Britain’s Asians

Neil Berry

In London, newsagents, sub-post offices and what used to be called grocers, with the three of them absorbed at times into a single unit, are now run almost exclusively by Asians. The same is true in other parts of Brittain: notably, Leicester, Coventry, Bradford, the West Midlands and some of the North-West. And this is just the most visible aspect of Asian business activity in this country. Asians are becoming prominent in all areas of commerce, though they are only around 2 per cent of the population. It’s said that the next generation of City accountants will nearly all be Asian; and there are observers who expect to see power in the City of London becoming increasingly concentrated in Asian hands.

This may seem a wild forecast, but twenty years ago who would have thought that before long nearly every newsagent’s in the whole of Greater London would be under Asian management? The Asian takeover of small trade – it’s hard to avoid the term ‘takeover’ – has been a phenomenon of the Seventies and Eighties in Britain. It has been one of the many changes to have occurred in a society which may be said to have been stunned by change. And perhaps this is why the attitude of the white majority to Asian shopkeepers is hard to gauge. On the whole, and at a guess, it appears to be one of grudging acceptance.

Yet many people must be impressed, albeit reluctantly, by the long hours worked by Asian shopkeepers, by their willingness to stay open seven days a week and by an obligingness which can verge on the preposterous. In Asian shops in parts of London these days you will find pay phones installed for the benefit of customers who cannot find a working phone on the street. And there are scores of Asian shopkeepers who seem to stock every household utensil known to man, and who will look acutely disappointed if you ask them for an item which they haven’t got.

Many whites have a vague idea that all Asians are called Patel; and that there are pages of Patels in the London phone book – nearly enough to rival the entries for the Smiths and Greens – is the stuff of saloon-bar jokes. But there curiosity seems to stall. It is as if to see Asian shopkeepers as other than shopkeepers, to respect them as people with their own past and their own identity, were too painful an effort. As shopkeepers, Asians can still, after all, be regarded as servants. It is far from being common knowledge, even among the otherwise well-informed, that a high proportion of the Asian business class in Britain are Gujarati, speakers of the language of Gujarat, the mainly Hindu area of North-West India whose most famous son was Mahatma Gandhi. Nor is it well-known that many of these Gujarati belonged to the exodus of Asians from East Africa in the late Sixties and early Seventies, precipitated by the growth of African nationalism. There are Gujarati settlers in Britain who have never set foot in India. Of the younger generation, the majority, perhaps, have never been there. Those who haven’t already been taken to India by their families often plan to visit the place at some point, though this isn’t always the case. ‘Why should I want to go there?’ a Gujarati teenager once said to me. ‘It’s so bloody hot.’

Gujarati have traditionally been traders. Commerce between Gujarat and the coast of East Africa stretches back two thousand years. But it was not until the latter part of the 19th century that Indians, attracted by the job opportunities created by the building of the Uganda railway, migrated to Africa in large numbers. From this period dates the development under British rule of Asian settlements in countries like Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya, in the last of which there is still a vibrant, if beleaguered Asian community. The majority of Asians were indentured labourers who returned to India when the railway was finished. Two groups remained: the already-established merchants and the small shopkeepers or duka-walas, many of them named Patel, who had been servicing the needs of Europeans and Africans alike. It is the descendants of the duka-walas who have become such a conspicuous feature of British high streets.

Most East African Gujarati are Hindus, though there is a small minority of Muslims. In East Africa Hindus kept up the caste system, with its hierarchies, clubs and arranged marriages, just as they do in Britain today. Derived originally from an agricultural caste, the Patels had been employed by the Moghuls in India as revenue collectors, which is what the name came to signify. In Africa under the British, they emerged as a subservient business and administrative class. A few Asians – not all of them called Patel – achieved spectacular commercial success, and Asian business went on expanding. So great was its scale in Uganda that after General Amin expelled the country’s Asians in 1972, the Ugandan economy virtually collapsed.

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[*] Transients, Settlers and Refugees (Oxford, 264 pp., £25, 13 February 1986, 0 19 878009 5).