Walking along in Southall: changing frames of a fabled ghetto in greater London
by Sara Bonfanti
The piece casts an ethnographic portrait of London Southall, as sensed through street phenomenology (Kusenbach 2003). Britain Little India’s quarter is caught by the eyes of an ethnographer in residence and her key local informants, who stroll together in town, detouring from the main Junction avenues. Residential and commercial areas, administrative and clerical premises, tended greens and abandoned blocks are the backdrop of a crawling urban belt, whose hidden alleys reveal more than its BAME (Black & Minority Ethnic) tag might imply. Only apparently erratic, the paired flâneurs follow trails where locals come together regardless of social divides, or where their paths diverge, from marginal youths to pious elders, from entrepreneurs to the homeless. Twenty years after Baumann’s (1996) exposé of this mixed social field, dialogic chats and photographic shots concur to depict today’s diversification of an iconic British Asian scene, beating in the tempo of its daily grinds.
There is an analogy between immersive ethnographic fieldwork and mobile people’s resettlement: a disturbed pace of apprenticeship until one has embodied a progressive sense of the place (Massey 1994). It’s been two years since I started doing research in Southall, and every time I return, caught in the whirlwind of multisite ethnography and rapid narratives, trying to re-emplace myself in this multiverse urban fringe, flukes open up new insights. Fifth return to the field, early May 2019; pending Brexit, my EU passport is still flexible enough to let me enter and leave the UK anytime, my wallet stuffed enough with high skilled White capital to allow me an easy stay. It’s not just a lore that depicts Southall as Britain’s Little India, or Chota Punjab, like its inhabitants dub it. Disembarking the Tata shuttle train started in Paddington, one’s ears throb with Eastern words gushed in London’s far West, eyes fill up with strings of Punjabi script signposted on every step, nostrils replenish with extant curry and frankincense, coal and rubber from deserted factories. Everyday life in any given neighbourhood is a matter of senses, like Rhys-Taylor (2017) poignantly described of East London, whose smells and food are integral to understanding both its history and urban present, betwixt gentrification and class antagonism, new ethnicities and cosmopolitanism.
Tucked his mobile in his pocket, Ram greets me on the platform. We met months earlier by chance, he then agreed into being interviewed upon lunch invitation at a tandoori diner nearby and we have been friends ever since. Literally a fine artist, he sent me a greeting card for Christmas, including a portrait of his homeland expressly drafted for me (his mother wearing a sari and placidly carrying a vessel of water on her head amid lush green countryside: nothing farther than ladies wrapped-up in shawls dashing under London’s grey skies). Not that all informants come as close as this, but when they do, ethnography allows human relationships hard to surpass in collaboration and engagement. Ethnographic intimacy is the one tool that permits to conceive the incommensurability of radical alterities (Povinelli 2001). How can a White mother and professional and a Brown bachelor and outcaste come together to interpret of what Southall appears to them? Phenomenology starts with what seems, primarily non-verbal clues, and inquiries the relations of meaning that surface through sensation to verbalised thought, possibly embracing the awareness of others, history and values (Husserl 1964). Raised in the habit of Buddhist musing, my informant masters self-consciousness and direct-object alertness, but it is his warm smile and scruffy hair that brings my wandering mind back to the present moment. Born in Telangana, southeast India, 31 years ago, Ram moved to London in 2017 with a Visa for master students after securing a place in a reputable college through a scheme for disadvantaged talents (lit. for “scheduled castes” as per affirmative action in India, Deshpande 2013). Southall has become his home away from home, desh/pardesh like Panjabis say: a place where to settle rather seamlessly. A cheap borough, he had found abode in a temple which also serves as a temporary dwelling for many migrant peers (like most houses of worship do in South Asia and worldwide in the diaspora, Singh 2006). His home (a rented room with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities) is set in a terraced house next-door to a Hindu mandir and Sikh resource centre. There is no detachment in Southall religious pluralism. Starting in 1985, a patron refurbished the place in order to host a Buddhist centre within the anticasteist Ambedakarite1 movement (Jaffrelot 2005) and provide transnational fellows with a haven upon a small donation.
As Ram helps me carry my luggage around, the foul today is unbearable. Crossing the bridgeway in front of the Railway station, he points to the ashes of a construction site which promises to be the most ambitious new residential hamlet ever developed in the Borough of Ealing. Southall Waterside is the building proof that environmental racism does not only exist (Hage 2017), but it is a critical and disguised threat to social housing and spatial justice. The 45 ha site sits alongside the rail tracks between the Grand Union Canal and Southall Station, right on the former Gasworks spot which closed in 1973, leaving an underutilised and inaccessible place. Waterside is one of the most audacious brownfield developments under way in the UK, where councils speed up development of derelict land as part of a national plan for housing. Though its planners are known to engage in ‘Collaborative Placemaking’, a good slice of citizens are cagey of the alleged regeneration. That same morning, Ram explains, a protest march has flooded the main Junction Avenues (the Green and the Broadway, which cut across the quarter and identify the dials of the Old and the New Southall). Some residents now plan to move out of Southall despite not wanting to leave their extended families which have resided there for generations. Besides anticipating stellar prices for the central and classy flats which this renewal will yield, current residents in the adjoining areas have complained for the long-term health impact of the “petrol-like” odour, which alarming reports admit contain carcinogenic toxins such as benzene, phthalate, and asbestos (Griffin 2019).
It is a dreadful coincidence that the leaders of this campaign for the right to an healthy neighbourhood are parents and teachers of the local “Blair Peach” Primary School, whose name takes after the activist who died on 23rd April 1979 during a demonstration in Southall against a National Front meeting (probably hit on the head by a member of the Special Patrol Group (SPG), a specialist unit within the Metropolitan Police). Although major riots in the area date back to June 1976, after the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, outside the offices of the IWA Indian Workers’ Association, it is Peach’s death that marked the era of Southall Riots and launched the rise of community-mixed social claims, leading the way to socialist, feminist and Brown&Black vindications (like the founders of SBS Southall Black Sisters recounted – see Gupta 2003). While we pant through the Saturday eve crowds, Ram recounts that another mass event has taken place two weeks earlier, commemorating Peach’s mourning and reviving Southall’s thirst for equality. Heading to my friend’s dwelling, we literally step on the cobblestones where all these social leaders have been engraved, in a sort of walkable map of the neighbourhood’s history. Ramadan is due to begin tomorrow, thus we have the last chance for a month to queue for a naan bread in the most glamourous bakery in town: the Naan shop is run by a family of Sikh Afghans who fled to London a generation earlier, and has since produced in store naan breads for both domestic customers and caterers. Though elated with the smell of fresh garlic naan, cheese and chilly as well as chocolate ones, we can’t resist the bargain of 3 plain naans for £1: a yummy gift to shower Ram’s inmate fellows at the ‘holy hostel’ where he stays.
The plan is that tonight I will sneak in and sleep in Ram’s room, since women are not formally allowed in the premise unless accompanied by their husbands. While he gets ready to set off for his night shift (though pursuing a programme in Arts&Design, to make ends meet as a freshbie, newly arrived immigrant, Ram got an informal job in a south Indian restaurant), we bump in Venerable Wissamalang, the monk there appointed. The senior bhikkhus, native of Sri Lanka but British national since the late 70s, has just returned from his yearly 4month trip across Asia, where he hopes to raise funds for training Buddhist nuns. Although Thero (lit. elder in Pali) is jolly and invites me to next night’s contemplation practice, there is no way I can sleep over tonight. Diverted to another roof, I ring my friend Hansa who lives with her widow mother a few blocks away, in the Commons, along the Canal side. Thero raises concerns over my safety walking alone at night, thus entrusts a friend of his to pick me up and drive me to destination. Rakesh is an amiable middle aged engineer who has lived in Southall since childhood, once his parents, Indian natives there residents under Commonwealth treaties, were expelled from Tanzania following Independence. He dares inviting me for a drink and comfort food in the nearby Inn, i.e. ale beer locally brewed and piping hot fried samosa, a Brit-Asian blend that is the norm in any pubs down here, but I owe my hostesses an early night’s sleep.
Hansa’s family home is a three-bedroomed flat on the second floor of a working-class condo, overlooking all the neighbours’ rear gardens. A guadhia (vicinity) that my friend tries to snub, wary of rumours about her still spinsterhood at age 33. Past the door with a Parvati insignia, their house is spotless, with one spare room since her brother married to a goora, a white woman, and opted to move out. While my friend fixes the wifi, her mum serves me homespun roti with chai (bread and tea) in the sitting room, under the picture of her deceased husband who first moved there forty years ago from Gujrat. I sleep like a log, until Hansa comes in to gentle wake me up and take me for a Sunday stroll: the weather is unusually warm and bright, perfect to go down to the allotments in Bixley Fields (community gardens). On our path we traverse Southall Greens, cheering for kids who take turns in playing cricket and soccer. We pass along waste furniture illegally disposed, where discarded mattresses can’t give relief to the hundred rough sleepers in the borough (despite the shelters provided by a new-born civic association, Hope for Southall Street Homeless). At every crossroad, veiled women and children go in one direction, turbaned males take another; some nod their heads, others simply pass by. Elders, youth and families alike are on their way to their places of worship; Gurdware, Churches, Mandirs and Masjids are almost stormed in for socialization on a blissful day off. There’s not much to do in my friend’s plot either: her green tending abilities dwindle since she has taken up a job at a make-up retailer.
We manage to harvest cardamom crops and, locking the patch of land allotted to Hansa’s family, we run into Baljit Pyaar, once chief of her passed away father. Pyaar is known as a lifelong leader in town, who, since retiring from his CEO post at a premiere transportation company, has devoted himself to collect all documents which trail blazed ‘Panjabis of Southall’, a book just published thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Memorable his saying when he fares us well and invites us to a screening of the homonymous movie in the Dominion Centre (the first Bollywood cinema in town): ‘When Southall sneezed, the British Asian community caught a cold’. Hansa and I giggle, how much self-pride and community promotion is distributed via this film threaded with oral history materials? Not only urban ethnographers do recognise the tides of time at every yard (Katz 2010), Pyaar’s project reveals that long-resident Southallians are well aware of how history is stamped onto their neighbourhood, and to have it effaced, now that new diversified immigrant flows are coming in, is an option they wish to defy. We head back in town, and although Hansa customarily attends the Shri Ram Mandir according to her hindu upbringing, she proposes to stop by at the main Sri Guru Granth Gurdwara: the Sikh langar (shared food) tastes nicer, she admits bluntly.
Following Kusenbach (2003: 2), even though ‘natural’ go-alongs are ideally rooted in informants’ everyday routines, “[they] are always ‘contrived’ social situations, which intentionally aim to capture the stream of perceptions, emotions and interpretations that informants usually keep to themselves”. What kind of ‘walk alongs’ did my strolls with Ram and Hansa fulfil, during a long May Bank Holiday weekend when the rest of London rested under a drowsy spell, while Southall almost never respited? It took Gerd Baumann (1996) six years as a scholar in-residence to deliver his study of Southall as a multi-ethnic and yet single social field. Hanging out with Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, Afro-Caribbean, Irish, and English, Baumann’s main thrust was analysing how the terms culture and community were used. He described an alternate ‘demotic’ discourse among Southallians, where communities and their ascribed cultures are not necessarily equated as they are in the dominant discourse, bearing evidence of cross-community and cross-cultural activity. Since then, the multiculturalism backlash has borne a new idiom to interpret diversity and its everyday practice in a district which is classified for administrative purposes as BAME: Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. While Baumann determined that the one ambiguous common trait was Southallians’ description of their neighbourhood as ‘grotty’, no local informants of mine would give in to this satiric resignation. In the span of this article stretch barely two days of Southall beats; street phenomenology might pass in a blink, but its reflections take time to shine. Urban ethnography is done at a frantic pace in the field, but at desk raw notes and impromptu visuals magnify a researcher’s endeavour. To me, Southall fabled ghetto keeps changing frames at any visit and with new closer informants. All my previous blogposts (Bonfanti, 2017, 2018a, 2018b) about the neighbourhood compose a prismatic portrait, my own home away from home within a research project on home&migration that I can’t toss out of the airplane window taking off from Heathrow. The largest UK flying hub which Panjabis came in flocks to build and operate since the late 50’s: easier to fly in and fly out when the right times might come. Very few ever went back to their homeland in the following decades: the railed enchantment of this neighbourhood, with its many drawbacks and mounting criticalities (from racial-ist relations to health hazards, homelessness and illegal dealings) is the tag that almost all Southallians share, each with their story. Ram as an Indian immigrant resident who forecasts to overstay despite his temporary visa. Hansa as a 2ndgeneration Brit-Asian who would never leave the borough that has made her the independent woman she is proud to be. And I couldn’t agree more.
1. The author declares that there is no conflict of interest regarding the publication of this article. She also reports collecting the data here analysed within the ERC HOMInG project, which received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant no.678456).
2. A revised version of this paper is forthcoming in LoSquaderno #53, Special Issue on “Neighbourhood Portraits”.
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1 B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), draftsman of the Indian Constitution in 1949, has since been recognised as the national leader of the anti-caste movement, which has accompanied the long haul of India towards and after Independence. Ambedkarite followers have been waging a mostly non-violent protest against the inequalities engrained in the caste system. Within this hierarchical organization of social difference, people belonging to certain birth-groups are ascribed a higher/lower status which denies many the right to freedom and equality while perpetuating severe discriminations.