Chef Tony Singh’s mum tells granddaughter story of family, from Partition to Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech and beyond.
IN her home in Leith, Kulwinder Singh is telling her wide-eyed granddaughter a story. It’s a tale of an adventure that spans continents, crosses land and sea, through vibrant and intoxicating landscapes to strange shores.
It tells of thousands of people travelling somewhere – most of them didn’t even know where – with their belongings hastily stuffed into bags and sacks.
Harpreet listens intently as her grandmother’s story meanders through human tragedy and gritty determination. It sweeps through hope and glory to the crushed discomfort of a large family living in a small room with no bath to wash in.
And – perhaps most startling of all to hear for a 12-year-old girl from Leith who is growing up in a world of social media and instant connection – it tells of hardly any television at all, a future of cooking, cleaning and caring for others and of never once complaining about it.
Kulwinder, 67, whose son is Leith chef and TV personality Tony Singh, is telling the story of her family’s life. And for Harpreet, the likeable chef’s daughter, it’s a fascinating tale that, with each twist and turn, reveals something about her grandmother that she never knew before. Such as her name. “It used to be Sukhwant,” explains Kulwinder. “That’s on my birth certificate. But in past, when you married, your in-laws would give you a new name.”
The story makes Harpreet gasp, not for the first time during a fascinating chat with her grandmother that will be aired on BBC Radio Scotland today as part of its Memories and Conversations series aimed at encouraging us all to chat and remember snippets from our past. For the schoolgirl, her grandmother’s tale of a family displaced by Partition in the 1940s, their journey to Scotland to build a new life and the cultural ties that decades later Kulwinder still holds dear, is both gripping and enlightening.
Kulwinder settled down to chat with Harpreet, one of her 14 grandchildren and the youngest of chef Tony’s four children, with a series of radio clips of sounds and speeches to help jog her memory.
Not that she could ever forget the difficult passage from India taken by her family to reach Scotland and their new lives.
Kulwinder was born in Glasgow not long after her mother, grandmother and her uncle had made the arduous journey from Lahore, forced to move out by the Partition of India which divided the country along religious lines.
“My father and grandfather were already in Scotland, they served in the army during the Second World War,” Kulwinder explains in the programme.
“When Partition happened, my gran, uncle and my mum left their home with a bundle of stuff and all their jewellery, and handed the key to the house to the next-door neighbours, who were Muslims.
“They said they would be back. But they never got back.
“They walked miles with thousands of other people. They got to Lahore and then got a train to Amritsar. There, my grandfather got a telegraph telling him to go to Bombay, their passports were there. They got on a ship that took 21 days to get to Tilbury Docks.”
Harpreet, listening intently, admits she had known little of her family’s story. “It sounds scary,” she gasps.
But if that is difficult to comprehend, more so is the shocking story her grandmother tells of one relative as she made the journey from her home.
“My sister-in-law’s mother-in-law had two children, the eldest son was just nine or ten months old. There was rationing and some food became available. Everyone ran across the road, but she tripped and the baby fell.”
Despite her distress, the young mother was not allowed to search for her missing baby for hours. Incredibly, after a night of tears, she returned to the spot to find her baby lying – thankfully alive – in a ditch.
The awful episode was, she explains, just one of many during a period that left families shattered.
The programme – part of a series aimed at highlighting how precious memories are – has its lighter moments too. Harpreet dissolves into giggles as her grandmother, inspired to reflect on her own childhood after hearing a burst of children’s programme Andy Pandy, tells her of how she loved to sew.
“I made my younger sister a dress, but she would not wear it,” she laughed. “So I tried it on my brother. I dressed him up, did his hair, got him dressed and took him on the bus to my gran with a pink dress on. I had to say he looked lovely!”
But it is other tales of childhood that bring into sharp focus how different life is for today’s generation of Sikh children in Scotland.
Such as the expectation that girls would work at home, caring for family and later their husband’s family rather than seek out a career.
“We went to school and came straight home, we were not allowed to go anywhere other than the back yard or the street outside,” reflects Kulwinder. “We were not allowed to watch television in front of my father. And we could only watch Top of the Pops when he wasn’t home.”
There were strict household rules and, outside the home, there was an expectation over how girls should dress and behave – such as the ban on school swimming lessons imposed by her father.
“At home we would not allow our mum to do a thing, we would do cooking, cleaning, get the coal for the fire. The house didn’t have running hot water, we had a big black kettle on fire all the time, that was the hot water we used for cooking, cleaning everything. We emptied it and filled it again. We didn’t have a bath so would go to public baths, but we were lucky we had an inside toilet.”
But the mood changes when a clip of Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech is played. “My family was worried,” recalls Kulwinder. “I remember grandad and dad talking, thinking they were going to be sent back to India.”
Kulwinder married husband Baldev and the couple made their home in Pilrig with their three sons – including chef Tony – and their daughter.
Baldev, now 72, was a lorry driver, and eventually made headlines in the 70s when he became the first Sikh to work on Edinburgh’s buses.
Kulwinder went on to inspire her son Tony to cook. She also helped set up Sikh Sanjog in the early 1980s, a group designed to help Sikh women integrate into Scottish society. Today the group helps with language skills, has a youth development programme and runs Punjabi Junction, a social enterprise cafe.
Her grandmother’s story leaves Harpreet full of admiration – particularly her work with the Sikh Sanjog.
“I’m very proud of gran,” she says. “I’m really glad she is doing something for the women who might still be sitting in the house, doing what they did. She got them all together. I know when I get married I’ll still cook and clean for my family but I can get a job too and do whatever I want.”
• Radio Recall featuring Kulwinder Singh and granddaughter Harpreet is on BBC Radio Scotland today at 1.32pm. The programme is also available to listen to anytime online. It is part of the BBC’s Memories and Conversations series.