Meri Zindagi Oral History Project At Gunnersbury Park Museum

By Kate Smith | 05 December 2005
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photo shows indian family in trafalgar square with many pigeons on their shoulders

Ajit Mann with his family in Trafalgar Square

Meri Zindagi means My Life. A new exhibition at Gunnersbury Park Museum describes the lives of South Asians in Ealing and Hounslow and runs until 31st March 2006. Kate Smith went to hear some of the stories.


Banner from the Southall Monitoring Group

"I think I was a bit of a novelty, there were not many Indians at this time. I remember one incident when I wore my shalwar kameez and went on the bus. The bus conductor - I felt he was feeling embarrassed but I could feel him looking at me in a strange way but when I was getting down he very sweetly, very nicely whispered in my ear 'Madam, I think you have forgotten to change your pyjama suit'."

Mrs Singh, 1953

"The first two years were spent keeping your identity to yourself and integrating. That's actually what it was, it was a survival thing.... I ran cross country for school, I played football, I tried, I did everything. At one point I refused to take my mother to town because she was wearing her salwaar kameeze and I didn't want to be identified. Then after 1973 I suffered the advent of Paki bashing and was picked on at school".

On Southall:

"It's the first time where I didn't have to look behind when I was walking".

Suresh Grover, at school in the 1970s

"I was the only turban Singh in the whole borough of Haringey"

Ajit Mann

photo shows publications on display

Publications by Southall Black Sisters

Meri Zindagi fills three rooms of Gunnersbury Park Museum with panels extending from the memories of the first arrivers in the 1950s, to the rising racism, flashpoints and riots of the 1970s, and the first establishment of Southall Black Sisters and other campaigning groups.

Fond reminiscence mix with raw politics, and the exhibition reveals the range of choices that individuals made in adapting to their circumstances.

So one interviewee describes joining the police in the 1970s, one of the first few Asian people to do so. He describes an incident where he is attacked by white racists outside a National Front pub whilst on duty, and also experiencing racism from other policemen.

He nevertheless remains committed to the idea of being a visible part of the police. Other speakers talk about responding to the racism around them by forming pressure and protest groups, sometimes brought into confrontation with the police - especially during the Southall riot of 1979.

Many speak of the difficulty in getting jobs commensurate with their skills. Ajit Mann remembers (successfully) arguing in an interview for a teaching job that he would still be able to command the respect of his students whilst wearing a turban.

South Asian monopoly

Desi Monopoly, the game designed by local entrepreneur Ben Ahluwalia featuring Hounslow High Street and The Broadway, Southall.

There is also material on the "bussing" policy of the 1960s - where children of South Asian origin were bussed to schools outside the borough to spread the South Asian population of each local school more thinly.

Originally supported by some sections of the South Asian community, it became a flashpoint as children saw themselves being forced to travel miles to school because of their background. It makes fascinating reading, especially today as discussions of bussing are again on the inner city educational agenda.

You can also see some of the objects collected to go with the exhibition - from puppets and instruments, to a highly decorated protest banner, to South Asian monopoly.

gunnersbury park museum

Gunnersbury Park Museum

A year of interviewing by Hema Raull and her team of volunteers lie behind the exhibition, and what is on show is only a small proportion of a substantial archive. The material is expected to translate into a touring exhibition and many of the oral histories will be placed online on the South Asian oral history site History Talking

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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