Passage to England

Punam Khaira Sidhu on the Queen’s country and its sights, the attitudes and lifestyle of the Britons and the Asian immigrants

Victoria and Albert Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum

The London Underground
The London Underground

Hyde Park, a must-see on every tourist’s itinerary
Hyde Park, a must-see on every tourist’s itinerary

WHEN we took off from New Delhi, it was with a head full of Noddy-inspired images, envisioning England as a country of villages with rose briars on gates, gnarled apple trees and green meadows with fluffy sheep. When we landed in Manchester, it was anticlimactic. There were lots of Indians and the Metropolis was just like Bangalore or Gurgaon except that it was cleaner, and much colder.

It was September and the country was experiencing an Indian summer. The sun did not set until 9 pm and the British, who are huge sun worshippers, were out all day in the briefest of shorts armed with large tubes of sun block. The houses did not have ceiling fans: with global warming raising temperatures around the globe the British Isles are a huge market for Indian fan manufacturers to explore.

Britain is a welfare state. The State steps in with free medical care through the National Health Service (NHS), free and compulsory education, free or subsidised council housing, benefits for unemployment, heating bills, child support and disabilities etc. The British public transport system is robust with buses, trams and trains. In the cities, the identically constructed semi-detached and terraced houses, made familiar in the Granada studios’ popular TV soap, The East-Enders, are occupied largely by the middle classes. Each area has its own market, surgery, school and pub. Residential areas in the UK are very stratified. You are where you live and are immediately slotted by your residential postal code. While students live near the cheaper City Centre, the more affluent live in country homes with gardens. That’s where you can see the rose briars and green meadows.

Welfare state notwithstanding, the Thatcher years have seen a cutback on the State’s role and deficit and there is no permanent employment only, continuous employability. Multi-skilling is the new mantra. The British are unfailingly polite and correct. Every telephone query is prefaced with a "How may I help you?" They are also very fair in their dealings regardless of the fact that Asians have swamped their tiny isle and pose a substantial burden on the welfare state. But Britons are reserved and most personal interaction is within segregated community groups. Chicken tikka may be a national favourite but notwithstanding professional achievements immigrants can only be second-best citizens.

University education is expensive and students work to support their education. Students stack shelves in stores, work at data entry and in restaurants cooking naans or noodles late into the night. Immigrant Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Chinese abound in the UK. Bangladeshi’s in fact are the backbone of the couture garment trade in the UK of which Petticoat Lane on the outskirts of London is an example.

The first generation Asians were relatively unskilled and poorly educated but they worked hard to put the second generation through university and into professions. Almost every Asian is a success story in his/her own measure. My friends in the UK IRS told me that Asian immigrants are also responsible for widening the cash trades in this credit card economy. Hence, whether it is the weekly grocery market, homemade goodies, or repair jobs, the Asians will do them and hope the taxman does not find their trail. Most Asians also moonlight ie do more than one job in their spare time.

Pubs in the UK serve bitter, lager and the Irish draught beer, Guinness, along with delicious home cooked samples of British cuisine such as Yorkshire pudding and rhubarb, steak and kidney pie and a large variety of sausages with the omnipresent fries flavoured with barbeque sauce and vinegar. Lunch is called dinner while dinner is called supper.

Football is religion in the UK. Britons have deep-seated club loyalties and the devout sport the club uniforms and sing the club anthem with fervour. Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool top the present rankings.

Rupert Murdoch’s Sun with its Page 3 topless model, is the tabloid with the largest circulation. Other tabloids include the Daily Mirror, Star and Daily Mail. The broadsheets, the Sunday Observer, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian still command a loyal readership.

The National Lottery with a top prize of millions of pounds has a draw every Wednesday and Saturday. A ticket costs a pound and can be picked up at almost all commercial establishments. The average Briton is tolerant of the royalty, but obsesses over the colourful Beckhams and loves business pashas like Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic fame who create jobs and wealth. Stores like Debenhams and Marks and Spencer stock quality at value for money prices and their blue cross sales are sellouts. Stella McCartney and John Galliano are the homegrown stars on the couture horizon.

Heritage is big business in the UK and large homes have opened their grounds to the public for a price. Heritage buildings are protected by strict conservation laws, which do not allow even a pin to be put on the fa`E7ade without invoking a penalty. We had the temerity, albeit in complete ignorance, to put a DTH antenna on the fa`E7ade of Brian Redhead Court, a 100-year-old building which housed our student flats, to get our daily fix of Zee TV. There was consternation and a show-cause and we were almost evicted.

Third generation Asians who know which fork to use are the Britons who meld effortlessly. But for the others being away from home seems to intensify their need to stay in touch with their cultural identity in what borders on paranoia. On festivals and weddings the fervour has to be seen to be believed: remember Bend it like Beckham. There are several gurdwaras and mandirs. Most are run by devout faithfuls but power politics does prevail. They also provide a hub for social activities and help-groups.

We battled homesickness constantly, especially through the cold days of winter snow and sleet. The sight of banks of daffodils did nothing for our spirits unlike a squashed marigold that a visitor brought along with parshad from India. I remember inhaling the fragrance of India in that little blossom.

The neighbours calling to borrow jamun for curd, the smell of mango blossoms, jalebis, endless cups of tea with hot pakoras: we missed them all. Staying in the UK was a great experience but as I have said earlier it is not in the Queen’s country but in your country of origin that you are King.