Last Friday, after it was announced that the Conservative Party had won a wholly unexpected overall majority in the UK parliament – “the sweetest victory” according to its leader and returning prime minister, David Cameron – I decided that the best thing to improve my mood would be to cook my family another Keralan-inspired chicken curry.
Looking in the refrigerator and cupboards I found that I had all the ingredients except for some curry leaves. So I head to my favourite Pakistani-owned food and spice shop, one of several such stores on Hatfield Road in my home town of St Albans, an affluent commuter town nearly 20 miles north of central London.
The shop I visit is a type found in urban areas throughout the UK wherever there is a sizeable south Asian population. This one caters for the local British Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, as well as a small number of people from other ethnic minority groups, including black Africans and Indo-Mauritians. But regardless of nationality or ethnicity all customers are keen to lay their hands on a wide range of competitively-priced goods – branded pickles, powders and sauces; vegetables such as okra, sweet potato and aubergine; and freshly-picked herbs like coriander, mint and, of course, curry leaves.
At the back of the shop there is a halal butcher, and the team of young men clad in white overalls chop chicken and lamb into large or small pieces as requested by the customer, a service notably absent at local supermarkets run by large retailers such as Morrisons, Sainsbury’s or Tesco.
When I arrive at 1:30 in the afternoon I find that the lights in the shop are off. I try the door. It’s locked. Of course, I say to myself, all the staff have gone to Friday prayers at one of two mosques further along the street. What to do? I walk to some of the other south Asian-owned stores thinking that one might be open, but have no luck. Evidently everyone is at prayer.
I look at my watch and calculate that that it won’t be very long before prayers are over and the shopkeepers and their staff return. Because it’s a sunny day and I have time to kill I sit on a bollard and watch the world go by. Sure enough, just before 2 pm, people pour out of the mosques and the retail sector in that part of Hatfield Road returns to life (thus neatly demonstrating how individuals animate or energise institutions).
I purchase the uniquely flavoured curry leaves and a few other bits and pieces, and make my way to the checkout at the front of the shop. The friendly, elderly bespectacled owner, still wearing his skullcap, begins to press the keys on the old but still functioning cash register.
We have never discussed politics before, but out of curiosity I ask him what he thinks of the election result. “Well, she’s back again,” he sighs referring to the re-election of Anne Main, the St Albans Conservative candidate. “I don’t think anything will change round here. We had better get used to it.”
I think to myself that he is answering my question according to a local perspective, whereas I was expecting that he would offer his opinion about the national scene. Nevertheless, like many first-generation south Asian migrants, the manner in which he answers my query clearly signals that he is not a Conservative supporter.
The shopkeeper carries on processing my items, carefully placing them in a plastic carrier bag. Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he adds: “I was saying to my wife yesterday that back in our home town at election time two or three people would probably have died. Nothing like that happens in St Albans.” “Yes that’s true,” I say. “It’s a bad result for Liberal Democrats and Labour in St Albans but at least no one died.”
We both laugh, and in doing so celebrate a change of government without bloodshed, even though it’s a government neither of us approves of.
In the UK placing a cross on a ballot paper really is magic, isn’t it?
A version of this article also appears at anthropologyworks.com
Dr Sean Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester
* Published in print edition on 15 May 2015