Beyond the Cornershop
Vijay Patel was working late one evening last year in a newsagent, Rota Express on Mill Hill Broadway, when he was attacked after ‘refusing to sell … cigarette papers’ to some underage customers. He died in hospital two days later. Reading about the death of Mr Patel in the newspaper, I was reminded of a similar story I’d heard fifteen years earlier.
In the grey corner of north-east London where I grew up, there was a station, and by it, the closest among many, a newsagent. Like everything where we lived, the newsagent’s shopfront was unassailably urban and plain, a green plastic fascia and glass. The story went that a young woman, herself local, had entered the shop just after eleven o’clock one night. She asked for cigarettes. The owner, who was Gujarati, told her that he didn’t have a licence to sell cigarettes after eleven o’clock. Why was the shop still open? she wanted to know. The man answered that he could sell other items but not cigarettes. It was the law. The woman insisted; the man repeated himself. The woman left the shop and went to find her brother, who was in a pub nearby. When his demand, too, was refused, he attacked the shopkeeper and left him bleeding. He later died of his injuries.
Wondering about the bleak story years later, I went to the shop. Sure enough the Gujarati family was gone. I couldn’t find any record of an attack on the husband, just articles about ‘the decline of the Asian corner shop’, in which the figure of the Gujarati shopkeeper is a nostalgic racial stereotype, a stand-in for longer, fuller histories. Sita Balani writes of the corner shop as a place of ‘intimacy and commerce, celebration and vulnerability, belonging and difference’. ‘Growing up’, she remembers, ‘the shop served as my playground, library, kitchen, bus stop, and office.’ All of life was there.
An article on the BBC website says that ‘Patels are traditionally linked with corner shops’ – not an informative statement, but one that brings to mind an image of my uncle and auntie in their new shop in Seven Sisters in 1976. I have an old memory that in those family-run shops a plain accounting notebook would be kept by the counter. The notebooks were somehow reassuring; as a child I had imagined the aunties and uncles who ran the shops making vertical lines of numbers in them, balancing their budgets month by month. My grandfather was religious, and I watched him use a similar notebook to write the name of his Hindu deity again and again in vertical columns of red ink.
Most Gujaratis came to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s from East Africa. They used Swahili words amid the Gujarati. The British did not make it easy to get in – for them or for other East African South Asian communities, whose families came from Goa, Punjab and Maharashtra as well as Gujarat, including Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.
A photo taken at Nairobi airport in February 1968. Kenyan South Asians are protesting against the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which introduced ancestral connection (formalised as ‘patriality’ in the 1971 Immigration Act) as a condition for the right of abode in the UK. Kenyan South Asians were British nationals and carried British passports but couldn’t migrate unchecked to Britain because they weren’t white. One placard in the picture says: ‘Wilson! Your pound devalued, your passport devalued!’ (The British government had lowered the exchange rate of sterling against the dollar in 1967.)
East African South Asians often struggled to secure loans from British banks. I remember listening to an uncle who told me he’d been declined and then gone back to the bank in London – this was 1973 – with his account books from his dukka (a small shop) in Kampala. ‘Look,’ he told the bank manager, ‘as you can see, I know how to run a business!’
Many Gujaratis had run dukkas in East Africa under the auspices of the British empire and the imperial railway – built mostly by indentured Sikh labourers – from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. As Sana Aiyar records in Indians in Kenya (2015), dukkas sold a wide range of foodstuffs (sugar, rice, oil, tea) and consumer goods (jute bags, clothes, cigarettes) imported from India. Later, the mythologised migrating Gujarati merchant would be lauded in Britain: ‘the world’s best businesspeople’, the Economist declared in 2015. Not ‘put off by small matters such as distance or temperature’, it observed, ‘Gujarati mercantilism’ is ‘more Thatcherite than thou’ in its ascent from corner shops to ‘tech start-ups to some of the world’s largest conglomerates’.
But there’s no place in the Economist’s mythology for Amrit Wilson’s study of the lives of South Asian women in Britain, Finding a Voice (1978): ‘On 22 November  four members of the strike committee (among them two women, Jayaben Desai and Yasu Patel) went on hunger strike outside the headquarters of the Trade Union Congress in London.’
That older generation was defined by the upheavals of the post-colonial moment. They had left India either under indenture or as economic migrants – ‘passenger Indians’, as the older phrase had it. Now in Britain, they were twice removed from India. ‘Now these Indians abroad, what are they? Indian citizens?’ Jawaharlal Nehru asked the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament) in 1948. ‘Are they going to be citizens of India or not? If they are not, then our interest in them becomes cultural and humanitarian, not political.’
How many of our stories of migration are memories rather than acknowledged history? The theatre director Jatinder Verma arrived in Britain as a child in 1968. Before coming to Britain, his family had ‘left a small town in northern India to make a new life on the railways in East Africa’. He went on to found a theatre company, Tara Arts, in London in 1977, after a young Sikh man, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, was killed in a racist attack the year before. On hearing the news, Verma remembers, ‘I burst into tears … what did this boy do that he was killed? I’ve being trying to make sense of those tears ever since.’