London’s Southall awaits frenzy

In Southall, where the British South Asian diaspora forms close to half of the population, India v Pakistan can bring things to a standstill.

Changez Khan at Hamza Paan Shop... “We have been here for God knows how long, but we belong there.”   -  Shreedutta Chidananda


The sun is setting on Southall Park and Raman Gill and his mates are coming to the end of their game of tennis-ball cricket. "We only get time after work," he shrugs. "We play when we can." Gill runs Dhani's Unisex Salon just down the road, a place easy to locate, he insists. "We're right next to Shahanshah Samosa Shop; it's been around for ages, just ask anyone." On Sunday, Gill will shut shop early in the afternoon and hurry over to a nearby pub, to watch the final of the ICC Champions Trophy between India and Pakistan.

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Cricket's greatest (arguably) rivalry is perhaps best experienced on neutral territory, for it's where supporters of both nations co-exist. In Southall, where the British South Asian diaspora forms close to half of the population, India v Pakistan can bring things to a standstill. In 2011, it literally did. "After that game (the World Cup semifinal in Mohali), nothing was moving on Broadway (Southall's main street)," recalls Gill. "It was crazy. Cars were beeping like mad, people were leaning out of windows waving flags, there were drummers on rooftops. And lots of police, because Pakistani fans were trying to fight us."

(From left to right) Rana Shirza, Ali Aslam and Sohail Bashir.

Gill says he left Jalandhar 18 years ago but he drives like he's never been away, turning at speed, rushing headlong into gaps, and stopping within a hair's breadth of the vehicle in front. He stops in what he calls the heart of Broadway, where Sultan Jewellers and Taste of Lahore compete for space with Bank of Baroda and Moti Mahal Punjabi Cafe. "We are friends outside cricket," he says, "but when the match is on, we can't stand each other. It's like a wall has come up. From the youngest to the oldest, people who were born here, people who came over, they hate us and we hate them. It's like the border has moved here. I was with a few friends at a bookmaker's during the World Twenty20 last year. India was losing (to West Indies in the semifinal) and a couple of Pakistani fans started clapping. I warned them: 'You are two and we are 20.' They fled."

Behind the counter in Hamza Paan Shop, popular for its kulfi and falooda, Changez Khan, takes a slightly different view. He moved here from Rawalpindi two decades ago, and compares these cricket matches to a carnival, a festival. "It's very intense, yeah, but in a nice way," he says. "Everyone's outside celebrating. I've never seen any fights." That even children born in the U.K. to immigrant parents should rally behind the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams does not surprise him. "We've been here God knows how long but we belong there," he says. "We haven't forgotten."

‘All friendly’

Southall's streets are now buzzing. It's Ramzan and the fast has just been broken. Worshippers are pouring out of mosques, and restaurants are slowly filling up. Outside Gifto's Lahore Karahi, where on weekends, it is said, patrons wait for hours for a table, Ali Aslam, Rana Shirza and Sohail Bashir are standing in queue. They're just out of university and were all born in Southall. "I have loads of Indian friends; we give them stick and they give us stick. It's all friendly," says Aslam. "I hate the Indian team but the cricket team is not the same as the country."

When your parents are Indian or Pakistani, feels Bashir, you do not question whom you support. "It comes from the parents; you know where you're from. Maybe when I have kids, it will be different, and they'll support England. But for me, it's Pakistan at cricket."

Whatever the outcome on Sunday, Southall is unlikely to be a quiet place. "Come back here after the match, yeah?' Shirza grins. "It will be wild."

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