passes by rising her eyebrows; a tacit gender separation is common sense in such a holy place and we must comply with this socio-spatial rule. Navraj finally arrives on his motorbike, the icon of a Sikh man, more a status item than a means of transport; his dastar riding free on a sunny June Friday morn. He greets us with a stout smile, like many second-gen Brit Sikhs of his age bear, when they have come to reclaim their sense of belonging in the diaspora, growing up through the aftermath of 1984 screened on the BBC. Sealing sacred and profane matters, Navraj eloquently entertains us with his knowledge of Sikhism, from history to ritual, politics to morals, showing slides on his PC he had prepared in advance, and eagerly replying to our puzzles. Among his most heartfelt comments, he comes up with this metaphor that I’ve never heard from a Sikh person: in his community, they are all a bit like ‘gypsies’, roaming people whose countless drifts have been forced as much as chosen. Punjab exists as a (home)land because it’s being sowed not only by its farmers, but also with the memories and longings of those who reconnect to the place, in a genealogy dispersed worldwide. From its Sikh base to today’s multicultural bustle, Southall is the home Navraj has elected for his 3rd gen young family to thrive, and yet he acknowledges the discomforting reality of ‘sleeping rough’ in the borough. While Purnimal, a bright-eyed and quick-tongued woman secretary, shuffles in to offer us some tea and apple slices sprinkled with black pepper, our friend suggests we may join them that night in a shelter set up for the homeless. Gurdwara Singh Sabha foundation caters not only for its co-religionists, but for all humanity, especially if downtrodden (Singh 2006). The HSSH social project (Hope for Southall Street Homeless) is run in cooperation by three local stakeholders: the district council, GSS Sikh association and Anglican minster; the Holy Trinity Church on Uxbridge Rd. makes room to accommodate a dozen of ‘down-and-out’ males from all backgrounds and walk of life. We leave promising to pay a visit at the shelter later.
Exiting the gurdwara, I hesitate in removing my dupatta (veil), why should I leave behind what makes me visibly part and parcel of the social scape? No need to fret, down the Green and the Broadway (Southall main road connection), hundreds of women come and go, mostly veiled and with an unusual zest: today it’s “E’id” celebration time, which marks the end of the Ramadan, the sacred month of fasting for Muslims. My colleague and I resolve to pay a visit to the Abu Bakr Masjid on the Broadway: while he enters from the main (male) entrance, I turn around the corner to access the smaller women’s prayer room. One middle-aged lady only sits there murmuring her pleads, facing south east and moving a knit rag of La Mecca over her bare feet. I wouldn’t dare disturbing her, but she looks up and reaches out to gently steer my body towards a better direction for pray: no matter which God I worship, at least I should do my deed dutifully.
Religious festivals come always with some material overindulgence, evermore if they break the spell of a month’s food privation from dawn to dusk: petty trade is relentless in Southall today, and I share the locals’ excitement for making their public home extra-ordinary for a day, irrespective of religious references. Clairvoyants get a bonus in trading locals’ gullibility: I decide to probe my destiny and get my hand read by a Hindu astrologer. In a card-board cubicle off the Broadway, along a lines of stores which the deeper you walk in, the dodgier they seem, I throw small seashells on an star-signed board, benevolently looked down by cheap portraits of Ganesha and Jesus Christ. In that dim-lit and malodorous box of hopes, my queries are artfully replied by a Gujarati young man, a freshie migrant landed in London as a fortune-seeker. When our time expires, after sweet and sour premonitions, he recommends he would perform a supplication to remove all negativity from deceitful ill-meaning people close to me. I gulp when he utters that ‘perils never come far from home’… but the price charged for that service is beyond my affordances, so I resolve to pay for hand-reading only, and save the rest to get hand-writing the day after.
That night, Southall public park turns into an open-air funfair: food stalls selling south Asian finest street food pop up in every corner, with green-painted trucks tagging Pakistani destinations, and kids wheeling around on space shift rides. We venture to see the homeless shelter: a bunch of volunteers, mostly young Westerners coordinated by Navraj and his gorgeous wife, 2nd gen Brit Sikh too, are in charge of watching over the premise (drunkards repeatedly knock at the door, probing to enter), and taking care of the dozen vagrants who have been lucky enough to get a bed there for the night. The atmosphere seems safe and familiar, and the staff is great, though at 9 pm seeing all guests already under their blankets in an open space with no privacy at all is a little distressing. It reminds me of an indoor camping in my teenage years, but what I put up with for leisure as a young girl, it must have felt totally different for those men there, lingering in a limbo of vulnerability, lacking any security, from proper housing to God knows whatever else needed. It’s neither time nor place to approach the dwellers of that temporary shelter. We halt at the reception desk, the threshold of our voyeuristic presence. I feel dizzy facing the boundaries between us and them, researchers and researched, as we talk away with merry volunteers, and gaze upon those bodies at rest, wondering where’s the limit of research ethics. For sure, no pics are allowed, of what are we here to take witness (Jackson, 2015)?
Sat morn I walk on the debris of the E’id celebration, surfing through a semi-asleep Southall. I drop in my favourite beauty parlour, exceptionally empty, after a busy week: two young lady beauticians are cleaning floors armed with brushes and mops. Taking a sit for a mehndi, I strike up some words with my body artist. Jeema is as quick as drawing henna tattoos, as checking on her phone messages. She talks about a fine young man she had met the night before at the festival; pity she is sixteen and Hindu, born in London of a Punjabi family, and he’s twenty-five and Muslim, recently arrived from Afghanistan. She knows this not yet born affair will put her into trouble, but at her age love obliges, in spite of any hurdles. What kind of new home could she ever establish with this man, of different nationality, faith and migratory path, when she’s not a migrant at all, 3rd generation Brit-Indian in fact?
Southall market starts filling up by midday, amid rubble, sales, and nonstop noisy bargaining, women with buggies and elderly people slow down my way; it’s nice to walk one step at a time, taking notice of details: coriander bunches and summer squash from the Ganga region are sold at a discount rate, English Polo t-shirts made in Bangladesh make a cheap gift for any occasion; globalization has never been more home-driven. I finally crush on a bench watching Little India go by; my hand hitches while the henna dries out, and I can’t resist scratching it gently. A looming figure approaches me and commands: “stop doing that! leave it there and it will last longer”. This elderly man limping forward with his stick seats next to me with an aura of hoary familiarity. I can’t take my eyes off his neatly tied black turban, his well combed and not yet fully white beard in spite of his eighty-something age, and the cheap but stylish sweater he wears, branded ‘National Geographic’. I am fond of engaging with elderly people: Mr. Dhil craves for narrating, I long for listening. We entertain a long conversation centred on his migrant experiences: from growing up in Mumbai, moving to London and managing businesses, marrying and raising two daughters, losing his wife and fighting with a chronic condition, closing on his will to give back to the local community which has become his home of a lifetime. In his words, Southall sounds like a paradise lost, a wonderful location for his generation to make a good Brit-Indian family life half a century ago, a social turmoil today where generational bonds are at stake. He invites me to his house, and I’m sad to decline the invitation due to another appointment scheduled. His phone number in my pocket is a pledge to go back and visit him asap.
I fare my Sikh granda ji well, Sat Sri Akal, and head towards Featherstone road. Behind the Dominion Library, there stand, one next to another, three sundry religious places, all connected to India Bharat, motherland: a Hindu temple, a Buddhist centre, and a Sikh foundation. Ambedkar haven is named after the draftsman of the Indian Constitution: an outcaste jurist educated in Britain during the Raj, who overturned the tables of colonialism and caste-discrimination. Ambedkarite followers, mostly dalits mass converted to Buddhism, advocate for a rise of the oppressed, and their numbers have been mounting, in India, elsewhere in the subcontinent (particularly in Sri Lanka), and in the diaspora (Jaffrelot, 2006). When I ring the doorbell, an amiable Punjabi lad welcomes me in: “you’ve just come right on time, we’re waiting for you”. Three, four and then five, young south Asian Buddhists (first-generation migrants, mostly from India and all of very low jati, defined by the State either as scheduled caste or tribes) sit in the kitchen sipping chai and debating ‘soft politics’. The only girl attending takes me around for a visit: partly a retreat centre for meditation courses, partly a temporary lodge for other itinerant Ambedkarites, the place is well maintained and thriving with spirituality and knowledge. Pictures of dalit leaders share room with shelves full of ‘Indian reformist’ literature and with mainstream Buddhist items (statues and flower wreaths). Some of these youths are college students, others not so regular nor skilled immigrants, one is a Buddhist monk: regardless their place of origin, they all share a background of discrimination made in India, whose mark does not stain them with shame, but with pride and conviction in changing the downgraded status quo which plagues them from home. Civil equality in the UK is something they relish, but it is also a partial attainment they can benefit of thanks to the worldwide association they are members. A new home abroad, desh/pardesh, can be achieved not only through factual or fictional kinship ties, but also through social networks that may be not immediately detectible, and yet promote a silent social revolution.
I can never get enough of the uneven divides south Asian people, ever more in the diaspora, experience and transform. The National Sikh Resource centre next door is a hub of Jats, relatively high middle class-cum-caste Sikhs, landowners in the Punjab. Nor that this group makes a homogeneous lot in itself. Minute separations always take place in a seemingly cohesive cluster, also when the traditional learning of Sikhism comes into contact with Western postmodernity, and gives rise to possible contamination.
On the second floor of the building, in a typical British glasshouse room (carpet on the floor and windows on all sides), Rashpal Kaur leads Kundalini and Yoga Nidra classes. The first is attended by a composite group, in age, gender and ethnicity; the second one is for women only, most happen to be in reproductive age (a few are pregnant indeed) and some come there aiming to overcome experiences of bereavement. In both lessons, among Yoga asana and breathing, combined with Sikhi inspired mantras and meditation music, she also plays a planetary tuned gong – made in Germany and matching the frequencies of our Solar system, the Cosmic Octave, or the ultimate sound of our home – the Earth. A white dastar on her head, Rashpal Kaur navigates being a 2nd gen Brit Sikh woman and an alternative yoga instructor (orthodox Sikhs see this mix as poison in the eyes), providing for herself through the contradictory identities she embodies and engagements she holds, not the least claiming for women’s empowerment in Southall. We talk a lot, and we exchange poignant mails; when she addresses me as sister, bhanji, my transition is done.
Waiting at the bus stop, I take a look at the pavement where kids roll over undisturbed with their scooters: marbled cobbles engraved with the founding moments and characters in Southall’s history tell me tales that resonate and exceed what I’ve learnt from the place so far. From first migrant workers’ struggles to brown and black discrimination, from the conversion of deserted churches into new worship houses to the feat of prominent Brit-born south Asians. No doubt there’s still much more to query and see.
On my way back home to Milan from Heathrow Airport, where south Asian turbans and shawls twirl around in a Punjabi-speaking non-lieux (but what’s more comforting than recognising one’s language and chirping in?), I feel homesick already. Just a short research mission in Southall… it doesn’t even feel like fieldwork anymore; it’s homework, doing ethnography of/in home places others than mine and collecting life stories of native-migrants, exactly what I have committed to undertake within our research project. But I never imagined this progressive Homing, amid agendas and happenstances, would also become a labour of love.
Goold, Benjamin, Ian Loader, Angélica Thumala (2013). The Banality of Security: The Curious Case of Surveillance Cameras, The British Journal of Criminology, 53: 6, 977–996.
Jackson, Emma (2015). Young Homeless People and Urban Space: Fixed in Mobility. London: Routledge.
Jaffrelot, Cristophe (2006). Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste. Delhi: Permanent Black Press.
Singh, Gurharpal (2006). Gurdwaras and community-building among British Sikhs. Contemporary South Asia, 15:2, 147-164.