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. leicester is a cool place. it’s much more chilled out than london. it’s awesome she chose to wear a sari. indra nooyi sometimes wears saris to important meetings as well.

  2. 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?”

    A remarkable person and a remarkable story! Very well written, Preston. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Leicester has some of the best Indian shopping in the world outside India, and Diwali is fantastic there as well. Along with North London, it is the Gujarati hub of England (and Europe come to think of it!)

  4. The Iraq War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exacerbate tensions between Muslims and other groups.

    To be fair Preston, the London suicide bombings, and other terrorist attacks which have been foiled in the UK and taken to trial and conviction, like the bomb at the London nightclub which was only prevented by the grace of God, and the subsequent failed suicide bombing at Glasgow airport, and the rise of extremist Islamic ideology amongst a small but vocal part of the Muslim community, have fuelled tensions between Muslims and other groups in the UK. It’s important to state this, Preston. This is a racist, supremacist ideology at odds with multi-cultralism and harmony, and it has to be spoken about without fear.

  5. Muslims in Leicester have been victims of racist attacks.

    I would add that Muslims in Britain have perpetrated many racist attacks, especially in Bradford and other northern towns.

    But great article and great pictures. The UK is a very special place when you analyse the desi diasporic experience.

  6. 4 · tara said

    indra nooyi sometimes wears saris to important meetings as well

    yeah, let’s not forget gayatri spivak (she’s notorious for her jalebi-esque papers) :) i hope i do that too, when i grow up and such. this was, as khoofi, points out a remarkable story. i’m glad that ms. sood’s parents and grandparents urged her to make use of her education, and that her husband pushed her to champion the causes she cared about. sometimes, i guess, those close to us are better judges of our potential, while we ourselves are mired in doubt and fear.

  7. 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

    If increased migration and immigration is allowed then I predict, besides demographic upheavels, we may see the emergence of a new kind of state/nation/community model (atleast at the city, state or some similar smaller sized geographic level) where international borders will become irrelevant. Maybe something like Singapore, Hong-Kong, greater NYC, Mumbai etc. This may very well be the source of next generation of culture wars or optimistically some kind of global back-packer, world without boundaries kind of new age movement. That reminds me I have to go and brush up my Greek history of city-states

  8. hi,we as soods are proud of your outstanding ,remarkable acheivement!Well done,keep it up

  9. second khoofia and portmanteau. her story is impressive, not least because of how honest she is both about her trials as a non-white immigrant, and her crises of faith and confidence. more power to her!

  10. Looks cute in that Saree. I wonder how Michelle Obama would look, wearing traditional african dress, in a picture like that.

  11. New Zealand had a Punjabi Sikh woman called Sukhi Turner as the mayor of Dunedin city for about eight years back in the 1990s!

  12. 16 · Wondering said

    I wonder how Michelle Obama would look, wearing traditional african dress, in a picture like that.

    That’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison. Ms. Sood is an Indian immigrant to Britain, who is now a politician. Mrs. Obama (nee Robinson) is American going back many generations, and is not a politician. I’m trying to think of an immigrant woman politician who wears the clothes of her homeland, but I’m coming up empty.

  13. 18 · PKS

    I’m trying to think of an immigrant woman politician who wears the clothes of her homeland, but I’m coming up empty.

    try this and just for funn, here’s a pic of a cutie* to cure the afternoon blahs.

    *dont vurry. it’s a wholesome cutie.

  14. Love it. A aunty who can kick ass. My mother lived in Leicester some 20 years ago and it was fairly “quaint” back then. Now towns like Leicester, Manchester and Sheffield have so many desis.

  15. What I would really like to see is Caucasians immigrate to India or any other South Asian country. Once they come in large enough numbers, I predict the following (top 10):

    Based on what I saw in Mumbai and Delhi/Gurgaon about 2 years back, places that seemed to be full of European professionals working on India for brief (i.e 6 month or so) assignments, they will quickly adopt an approximation of “elite class” Indian-style behavioral pattern and mentality. This means they will lose much of their vaunted civic sense and much of their political correctness. WHILE IN ROME…

  16. 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.”

    Have to say, like Portmanteau, I loved this.

  17. @BrownDude

    Honestly I think you have a “grass is always greener on the other side” view of White people. Damn near everyone I went to college with went into consulting, i-banking, medicine, or law. Do you honestly think that many people just happen to like those professions or do you think it has more to do with the fact that those professions are the only ones in which you have a direct and secure route to an upper-middle class lifestyle? Yea, there are a lot of White people who don’t go into those fields, but the vast majority of them are also not in the same socio-economic class as South Asians who, as a group, are one of the most affluent ones in the country.

    If you want corruption you just need to look at Chicago. Sure stuff works, but that has more to do with the fact that the institutions were well designed and are congruent to the society they serve rather than the average melanin count of the people who live there.

    Religious intolerance? Have you been to the bible belt man? And in what dimension do American government services work? How effective do you think our government would be if something like 25% of its clientele couldn’t read and didn’t know how to report incidents to their managers/the police?

    As for smiling and eye-contact I actually see a lot more of that in India. Often from people who you really would not expect smiles from. Many of India’s poor are some of the more courteous and generous people I have ever met. Try hitching a ride on an American street if you’re a stranger in town and watch how many cars pass you by.

  18. Yea, there are a lot of White people who don’t go into those fields, but the vast majority of them are also not in the same socio-economic class as South Asians who, as a group, are one of the most affluent ones in the country.

    In which country? Browns in England havent been pre-screened like the USA ones, of course we must not discredit selective points based immigration, which is quite new in the UK hard work and the Horatio Alger aspect of brown culture which has propelled the affluence.

  19. 31 · leicester cheese said

    Yea, there are a lot of White people who don’t go into those fields, but the vast majority of them are also not in the same socio-economic class as South Asians who, as a group, are one of the most affluent ones in the country.
    In which country? Browns in England havent been pre-screened like the USA ones, of course we must not discredit selective points based immigration, which is quite new in the UK hard work and the Horatio Alger aspect of brown culture which has propelled the affluence.

    Yea I’m only qualified to speak about the US.

  20. 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.

    Britan is facing challenges with there immigration population cause they are looking at the wrong places for immigrants. I hope I’m wrong, but I see alot more racial problems in England future due to the fact alarge amount of there immigrants have not intergrated and adopted the culture of there new homeland, and instead believe that the way of the life and culture of there homeland is much better.

  21. 33 · Suki Dillon said

    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. Britan is facing challenges with there immigration population cause they are looking at the wrong places for immigrants. I hope I’m wrong, but I see alot more racial problems in England future due to the fact alarge amount of there immigrants have not intergrated and adopted the culture of there new homeland, and instead believe that the way of the life and culture of there homeland is much better.

    Immigrants from the “wrong” places? Most people out of Somalia are refugees, even if they don’t have formal refugee status. If you open your borders to anyone it would be people from lawless places like Somalia.

  22. Most people out of Somalia are refugees, even if they don’t have formal refugee status. If you open your borders to anyone it would be people from lawless places like Somalia.

    Rule of thumb for Sepia Mutiny there are good “brown” people and bad “brown” people, but good & bad browns can always come to an agreement that black is always bad- great unifiying theme. Good thing that the pirates of Somilia & other blacks are such a small percent of the UK population.

    Yea I’m only qualified to speak about the US.

    I see, well I’m familiar with both and I have to say that people who get offended at the suggestion that selective immigration, vs brown culture, is the reason for the success of Desis Americans should take a look at the UK. American Desis are indeed successful, but if its all about ‘the culture’ why isn’t the majority of the population in the place(s) of origin just as successful?

  23. I wonder how Michelle Obama would look, wearing traditional african dress, in a picture like that.

    18 · PKS said

    I’m trying to think of an immigrant woman politician who wears the clothes of her homeland, but I’m coming up empty

    How about Sonia Gandhi wearing a skirt and a jacket in decent way for an Indian function ? I am wondering how easy is it to forget what you preach ?

  24. Nothing wrong with it, but I am wondering whether politics as family business is a good idea ?

  25. 35 · Leicester cheese said

    Rule of thumb for Sepia Mutiny there are good “brown” people and bad “brown” people, but good & bad browns can always come to an agreement that black is always bad- great unifiying theme.

    You are right on money. I was wondering where the black religious leaders were in that picture. I was also wondering whether Leicester cheese will ultimately become Leicester Paneer.

  26. American Desis are indeed successful, but if its all about ‘the culture’ why isn’t the majority of the population in the place(s) of origin just as successful?

    Being willing and able to leave home by requires a certain level of money and, more importantly, ambition and motivation which is likely to make a person successful. Culture does play a role, but I would give it maybe 10% to 20%. The other 80% to 90% would be stereotypes (South Asians usually get stereotyped well), and selection bias (whether it is selective immigration policies or self-selection.)

    As for why those same ambitious people can’t be successful in India, less money lying around means fewer opportunities. Crappy government means less incentive to invest (since the costs of doing so are higher). Things are slowly changing. Every time I go back it’s like a whole new country (until you leave the big cities.)

  27. cause they are looking at the wrong places for immigrants.

    Suki, I liked you much better when you admitted you were clueless.

  28. Suki, I liked you much better when you admitted you were clueless.

    I still don’t know what was wrong about those comments that I posted. Many people in Western and Northern Europe are upset at the immigration policies of there countries. We live in PC world and nobody wants to say that certain immigrants adapt better then others.

  29. Suki@24 said

    Britan is facing challenges with there immigration population cause they are looking at the >wrong places for immigrants. I hope I’m wrong, but I see alot more racial problems in >England future due to the fact alarge amount of there immigrants have not intergrated >and adopted the culture of there new homeland, and instead believe that the way of the >life and culture of there homeland is much better

    Thats why Britain, Canada and Australia are adopting the so called points system. There are possibilities for a similar points system to be adopted in USA. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in future, coz with a globalized world the immigrants with higher-points may well have more connections to homeland and not to mention the easier modes of communication and transport compared to yesteryears.

  30. How about Sonia Gandhi wearing a skirt and a jacket in decent way for an Indian function

    why not a bikini. maybe she can do a helen mirren. she still has the figure. does anyone have any photos of a young sonia in a bikini?

  31. Thats why Britain, Canada and Australia are adopting the so called points system.

    Slight correction. That is why Britain and Canada are following the Australian/ New Zealand model of allocating points. Selective immigration makes a big difference in the final outcome.

  32. Thats why Britain, Canada and Australia are adopting the so called points system

    the article states that Canada was the first one to adopt the points system – not true. Australia had a points system in the 1940′s when they got in the reffos from Europe. The point system was though skewed towards physical attributes like being able-bodied and of course “white”. I wonder why young desi women in the west dont wear saris – especially women who have flat stomachs ;)

  33. The Week once published the photo of Sonia Gandhi in bikini with Rajiv Gandhi during their honeymoon days.

  34. 45 · melbourne desi said

    I wonder why young desi women in the west dont wear saris – especially women who have flat stomachs ;)

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

  35. 45 · melbourne desi said

    Thats why Britain, Canada and Australia are adopting the so called points system
    the article states that Canada was the first one to adopt the points system – not true. Australia had a points system in the 1940′s when they got in the reffos from Europe. The point system was though skewed towards physical attributes like being able-bodied and of course “white”. I wonder why young desi women in the west dont wear saris – especially women who have flat stomachs ;)

    They wear them to Indian cultural events, but when going around in daily life it helps not to stand out too much. Beyond that I imagine Desi women in the West want to be recognized for who they are instead of willfully exoticizing themselves.

    Although, all things Indian seem to becoming more fashionable these days so who knows? Maybe the Goris will bring it back and then our ladies can copycat them copycatting their parents. Remember that little phase in the mid-90′s when everyone was all into East Asian stuff?

    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!

  36. 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.

  37. “I wonder why young desi women in the west dont wear saris – especially women who have flat stomachs ;)

    i think it depends on what is defined as “the west”. “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. perhaps things are changing now. other western hemisphere countries i’ve been in – in the caribbean, central and south america were more open to “non-traditional” – to them — clothing and don’t bat an eye when people wear “traditional” (including Indian clothing) to the office/work. but the world is becoming rather boring and conformist when it comes to what is considered “standard professional” wear.