The Loneliness of the Sikh Walker on BBC’s EastEnders

He appeared a few years ago and has been often seen on EastEnders- walking purposefully in the streets and demonstrating either self-imposed silence or a specially prescribed form of ‘nil out by mouth’ regime ever since. No one has had anything to say to him and Mr Singh as a character in the soap does not seem to have anything to say to anyone else either. His sole purpose in life is to walk around at variable speeds at precisely timed intervals but with his mouth mostly tightly shut. He is generally in a great hurry with his eyes focussed on the ground in front of him. Other EastEnders characters always surround him. The costume people seem to like his colourful turbans, loose shirts and occasional display of very thick gold rings on his right hand and also the bangle that he wears.

Mr Singh is good for cultural diversity but no one knows who he is and why has chosen to remain silent for so long on EastEnders. The presumption is that Mr Singh is happy with his life in the soap. No one has ever asked him. So, why has this become a concern? It appears that he has never spoken to Phil, Dot, Ian, Shirley and even Patrick who are all of the older characters on the soap. It can be imagined that Bianca would not have anything positive to discuss with him either. Of course, Mr Singh may try talking to Masood when the latter is not running around delivering the post. Has Masood ever delivered registered letters and parcels at Mr Singh’s address? They might actually know each other but on the set they are silent friends. Dennis may have learnt a few things about Mr Singh’s community, culture and religion in the diversity lessons in school but no one seems to have the courage to walk up to him and greet him.

Where does Mr Singh live? He is also never seen in the café but he did once turn up in the Old Vic where he had orange juice. That was the highlight of his week. Mr Singh was recently seen with a female but given the absence of pertinent information it would be unfair to deduce that there is a relationship between the two or indeed was this yet another instance of impeccable timing when two culturally diverse people were seen next to each other for no real benefit?

Masood and his family have played a major role on the soap, perhaps because there is an urge to explain that he is actually quite normal and that he does not go around threatening anyone. He is also cast in a most trustworthy role as a postie where his dedication to duty must be exemplary. Masood is a role model.

On the other hand, how would Max treat Mr Singh as a customer at Brannings’ Car Sales? Mr Singh desperately needs a motor car. Would Max give him personal service? While post sale warranties are not really an issue because Mr Singh prefers to walk everywhere anyway, a car would offer Mr Singh a form of job extension. He could drive the cast on out of town trips. A picnic would be an even better idea as Mr Singh could provide parathas, samosas, chicken curry and daal, followed by ladoos, barfi and pendas and glasses of lassi to down everything. However, would Dot eat Mr Singh’s samosas? Would the Carters serve lassi at the Old Vic? Besides, Carol probably makes better chicken curry than Mr Singh’s new female friend. However, Mr Singh could be a vegetarian and there hardly any point in showing him entering the local burger bar.
If Mr Singh was suddenly to be given a voice and was to incomprehensively become a witness to the murder trial of Lucy Beale, wouldn’t Mr Patel, Miss Bagchi, Mr and Mrs Mubende and their African friends also expect to be cast into future programmes? Did they see anything when Phil’s rough friends ran out of Sharon’s bar after attacking her? Ah but Phil is not having the police looking into his stage managed affray in Sharon’s bar. However, people like Mr Singh who know a great deal about the streets of Walford should be able to help, surely.
EastEnders would indeed reflect the local diversity but the programme’s makers would have to learn a few tricks. How would they create the story-lines in which the local Hindu trader would have a distinctive role in taking over Denise’s shop? How would she earn her living after that takeover? African people in the East End could have competed against the Brazilians to portray their footballing skills in the flavour of the month that even the makers of EastEnders have just missed out on. No worries. The next football World Cup is only four years away.

Does Mr Singh have a son or a daughter? Would Mr Singh Junior want to take Whitney out? Would Whitney like to go with him anyway? There is a small problem though. Would Mr Singh even allow his son to have an affair with Whitney? There is only one way to find out. Create a son for Mr Singh and let him courteously pursue Whitney.
Returning to the question of depicting integration on the television screen, it is not just about marriage or relationships. Will Mr Singh visit Patrick in hospital? Will he go to Lucy’s funeral? Will he provide the vocal accompaniment to the loud Bhangra music often heard in the open market? Mr Singh is probably very well read and highly informed but it is not his knowledge and potential for becoming a social agent and community leader that EastEnders is interested in. No? It is his visual appearance and unique propensity to turn up at low profile events wearing lovely colourful turbans and shirts.

More recently another Sikh character has been seen on EastEnders. This is good news but no one knows what he has in store for him. Will he be allowed to talk? Will be even allowed to talk to the original Mr Singh?

On a serious note there has been some talk about addressing diversity in EastEnders. Should the programme really reflect the true representation of the community in Walford? Should EastEnders be recast to reflect the changing demography of viewers? Or indeed, should the majority of viewers be allowed to see the content of their favourite soap as they always have? Why would anyone want to change EastEnders now? Has the BBC done any research to find out whether potential target audiences in the ethnic minority communities would really want to watch EastEnders anyway? Besides, if we start changing EastEnders by applying these criteria, the lonely Mr Singh must find new roles in Holby City, Glasgow Girls, The Honourable Woman and New Tricks. There will be no challenge of learning the scripts. Mr Singh does not talk. That could be a problem on New Tricks as his silence may be misconstrued.

As far as Mr Singh of EastEnders is concerned, it pays to be silent. Will he ever speak or be spoken to? How would Mr Singh ever perform on ‘The Archers’ on Radio 4? How do producers of radio plays involve silent men and women?

(Great care has been taken to refer only to the two Mr Singhs, the characters on EastEnders).

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The Mysteriously Modifying Modi -2

India is facing possible drought and famine if the monsoon fails. It was reported today that the monsoons are not only five days late but also there is 30% chance that the rains will be modest.
How does this prospective development offer a challenge to the new government? Unlike the North Korean leader who has pointed a sharply threatening finger at the country’s meteorologists for getting their forecasts wrong, the new government in India has had little time to prepare contingency plans. However, senior civil servants must have been informed about impending delays in the monsoon well in advance. Did they take their eyes off the ball during the elections? Wahindi will be looking into this threatening development and examine how the situation unfolds. One is reminded of the crushing failure of the rains in the film ‘Lagaan’ and how the farmers are devastated initially by passing over of the dark rain clouds over their villages without offloading a drop of rain. However, there is still some hope that the monsoon will arrive in good time and restore peace for the farmers.
Returning to the need to adjust to a new political order, a conversation with friends ended with a suggestion that Shashi Tharoor should be the next Congress leader. He certainly has the credentials and the international stature provided the old guard in the dynasty-led party see the potential in appointing a new troika as leaders. Mr Tharoor could be one of three new leaders consisting of him, one member of the Gandhi family and possibly someone very young. Will Congress concur? Should the Gandhi family just bow out? This will be discussed in a future post.
Some wahindi in the UK also feel that there should be Presidential rule in Uttar Pradesh where law and order seems to be challenged almost every day and reports of gang rape are a regular feature. Will Mr Modi moderate in that state or are there too many political obstacles in the way? Several politicians have walked into communication quagmires. One suggested that ‘boys will be boys’ and rape should be recognised as a social issue. Another has said that women must take a part of the blame for enticing men. What is stopping the government to express its views? There are also reports that Indian police refuses to record cases against high profile individuals.
Wahindi also notes that hundreds of Sikhs joined a procession last week in London to protest against the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar by Indian armed forces thirty years ago. During the same week factional infighting broke out amongst the Sikhs themselves and angry men were seen engaging in open ‘warfare’ with their kirpans (swords) flashing in the bright sunlight. Is one form of aggression more justified than another? News reports suggested that the infighting amongst the Sikhs is likely to persist. The anniversary of ‘Operation Bluestar’ was  probably an opportunity to resolve other back room vendettas.
The unveiling of Chinese style infrastructure development plans brought some respite for people who are hungry for change. Will bureaucratic bungles and denial of planning permissions appear again? Will access rights to build new roads and railways be denied by powerful landowners? Only time will tell. Can Mr Modi remove the legal blockages which may create long years of waiting? Should the reform of the laws which frustrate infrastructural development not be a first course of action?
Is there a risk that Mr Modi will offer too much but achieve only modest gains?

The Mysteriously Modifying Modi- 1

The wahindis are the people from Hindi backgrounds as described by the Africans from East Africa. However, the wahindis have had mixed feelings about India ever since it became independent in 1947. At the start of 1960’s India and Pakistan were the homelands of wahindi parents but not, by extension, the preferred homes of the younger generation which had grown up in the wahindi-lands or the colonial territories of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Emigration, expulsion and even repatriation became forms of departure from East Africa; dictated more by considerations of nationality or economic factors rather than by patriotism.

For many wahindi India reflected misery and destitution, dirt and dust not to mention corruption and economic mismanagement and chaos. Overcrowded cities and towns, many with poor sewage and water facilities, overcrowded railways and roads offered little incentive for migration to the Sub-Continent. However, thousands of the wahindi people from East Africa went back to India as they had no other options. However, thousands more abandoned the homeland when they acquired new gleaming passports from their new countries of adoption. In the main the wahindi were impatient with India while they became property owners and businessmen and professional practitioners in the UK, US and Canada. It was during the process of assimilation or integration into societies in the aforementioned countries that the wahindi had to make hard choices. Lord Tebbitt’s ‘cricket test’ did not work ; the wahindi supported India and Pakistan in increasing numbers when major cricket tours took place. The Sikhs, always passionate about hockey, supported India until the decline and fall of Indian hockey dampened their support. On the other hand support for cricket teams from the Sub-Continent vastly increased as they gained prominence and won matches over and over again. Sachin Tendulkar became a super hero while David Beckham only managed to get attention when a Bollywood-type film featured him and his bendy kicks shot balls into the goal.

Interest in the emerging Indian economic miracle had started to gain wahindi support around 2005 but when Indian economic growth faltered, many wahindi took reassurance from relatively strong financial sustainability in the countries of their adoption. However, for a growing number of wahindi who failed to integrate into societies in UK and North America, India became a symbol of moral and spiritual identity.

These were the major indicators of failure to support their countries of adoption:

  • Many older Asians in the UK bought property in India. For some these there was always a perceived threat of expulsion from the UK. A property in India offered security just in case Britain chose to expel them; such was the fear and instability that Idi Amin had caused. Many older British Asian passport holders were convinced that they could lose their citizenship at the drop of a hat.
  • Hundreds of Sikh and Hindu temples in the UK have been sending substantial donations to counterparts and charities in the Sub-Continent, sometimes illegally and knowingly against the provisions of charity law. There was a thin line here. While support for religious shrines could be justified, funding for some of the dubious causes was not .
  • Support for formal educational and health projects in India was perhaps sustainable but similar causes also merit support in the UK and North America.

When dynasty- or caste and religious led politics in India had become well entrenched many wahindi turned away from the home of their parents. The young wahindi people who left East Africa from 1960 to 1972 are now approaching pensionable age. Thousands have retired. What do the demise of the Congress Party in India and the emergence of ‘the mysteriously modifying Modi’ mean for the wahindi? Modi represents hope and aspiration. Modi may unleash an economic miracle in India. Why does this matter to the wahindi? For many, Modi offers an opportunity to support India again. It will be fine to become connected with India. A potentially thriving India offers pride and hope. An emerging Indian economy under Modi which may offer higher standards of living and financial and economic opportunity in general is also attracting attention from the wahindis in the diaspora.

It may be ‘OK’ to be a supporter of India again. Growth and prosperity may bring pride and joy to the wahindi not the least because it has become easier to access 24 hour news coverage through social media and news organisations. Indian broadcasters offer dedicated programmes which are targeted at wahindi markets in Europe and North America. Life is becoming good again without leaving the comforts of the wahindi sofa in London, New York or Vancouver. Modi the moderniser may deliver the goods which have not only eluded India but also offer renewed hope to a large number of wahindi who have been running India down. Modi, they say, will build roads, railways, toilets, schools, universities and hospitals in time for the next election.

Lets give Modi a modest amount of time. Modipura will not be built in a day.

Falling under the wheels of the juggernaut

The ‘Caste-aways ‘ who nearly won.

Looking back at the zenith of the East African Asians’ lives in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the early 1960s, all was well when the bounty was plentiful, at least for most of them. The rich and powerful were driven by various forms of propulsion as long as they could successfully divide and capture their followers. However, the Asians repeatedly made charges of ‘divide and rule’ against their British rulers during the colonial times. These charges gained greater currency when monumental splits of territory took place in 1947 in the Indian Sub-Continent.  Many had sternly believed that Hindus and Muslims had been inseparable for ages but it was outgoing colonialist who stoked the fires which followed independence of India and Pakistan. Charges of divide and rule were often made by the new wahindi whenever local or national governments in the UK and Canada have made policy decisions. There has been a spectacular dynamic at work whenever allocations of land, grants and public favour have been challenged by British Asians.

But no one, until very recently, appears to have exposed the propeller in the underbelly of British Asian cruise ship. It is known as the caste system. Allegations of religious and denominational divisions based on sociology and heritage may well be accommodated or at best be explained away without rancour. The law is thankfully well resourced to address all aspects of evidence based racism. However when landmarks of progress are examined with a different lens, the most visible reflection of Sikh and Hindu infrastructure in the form of temples, sports clubs, schools and community clubs are often defined by caste based investment criteria. No one seemed to mind as long as the caste based discrimination was operated under the table.

Local politicians and visiting government ministers from all political persuasions have applauded the immense contribution that the Asians have made to Britain’s cities and in most cases, rightly so. They have upgraded the most derelict areas of the inner city and re-introduced commerce. Old and disused churches have given way to busy temples. Decaying and low value housing stock has been purchased by community organisations. Creative Asian architects and building firms have established new places of worship in almost every major city of the United Kingdom. The success was celebrated for many good reasons.  In addition, local councils have keenly accommodated new building proposals for community infrastructure by tugging at the rubber bands of planning laws. Apart from possible appeals by local people on the basis of noise, many areas have suffered traffic congestion which has not been helped by poor parking enforcement. However, there are also excellent examples of ingenious traffic solutions.

The writer estimates that the Sikhs alone have built over 400 temples in the UK with a potential land and property valuation of £4 billion. The temples have been serving the communities’ needs reasonably well. Some temples  offer almost 24 hour access and the most significant beneficiaries are the Sikh elderly who can access spiritual and communal welfare programmes almost every day of the week.  Whether the community organisations operate within the ambit of charity law remains another area of concern but as long as the net gains of social investment exceeds any discernible costs to individuals, these charities have also brought distinct benefits. However, unexpected visits by the police during elections when leaders are deposed or re-elected may also be due to the ugly face of caste-led allegiances.

But the British Asian juggernaut seems to have been blocked. A few months ago, reports began to emerge of alleged caste-led discrimination in Britain’s public institutions, with more specific allegations that decisions on career progression and promotion were likely to be based on caste-based criteria rather than seniority or merit in some parts of the NHS, local authorities and other agencies of government.

Have forces of discrimination gone a full circle? British Asians who arrived on the UK in the early 1970s bitterly complained of racial discrimination by African leaders who blocked work permits or simply expelled them. Now, have British Asian community leaders turned on their own communities in pursuit of caste-based discrimination?

This blog hopes to examine these issues in more detail but always with due respect for the law and a recognition that not all British Asian institutions have fallen under the wheels of the caste based juggernaut. History seems to explain that falling under the wheels of the religious juggernaut was a traditional form of sacrifice. British Asian Sikhs and Hindus who were cast out of African countries are alleged to have embraced caste as a means of reinvigorating political consolidation.  It did not work in Africa where intra-Asian divisions weakened the departing Asians.

Will the castaways succeed in Britain? No. Not if the lawmakers understand the perils of the Asian caste system and take firm action which appears to be on the cards.

A Coup in Progress

Idi’s Diamonds

 I was going home from Makerere University to Port Bell where my family lived. It was customary to check one’s post at any time of the day or night. The only thing that I was not aware of was that a full scale army coup was in progress.  I was coming out of the post office parking area with my post in my hand when a large truck with soldiers drove uphill on the road which connected the main street to the cluster of hotels. About a dozen soldiers jumped out of the truck and ran towards various positions around the building. Three came with bayonets held at the height of my chest and one of them knocked me over. Then another asked me what I was doing there while I was trying to secure my glasses. It was just past midnight and I said that I was taking post home. Without any notice, one of them turned his bayonet away and gave a loud whack in the small of my back with his rifle butt. I felt dizzy and crashed to the floor. Another or maybe the same man kicked me several times in my bottom. By that time more soldiers had arrived as I heard a type of siren; it could have been the loud horn of those large trucks driven by the military police. I think I was at kicked six times in the small of my back but fortunately not on my spine. I collected my post and my turban from the ground  and went home, feeling utterly dejected and almost in tears.

Two years later when driving a tiny Mini Clubman near the Blackwall Tunnel in East London I stopped at a zebra crossing only to realise that a huge truck had hit me in the back. My car was crushed almost into half but as I was young and adventurous, I came out of the car, hugely shaken and after much confusion decided to get the car towed away and taken to a garage. It was during the evening I realised that I had blurred vision. The consultant at East Ham hospital told me that my “previous back injury” had become aggravated. I started to lose the vision in my left eye and after many weeks of dilation, they decided to stop the medication to allow the eye to return to normal. Money was extremely tight and I could not afford a change of glasses every few weeks while the chart showing my eyesight was going up and down like data showing stock market collapse just before the banking crash in 2007.

I decided to get the bog standard National Health Service glasses, those worn mostly by pensioners and poor people. A few friends even had a laugh. The following week I had to go to the job interview when my confidence was at a low ebb indeed. I got the job! Perhaps the people on the other side of the table had become so used to my NHS specs and thought that it was simply a style statement.

Unknown to Idi Amin’s henchmen and those young soldiers, I did smuggle something very invaluable out of their country. It was my sore and swollen back and my left eye which was creating the sensation as if I had a inserted a heavy golf ball into my eye socket. I can promise that there was no outsized diamond in it. But the soldiers who gave me that pasting probably did much worse than me.  They were only ten or so years older than me. How did they survive their lives? Did they ever overcome the ferocity of their master’s voice? Yes, the good old dog listening to his master’s voice (HMV) comes to mind. Was it just the dog who described millions of circles on the top of gramophone records?  Give a thought to hundreds and thousands of child soldiers who were later ‘recruited’ by African armies. Worse still, think of the parents who never see their children again once they are abducted by armies and militias, even today.  My little mishap at the general post office was insignificant by comparison. I still have the glint in my eye.

The Vice President Calls for Ugandan Asians to Return

 

It was reported some time ago about the trip that the Vice President of Uganda made to Canada to try to invite former Ugandan Asians back to the country.  Disgruntled Asians felt that they were not always recognised as the essential ingredients of the engine of commerce and as investors in the economic development of Uganda. The Asians still feel that there was ample evidence that most of the time they were held in fair amount disconcerting suspicion.  Idi Amin capitalised on that popular dislike of the Ugandan Asian.

The Vice President’s call for the Asians to return to Uganda was flattering.  It seemed to have taken a long time to realise that Asians had significant part in lubricating the economy. Some sources even claimed that the GDP of the country fell by 40% when the Asians finally vacated their key positions in the economy.  There are no figures available to confirm this claim.

What was it about the Asian community that made them so special in commercial terms?  Can they not be replaced by other very successful and often shrewder operators such as the Lebanese, the Chinese or even the Nigerians?  I was amazed to see Nigerians at Hong Kong airport taking goods for sale to various parts of Africa. Now that is commerce.

There were divided opinions on how the Asians secured a grip, if not a stranglehold, on the East and Central African economies. The Asians became the more notable producers of wealth when their main “rivals”, the multinational corporations (the MNCs) were detested by many African governments. Large MNCs representing the trading houses and producers of household goods that became famous brand names- soaps, washing powders, off the counter medicines also became dominant. But they had to externalise their profits to meet the needs of international investors and shareholders. They were also mostly the producers who added more value than the growing numbers of Asian traders but who made up for low value addition by sheer numbers.

The Asians had rooted themselves in the countries of their adoption, namely Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania but also Zambia and Malawi where their presence was probably more acceptable than the MNCs. The Asians were noted for creating highly effective distribution chains, taking goods from the main cities to the villages. The Dalgetys and Motor Marts had no compunctions either. They were the mega-traders who wanted to move profits out of Africa to satisfy the appetites of shareholders.

The Asians were also investing more and more, in the main, but they were involved in creating baseline infrastructure – low cost local shops and housing for the lower paid where as the MNCs, driven by the quest for larger profits were investing in 5 Star hotels, office blocks and manufacturing plants.

However, some of the innovative examples of diversified investment came from the Asians, who were good at spotting niches – fishnets, plastics, furniture to meet local needs.

Since independence, African entrepreneurs have taken over the low cost import substitution industries (toothpaste, matches, writing pens, notebooks) where as the Asians started to move into high cost investment – medicines, telecoms, banks and computers.

So why did the Vice President of Uganda want the Asians to go back to Uganda?  Idi Amin had removed the low cost baseline commerce that the Asians were traditionally good at.  But they also provided informal loans and working capital to each other, a market that major commercial banks did not break into.

In East Africa, the loans that ‘lubricated’ Asian commerce and trade were guaranteed by the Asian mega-trader and not the commercial banks. The Asians had access to private sources of commercial lending or trade subsidies- many an Asian importer or manufacturer was willing to give credit to their own kith and kin; sometimes families and relations who had been set up to share the risks and rewards  through the ownership of the supply chain….

An interesting example of the impact of this form of intra-Asian finance was the building construction industry, which was dominated by the Sikhs. The more successful Sikh owned building firms were also informal money-lenders. They provided trade guarantees and working capital to the subsidiary companies in the food chain, thereby tightening their grip over the entire sector.  It suited the rich Sikh builders to fund the baseline providers of services– the less well-off but highly skilled plumbers, electricians, painters and carpenters in return for guaranteed access to cashflow. In the same way the Gujarati traders at the top of the pyramid were prepared to fund the dukawalla who was willing to work in the villages. By providing trade credit, perhaps goods on 60 days credit, the top Gujarati trader was a) expanding his own trading influence, b) taking lower levels of risk by funding trusted borrowers and c) ensuring loyalty of the trader in the charo, who would not normally switch suppliers. The Ismaili community also had internally sponsored ‘banking practices’. The Ismaili ethic of sustaining the whole community was partly funded by the internal but informal money sources.

The  financing and co-financing practices of the mafia come to mind, except that the Asians were not  ruthless. This is not to say that they did not make their fellow traders suffer; there was anecdotal evidence of traders and suppliers being pushed to the edge where the ‘patriarch’ of the business line was occasionally offended. There was a further factor at work here. Where business was funded through caste-based “clans”, there was also intermarriage. The sponsor of working capital would not fund a business if the owner’s son was not minded to marry sponsor’s daughter. Let us leave it at that….so as to protect confidential information.

Returning to the Uganda Vice President’s visit to Canada to woo the Asians, it is not generally understood that the Asian community’s commercial dominance  in Uganda had been secured by living in the country for over a century, by accepting a subservient role in business compared to the British multinationals that eventually bore the brunt of Ugandan President Milton Obote’s and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda’s “watershed speeches” when they nationalised British multinationals and in the case of the latter also drove them into the ground by failing to run them profitably. The only stable element in the commerce of these countries was the Asians; they were too small to be nationalised and too intricately connected to allow African governments to dismantle them…  Only Idi Amin had the brutal force to evict them lock, stock and barrel.

But there was a further tragedy. Asians who had progressed through trading were looking at other opportunities. They had amassed considerable wealth but the younger generation was not always interested in retailing. They were more interested in making inroads into high value added industries in manufacturing and technology. Their parents had created the financial leverage through success  in retailing but it was the younger generation which was going to move into the higher levels of investment opportunities. Idi Amin booted out potential entrepreneurs who were going to create thousands of jobs through industrial development.

It is no longer a case of replacing one group of departing Asians with another group of Asian people. What may be missing in Uganda today is the cultural and economic cohesiveness which held Asian trade and commerce together but more importantly the delicate interdependencies and the informal funding mechanisms which created access to internal sources of low cost finance and also guarantees for accessing growing local markets for higher value goods. It had taken a generation of Asians to secure that. The next generation is looking at new and vastly different arenas.

The chef in a bit of soup on Jinja Road

One of my most horrific memories of the days immediately before my departure from Uganda is that of a ‘halvai’ or community chef who used to come to peoples’ homes to cook on site during weddings or religious events. One such halvai was arrested by the military police on Jinja Road. When they asked him to open the boot of his car to show what he was carrying, they found cooking oil, sugar and flour- all ‘essential commodities’ in an economy that was experiencing shortages.. The man must have been hit by the army because his forehead was bleeding and he was standing in utter fear by the roadside and carrying his turban in his hand, a most demeaning position for a Sikh.

 

I looked into the boot of his car and it had all the items that the police would have desperately needed to build case against him. No one in the convoy that we were traveling in had the courage to stop and to rescue the man. Everyone was concerned with their own safety – in Idi Amin’s Uganda you did not negotiate with the trigger happy military police. I have never found out whether he was allowed to leave the site without further punishment. But I also did not hear about his death and so I can only assume that he must have survived. The very people that he had been cooking for, that is- us, passed by without helping him.

 

The story goes that the man had excellent skills for estimating the vegetables, materials and ingredients required for cooking food for any number of guests for weddings, religious events and parties. He expected all contents for example the masalla to be prepared for cooking, vegetables to be washed and lentils to be cleaned and made free of stones and grit. He would then arrive on the day prior to the wedding, set up his kitchen and recruit his volunteers and helpers. Given to the use of the occasional foul language, he preferred to have no women around.  And also, if he was cooking for a wedding, he would make a hushed request,”  Mere goli maro” using crude Punjabi language; which translates as “Shoot me”. What he actually meant that he wanted his bottle of whiskey to be brought in discreetly with cold water as a mixer. I cannot recall how often he asked for more but empty bottle was discarded when the area was cleaned upon the completion of the food that could be cooked on a day prior to the event. He would then return the next day and yes, you have guessed it, ask for more goli. The quality of food was always good and as hundreds of people had eaten his food, he did not have to advertise. On the contrary, people had to book him well in advance or go to his competitors, who also charged more.

 

A new breed of well managed and highly prized community cooks has emerged in the UK during the last twenty years. More recently catering companies have established businesses with excellent credentials.It would not surprise me if they have websites with 360 degree video shows of the catering on display.

The foods that no one ate

The Story of Daal, Rice, Achar and other foods….

 

Following the Ugandan Asian expulsion in 1972, Luckymann (not his real name) and his family went to settle in the ‘Newfoundland’. Lucky and his wife had worked hard while in Uganda and saved a bit of cash, enough to give them a better start in the new country of their choice than many hundreds of other Asians in the same situation.

Lucky told this to me some time ago and I cannot say more for the reasons you will soon discover. After the usual resettlement agenda had been taken care of i.e. house, car, getting the children into school, Lucky started to miss the freedom he had enjoyed in his own business and the income that he become accustomed to. Here they were now in  the ‘Newfoundland’, while his extended family were seemingly having a great time in East Africa; enjoying the sun and having their clothes cleaned and ironed by Opio, the loyal house worker.

One day, there was a knock at the door. At the same time Lucky heard the sound of a large truck with a loud engine reversing into his drive and coming towards his house. Lucky opened the door and found that it was a parcel delivery truck. The delivery man walked up to Lucky and put a cardboard flap with papers under his nose, asking Lucky to sign for accepting the delivery of a huge crate, the size of a single bed.  But Lucky told the delivery man that he was not the man to whom the crate was addressed. He was not going to take the delivery. The man insisted, saying that as far as he knew, Lucky was also from Uganda and that perhaps he could help find the real owner of the crate, which had left Uganda about four months earlier.  Lucky took the delivery with some sense of guilt and some anticipation; perhaps the true owners would be found…but where was he going to look for them?

On the following weekend, Lucky and his wife started to open the crate, knowing that it was bound to carry household stuff that the unlucky person had sent to  the ‘Newfoundland’ but after such a long delay, the parcel was effectively lost. It is also possible that the owner did not pursue the post office believing that the parcel had never left the country; those very helpful people in East African Airways had indeed helped, but only themselves. Lucky got the packaging out of the way and saw that there were several round metal canisters with secure lids, also made of the same light metal sheeting that was very popular with the wahindi. He recognised that it was the type of container which was used to store uncooked food, mainly lentils, rice, dry food powders, haldi, red chilli powder and other masala ingredients, in his mother’s old kitchen.

 Lucky put his hand into the first canister of urid daal to check whether it was infested with insects, soaked in water vapour or dry enough to cook. It was in good condition and Lucky decided to check whether the can was dry right down to the bottom. He did not get a chance to hit the bottom. Instead his hand felt a solid object with a smooth surface. Lucky took it out and found that he was staring at a large gold nugget! He called in his wife who so stunned by their discovery that she had to rush to the toilet.  When she came back they decided to shut the door and draw the curtains of the room, also remembering to push the children into the lounge to watch the television…there so many good programmes on Saturday mornings?  ‘Now please go, okay beta?’

Lucky and his lucky wife went from one canister to another, opening in haste and rushing to pull out more and more nuggets of gold. The precious metal was found in all dry foods except the achars. Lucky and now his also lucky wife started to pack the gold quickly, almost expecting to hear a knock at the door. A passing truck got Lucky thinking that the delivery vehicle was back, coming to reclaim the crate. They worked out a plan… the crate had to be discarded quickly and the canisters had to be stored at the bottom of empty suitcases in the cellar. The gold had to be hidden away in the attic. Lucky decided that keeping the separated items in one location was not a good idea. They had to be dispersed. He spent the whole of his Sunday morning breaking down the crate into small pieces so that they could fit into the boot of his tiny car. After several journeys to the waste yard, the crate had been safely disposed off, just before the yard closed for the day.

Lucky and his wife decided to be patient and to hold on to their newly found treasure for a few months, until the Ugandan Asian ‘matata’ had died down.  Then one by one, after safely long intervals, Luckymann and wife disposed off the gold and the refinancing of the poor, poor Ugandan migrants’ life had started. No one knew where the true owners of the crate were. It was later generally understood that many departing Asians had stuffed gold or other precious items into cheap looking parcels and crates. One would hope that the majority of the owners were safely reunited with their goods. It was inevitable that some would not even leave the country and other crates would be lost in transit. Luckymann’s gain was someone else’s loss. It took Luckymann over 20 years to divulge their secret. I have not told you this story. I am merely reporting what Luckymann told me thirty years ago.  I have since lost contact with him.

Forty years of nostalgia

The reunion that never materialised

‘Sad through it was, it was doomed to fail’ said Budhuu. He was expressing his anger at what he perceived had gone wrong with the reunion of Uganda Asians which was planned last year. Budhuu, not his real name, had spent the whole evening at a gathering of the new wahindi in London agitating about the way the wahindi, as he put it ‘have turned their backs on Uganda’.

But Budhuu had another gripe. ‘Look at the way they had planned to overcharge and make money out of the reunion’ he said with increasing sense of irritation. Another man in the dinner party said that Asian enterprise was ‘live and kicking. Long live the new wahindi’.  So what is wrong if some people thought that it was time to put considerable effort into an event and to celebrate 40 years of emigration from Uganda? By the end of the evening there were three areas of consensus.

It is possible that the organisers of the reunion had miscalculated the demand for the event. This is not difficult to understand. Passion for Uganda is on the wane as the émigrés from 1972 approach retirement. They have other priorities and life in austerity-led Britain had put the Ugandan Asian reunion at the bottom of their shopping list.

Secondly, was it also not possible that the organisers had miscalculated responsiveness of the potential visitors to the price tag? Were rates of hotel rooms and excursions ‘jacked up to the hilt’ as Budhuu claimed? Possibly not but no one at the dinner party really knew the real facts. No one seemed to care either.

The internet and low cost air travel has opened up the world for the former Ugandan Asians. Other destinations beckon. The Ugandan Asian label is a historical convenience. The wahindi travel extensively and thousands have gone to visit their ancestral homes in the Indian Sub-continent. Hundreds have taken their children to see their parents’ villages in India. Very few have gone back to Uganda but the numbers are probably not insignificant. The new wahindi is very mobile. They visit their families and friends that they were separated from after the expulsion.

Finally, much to Budhuu’s dislike the consensus was that the wahindi will always be entrepreneurial. Hosting the reunion offered opportunities. What was so wrong in trying to provide a good service at a good price? Don’t the new wahindi pay for conferences, group and family excursions when they go to other parts of the world? Of course they do. But perhaps in this case there were a couple of matters to be noted. Either the wahindi did not want other Asians to benefit from the organisation of reunion or they forgot that high costs had to be met, even in a new Uganda.  Only Budhuu thinks he knows the real reasons.

Moving from the specific to the general, the next area of concern is how the Chinese are reportedly doing very well in emerging Uganda and the whole of Africa indeed. More on this next time but on this matter, Budhuu will not be consulted.

 

 

When in Uganda in October please dont forget the children

When in Uganda in October please do not forget the children in need

Thank you to over a dozen readers who have contacted me since my first post in January this year. Many more have read it and forwarded it to others.  Many of you have subscribed since then. To all of you my sincere thanks, Asante, shukariya and meharbani. I promise to be more active in the next few months. I also have a proposal.

No one responds more to charitable giving like the British people.   Those of us who follow the massive British public appeals at Christmas and other times, such as the Sport Relief Appeal, Comic  Relief and Children in Need appeals on BBC television also know that each appeal breaks records. Is it because the BBC has discovered a formula for adding fun to charitable giving? It is more than that. It is about engaging people who then feel not only to take part but also to attract others like minded individuals to participate actively in fund-raising. Proceeds go to local and overseas charities and good causes. Let us try to take concerted action to benefit Uganda’s growing number of children in need.

The Asian expulsion from Uganda took place nearly 40 years ago. Many former Ugandan Asians are planning to go there for a reunion and to meet old friends. Others will be going there for rediscovering the country that they left behind and to marvel in its growth and hopefully, its prosperity. A few may also have an interest in exploring opportunities for returning… Uganda’s economic growth at around 5% per year compares extremely well with the prolonged aftermath of the economic recession and slow growth if not the static economies in Europe.

‘Uganda is booming’ declared a visiting Asian from Uganda at a recent get together in London. He and his friends are enjoying barbecues every day of the week while the money machine continues to spill out new contracts and attractive opportunities, he insisted. However it was his concluding remarks that spun a few heads. He finished his highly motivational speech with ‘Do you know that you guys are wasting your time in the UK?’ Thankfully the reaction to his taunt was highly variable and no one was willing to share his invitation to go back to Uganda to gain the riches that he was promising…… What has changed?

Many former Ugandan Asians in the gathering left in 1972 and are now too old to consider going back to participate and even rejoice in Uganda’s economic boom. How does one define Uganda’s prosperity anyway? Everything is relative; who is prosperous and who is poor? Others felt that they did not wish to give up their personal and professional gains in the UK and elsewhere to start a new life in Uganda. Several people felt that they could offer more support to Uganda from their relatively comfortable and prosperous life from the UK.

However, the options for supporting worthwhile causes in Uganda have not been promoted by official agencies or NGOs who could tap British Asian goodwill at an important time such as the 40th anniversary of the Asian expulsion.

In the early sixties, as a ten year old I used to take bottles of milk and cakes for my mum to Sanyo Babies Home on Namirembe Hill. The charity was located very close to the famous cathedral. Is the Sanyo Babies Home still operating on the hill? Could we consider talking to a major national UK based charity which looks after abandoned children and orphans to support a major UK-wide appeal? That would be my preference.  Over fifty years later, I still remember the clean rooms and well managed Sanyo Babies institution and my vote would be for donating money to needy children or any worthwhile Ugandan causes.

This is for Ugandan children who may be in similar need today. They are still a part of us:

Tumhare Hain Tumse Daya Mangte[i]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPTmsFITtT0

I will donate my entire airfare to Uganda and back in the forthcoming months provided a worthwhile programme of action is set up by people going to the Reunion. And yes, would it be a good idea to adopt a Ugandan charity or to work with a major UK charity to support programmes in Uganda?

Let us discuss the options and opportunities.