Shopping expedition in Little India: of Shalwars, samosas and Bollywood clones

Hanji is the word I picked off the air in Southall where I worked for a firm of solicitors. Travelling the bus 120 I could be in Bombay for hardly a word of English is spoken here. So when I sat next to a Punjabi woman she thought I too must be Indian and she started to chat in Punjabi. Do I tell her I speak no Punjabi, Gujarathi or Marati or do I nod wisely. Not wanting to cause offence I chose the middle way and remembered the word‘Hanji’; the stock response of my Sikh colleague when responding to her boss’s call. Hanji means okay.

Rather foolishly I nodded my head and said, “Hanji”. I was well and truly caught this time. She took me for an Indian and carried on talking. Now I kept nodding my head vigorously and prayed the bus would get to my destination. I got off the bus and saw her no more.

Southall Broadway and Ealing Road in Wembley are called little India since the Indians were brought here as cheap labour by the British in the thirties to work in the cotton mills and coal-mines in far-away Manchester, Sheffield and Yorkshire. Many left Heathrow and Dover for their miserable plight but the smart ones stayed put in Southall and Wembley and became traders. Little did the British realize they would become a law unto themselves and boot them out of their plush residential homes.

Understated is the key to British way of life. Until perhaps the summer arrives they prefer to garb themselves in black, navy blue, beige, bottle green or brown. Even the colour of their vehicles is dull and their houses too are painted in dim colours.

Then came the Indians and Pakistanis and life was never the same for the British.

There are myriads of reasons I love Ealing Road in Wembley and Southall’s Broadway. These two London suburbs light up the day for me even in the middle of winter. From the fruits, vegetables and spices to the food and clothes in the shops it is a riot of splendid hues not to mention more affordable prices than supermarkets. The Gujaratis and Punjabis who have lived here for decades seem to say, `to hell with convention’ and are a kind of dictators of their own Indian exuberance in that they neither care for understating or subtleness when it comes to flaunting their culture and wealth.

True, it is a bit difficult to overtake someone on the pavement for the Indians in their gaudy shalwars and baggy trousers like to walk at least five abreast laden with large cans of cooking oil, bags of basmathi and sacks of potatoes; the staple for an Indian household. If you said, `excuse me,’ they cannot hear you or do not care. So what do you do. Risk your limb by walking on the road for a split second trying to skip that Indian teenager roaring past in his Miami-Vice pink Mercedes at lightning speed and supersonic speakers blaring the latest Hindi hits.

The Indians here actually live their Bollywood dreams. The clones of Shah Ruk Khan, Sneha, Hrithik, Ajesh and Deepika walk next to you in their self-assured manner on their way to work, clubbing on a Friday night or simply hanging out.

I do not miss Pettah’s pavements for haggling since I will come out with paying less than half the price quoted for a stainless steel spice container or a box of delicious Alfonsin mangoes which are tastier than Karuthakolumbu and less expensive. I will also have a fresh kurumba (a little pricey) and buy six hot samosas for a pound. Cheek by jowl with the fruit and veg is the Pakistani butcher where I can buy two boiler chickens for two pounds. These are the next best thing to the fowls my mother killed twice a year on festive occasions. Quite tough to chew you swallow the meat and finish your rice with the tantalising gravy alone.

Then you have the Afghan pavement seller with ribbons, laces and needles of varying sizes in that round pink plastic case, safety pins, buttons and assorted threads all neatly packed in his metal trunk. Well, what do you know, these are dirt-cheap. You would pay through your nose at Hobbycraft (the English store for such things) and still you won’t find a needle to sew.

Exhausted from the shopping but exhilarated for shopping wisely I would walk into a restaurant for the lunch-time deal of thali plate of rice, idly, five veg and chutneys and payasam for dessert.

Back in Harrow I walk the short distance from the bus-stop passing the Brits in their beige, black and brown clothes, the dim painted walls of sombre houses with neat gardens and privet hedges and the sprawling trees in the park close by and I think to myself I have the best of both worlds.