A One Way Flight To London

A tale of partition of immigration.

It was 1964 when the Ahmed family decided to book a one way flight to London. 17 years had passed since Partition and Irshad Ahmed’s brother had long left Pakistan, settling in London in 1960. When Irshad came to London in 1962 for his brother’s wedding, the seed of migration was planted. 

“After World War 2, England was very poor - so they invited people to come and help build their country back up,” his wife Shahzadi explained. 

“We thought maybe we could get more work in England, since Partition left little opportunities for us at home. When the British ruled India, they took all the expensive stuff back to England - they were improving their country. The people [of India] wanted freedom from the British, because they were very nasty to Indian people. If anyone wanted freedom, they’d simply shoot them. The country was really down [in morale]. The British left them in poverty.”

Irshad and Shahzadi were both born in a part of India that was to become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947 - the Lahore division of the Punjab - and so their families had been some of the lucky ones when India was brutally separated in Partition. That relief did not come before a lot of uncertainty, though - the border lines the British drew up were speculative right until the last moment, which caused anxiety and chaos for those near what they assumed might be the border. Shahzadi was born in Kasur, south of Lahore, which today stands just within the border of what is now Pakistan. Her father Faizal Karim was ready for any bandits that might have tried their luck, Shahzadi says. So in the hallway by the door in their home lay a rifle, an axe and a sword. “It was a large, heavy sword that men would use to fight with while on a horse... Men had to defend their families.”

As tensions rose and doubt increased as to whether Kasur would be in Pakistan or India, Faizal began to worry that he wouldn’t be able to protect his family. So he packed up the stashes of gold and cash hidden around the house and sent it along with his wife and children, who were to stay in Multan with some relatives. Faizal stayed behind to guard the house alone. A few months later when the location of Pakistan was announced the family made their way back to Kasur and thankfully, Shahzadi was reunited with her father.

Eventually, the Pakistani army came to every house and confiscated civilian weapons in an attempt to quell the unprecedented violence. They came to Shahzadi’s house in Kasur one day and when they left, they took Faizal’s weaponry with them. 

Kasur had become part ghost town following Partition. Hindu homes stood empty, ready for Indian Muslims who would arrive as refugees after a perilous journey. Many people saw it as an opportunity for gain, breaking locks and entering eerily abandoned homes, the only evidence of a happy life once lived found in the items left behind. One day, Shahzadi’s young brother came home with two chairs that he had taken from a Hindu home nearby. Faizal sighed and told him to put them back. The young boy, too young to understand the sinisterism in his optimistic exuberance, returned them to the empty Hindu home in a sulk.    

Born in 1938, Irshad Ahmed remembers life as a Muslim in India - he can still recall experiencing segregation as a child. “We had to collect our milk and water from the other side of the street,” his pride stops him from elaborating and he says he doesn’t remember, but I think it is more that he would rather not. “It was a very tough, scary time,” Shahzadi sighed as she recalled the rations, the guns, and the fear that came in the midst of Partition. 

Life in England came with many of its own challenges at the time the Ahmed family decided to migrate. In 1965 - just a year after they arrived - Malcolm X himself came to England, having been invited to the West Midlands town of Smethwick by the Indian Workers Association to bring attention to the racism being experienced by people of colour there. This was a time when ‘no coloured’ signs were affixed to windows of pubs and restaurants, where white residents of the town were rallying together to pressure the council to buy empty houses in the area and make them available to white families only. Reporters would walk down Marshall Street in Smethwick and comment on how a “shining white community” was being torn apart by a “coloured invasion”. 

The Conservative MP there at the time was Peter Griffiths, who won his seat in Smethwick with the slogan “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Griffiths stood firmly by the slogan, saying “I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling.”

Malcolm X visited Smethwick on February 12, just 9 days before he was assassinated in New York City. It was a tumultuous time to say the least.

But people from the subcontinent of Asia continued to arrive undeterred throughout the 60s, full of dreams of starting afresh in a nation they’d given so much to in the days of the Raj, with suitcases full of Pakistani rugs and ornaments - silver swords and gold plaques engraved with the Shahada - memories of a life lived that they couldn’t bear to leave behind. 

Things in Britain didn’t get easier. Mass immigration became a national subject for concern amongst politicians (has much changed?) and some English citizens who were alarmed at the influx of Black and Brown faces moving into their neighbourhoods. Most of them chose to neglect the fact that this was largely a consequence of the British ruling India and leaving the country in a state of deathly division and chaos never seen before outside of war or famine. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan once said, “We are here because you were there.”

The invasion of India, its Partition and the abrupt departure of the British from India following the creation of Pakistan caused damage for generations which is not surprising, given it was a decision that was made with alarmingly little thought. British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe was in charge of deciding the new boundaries between Pakistan and India, and he had been given forty days to do it. Before being assigned this role, he had never visited India. The borders he created to form Pakistan meant that communities were cut off from sacred pilgrimage sites, railway lines were disrupted and agricultural lands were cut off from industrial plants. Radcliffe never visited the communities he divided. Knowing the damage he did and fearing the repercussions, it’s said he burnt all papers associated with the job and never returned to India again

In 1968, four years after the Ahmed family had settled here, Enoch Powell gave his highly divisive and certainly xenophobic ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech. By this time, Mr Ahmed’s wife Shahzadi was exhausted. She had four children under the age of 10 - two twin girls, a young girl and a baby boy. Mr Ahmed was busy working and between her and her four children, their English was limited. Shahzadi began to train as a hairdresser in south London which helped break down the language barrier, and she was thankful she could at least try to socialise with people - she had been incredibly lonely.

Their first house in England was on Broadgreen Avenue, West Croydon - today the area has a higher population of South Asian people than any other demographic. The Ahmed family were one of the first to make their mark in this area, providing the demand that went on to supply the area with its rich South Asian culture. Walk down London Road just off Broadgreen Avenue and you’ll see it littered with Indian jewellery shops that sell 24 karat gold displayed on red velvet mannequins, Keralan take out restaurants, flyers on the pavements for psychics that promise to rid you of Nazar (‘evil eye’), and supermarkets that sell cassava, root turmeric and halal meat. A mosque and a Hindu temple are not far from one another. While Partition was the act that brought the seeds of division to bloom in a bloody tragedy, in England, nobody cared - Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Indians and Pakistanis alike were all seen as ‘Pakis’. Now it didn’t matter where in South Asia you had come from - they were all ‘othered’. Ironically, solidarity was to be found in that experience.

Shahzadi went outside to greet the postman one spring afternoon and as he handed her the post, they shared a little small talk - Shahzadi felt good until the postman said “ta-ra luv!”, bidding her goodbye, which left her confused. 

“What does ‘ta-ra luv’ mean?” she pondered for days, the postman’s Yorkshire accent throwing yet another hurdle her way. We laugh about it now but assimilation was hard, and sometimes she felt like she’d never get there. She missed her siblings, the markets, her mother’s food, her friends, the sun. 

Shahzadi lowered her eyes as she spoke to me about those days. “When I came here, I hated England, truthfully. I didn’t know the language, I was so lonely. I had no relatives in the UK, and I wondered if I’d ever see them again.

“I learnt English in school [in Pakistan] for five years, so I knew the alphabet. But their accents were so different. I had such difficulty understanding, so I went to an evening class in Croydon and I started learning English. I remember things were so cheap. People would get £6 a week in wages. Bread was half a shilling. The house used to be really cold. There was a lot of snow. The children got used to it and slowly they learnt English - before I knew it, they were playing with the next door neighbour.”

As Shahzadi recounted her tales from her current home with her husband in Croydon, we laughed as she told me about the time she cluelessly walked into the chemist and asked them for a loaf of bread. We both reflected on the moment - her reliving and me imagining how it must have been, to feel that lost and displaced - as we took in the blue sky from the conservatory that has a huge, high ceiling dome, all windows and clouds, reminiscent of a life they once had. A blackbird swooped down into the garden to graze the apple tree she had planted decades ago but before we could even comment on it, it flew away. 

“I read England was very nice in a history book in school in Kasur,” Shahzadi said, sipping on a cup of warm water. “The first time I stepped on a plane was to go to London - I thought I was getting on a plane to a fairyland! When I arrived I thought, ‘bloody hell, what’s this?!’’ The UK [post WW2] was mostly burnt. Houses were black. When I saw them I thought, ‘oh, my God.’ There was so much snow. I cried for a whole year. I felt stuck.”

Shahzadi had several jobs - she worked in a factory for four years soldering electric coils, then as a hairdresser, and then she blagged a job as a curtain maker. That was what led the Ahmeds to open their first business in 1976; a curtain shop in Croydon that is a Chinese restaurant today. Shahzadi made all of the curtains, spending many late nights with a sewing machine and fatigued fingers. 

“I only knew business, and in business I didn’t have any problems.” Mr Ahmed said sternly. He was, and remains, incredibly no-nonsense. He stands sturdy in his 80s, and I imagine him still very capable of throwing a right hook. His thick white hair still falls in waves over his forehead and when he smiles, his eyes twinkle like a boy. 

“I always had a different business, not the run-of-the-mill business. No other South Asian had a business like mine, in the whole of the country,” he says, very boldly. Whilst I couldn’t confirm that to be true there was no doubt he was rightly very proud of what he achieved, having “arrived at London Heathrow in the 1960s with £5 in my pocket.”

In 1979 - 15 years after the Ahmeds arrived - another Pakistani man arrived at London Heathrow with a pocketful of dreams.

Arbab Mohammad Khan could trace his history all the way back to Genghis Khan, and he recounted the tale of his family tree often. Post Genghis era, his ancestors had travelled from Afghanistan to a pre-Raj India for a taste of all the gold and riches Hindustan had to offer. These Pashtuns settled in India and never looked back - until 1947, when Partition forced them to relocate.

“My father was in the British Indian Army,” Arbab said, grinning with pride as he showed me pictures of Riaz Mohammad Khan posing in his uniform when he had been stationed in Thailand. An English graduate with honours from the Presidency University of Kolkata, Riaz was Assistant Editor of the Military Gazette and a Major in the army, serving in Burma during WW2.

The Khan family were from a village called Dalelpur Urf Sarowal near Gurdaspur, North India. In 1947 Riaz was stationed in the Himalayan foothills of Shimla, leaving his wife Zubaida Khan with their first born, a young boy called Fayyaz. Zubaida was also pregnant with a baby girl. As Partition was announced a mass exodus occurred and Zubaida had to say goodbye to her home, which was now part of the Indian Punjab. Zubaida had to accept the reality that she might not see her husband again. She travelled to Lahore, Pakistan, pregnant and with a young child, and managed to make it unharmed. Zubaida passed away in 2016, and so what she had to endure during her journey remains a story lost in history.

As Zubaida travelled to Lahore, Riaz Mohammad Khan was essentially being held as a captive of war. Muslim soldiers were stuck in India, Hindu soldiers were being held in what was now Pakistan, and they were all soon hoping to be transferred. In December 1947, Riaz’s baby girl was born - Zubaida called her Shahida, quite fittingly meaning ‘witness’. One imagines Riaz’s hope of coming home dwindled as days turned into months, and months turned into a year. Even as hope was being lost, Zubaida prayed for her husbands safe return.

One night, God heard her prayers. As she was putting Shahida to bed, a tannoy began to blare outside from an army truck that was rolling down the street, calling for the family of a Riaz Mohammad Khan. Zubaida headed onto the street in disbelief to claim her husband. Their reunion was a happy one and not too long after, they had a baby boy that they called Arbab - a title used by tribal leaders that roughly translates to ‘landlord’ - and that is how his life started, as a product of reunion and relief, in a new homeland called Pakistan. 

The Khan family had been placed in Block D of Model Town, Lahore - founded in 1922, it was constructed by civil engineer and ‘father of modern Lahore’, Sir Ganga Ram with the dream of making it a garden town. “It was so green - it was amazing,” Arbab remembers. “There were hardly any cars in those days; there were just trees all over the roads and the streets. It was a wonderful place to live, and I have so many memories of running around with friends as a young boy.” Arbab recalled there being an abandoned Hindu temple across the road from the house he grew up in, and he would walk to the temple grounds and play cricket with his friends. “The architecture was very good,” and the conversation ended. 

Shahzadi and Irshad Ahmed travelled back to Pakistan frequently, and Shahzadi revelled in the chance to go back to her mother’s house in Kasur, the hometown of Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. Birds would flock from all around to sing from the rooftop of the open air house and when rain fell through the sky it would land in her home and she’d sweep the rain into the gutter system, where it would eventually drift away. “I miss my childhood,” Shahzadi says. “We were so happy. People were so close because there was no TV, radio, or telephone - we had to speak to each other, knit together - we’d laugh, joke and sing songs.”

When the Ahmed kids became teenagers, Irshad and Shahzadi decided to send them to convent school in Pakistan for a year or two to get them reacquainted with their culture. It was there in Lahore that their daughter Surrya (named after the Sanskrit word for ‘the sun’) - found herself mildly intrigued by a young man she had spotted from the rooftop of their house, who was gazing back at her from his own rooftop. She later found out his name was Arbab.   

The pair soon started meeting in a coffeeshop in Gulberg, Lahore, before Surrya finished her education and returned back to London for good. They became penpals, and one day Arbab wrote to her to tell her he would soon be coming to London Heathrow. Surrya got on a bus to meet him there and to her surprise, she was greeted with a white gold engagement ring glittering with diamonds. 

“I wasn’t scared when I came here. I was prepared,” Arbab tells me of his arrival to London in 1979. “I remember speaking to the immigration officer at the airport and he asked me what I was doing for work in the UK… I didn’t say I didn’t have a job secured. I told him I was an [agricultural] landlord. The officer said ‘Mr Khan, what kind of farming do you do?’ In those days, the American President was Jimmy Carter - he became president in 1976, and he was a peanut farmer. He only survived one term. 

“So when the immigration officer asked me what farming I do, I was ‘peanut farming’ and he laughed and let me straight through. The point is, I knew what to talk about. I wasn’t going to beg for a visa.” 

Arbab was born in 1950 when Partition was still an incredibly raw and delicate thing and as such, he was raised a staunch patriot - one of the first of his generation to be born in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. He slept in ditches as bombs fell from the sky during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 and lived through the war that brought independence to Bangladesh in 1971. So it’s understandable that arriving in England in 1979 felt like the easy part.

As a graduate in political science and economics at the University of Punjab, Arbab got a job at the Bank of Oman in London. “I knew someone at the bank who could get me a job, but I didn’t have a work permit for the first few weeks I was here - so I went to the Home Office and applied for the visa. It was so bloody quick, I couldn’t believe it. We went there, they interviewed me, and literally just gave me permanent residency in the UK - that was it. But in those days, well… it was about to get harder [to gain residency], so I was very lucky.” 

Arbab and Surrya were married that same year and went on to have two children. In 1989, when Surrya was pregnant with her second child - me - she went back to Pakistan for the last time, although she didn’t know it would be her last time. She bought animal figures made from gold; elephants, pelicans, camels and deers. She brought axes and swords like the ones her grandfather once kept as defensive weapons as ornaments to hang on the walls, intricate tapestries and duvets and rugs, all of which she packed in a suitcase and brought back to display in our humble abode in Croydon. Slowly, due to wear and tear, these items were lost. It’s been over 30 years and she hasn’t returned to Pakistan since - I asked why, and she said she had felt too restricted as a woman last time she went. I can understand that. 

So many South Asians came to Britain in hopes of building a better life, and almost all of them come with the intention of one day returning home. Hardly any do.

Arbab is now 70 years old and his family often ask him to return to Pakistan, even just to visit - but poor health now prevents him from flying that far. His last trip was in 2012. “I thought I’d go back. I was a very emotional patriot - I always wanted to go back to Pakistan.” 

I had to ask, when had he planned to go back?

“There was no plan to go back, it was just one of those things - I was going to go back. I just was. But it just didn’t work out. Life bogs you down with other things.” 

Shahzadi is also no longer able to endure the journey from London to Lahore. “I have so many aches and pains, I’m too old,” she admits in defeat. “But I always thought I’d always go back to Pakistan for good,” she says wistfully. “I didn’t know I’d be old here! I thought we’d earn a bit of money and go back. In fact, I tried to go back twice - in 1973 and again in the 80s. The second time we returned we bought a china shop in Karachi. It was like a gift shop, you could say - full of crystals that would sparkle,” she said, painting a visual of shards of light reflecting rainbows everywhere.

“But then violence started happening. There was a lot of civil unrest. A bomb blast went off nearby and so we hid behind a pillar. We survived only by the grace of God.” Shahzadi took a deep breath.

“So your grandfather and I ended up coming back to London. The business prospects were better here. We wanted to leave London, but London wouldn’t leave us alone,” she laughed.

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Want to read more on Partition? I recommend ‘Partition Voices’ by Kavita Puri.