I may have mentioned this on and off over the years but shopping and I just do not get along. In fact we have a somewhat fractious relationship. The thought of wandering around from shop to shop, battling with crowds of people and in the event of successfully purchasing something, having to carry it around just does not appeal to me. On the contrary it fills me with dread. Recently, however, with the impending nuptials of my cousin, I agreed to tag along for the pre wedding shopping trips. Yes I am willing in some instances to martyr myself for my loved ones. A bit like going to the dentist, shopping is an evil necessity. I think I might just be the antithesis of a shopaholic – a sort of Yin to its Yang or is it Yang to its Yin. Never mind…
There was some debate, as to which part of London to go to such as Wembley, Southall or Green Street. Each of the three areas have a large South Asian population which meant that there would be some shops selling saris and lehengas. Green Street was rejected as there seemed to be an abundance of 'blingtastic' saris (not quite what we had in mind), Wembley appeared to have a limited number of places offering bridal wear so through a process of elimination, we were left with Southall. I have to admit that I was rather sceptical at the thought of finding anything suitable and made it quite clear that I believed it might be a wasted journey.
What I had failed to take into account was the fact that like most things in life, Southall too had grown and evolved over the last twenty years, which was when I used to frequent the area. My work place was a ten minute drive away at the time so whenever I felt a little home sick, I would head over with a colleague and grab a bite to eat or walk around the streets taking in the 'desi' ambience and for a brief period just be part of the community around me. Maybe it was my faulty memory but the bustling streets that greeted us last week had changed drastically in the last two decades. I really do not recall so many sari shops, boutiques, countless shoe shops, restaurants or even so many people on my trips during my lunch break.
Southall is a large suburban district of West London and has a predominantly South Asian residential population. It was even more noticeable to me this time than on any of my previous trips that the majority of people on the streets and in the shops were Asian. All I had to do was get in my car and drive for approximately 40 minutes and I felt like I was experiencing a piece of India right in my back yard. In hindsight I wondered why I had not been back in so many years. It is also unsurprising that Southall has been dubbed 'Little India'.
The area also has a high concentration of Punjabis and the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara is one of the largest outside India. It is very common to see men in their turbans and women in saris and shalwar kameez going about their daily business. When you come out of the station in Southall, the name is written not only in English but also in Punjabi using the Gurmukhi alphabet.
Despite my loathing of shopping, I was delighted by the buzz around me. Every shop displayed either colourful saris, shalwar kameezes, lehengas or had anabundance of shoes and bags. The stores displaying bangles of every conceivable colour and design managed to make me smile. Most of the shops had either Bhangra or Bollywood music playing in the background. There were even groups of small shops (almost like the ones we get back in Gawsia Market in Dhaka) nestled in several shopping arcades.
We sat in various shops, saw numerous saris that were produced for our approval and haggled, very amateurishly I might add, over the price of the ones we liked. As we walked from this shop to that, we found that the delicious aromas wafting onto the street from the various restaurants dotted around the High Street or Southall Broadway as it is known as, was too much for us to resist. We decided on a place called 'ChadniChowk', an eatery with no pretentions just delicious food and much needed cold mango lassi's.
This sustenance refuelled our energy and we continued on our journey to find the perfect wedding outfit for my cousin.
Later, when we passed a man making 'malaikulfis' in a little cart outside a shop, we felt it our duty to buy and eat with relish his wares. We told ourselves we were in fact doing a good deed by supporting the small entrepreneur.. It was with great reluctance I acknowledged that I might actually be enjoying this particular shopping trip. The sun was shining, not a cloud in sight, laughing and joking with my cousins, satiated with food and drink --- I guess I could not have asked for more (on a shopping trip that is).
Needless to say that I have subsequently had to eat my words about not finding anything in Southall and hear a lot of I told you so's as our mission was successful. I did, also manage to astonish my family on my return by a) not being exceedingly grumpy after a day of shopping and b) return with a fair few purchases myself. Having said which I was delighted that my cousin had found something for her special day and maybe even a little relieved for myself as it meant not having to revert to our back up plan of having to venture into either Wembley, Green Street or even both!