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In English country, a little India

world Updated: Mar 23, 2009 02:30 IST

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A ramshackle van used to be driven religiously by Bhai Pritam Singh three miles away from Heathrow airport whenever a plane from India touched down.

He would meet whoever arrived in search of employment and take them to his sarai (inn) which was built by him over his grocery shop. The migrants, coming in trickles in the 50s, were illiterate, had few pounds in their pockets.

Singh would provide food and help them get a job in a factory owned by a British officer retired from the Indian Army. “They would get jobs immediately,” said Balwant Kapoor, a freedom fighter, who came in the late 40s and stayed on.

They would then shift to a hall where several others stayed. “The spirit of camaraderie was amazing. They would sleep on charpoys, vacated by others going for their shifts, a sort of taking turns. They ate in the common kitchen. The toilets were far away and most got bathing water on Sundays only.”

And thus the foundation of Little India, Southall, was laid. Today Southall is indeed the India in England (Indians 58 per cent in 88,000 population), an oasis of bustling happy, prosperous families outside the western culture — living in comfortable houses, driving Mercs and Lexuses.

Singh would be proud of what the immigrants he helped and their generations that followed, achieved. They have built the biggest gurudwara outside India, which receives over £2.5 million every year in offerings, and there is a popular Indian temple that gets over £50,000 offerings a month. And, of course, Glossy Junction, a pub where you can pay in rupees.

The blaring of Bollywood songs, show windows displaying saris, kurta-duppattas, Indian actors staring from the covers of numerous film magazines along with the aroma of samosas, jalebis and chaat, makai ki roti and saag on Broadway, the biggest Asian High Street in the country.

But the fact that women and men now stroll freely and happily on the streets camouflages the hardships, tears and struggles earlier generations underwent.

Krishna Bhatia recalls the days when Southall was racially attacked. “Everyone stood against the attackers and since 1977 never ever it has happened again.”

Gurinder Chadha was right when she said her film, Bend It Like Beckham, showed the Pind outside Punjab. Holi and Baiskahi are celebrated with more fervour than in India. You can also get paan for a pound.