LONDON IS A HOME AWAY FROM HOME FOR INDIANS IN THE UK
LONDON THEN AND NOW
By SHAMLAL PURI
WHEN I first arrived in London some 35 years ago, life for Indians and Asians from the Indian-sub continent settled here was very different.
When they walked the streets of London or went to their work places, everything to them was so British. Super stores stocked everything that was British and European. Indian goods were frowned upon by English shopkeepers.
The earliest wave of Indians had arrived from the sub-continent during the British rule there. They were largely students who settled here. At that time migration was difficult and not many Indians could settle here.
They struck a compromise – outside they lived life as the rest of Britons. The only Indian touch they enjoyed was at home. They ate Indian food cooked in their kitchen, and within
their four walls, listened to Hindustani music with records and tapes bought while visiting India on holiday.. The weekends were spent enjoying the best of Indian life in the privacy of their homes.
Racism was rife in the UK in those years. The natives of England looked down upon Indian food and culture and considered Indians a species from another world. Winston Churchill’s famous uncharitable remarks describing Mahatma Gandhi, as the “naked fakir” added fuel to fire stocking racism to its zenith.
Even when educated Indians wore English suits and bowler hats in the public, they were put down as foreigners who had no right to be in the UK.
There were fewer cinema halls offering a fare of Indian movies. Those that catered for Hindustani films showed them on the weekends under special arrangements with cinema owners who normally screened Hollywood films. It was a rare treat for Indian film fans that flocked cinema halls not only to watch Bollywood films but also to socialise because they missed India.
We all watched three channels on British television – BBC 1, BBC2 and ITV, mostly on monochrome sets. Colour TV was a rarity. Indian television was non-existent except for some educational Hindi and Urdu programmes such as Nayi Zindagi Naya Jeewan shown by BBC Television with erstwhile presenters such as Mahendra Kaul, Salim Shaheed and Ashok Rampal, among the few household name Indian presenters. The programmes largely reflected
issues confronting Indians and other Asians and their lives in their country of adoption.
The only entertainment slot was a few minutes of Indian music and singers at the end of the programmes. The programmes, beamed from Birmingham, used to be a treat for Indian households on Sunday mornings who would watch these while leisurely tucking into paranthas and puris for breakfast.
When I first arrived here in the 1970s, there were few Indian journalists around. I was among very few Indian journalists settled in London. Unless you were the London-based correspondent of Indian newspapers, it was very difficult to get into mainstream British journalism because the profession was a closed shop and jealously guarded by the White British elite. You had to be a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).
Indians were caught up in a catch 22 situation – you could not get a job unless you were a member of the NUJ and you could not join NUJ unless you worked as a professional journalist. It took a very broadminded white editor to welcome you on his staff.
Those Indians who managed to get into main stream journalism were achievers. The British population landscape was changing. The trickle of Indians of arriving in the UK was going to turn into a torrent. The first hint of things to come was in 1968 however when a new wave of Indians started arriving from Kenya following that country’s Africanisation policy. Indian businesses were refused trading licences forcing them to leave the country in bif numbers.
Plane-loads of Indians started arriving in a cold Britain. The exodus is still fresh in the minds of those who arrived here in 1968.
Four years later, the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, was upset with Indians living in his country, He was livid that they had monopolised the economy and taken over the entire business sector. To add fuel to the fire one Sunday afternoon he saw Indians milling around in groups and walking leisurely in Kampala and he lashed out accusing them of treating his country’s main city as if it were a suburb of Bombay. His mind was made up to expel all Asians from his country in August 1972.
Thousands of British passport holders packed their bags and arrived in the UK as refugees.
They started their life afresh. With some 150,000 Indian families from Kenya and Uganda settling in Britain, There were panic waves in neighbouring Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, from where whoever could prove British citizenship connections, arrived to settle in this country.
It had suddenly become fashionable to emigrate to the UK. With the settling of so many Indians, London suddenly lacked infrastructure to meet the needs of the new-arrivals, some of whom were not educated.
Africa’s loss was Britain’s gain.. These Indians were well-trained businessmen and started taking over corner shops from the English owners. They stocked groceries and newspapers, the daily needs of their local communities. They offered their customers a quality service which snooty British owners had not cared to give. Woe betide if you were to go and ask for a pint of milk at their closing time – they would say ‘we are closed! Come back tomorrow’. Not so with the Indians, even if they were about to put a padlock on their front door and somebody dropped in to buy a bread, they would happily open their store and serve them with a smile.
Indian-owned corner shops were an institution as they were open all hours and attracted mainly Indian customers and also some English.
The major top name super-stores were watching them in awe as they attracted business. Even they decided to join in the competition by keeping theirs open all hours. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, paid a tribute to the Indian-owned corner shops by saying they had revolutionised Britain’s shopping system.
By using their clout for bulk-buying and lower prices to their customers the super stores succeeded in routing the small corner shops which have been closing in the current economic downturn. But history is a witness to how these small Indian shopkeepers taught the giants that quality service attracts customers.
Today Indian shops stock virtually everything produced in India complete with labels in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati and other Indian languages. While shopping in these stores sometimes one virtually forgets that they are shopping in a store on British soil and not in Mumbai. Every summer mangoes imported from India and Pakistan are in popular demand as are other fruits and vegetables flown from there.
As the community settled, their social needs also grew. London lacked a radio station offering Indian music.
It was a great day when London Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) teamed up with Indian broadcasters to launch Geetmala, a weekly entertainment programme. It was presented by Chaman Lal Chaman, a well known Indian broadcaster from Kenya and produced by Suresh Joshi. LBC’s Keith Belcher was credited with allowing Geetmala to come to fruition. That programme became a firm fixture with thousands of Indian listeners.
Geetmala ended its run a few years later, but this proved there was a need for radio stations offering Indian programmes. Other radio stations followed.
There were several pirate radio stations run by various ethnic communities, which were raided and closed down by the Home Office, the Government authority. They rose again until the authorities realised they had to cater for Britain’s ethnic minority communities and the best way to regulate them was to licence them.
Sunrise Radio was born out of such a creation. It has prospered with the creation of several radio stations and a small slice of satellite broadcasting.
It is now very easy to set up a commercial Asian radio station. All you need is money and a set of very sound reasons to convince the Home office to grant a broadcasting licence.
Meanwhile, BBC TV’s erstwhile Nayi Zindagi Naya Jeevan was also on its last legs. It had served its purpose (and bored its audiences thoroughly). BBC TV in Birmingham started
revamping itself and its Asian Unit looked at different ways to develop programmes for the growing Indian, Pakistani and other Asian communities. ITV also jumped on the bandwagon with its own programmes for Asian and Black viewers.
For Asian viewers, Eastern Eye was broadcast under the watch of Indian broadcaster Samir Shah and a team that once included the famous Karan Thapar, Narendra Morar, Ziauddin Sardar, Shyama Perera and Aziz Kurtha. I worked for Samir Shah on a series of programmes.
For Afro-Caribbean viewers, there was Black on Black under the watchful eye of the highly respected broadcaster, Trevor Philips, who is today the chairman of Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality.
These programmes ended their run after a few years.
While BBC and ITV-controlled the terrestrial airwaves for many years, there was ample market for cable and satellite TV.
The arrival of Zee TV and Sony TV revolutionised the entire Indian media scene. Now, viewers in the UK enjoy whatever is being shown on these channels in India. With a wide array of programmes to choose from, these TV networks have actually brought India into the living rooms of British Asians. Apart from these two networks, Star TV, Star Plus, BFU, Zee Music and a wide array of other channels such as Vectrone, Alpha Punjabi, Zee Gujarati, have set the media scene ablaze in Britain.
In many Asian households, terrestrial TV channels such as the BBC and ITV have long been ignored as there is great enthusiasm to watch Indian soaps and films every day.
Added to this is the plethora cinema houses such as Cineworld, Himalaya and various other theatres offering latest Indian film releases.
So, far away from home, people still feel at home in Britain with a wide variety of choice.
Alas, the same cannot be said of newspapers for the Asian community.
The print media, which first started revolutionising coverage of Indian events has long been left behind.
There have been household names as India Weekly (where I worked as an assistant editor in the 1970s), Eastern Eye, Asian Voice, Garavi Gujarat, Gujarat Samachar, Asian Trader, Des Pardes, Navin Weekly and a variety of other language newspapers and magazines offering a regular diet of news from back home.
The newspapers and magazines used to have a good readership base at one time but nowadays, apart from first generation Indians who enjoyed a good read, a lot of these have now crossed the floor to Indian TV and radio channels.
The late Chottu Karadia, editor of the weekly current affairs magazine, Asian Post, once said sardonically: “Asians simply do not read! Why don’t our Asians read newspapers?”
The magazine was losing sales and consequently, advertising revenue.
Asian newspapers have depended very strongly on local government advertising and a band of loyal readers. Both of these have been dwindling in recent years, making enterprising Indian publishers live on precarious budgets.
The future for the Indian owned print media is not very strong. Radio and TV have a future here, though, the Chief Executive of Sunrise Radio once lamented on air, that while Indian traders stocked Coca Cola in their shops and stores, the multinational did not see it fit to advertise its brands on his radio station.
That perhaps, says a lot about the business of publishing for the Indian community in the United Kingdom. — Shamlal Puri
Shamlal Puri is a veteran British journalist, broadcaster, author and press photographer. He has worked with the media in Europe Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He was the founding editor of Newslink Africa, a pioneering news service for the continent, He has worked for Daily News Tanzania, was a senior journalist on Kenya Times, Nairobi and worked for Drum magazine.
His latest novel ‘Dubai Dreams: The Rough Road to Riches’ ISBN – Hardback 978-0-9552627-2-2, Softcover – 978-0- 9552627-3-9 will be released around the world in 2010. Contact: www.crownbirdpublishers.co.uk
He is widely traveled in a journalistic career spanning 30 years. His work has been published in more than 250 magazines, newspapers and journals around the world.
He is also the author of Axis of Evil: Blood Money and That’s Life; Michael Matatu at Large (based on his columns in Drum and its sister magazines.)
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