Shiny disco ball

They speak British accented English and while talking amongst themselves pepper the conversation with Anglicised Hindi, even as Birmingham, with one of the largest Indian presence in Great Britain, glitters in psychedelic colours with new-age symbols of consumerism. But is the second largest city in Britain shrugging off its red-brick past? Nishiraj A. Baruah finds out. 

 

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Holding up a lady’s foldable umbrella with little red heart prints (lovingly packed in by my mom-in-law) on one hand, I push the fluroscent yellow Benetton suitcase with the other. It is raining crazy, it is bone chilling cold, it is past 9 at night and I am certainly a spectacle for the few people hurrying to get back home. The wet streetscape reflects the neon signages of the shops. A while ago, a taxi guy picking me up from Birmingham Airport drops me somewhere close to the New Street – cars aren’t allowed on the road. I walk up and down looking for my place of stay only to land in the ancient graveyard of a deserted cathedral. I recoil, retreat, and for the first time in my life, ask for directions in Great Britain. Though trying to be helpful, the shopkeeper is clueless. Finally, I stop in front of a city map board. Will it help? I can read minds better than maps, but I try tracing a line with my finger from the “You are here” red mark towards my serviced apartment. What the …! I am standing right next to the address.

With rains and winds lashing out at me from all sides, my ordeal is far from over. The glass door that allows entry to Rotunda – the circular landmark building where my apartment called Staying Cool is located, just wouldn’t open. I push. I pull. Nothing happens. Reluctantly I walk round the building and, just like a climber would survey a mountain looking for cracks and crevices to clutch on to, look for a grand entrance. Only to reach the same door from where I start. I am now desperate. Not dressed for 12 degree C, all I can think of now after an 8 hour Delhi-Birmingham Air India flight is a warm room to spread-eagle in. I knock, but the guy at the reception is too far off to notice. Then a small box with numbers on the side wall catches my attention. I read the instructions and push buttons 1,2,3. The door makes a click sound.. It is one of the shortest, but sweetest pieces of music I have ever heard.

aerial photograph by www.webbaviation.co.uk

If you break a window, you will be fined 500 pounds, I read the apartment’s rule book. But why would I break a 7th floor window unless I am suicidal! “Oh there have been occasions when guests broke windows while partying!” smiles the receptionist. That brings to the other rule: If you party after 11 pm, you will be poorer by another 500 pounds. That’s just about all the restrictions Staying Cool Service Apartments have. Away from artificial niceties like smiles, ‘good morning, sir’ from hotel staff, door knocks from housekeepers or calls from guest relation managers asking for feedback, this serviced apartment lets you be and allows you the freedom and comfort of your own house. For a view I have a dazzling Birmingham-by-night spread below and for breakfast, the kitchenette is stocked with cereals, oranges and milk. It is also right at the city centre, which means Birmingham attractions are just short walks away.

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But little do I expect to find Bhangra king Malkit Singh on the road! I almost trample over him on Broad Street. You see, Birmingham is the birthplace of UK Bhangra, and a Gold Star dedicated to the singer shares footpath space with rock legends like Ozzy Osbourne. I continue on my musical tour where I am shown the Rum Runner club (where Duran Duran first played) and the Odeon Cinema in New Street where the likes of The Beatles and Bob Marley played. Music, in fact, amps up Birmingham nightlife as I check out superclubs such as Godskitchen and Gatecrasher (outside where an unusually long queue for a Tuesday night awaits patiently), The Jamhouse (great live music) and other pubs like the Lost and Found, Jekyll and Hyde, The Victoria and Island Bar.

Birmingham bus stabbing

By day, still groggy eyed for lack of sleep, I decide to check out the Indian quarters. The city has one of the largest Indians communities in England. The Ladypool Road could well be New Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar minus the chaos. I smile to myself when I spot signboards that variously read: Bombay Hair Saloon, Saree Mahal, Indian Khanna, Golden India, Anarkali, Amrapali and so on, punctuated with Punjab National Bank, Andhra Bank, Canara Bank and Bank of Baroda. Many shops have signs that say “We buy Indian gold”. You rarely get to see Whites here, as I help a frail grandmotherly woman in salwar kameez push her shopping trolley on the road. Just when you expect to hear a, “Thank you, puttar”, she utters, “Thank you, young man. God bless. Wish you a fine day!” in such flawless British accent that I am left at a loss for words. Of course, they are British in every other way. They speak British accented English and while talking amongst themselves pepper the conversation with Anglicised Hindi. Most of them have migrated from Uganda and Kenya as labourers and have worked their way up. In fact, the Amritsar-Delhi-Birmingham Air India flight is almost always packed with their type. The nameplates on the white doors have symbols of Om or Swastika or a photo of an Indian deity. A beehive of activity, this place is also famous for Indian and Balti restaurants, notable among them is Shababs Balti restaurant. My guide, an Englishman named Andy Munro, is, in fact, writing a book on Balti cuisine. Balti Triangle is an area normally avoided by Indian tourists – after all you wouldn’t fly more than 7000 km from India to see another Apna Bharat Mahan, but visit you must. It’s remarkable how they built up their lives to such fine British standards, losing none of the spicy details India stands for.

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By nightfall, the Birmingham’s glittering new-age symbol of consumerism lights up in psychedelic colours. This Selfridges superstructure built a decade back at a cost of £60 million with 15,000 anodised aluminium discs on its facade is to Birmingham what Qutab Minar is to Delhi. Google for Birmingham images and this is the recurring visual that keeps turning up. Standing as a symbol of the new identity, inside is another LED lit world that displays every known brands with a flirtatious ‘pick me’ pout. I make my way from one aisle to another, floor to floors shop to shop, and exit finally, dazed and disturbed by all the material maya. But where on earth am I? This is not where I entered from! Well, vast by any proportions, it takes a while to figure out the ins and outs.

From Harvey Nichols, John Lewis, Debenhams to the historic markets and the world-famous Jewellery Quarter, the shops in Birmingham offer you everything you could ever want within a ‘walking distance’. You are at Bullring? Want to check out the shops at the very Victorian Great Western Arcade? Well, from Bullring, head along High Street, left along Union Street onto Corporation Street. Turn right and on the left you will find House of Fraser. Go past House of Fraser, then take the first immediate right along the arcade. At the end, head straight ahead and there you are at the Great Western Arcade.

For a pound pinching Indian, there is not much I can afford, so I move on to my next stop: A stadium tour of Villa Park, home to Premier League club Aston Villa, one of the founder members of the Football League in 1888. Celebrity fans include Prince William, Tom Hanks and Prime Minister David Cameron. My behind-the-scenes tour includes a visit to the first-team dressing room. Fancy a sporty wedding? Sure, this legendary soccer club does that for you even as it runs a restaurant, a bar, and organises corporate conferences too.

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But a stadium without a match is like a pub without booze. So I now look forward to a visit to Cadbury World, the place from where Cadbury started. It turns out to be a syrupy affair as I hear girls going ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, screaming delightful nothings over thick melting chocolates-in-the-churning. History and museums bore me to death, but the tale of Cadbury has been so presented that like the chocolates themselves, you want more of it. You move from one hall to another, each showing its history and heritage in large screen films, 3D animation, 5D experiences, multi-media installations until you reach the edge of an underground canal that has boats. The rides takes you on a fantastic world of talking toons edifying the pleasures of chocolates with grin-inducing dialogues. Free chocolates have visitors queuing up even as kids and adults all unite for the love of chocolates. At the shop, I am completely confused what to pick up, but being Easter, I end up picking those that look like eggs. In the suburb of Bournville, the home to Cadbury chocolate for over 100 years, I explore the ‘workers’ village’ its founders created.

So with a sweet-tooth that my two-or of Birmingham ends. Off to Leicester on a first class rail pass, I chew on my Birmingham experience. How do I define this city? The Sefridges superstructure trumpets its new identity for sure. But then this building draws extreme reactions: fiercely hated by some residents and possessively loved by others. And there lies the dichotomy of Brum (as locals call it). A medium-sized market town during the medieval period, Birmingham was at the forefront of industrial revolution. But most of the factories are now gone as it tries very hard to get back its lost glory with shiny disco balls. Should it stand by its rich past or should it embrace the new age? Should the city retain the old buildings or should these be ripped apart to create glass and chrome skyrises. With a multi-ethnic mix of communities, this is also not a quintessential British city with no clear identity.

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This classic confusion, however, has given two dimensions to the city. The clubs woofered on elctronica; square miles of designer shopping space; multi-media art galleries; and state of the art auditoriums now share city space with majestic churches, well preserved brick buildings, quaint neighbourhoods and legendary sporting events. And this is precisely why the city, offering everything from European classical grandeur to the gloss of glitzy Gurgaon, is a winner for all tourists – including those with little-heart lady’s umbrellas and fluorescent yellow suitcases.

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.