The Lord Mayor of Leicester

Pray silence and all rise for the Right Worshipful the Lord Mayor of Leicester Councillor Manjula Sood! booms the Civic Attendant. She enters the hall wearing a blue and gold sari and the symbol of her office around her neck, a heavy 18-carat gold chain set in velvet with a medallion, dated 1867, bearing the crest of the city of Leicester. Manjula Sood is the first Asian woman Lord Mayor in Britain, the rotating civic post on the Leicester City Council. The office is ceremonial, but as Leicester’s first citizen and chair of the council, the Lord Mayor is the public face of Britain’s most diverse city. By 2011 Leicester is expected to be Britain’s first minority-majority city, with black, minority, and ethnic groups (BMEs in British parlance) outnumbering whites. The East Midlands city’s population is heavily Asian (the British use the term to refer to immigrants from the subcontinent), with arrivals from North India and East Africa. Manjula Sood’s story parallels the growth of Leicester as a model for Britain’s increasingly complex relationship with its Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Caribbean immigrants, and its new arrivals from places like Somalia and Zimbabwe.

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Manjula Sood was born into a wealthy family in Ludhiana, in the Indian state of Punjab. Her father was a doctor, her mother a teacher, and the family placed a high value on education, especially for women. After earning a master’s degree in sociology at Punjab University, she became a senior researcher in a program sponsored by Johns Hopkins University that worked on women’s and children’s health issues in rural Punjab.

“My spirituality developed at a lot,” she says of her time working in the villages. “I had so much at home; these people had nothing to eat.”

She came to Leicester in 1970, joining her husband, Vijay Paul Sood, who had arrived six years earlier to pursue an engineering degree and had begun working for General Electric. She came on a snowy December day at a time when Britain’s tolerance for immigrants was under strain. Leicester’s Asian population had been increasing by over fifty percent annually for a decade, with many arrivals from Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. The whites-only National Front party was agitating against immigration, stoking nationalist and racist fervor. This was the era of Enoch Powell’s famous “rivers of blood” speech, in which the Conservative MP railed against the influx of immigrants, blaming them for the breakdown of Britain’s social and physical infrastructure.

Two years after Sood arrived, during the crisis sparked by Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda, the Leicester City Council (over which Sood now presides), placed advertisements in the Uganda Argus, the state-run newspaper, claiming that Leicester’s housing and schools were overloaded: “In your own interests and those of your family you should not come to Leicester.” In December of 1970, Sood’s house was cold since she and her husband could barely afford to heat it. Paul worked long hours. After a week, when the snow stopped, she asked him, “How do you make a phone call here?” She went out to a shop with a pay phone, called Ludhiana, and asked to come home. Her grandfather said she was in Britain now and Leicester was her home. “You have an education,” he told her. “Now use it.”

So she enrolled at Leicester University, pursuing postgraduate studies in teacher training. During her first year, she found out she was pregnant. She gave birth to her first son, taking only minimal time off from her studies. “Coming from a wealthy family in India and now having to face all these challenges was difficult,” she says. “We didn’t have any money. But you make the best of it.”

After completing the program, she started teaching at a primary school in Leicester, far from her home, which required her to take a bus to the city center and then change to another line. During the winter, she would wait in the foyer of Leicester Town Hall.

“On the day I became Lord Mayor, I thought of those times. Back then I was a woman seeking shelter from the cold. I had no money for warm clothes. I never thought I would own this building!” she says. “This is how destiny works.”

As one of Leicester’s first Asian primary school teachers, she developed a multicultural curriculum, teaching the students about Christmas, Eid, Hanukkah, Diwali, and other religious festivals, but was reproached by her principal. Sood marks this as a turning point for her: “’When in Rome, do as the Romans,’ he told me, and I was boiling inside. When I told this to my husband, he said, ‘You have to get into politics.’”quote.jpg

It would be a while before Sood entered elected politics, though Paul became a Leicester City Councillor in 1982. The couple had become successful and established in Leicester, starting an insurance company and travel agency. When Paul died suddenly in 1996, she was asked to stand for election to fill out the remainder of his term. When the term ended, she had hoped to step down, but the Council urged to run on her own. “They wouldn’t accept my resignation,” she says.

But these were difficult times for her. As a widow, she felt isolated and alone, she says, pointing to the marks on her arm where she burned herself with incense sticks. Politics was a difficult environment for her, requiring her to confront racism. “It’s not all love-care-share like it was in primary school,” she says. Wanting to withdraw completely, one day she found solace in the silence of a Catholic Church. Before an image of the Virgin Mary, she heard the words, “Why are you defeating the woman in you?”

Now having served three terms on the Leicester City Council, Sood is a mainstay of Leicester politics. With her elevation to Lord Mayor, which is a one-year post conferred on the longest serving city councillor, she has become a popular national and international figure. In her career as a city councillor, she has championed education, mental health, and women’s issues. She is a director of the Leicester Council of Faiths, an advisory group to the city council, and has won a raft of awards from national and international women’s groups and Britain’s Labour Party. She has named the Special Olympics as the Lord’s Chosen Appeal, the designated charity during her term. Leicester will host Britain’s games in 2009.

As an immigrant Punjabi Hindu, finding inspiration in Christianity, and pioneering a multicultural school curriculum, Manjula Sood is the contemporary face of an office that dates back 800 years — Leicester has had a mayor since 1209 (and a Lord Mayor since 1928). She is fifth Asian so honored in Leicester and the first Asian woman Lord Mayor anywhere in Britain (women are called Lord Mayors, as holders of the office).

Sood is part of an early generation of Asian immigrants to Leicester who arrived with an education, skills, a work ethic, and a willingness to participate in government. The Indian and East African immigrants from the 1960s and early 70s had been financially secure in their former homes and were now eager to raise their living standards in their new one. Integration and not isolation has become part of Leicester’s identity.

But Leicester and the rest of Britain are facing significant challenges in the post 9/11 world. The Iraq War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exacerbate tensions between Muslims and other groups. Muslims in Leicester have been victims of racist attacks. There are new questions about the ability of Britain to absorb and integrate its new arrivals, including Somali refugees, who are attracted to historically Asian centers like Leicester and Southall, a London suburb, because of the number of mosques.

Emigrating from Zimbabwe to Britain in 1976, Suleman Nagdi — a member of the Leicester Council of Faiths, the Federation of Muslim Organizations, and recipient of an MBE — says, “Democracy has given us an opportunity to flourish. We are confident we will make a contribution locally, nationally, and internationally. We are British, not a collection of smaller communities.”

Manjula Sood sees the way forward through good governance, community involvement, and a sense of compassion. Despite her personal trials and the challenges that lay ahead for Leicester, she says, “I never want to give up.”

All photos by Preston Merchant

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Manjula Sood and Chris Rhodes, Civic Attendant, with the Lord Mayor’s robe

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Manjula Sood greets Abu Taher, president of the Bangladesh Development Trust, who will present her with a donation to the Special Olympics

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Members of the Leicester Council of Faiths

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Leicester Town Hall

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Leicester’s city center

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Leicester’s Central Mosque, one 36 mosques in the city

74 thoughts on “The Lord Mayor of Leicester

  1. um, khoof? i may possibly be in love with you…please don’t make me laugh anymore with your names (identities?). it hurts too much to bear (no seriously, my stomach can’t take it anymore).

  2. 50 · Dr1001 said

    not wearing a saree in daily life is not just about standing out for younger generations…the saree is just a lot more difficult and time consuming to put on versus shalwar kameez suit or western clothes. (Though my mum still wears one every day so maybe for some wearing it just comes naturally and easily). Also in the Uk it doesn’t stand out too much, people are so used to seeing Asains in all sorts of traditional outfits be it in everyday life or for a special event. But I agree more power to this lady for wearing it in office, she looks great – love the colour.

    Good point. I had seriously considered rocking the pancha for cultural events back in college but was never quite confident enough in my pancha tying powers.

  3. Because it’s c-c-c-coooold outside! Brrr.

    not where I live. Last three days of 43 – celsius not fahrenheit. Seriously if if the burkha / hijab can be worn with pride why not saris :( – way sexier ;)

    Of course, the more substantive question might be why don’t young desi men wear native clothes when going out? Not only do we not do it, nobody even cares enough to wonder why!

    yes very true. Last time I wore a “mundu” to a desi function, I was the odd one out – every other bloke was decked out in a suit. Hardly any women wearing saris – most in salwars ( a garment that i have always detested)

  4. 51 · Whose God is it anyways? said

    “the west” as in the u.s. in the western hemisphere is a very conformist country when it comes to clothing, in my experience. there’s a lot of pressure to conform and not stand out.

    I wear salwar suits sometimes and kurta in ‘the west’ all the time.. mostly i get curious but positive responses… I haven’t gotten any weird stares or anything…!

  5. 56 · melbourne desi said

    Of course, the more substantive question might be why don’t young desi men wear native clothes when going out? Not only do we not do it, nobody even cares enough to wonder why! yes very true. Last time I wore a “mundu” to a desi function, I was the odd one out – every other bloke was decked out in a suit. Hardly any women wearing saris – most in salwars ( a garment that i have always detested)

    Yeah! And da men look so cute and adorable in a nice kurta, for example… but noooo it’s all button-downs and chinos. humphf! (Though I’m not sure I would argue for the mouche to come back)

  6. 56 · melbourne desi said

    Hardly any women wearing saris – most in salwars ( a garment that i have always detested)

    perhaps they are a bit.. baggy.. but oh SOOOOO comfortable (Something I def. could not say for sari)… give me patiyala pants anyday, baby, anyday!

  7. but oh SOOOOO comfortable (Something I def. could not say for sari)…

    I suppose so although women and comfortable attire are not words that go well together eg high heels / corsets. But I concur with the general tone of your argument. A combination of a mundu and a sari is most appropriate for a quickie ;) Nothing else comes close

  8. “I wear salwar suits sometimes and kurta in ‘the west’ all the time.. mostly i get curious but positive responses… I haven’t gotten any weird stares or anything…!”

    oh, i wasn’t implying that they cannot be worn without attracting negative attention only or that they automatically would. although i do think the salwar attracts less attention than the sari because pants are more familiar to westerners. i’ve seen several indian women receive very positive attention and questions about their saris and some indian men about their clothing. what i meant was in settings considered “professional” like the workplace and just as standard daily wear in the west. although it does happen (had a professor in university who wore mostly saris), i find it much less common amongst immigrants to the u.s. than immigrants to some other western hemisphere countries.

  9. 61 · Whose God is it anyways? said

    what i meant was in settings considered “professional” like the workplace and just as standard daily wear in the west.

    True, true. And professional wear is so boring.

  10. True, true. And professional wear is so boring

    yup. sometimes when standing at a melbourne station the monotony of workwear is mind numbing.

  11. 54 · seekrit-admirer said

    um, khoof? i may possibly be in love with you…please don’t make me laugh anymore with your names (identities?). it hurts too much to bear (no seriously, my stomach can’t take it anymore).

    i understand that sentiment :) khoof is hilarious.

  12. i understand that sentiment :) khoof is hilarious.

    Ah, Port, your fickle-ness is going to drive me right back to that Filipina Emirates stewardess that you always insisted was “so inappropriate for me.” What to do? ;-)

  13. Filipina Emirates stewardess

    emirates have filipina stewardness – damn here i was looking forward to my first emirates trip with some arab lasses ;)

  14. 65 · rob said

    Ah, Port, your fickle-ness is going to drive me right back to that Filipina Emirates stewardess that you always insisted was “so inappropriate for me.” What to do?

    rob, i’d joke around with you; but honestly, i’m so upset and depressed about these two cases in india, i can’t think straight anymore. i’m wondering if i should give up my indian citizenship (i’ve had the option for the past couple years, but i’ve been dithering) or be like ms. manjula sood and try to find a way to be politically involved in some capacity.

    i think it’s the stewardess’ call this time. will she take you back? :(

  15. 67 · portmanteau said

    65 · rob said
    Ah, Port, your fickle-ness is going to drive me right back to that Filipina Emirates stewardess that you always insisted was “so inappropriate for me.” What to do?
    rob, i’d joke around with you; but honestly, i’m so upset and depressed about these two cases in india, i can’t think straight anymore. i’m wondering if i should give up my indian citizenship (i’ve had the option for the past couple years, but i’ve been dithering) or be like ms. manjula sood and try to find a way to be politically involved in some capacity. i think it’s the stewardess’ call this time. will she take you back? :(

    Saddest thing about the first link:

    In her statement Saba said she was sorry and that she would get the tattoo removed through laser surgery in the next three days.

    Lawlessness prevails.

  16. Portmanteau

    I’m so upset and depressed about these two cases in india, i can’t think straight anymore. i’m wondering if i should give up my indian citizenship (i’ve had the option for the past couple years, but i’ve been dithering) or be like ms. manjula sood and try to find a way to be politically involved in some capacity

    Sorry that you feel this way. I have had some dark thoughts about how I would have reacted if it was my sister in that pub (she is a college student in Delhi, and I worry). Intolerance, bigotry, hatred and violence are unfortunate realities that we have to accept. I wouldn’t think of renouncing my citizenship because some morons do not understand the concept of personal freedom. I will go back and live my life according to my own principles, and cliched as it may sound, be the change that I seek in the world. I also feel that we get an artificial measure of the increased prevalence of these incidents because of a more visible & alert media. I know a guy (he was a patient of mine) from Goa, who was viciously attacked by a racist gang at a train station in England. He spent 3 months in hospital, then went back to finish his studies. He has applied for a British citizenship recently because he didn’t let the racism of a few shatter his dream. I thought that was very brave of him.

  17. i’d joke around with you; but honestly, i’m so upset and depressed about these two cases in india, i can’t think straight anymore.

    Yeah, well, you were cert. correct that they wouldn’t approve of my “Cristal-swilling.” Maybe I should adopt the moniker “clueless” for a while!

  18. 71 · rob said

    you were cert. correct that they wouldn’t approve of my “Cristal-swilling.”

    tehelka article on the shri rama sene, the latest head of the hydra. and more about how visions that this extremism can be reined before it spins out of control are delusional.

  19. I know a guy (he was a patient of mine) from Goa, who was viciously attacked by a racist gang at a train station in England. He spent 3 months in hospital, then went back to finish his studies. He has applied for a British citizenship recently. Drug Intervention

  20. Great to get opportunity to read about this formidable woman. Keep it up we need more like you. I came here age 14 from Kenya am of south Asian Gujerati origin- am now Councillor in Harrow (Greater London) myself and three other collegues from Labour group wear Saris very Often Come and see…….Main Council Days!! We are proud have come a long way!!!!

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