Author:KATHRYN KNIGHT FOR WEEKEND MAGAZINE
When Ghulam Mumtaz arrived in London from India on a cold October afternoon in 1935, one might have assumed the 29-year-old had a bright future ahead of him.
After all, he’d made his passage on The Viceroy Of India, a majestic ocean liner complete with ballroom and pool.
Yet what awaited him was not a fine London apartment, but a modest home in Essex, where his wife Irma and three children awaited him.
His marriage to an Irish-born London girl had so angered his wealthy parents, they cut him off for good, and his recent journey to India would be his last.
Ghulam would die more than three decades later having never reconciled with his family, while his daughter would experience heartbreaking racism: she was called ‘Blackie’ at school, and ordered to stand in the corner of the classroom with her back turned.
Theirs is one of many poignant tales unearthed in the BBC series A Passage To Britain, in which academic and historian Dr Yasmin Khan explores the ship’s passenger lists to discover the stories of some of the first British-Asian immigrants.
From early pioneers struggling to assimilate in the 1930s to those fleeing the chaos triggered by Partition in the late 40s, and the optimistic arrivals from the new Commonwealth in the 1950s, their fortunes are intimately interconnected with the history of the faltering Empire and the rise of home rule.
‘Sometimes they’re trying their luck, sometimes it’s for romance, for work, fun or adventure. There are so many reasons they came, yet they’re all part of a slice of history,’ as Dr Khan puts it.
It’s a slice with particular resonance for Dr Khan, an associate professor at Oxford University whose career has focused on the history of the British in India and South Asian decolonisation.
Her Pakistani-born father arrived in London from Karachi in the 70s and settled here after marrying her Irish-born mother, making this film her most personal work yet.
When we talk about migration, we sometimes look at the bigger picture and miss the richness of individual stories,’ she says.
Dr Khan turned to a previously overlooked historical treasure trove to unearth these stories: the early 19th-century shipping companies’ lists that detailed the name, age and occupation of their passengers.
Her starting point was the lists of The Viceroy Of India for 1933-1935, a ship that made the 17-day trip from Mumbai – then Bombay – to Britain more than any other liner during that decade.
While 70 per cent of its passengers were British, Asian names were also on the list. ‘Most passengers were part of the ruling class,’ Dr Khan says.
‘Listed were people running tea plantations, a sherry trader, maharajahs and well-off Indians coming to Britain to study.’
ne passenger who caught Dr Khan’s eye was Mulk Raj Anand, whose passage to Britain in 1933 started a journey that would end with him becoming one of India’s foremost writers and an outspoken voice against the Empire.
‘In his books, Mulk took on not only the Indian caste system, but the British Empire itself,’ Dr Khan says. ‘He was coming to London to campaign against British rule.’
It was a campaign in which he had high-placed allies. ‘He was friends with George Orwell, and the writer EM Forster helped him get his first book published,’ says Dr Khan.
‘Mulk was a charming, good-looking character, embraced by the literary Bloomsbury set.’
Mulk’s charisma also caught the eye of one Kathleen Gelder, a vivacious young London intellectual who he married in 1939.
Dr Khan tracked down their niece Ann Jasper, a mother-of-five, who took up the story.
Three years after Mulk and Kathleen married, they had a daughter, Sheila, but by 1945, as India moved ever closer to Partition, Mulk returned to India, leaving his family behind.
‘Although he continued to visit and support Sheila, he never returned to Britain to live,’ says Dr Khan.
‘It caused an irreconcilable rift with his daughter. On her deathbed she wrote to Ann saying she was “glad he left as it was better to grow up without him there”.’
If Mulk and Kathleen’s marriage was a failure, there were successes too. ‘In the interwar period there were 3,000 marriages between white women and Muslim men,’ says Dr Khan.
Among them was Ghulam Mumtaz, who first came to the UK in 1926, aged 20, to study law at London’s King’s College.
He was set for a glittering future until he fell in love with a white woman, which led to him being disinherited by his land-owning family.
Without their support, he was unable to continue studying. As his grandson Jeremy Reeve tells Dr Khan, he ended up doing jewellery repairs to support his wife and children.
Heading for London in 1935 was Sir Lancelot Graham, a civil servant during the British Raj who became governor of Sindh province – now part of Pakistan – during its tempestuous lurch towards Partition.
‘His trip was likely to be about negotiating his tenure as governor,’ says Dr Khan. ‘The British grip on India was shaky, and Sir Lancelot would have known that the India he knew was disappearing.’
Today, Sir Lancelot’s grandson Christopher lives near Manchester alongside his grandfather’s Indian memorabilia.
‘Meeting him was a reminder of the way so many people you wouldn’t imagine in the UK have a connection with India, whether it’s having worked there, been in the Army or had a family member who came over,’ says Dr Khan.
‘It underpins just how intricately India’s history is intertwined with our own.’