The Triumphant Story of Britain’s Desi Pubs
Once places of refuge, these Anglo-Indian bars are now institutions.
Despite being a long walk from a high street in outer West London, The Scotsman is very busy for a drab Monday lunchtime. Before I open the door, I hear loud voices and music, at odds with its austere-looking Edwardian exterior. I pause, wondering what welcome I, a brown drinker, will receive in a locals’ pub unfamiliar to me.
I needn’t have worried. Two old Asian boozers glued to their barstools nod when I approach, and the brown bartender smiles. The decor includes a large portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire. The music isn’t pop but Bhangra, and a sign on a window proudly states “Authentic Punjabi Cuisine.” Shinda Mahal, the landlord, appears, checks the cricket score on the TV, and then chats with some regulars.
Instead, it’s a table of white construction workers—eating spicy chicken lollipops and drinking pints of lager—who stand out as a visible, but welcome, minority here. The only thing missing is an actual Scotsman. (The name comes from the road: Scotts Road.)
The Scotsman is one of the UK’s many desi pubs, run by Mahal for more than 15 years in Southall, a part of London with a high concentration of Asians (75 percent, per the last census). Desi pubs are Anglo-Indian boozers run by Asians, established a time when non-white Brits faced segregation. In desi bars, brown drinkers could safely play Bhangra music and eat Punjabi food after working grueling manual jobs.
South Asians no longer face exclusion from pubs—which are so integral a part of British social life—but desi bars like The Scotsman remain, reflecting both the tensions and triumphs of a multiracial Britain. They provide a different experience to “English” spaces where white landlords serve traditional food and beer. In a typical desi pub, Asian culture is not just tolerated, but celebrated.
Segregation was not just a problem in English pubs, of course. This terrible discrimination people of color faced also appeared in the workplace—separate toilets, zero chance of promotion to skilled jobs—and in housing, where landlords would often advertise property with posters brazenly saying “no coloureds.”
In 1965, Malcolm X visited the Midlands town of Smethwick to see this racial segregation himself and express solidarity. Taken to the Blue Gates pub, he was refused service in one of the white-only rooms. “Malcolm X came because of the racial tension,” says Lakhbir (Lackhey) Singh Gill, who is the longest-running Sikh landlord in the former industrial town.
This discrimination wasn’t made illegal until the Race Relations Act of 1965 came into effect in December of that year, and anti-racism protesters, such as Avtar Singh Jouhl, “broke” the color line by noting which landlords refused to serve them and then giving evidence against them when their licenses came up for renewal. When the publicans’ discrimination meant they lost their licenses, it paved the way for non-white landlords to take over leases and serve all customers—despite attacks from far-right National Front yobs (thugs).
Singh runs a desi pub, the Ivy Bush, and he says the term was first used to describe Asian pubs in the Midlands, then caught on nationally. Desi means “local” or “home,” and Asian parents, like mine, would sometimes say it about a tea, as in, “Can you brew it desi style?”, meaning how it’s made at home. It’s also a catch-all term to describe anyone who is South Asian—you could say: “Plenty of desis drink there.”
The first newspaper report of a desi pub was published in December 1962. According to the Birmingham Daily Post, Sohan Singh took over the Durham Ox in the East Midlands city of Leicester after the brewery chose a landlord of Asian origin “because it [was] frequented by colored people.”
Racist pubs, even the Blue Gates, “turned desi” and soon became interwoven into the fabric of British life. Another Anglo-Indian pub in Southall, the legendary Glassy Junction, was a raucous place that accepted rupees until it closed more than a decade ago. The idea was Indians would visit as soon as their plane landed in nearby Heathrow airport.
“I’ve been in pubs where I know I’m not welcome,” says journalist Saptarshi (Sap) Ray, who used to work in Southall. “And you know when you’re in a racist pub. Or a pub that’s ‘friendly’ when there’s one or two of you in a mixed group. But five of us walk in and suddenly we’re a gang!”
Desi pubs, therefore, are still vital for brown people, like me, because despite racial segregation being outlawed, many landlords still view Indian people with suspicion. They “other” us, assuming that alcohol is not part of our culture or we won’t spend as much as their white customers, despite our obvious love of booze. (India, for example, is one of the biggest whiskey markets in the world.)
But desi pubs are also a celebration of multiculturalism, with the likes of the Ivy Bush and the Scotsman offering Indian food to white and brown customers alike.* “My pub is diverse,” Lackhey says. “A lot of English people will go because they love the food: the mixed grills and curries.”
I’m writing a book on desi pubs, and it’s led me to contemplate what is the ultimate modern Anglo-Indian boozer, one that fits Sap’s description of being a safe place for brown people as well as offering something different to a traditional curry and lager.
The Gladstone (or the Glad to locals) is a historic Borough pub (located near London Bridge) that was mentioned by Charles Dickens in the Pickwick Papers as being somewhere that “sheds a gentle melancholy upon the soul.” Nowadays melancholy is completely alien to the Glad, which is a place for celebration and Indian indulgence. It’s run by young Asian landlords who mix craft beer with British-Indian food and offer the same welcome to all types of punters.
Regular Rachana Ramchand, who grew up in Wales and Sheffield, discovered the pub in 2018 and loves the British-Asian cuisine (like matar paneer pies) and the Indian spirits, such as Old Monk.
“When [my parents] entered a pub in the 1990s in Wales or Sheffield, they said they would look or feel different,” she says. “I feel that difference too when I go back there. If the Glad was owned by a white person, it wouldn’t be as close [to my heart] as it is.”
“When we opened the Glad five years ago we had hardly any Indian customers,” says Megha Khanna, who runs the pub with her younger brother Gaurav. “Then people started seeing the food, the spirits and Diwali events, and now 30 to 40 percent of our customers are Indian.”
The Scotsman’s demographic is definitely the opposite to the Glad’s, especially because it’s in an area that hasn’t gentrified. It caters to anyone seeking, as its sign says, an “authentic” experience; Asians can eat terrific parathas or dhals like our mothers made. But most of all, it’s a place, like all desi pubs, where our British-Asian ancestors fought for our right to drink. Every time I sink a pint, I raise a glass to them. Outside is drab but inside there’s all the colors of modern Britain.
*Correction: This article previously called the Ivy Bush the Ivy House, which is another pub.
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