Lock Stock and Dhokla

“Shout ‘Patel’ and half this crowd will turn”, he tells me. It has rained a cold London drizzle. Anish – three guesses and you’ll be right at ‘Patel’- and me, count designer labels outside Bar Bollywoood – London club, big time Brit-Asian haunt. In a gaggle of fashionable Burberry coats and brollies. In a torrent of Gujjus and Punjabis spiffy to the toes, trussed in suede jackets and royal blue cravats, strappy black numbers and yes gel, enough to make a drunk man stand stick-straight.

We push past “I av a presentation on Mon-die” and “Shey caim back frum Indiia, din shey?” The Independent and the picture of the Bechkams snogging goes into my bag as I trot in.

I’d pictured London Club. I’d pictured blue UV light, cigar smoke flirting with Paco Rabanne, smoke, psychedelic beat and the likes of Talvin Singh. Then, suddenly I feel like I’ve walked into the wrong movie. Seen a Japanese movie with Hindi dialogue? It’s the same kind of brain-pudding experience. As the music built up, a club track took a dive, speakers booming into ….. ‘Bhumro’. Yup, the one from Mission Kashmir. Before you could say ‘Holy Queen Mother’, every dude on the floor had transmogrified into a Hrithik Roshan in an Armani suit. By the time the tracks have tripped between Madonna, Moby and a jumpy remixed version of ‘Piya Piya’ I was still pulling my jaw out of my Margharita.

British propriety was merrily being stomped over as women gyrated, manicured hands whipped the air and the pelvis was thrust in ways that would leave Govinda dizzy. Long gulp of Margarita. But I shouldn’t have been so shocked.

Two days ago I’d wriggled out of the sheets, disoriented, saucer-eyed. I wasn’t experiencing jetlag. Not even the after-effects of airline food. The song filtered into my claret-shot brain again “Koi pathar se na mare mere diwane ko”. I was hearing correctly. But I was in West London, wasn’t I?!? As if to reassure me, an Ameen Sayani voice came on. “Good morning doston. You are listening to Sunrise FM.” If he’d said “Earthquake” I couldn’t’ve woken up faster.

Then Anish’s mom cheerily informed me we were going to the garba in Fulham. “It’s not even Dassera.” “They organize it now and then. Come along. Payal is.” (Her daughter-in-law – an exec in a PR firm.) She tells me to hurry, eat the sandwiches, and if I’d like, the thepla on the kitchen table. Uh huh.

They godfathered the corner shop in the UK. That I knew. The Brit-Gujju guy will head for a pint at Callaghans’ after work, but he’ll go back to a dal nu rotlu dinner. That too. And we all know a fat bunch of them figure in the Sunday Times Rich List.

Since the time they thronged into the Isles, lock stock n dhokla, they’ve been infusing – with much gusto -buckets of colour into a dull and vague British culture. But this was definitely an occasion to mutter “Blimey! what’s going on?”

Garba. The event: “I go to Battersea only to see the girls.” a cheeky fop confesses. To him and other teenagers it’s just another excuse to party. Another chance to add a few more numbers to their phone books. And you can trace the signals they’re sending out to the young female population, emancipated from their London uniform of black suits. Now transformed into glitzy butterflies in zari and chiffon. (Wembley or Vile Parle, the mating game doesn’t change.) Silk saris, sequins, chaniya choli’s and fashion hot off the Indian catwalk swish past. Ransacked, undoubtedly, from the streets of Southall’s shopping mecca.

Pujas performed, gods appeased, the dancing begins. Grandmothers take the floor first, proud and confident in their steps learnt from their mothers who’ve picked it up from theirs. Quite comfortable with the fact that the lyrics – devoutly praising god and his might – are set to the tune of ‘Kambakht Ishq”.

A gelled DJ replaces Falguni Pathak. Women swirl in graceful circles to the Sherowali song from Suhaag and to old yet popular titles like the Nagin theme. And though garba is an old tradition, the dance steps are changing to Bollywood be bop. Skillfully incorporating Shilpa Shetty’s hip jerks from her latest movie.

No mandaps on grounds here. The small crowds snuggle into school halls and dance till 12 am – Council regulations. Till just before the last tube to Wimbledon. So they make the most of it. Meet old friends, touch base. Discussing losses incurred on the FTSE, exams a granddaughter gave, a recipe. Comfortable in their skins, in the knowledge that everyone here is like extended family who share their language, their quirks.

And while they discuss the virtues of bhel and samosas, they get about the all-important task of matchmaking. They’d rather find a nice, Oxford-literate gujju bahu quickly before Anish discovers a Brit ‘mem’.

‘Prasad’ goes around along with snacks (pronounced ‘snacks’) and drinks to refuel the bodies that are now jumping up and down.

The older generation have let the teenagers take over. Sentimental about these occasions, they don’t really believe it substitutes home, read Gujarat. Yet, they keep up the passionate effort to instill their values, to keep their colourful heritage from being diluted by the grey weather. They can see the numbers are dwindling. Some of the yuppies would like to go, but it’s not easy in a cosmopolitan London where cultures mix and fade. Where the pace of life does not encourage the luxury of tradition. A young Brit-Gujju says “I just want to be a good human being, these things don’t really matter to me.” Even so, it’s in their veins. As with their grandfathers, these events are the hub of their life. It keeps them whole, together, in a place where some people still believe that brown does not belong.

(Published in Communities column in the Sunday Times.)

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