The Homeless Sikhs of Southall

I recently spent an evening with twenty hearty souls in steady British rain to sleep out in a park to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless Sikhs of Southall.

Actually, there was not much sleeping — it was more of a Hang Out than a Sleep Out and we had pizza and burgers — but the issue wasn’t lost. Finding warm and dry shelter is a challenge for an increasing number of South Asians, mostly Sikh men, in the southwest London neighborhood of Southall.IMG_6358.jpg

Lodging isn’t supposed to be a problem. Southall is the center of London’s vast Punjabi community, one of the most significant Little Indias in the world, home to one of the largest gurdwaras outside India, and a cultural nexus that brought the bhangra phenomenon to nightclubs around the globe. It’s also a hardscrabble quarter that, like New York’s Lower East Side, gave immigrants the means to establish themselves in a new land. The community took care of its own and looks back fondly on its achievements.

So it has come as a shock that in 2010 there are about a hundred homeless men, mostly Sikhs but including Sri Lankans and Somalis, sleeping rough in one of London’s proudest immigrant neighborhoods. Continue reading

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.


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.” Continue reading

Malaysia’s Indian Challenger

sivanesancover.jpgAt the town of Mentakab, about a ninety-minute drive east of Kuala Lumpur, A. Sivanesan is scheduled to speak at a temple around noon. The car arrives late, so the crowd is ready, coming out to greet him like a visiting celebrity, a role he plays with ease. Stepping out of his black Mercedes sedan, with his designer eye wear, salt-and-pepper hair, and embroidered kurta over slacks, Sivanesan is the picture of urban sophistication. There is the hush of deference and respect when he moves among the crowd, shaking hands and making his way to the center of a pavilion where some 400 people are sitting on the concrete floor. The men are one side, women on the other. The children are dutifully quiet, and toddlers are passed from lap to lap. As he speaks in Tamil for about an hour, Sivanesan’s tone is alternately humorous and determined, his manner is engaging, and the audience is rapt.

A prominent labor lawyer in private practice, Sivanesan spends his weekends driving the length and breadth of peninsular Malaysia, speaking to groups of Indians about the events of November 25th, 2007 and collecting money for the families of the HINDRAF Five. On that date, HINDRAF (the Hindu Rights Action Force) organized a rally in Kuala Lumpur, drawing tens of thousands of Indians for a peaceful protest in defiance of the Malaysian government, which had denied the request for a permit. Riot police deployed tear gas and water cannons shooting skin-burning chemicals. Many were injured in the melee. Soon thereafter, the five men who are HINDRAF’s leaders were detained indefinitely without trial under the Internal Security Act. They remain in prison.

After the crackdown, the two-million-plus Malaysian Indian community (which is predominantly Tamil) and minorities everywhere were shocked. So was the Malaysian government, a coalition of ethnic parties called the National Front (known by its Malay initials as the BN). One key pillar of the BN is the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The government had not expected tens of thousands of Indians to march on Kuala Lumpur. Continue reading

Malaysian Protest Theater

Peaceful protesters marched with candles in downtown Kuala Lumpur to exercise their right to march peacefully. The Malaysian government sent in riot police and water cannons to exercise its right to intimidate peaceful protesters.


HINDRAF, the Hindu Rights Action Force, a political and cultural organization serving the sizable Indian community here, was one of the march’s participants. In November, HINDRAF had organized a rally that drew at least 10,000 (the number is disputed) Indians protesting the government’s Malay-first policies in education and government hiring, the destruction of temples, and the increasing anti-Indian chauvinism among the Malay. The protesters were met with batons, tear gas, and water cannons. Five of HINDRAF’s leaders were detained as terrorists under the Internal Security Act (with alleged links to the RSS and the LTTE). Some fifty more protesters were arrested. A few were released, while others will stand trial for various incitement and disorderly conduct charges.

Tonight’s candlelight procession was simply to remind the government that people have the right to assemble and to express their concerns legally and peacefully in public. The silent march occurred without incident and was effectively over, with only small groups of protesters lingering to talk after the streets had been reopened, when the riot police arrived. People who had left the area returned; photographers made their way back to the scene, and everyone knew what was coming, as in Chekhov’s famous dictum about not introducing a gun in a play unless you intend to fire it.

In the end, though, all of this was for show. There was almost no one left to disperse when the cannon came up. The real action came from the unarmed police in yellow vests who charged after the stragglers in an angry show of personal force. This was really the point—Malaysian riot police running down Indian protesters, breaking up the crowd, restoring order to an otherwise quiet night in the monsoon drizzle.

More photos below. Continue reading

Singapore Days, Part I

I wake to the sound of tennis balls, the sound of leisure. For New Year’s, Singapore went shopping, worshiped, and celebrated, making very little mess in the process.

Hindus, mostly from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, went to the temples here, some dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century and earlier. Families arrived in private cars and taxis, the women bedecked in silk and jasmine. Laborers came in the backs of flatbed trucks fitted with benches to seat them. They smashed coconuts and prayed for good fortune.


Earlier, they had shopped at Mustafa’s—a postcolonial Marks and Spencer, the Walmart of the East—jammed with every conceivable consumer good: electronics, South Asian and western suitings, cosmetics, jewelry, luggage, appliances, fruit, dry goods, DVDs. The store in Little India is itself a little India and larger than the Little Indias in most non-Indian cities.

Tourists enjoyed the spectacle. The Australians wore shorts and sipped Singapore Slings in commemorative glasses at Raffles Hotel, a colonial-era shrine to steamer trunks, Noel Coward, and Dicky Mountbatten. The daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman married a wealthy Chinese businessman and had her photo taken in the courtyard of the Empire Cafe.

Singapore goes about its business, which is business.

Elsewhere, at the Malaysian High Commission, in a leafy residential neighborhood, Seelan Palay, the 23-year-old grandson of a gravedigger, stages a one-man hunger strike to protest the detention, in Kuala Lumpur, of the five leaders of an Indian minority-rights organization.

Photo above, smashing coconuts at the Ceylon Temple.

More pictures below. Continue reading

Guest Blogging from Singapore & Malaysia

Greetings, Mutineers. Abhi and the gang have graciously allowed me another round of guest blogging, this time from Singapore and Malaysia. As you may recall, I am at work on a photography book about the global Indian diaspora and reported from Kenya last January.

For this junket through Southeast Asia, I’ll be joined by V.V. Ganeshananthan. Sugi is Sri Lankan, a writer, and a newly elected member of the SAJA board. Her first novel, Love Marriage, will be published by Random House in April. She, too, is working on diaspora issues, especially those affecting the Sri Lankan communities around the world.

We’ll be posting here, jointly and separately, during the first few weeks of January from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and other places in between.

Tamils from India and Sri Lanka, along with Malayalees, Punjabis, and Sindhis have been in the region for a very long time, as traders even before the colonial period. In the late 19th century, Tamils were brought over in great numbers by the British as laborers in the rubber plantations and railroads (the majority of persons of South Asian origin in Singapore and Malaysia are Tamil). Singapore even served as a penal colony for Indian convicts and as a conduit for indenture, as the city was built partially on forced labor. Singapore even had its own Sepoy Mutiny in 1915. Continue reading

Sharlene Khan: “It Started Off as Them and Ended Up as Me”

[This will be my last post of Indo-African material, and I wanted to end on a note of cultural solidarity. Thanks again for accompanying me on my trip to Kenya.]

A few weeks ago, Amardeep wrote a nice report from a conference about Indo-African writers:

Desai argues that there were some members of the Asian community — especially artists, playwrights, and poets — who were trying to envision a sense of shared culture with their black African neighbors.

It started of as them and ended off as me - 2001.jpg

On that note, I thought I would share the work of my friend Sharlene Khan, a South African artist I met in 2004. She was born in Durban to Muslim and Christian parents (she is Christian) and lives now in Johannesburg, having collected two masters degrees in art, despite her deep antipathy toward all things institutional and official, and done residencies in Cairo and the south of France — like any good artist, trying to avoid joining the work force.

Indian painting has become very popular (and lucrative) in the global art market these days, with post-modern, post-cubist, semi-abstract renderings of Hindu deities and Indian village scenes being all the rage — the proteges and imitators of MF Husain. But Sharlene’s work is none of that.

Her themes are African, her sensibility humanist. One of her series concerns the plight of laborers and street musicians in Durban. She also did an installation based on the little tents that itinerant barbers, often immigrants from other parts of Africa, set up on the sidewalks of South African cities. She has painted murals like Diego Rivera and designed clothing for a fashion show, painting the fabric and inscribing it with text.

A good phrase to describe her stance is the title of the painting above: “It Started Off as Them and Ended Up as Me.” Continue reading

Posted in Art

One Indian’s Kenyan Nationalism

If you are looking for an alternative take on Kenya’s Indian community, speak to Zahid Rajan, editor of Awaaz, a magazine focusing on historical, political, and cultural issues in the South Asian community in East Africa. The local Indian community traces its roots to the late nineteenth century laborers imported by the British to build the Uganda Railway and grow sugarcane and to the generations of traders who settled along the Indian Ocean coast in Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, and other port towns. The Indian community quickly prospered and became managers instead of laborers (the current issue of Awaaz has a great article on the cultural dynamics that promoted their rapid success). In short order, Indians built businesses, hired black Kenyans to do the work, and banked their considerable profits.


Today, the community in Kenya is perceived, not without justification, as wealthy and aloof. Rajan is critical of what he sees as the community’s lack of engagement with Kenya’s many challenges. ““The South Asian diaspora in Kenya is completely nonpolitical,”” he says. ““It stays behind its security fences in [the Nairobi suburb of] Parklands.””

Historically, Indians were engaged at all levels, leading labor unions, participating in the struggle against British colonialism, and building schools and hospitals, but that civic drive was sapped somewhere along the way.

Rajan attributes the Indian withdrawal from politics to three factors: the “Kenyanization” programs of the late 1960s that redistributed land, awarded contracts and licenses and reserved government jobs for black Africans; Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972; and a failed coup attempt against Kenya’s president, Daniel arap Moi, in 1982. Fighting during that conflict resulted in significant destruction in downtown Nairobi, where many Indians ran businesses.

“”I know Indians who have never been back to the city center,”” he says. Continue reading