From India to Birmingham with my auntie Brij Duggal

By Bethan Kapur

My auntie came to England with her mother and four younger siblings when she was 11.

My auntie came to England with her mother and four younger siblings when she was 11.

Birmingham is where my grandparents settled after moving from a town called Jalandhar in Northern India. This English industrial town is now a hub for their children and my auntie; Brij Duggal’s home is the heart of it. It’s one of those houses you might run circles in as a child because each room is linked to the next. Push through the glass doors stumble over the soft carpets and into the wooden kitchen where there’s always been a drawer full of chocolate bars that my uncle used to let us into as a treat.

The staircase is where we played games with cousins, the sofas where we drank tea when old enough to join the adults in conversation and our auntie’s cooking is the impossible standard to which we hold all other Indian food.

At her home, over many cups of tea is where I heard stories about my family. My auntie is the oldest daughter of eight and maintains a rich memory of India. When she was 11, she left for England on a cargo ship with her mother and four younger siblings, one of whom was my father. Today she sits with me having lived in Birmingham for nearly 60 years.

A life in cooking

“When I was 12 and my sister was 11 we would take it in turns to make all the chapatis and subji for the rest of the family,” my auntie tells me. Although her family encouraged her to cook at a young age she would have learnt the basics at school in India where she and her friends practised cooking over open fires: “There were rows of little fire places, we all sat in front of our own and the teachers used to check our chapatis,” she says. “I’ve probably been making chapatis every day since the age of 12.”

She is a meticulous cook; throughout the meal she maintains a steady production of chapatis on the hob. Each one blows up into a perfect balloon over a blue flame before she grabs it with tongs and swiftly lathers on butter. Making them as we eat means they’re as fresh as possible and the top chapati on the plate always glistens with butter that’s just melted but hasn’t yet sunk into the dough.

Today there are three pots of curry on the table. One is my granddad’s chicken curry, a recipe which my father also cooks a version of. My auntie is a vegetarian but she will still often cook this coveted meal for the rest of the family with the expertise of someone who need only imagine the flavours to get it right.

I scoop every option into my chapati, each one alone, all three together then, once I have established my favourite, specific ratios. Every mouthful is accompanied with yogurt. Yogurt is a Punjabi staple. It’s called raita in India and is served with most curries. Today my auntie has treated me to special variation: raita with bhallay. Bhallay are fried balls of flour, herbs and spices. She lifts a green slightly flattened ball out of the yogurt to show me; I joyfully slide one into my chapati with everything else.

There is always a drum stocked with chapati flour in my auntie’s kitchen along with pots of chickpeas and different types of lentils. She lives near Soho Road, a two-mile long street known for multiculturalism and home to around 30 different religious centres; it is also a place where curry ingredients are in abundance. You can find fresh turmeric, okra, bitter gourd and buy a bag the size of a small child full of extra hot chilli spices or any other fire-coloured powder from one of the supermarkets.

Yogurt, known as raita, is a popular Punjabi staple.

Yogurt, known as raita, is a popular Punjabi staple.

My auntie’s go-to supermarket is called S&D. She leads me into this shop where the owners: a husband, his wife and their son can be found on the shop floor. The family first opened it 50 years ago, and the son intends to keep it going. It is a small supermarket but bags full of chapati flour still tower like hay bails against the back walls. This flour along with a high fat butter, called ghee, which is used with chapatis are their most popular ingredients.

Soho Road used to be filled with pubs, bars and a Woolworths but now saris line the windows, crates full of exotic vegetables sit outside shops and you can duck into any one of the cafes to have a masala tea. The market for these things has exploded in the last 50 years but when our family first arrived my auntie can’t recall there being a single Indian shop. how did the people of Birmingham make their curry? “I remember there was just one English guy who used to import ingredients and deliver them to people’s homes,” she tells me.

Along with butter, chapati flour is the most popular ingredient in the S&D supermarket.

Along with butter, chapati flour is the most popular ingredient in the S&D supermarket.

Boarding the Ship

My granddad, her father, decided to move to England after being inspired by the travel agency above his shoe shop: “His business wasn’t doing well. All of his family used to come and buy shoes but never pay for them.” The grass looked greener in England.

“My mum didn’t want him to go,” my auntie tells me. “They started arguing. She’d heard stories that men would go there, meet other women and never come back. Mum was worried because she had six kids to look after.” It was two years before her mother boarded a boat with her children, selling her home and jewellery to pay the fare, so she could join her husband.

She and the children spent 21 days on the ship but it was the train journey at the other end, between Tilsbury Docks and Victoria, which is most memorable to my auntie. At the age of 11, she and her younger siblings found themselves on the train without an adult. Their mother had jumped off to get a suitcase and the train left the station before she came back. My auntie remembers all of her siblings crying. As the oldest, she was the only one who didn’t: “I was busy just keeping them in one place. Holding the youngest one I suppose.” The five young children who didn’t speak English must have been a sorry sight. Fortunately one man on the train could speak Hindi and helped them find their way at the other end.

“I didn’t know what to think it was a new country new everything. I still panic if I get lost now, it must have caused some trauma!”

Settling in Birmingham

My granddad didn’t initially intend to stay in England but the decision was made when his family arrived: “No one who came here from India would have intended to stay, they left behind their families, extended families, cultural way of life, better weather. They just slowly adapted for their children’s education and future,” my auntie says.

“It was originally only men who came over but because they couldn’t make enough money to go back they started sending for their families.”

There may have been a feeling of disappointment for those who first arrived; my granddad went from being a shop owner in India to a foundry worker in the UK. The wages for such work were around 10 pounds a week. “It wasn’t much even then,” my auntie tells me. Men began pooling their money together to help each other buy a home. “Mortgages weren’t something they knew about,” she says.

“You really had to rely on your friends.” my auntie can list examples of how this new Indian community worked together. My granddad came over with two close friends whom she and her siblings called uncles. Uncle is Cha Cha in Punjabi. “We called one of them Cha Cha Cha,” she laughs, “because he always made us tea.” (Cha also means tea in Punjabi.)

My auntie always keeps a drum stocked full of chapati flour in her kitchen.

My auntie always keeps a drum stocked full of chapati flour in her kitchen.

Although my granddad was confident speaking English, my grandma found it more difficult. My auntie had to speak for her when they took the younger children to the doctor. But her mother was able to speak Punjabi with other Indian women in Birmingham and my auntie remembers that she used to source herbal remedies from back home to help those with fertility problems. “One lady had a child after 14 years of trying and she bought my daughter clothes to thank my mum,” she says.

Like her mother my auntie enjoys being involved with the local community. She volunteers every week with a charity that supports those caring for people with dementia called DISC (Dementia Information and Support for Carers). She is also the secretary of the Arya Samaj, which is a Hindu organisation that promotes teachings based on the Vedas, which are ancient Indian scriptures. However she tells me their events welcome all religions. Religion plays a large role in Birmingham’s community with 74% of residents identifying as belonging to a faith. Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism are the four largest.

My auntie prefers it when all the religions come together. “I think there have been attempts by city councils to try and hold events where people mix, but often if one religion is celebrating an event they won’t invite others.” However she sees less segregation among the younger population and is hopeful about future generations. “We need to integrate,” she says. “We’re all the same really.”

I’m half Indian myself. When my father left home he moved to Cambridge and married my mother, an English woman. It was the first mixed marriage in the family but many more came after. If Birmingham is a step away from India then my white suburban village is another step. I loved growing up here and I certainly feel integrated but it can be easy to lose sight of where this part of my family came from.

I’ve been asking more questions recently and the last few years have not only been a time of rediscovery for me, two years ago my father visited India for the first time since leaving at the age of five. I went with him. We shocked everyone we met when we told them how long it’s been. I’ve been enjoying my auntie’s cooking for years but now it’s time to do a little more than that and also perhaps finally get those recipes off her.

I visited India for the first time two years ago with my father and auntie.

I visited India for the first time two years ago with my father and auntie.