On Wednesday I joined the Hounslow Borough Commander of the Metropolitan Police David Bilson, Superintendent Clive Chalk and the London Borough of Hounslow's Head of Equality and Human Rights Celia Golden for a celebration of the birthday of the Hindu saint Jalaram Bapa at the ShriJalaram Seva Trust in Barrack Road, Hounslow.
Mindful as ever of the the challenge involved in celebrating a minority culture in our borough whilst at the same time taking care to stress the need for divisions within the community to be broken down and a new unity to be built on the greater values which are common to us all as human beings, I had the benefit of a long and extremely interesting conversation with Amina, the President of the Trust, who explained some of the work that his organisation had been doing within the wider community in the immediate surrounding area. Celia and I resolved that we should help and encourage him in this kind of barrier-breaking activity in any reasonable way that we could.
After our chat and some food, we guests were invited to take part in what it is probably fair to say was the longest introduction to the cutting of a birthday cake that I have ever witnessed, with over two hours of singing and dancing as well as some seriously funny banter between the talented Master of Ceremonies (or, as she was female, should that be the Mistress of Ceremonies?) and the 250-strong crowd. I also delivered what I believe to have been the first public speech I have ever made without my shoes on.
An area of the hall behind the five-foot long birthday cake was sectioned off in dedication to the great saint, and confetti and colour and decoration abounded. Also in evidence were several painted swastikas, which left me with a chilling and sobering thought as I monetarily recollected a function of a substantially different kind, of which I was once a guest of honour in that very same hall when it had been an annexe of the Hussar public house, which for a time was populated by the local skinhead and general right-wing youth fraternity a little under twenty years ago.
The swastika is, of course, a sacred symbol in Hinduism. Nevertheless I was left wondering just how many people of my acquaintance from those bad old days would ever be blessed with the opportunity to come back in shoes (well, socks) similar to mine and take part in such an infinitely more constructive and gratifying event.