Mr Shaukat Ali, small and dapper, has kindly agreed to tell me the story of his diasporic life. His father, a Subedar (NCO) in the British Indian Army was a prosperous landowner in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. In Pindi he owned a string of small grocery shops- the sort you see in any small town in the subcontinent-but he arrived in England in 1962 to start a new life bringing young Shaukat with him. The teenager was just over 16, so just over the age limit of automatic entry, but his father pulled out his army papers and service record and managed to persuade the immigration officials.
Dad then bought a shop (no.1 Albert Street) in the run-down area of Oxford known for its ladies of easy virtue, its iron and brass foundry, the sprawling estate of Oxford University Press and run down tenements with outside privies- and father and son moved to the accommodation above the shop. “That loo was cold in the winter! And we used the public baths once a week. I said to my father, let’s buy a house- they cost just £200- but he didn’t listen,” Shaukat Ali chuckles. “Those houses are now selling for £450,000!”
Later in life, when he was doing better for himself, Shaukat Ali started investing in property, but over-stretched himself and then had a worrying few years when he was up to his ears in debt.
A string of builders (all those £450,000 houses desperately need new kitchens and conservatories of course) trickle in to buy silly food- fizzy drinks, Lion bars, Kit-Kat, crisps and so on. “Phew it’s hot up on that roof,” says one wiping the sweat from his face.
A lady buys the Oxford Mail. “Do you know which ice-lollies Terry likes?” Mr Ali tells her. “He’s just back from hospital so I said I’d get them to save him coming out.” Mr Ali chuckles again, “he always has two. Better take two Twisters.”
The radio is playing in the background. “ARY Asian channel. Don’t you listen to it?” He continues his story. “In ’73 I went back to Pakistan. I was in love with a girl I’d known before I left, but my relations, especially my grandmother, were having none of it. They fixed me up with a cousin.”
“But you married her and left her behind!”
He laughs his now familiar low laugh, “Yes, for 9 years. In those days it wasn’t considered strange. I was young and I guess we were all less sensitive to others’ feelings.” There was hardly any contact, but he doesn’t remember any guilt. “She stayed with her parents until I fetched her here in ’82.”
They had three sons, two of whom are graduates. The youngest wanted to run the shop and Mr Ali was reluctant to bend him to his will, as his own father had done to him.
His two crises in life have been the mortgage fiasco, when he nearly lost everything, and his kidney replacement which was donated by one of his sons.
” The doctors couldn’t work out why my kidneys packed up. They told me I had H.I.V. which I told them was out of the question. I think my kidneys were damaged when I had a terrible attack of typhoid as a boy.”
Otherwise his life seems serene in his spotless shop, where not a can or sweetie packet is out of line. He says he enjoys coming in to the shop on a part-time basis and is proud that everyone in Jericho knows and trusts him.