Like a poodle in a tight sweater. The Glassy Junction at first seems at odds with its decor. Jagdeesh Mann spends an evening in the English pub - eventually, the feeling of things being amiss went away.
Whether falling against the terrain or rolling casually over its low-lying areas, water has been known to wash away all that is improperly secured to its surrounding landscape. Monsoons in 1993, for example, carried away seventeen thousand cows in India, sending them on the journey to their next lives. Hurricane Mitch recently did the same in Honduras, casting three thousand pigs to swine purgatory. The US National Weather Service estimated that flooding in 1997 alone caused eight billions dollars in damage in that country. Whether it be bridges, railroad beds, houses, farm animals... all have been, at one time or another, too weak to prevent being pushed like squatters off the land.
That's why, when the rain begins streaming into the Glassy Junction pub, I wonder if it isn't the end for London's only Panjabi-English pub. A combination Panjabi dhaba and English pub, The Junction is the newest arrival on the English pub scene. It is also the newest arrival on a wider English landscape where consistent scrutiny in the name of tradition and authenticity either ensures any phenomena's embrace or its fade into memory. In more recent years, this sanction of tradition has led to the halt of modern skyscrapers encroaching on London's centre. This narrowing glare of authenticity has also led to the public rejection of foreign-raised sports heroes arriving wrapped in Union Jacks. In an England built upon images from the past, The Junction and its Panjabi motifs are too far removed from Turner-esque landscapes and idle banter about the weather to find roots in the local history. The establishment's brick exterior may blend into the surroundings but its aroma of food and babble of tongues betrays the difference lurking within. Like hot pants in the nineties, The Junction appears destined to be a short-lived event — it seems a futile experiment in variety where the formula for success has already been developed. The pub will likely be cleared from the landscape. The rain has come to do its bidding.
But despite the best efforts of the water, only the poolroom needs evacuation on this evening. The rest of the walls of the establishment are left dry. The wooden ox-plough remains safely pinned against the far barroom wall. The lively full-colour portraits of squat and of fat men bathing with their livestock remain untouched. In Surrey's sister city, Southall, on this early Friday evening, nobody save the bartender seems all too concerned about the seeping water in the poolroom. The attentions of patrons remain engaged in the filmy routines grinding along on TV's hanging in the corners or in the dishes brought out to them from the tandoori oven. They stay seated, undisturbed by the rain rattling against the pub's grimy windows — eyes glazed to the cheesy music videos, their lips gleaming with chicken fat. The pub hums in diversion.
They stay seated, undisturbed by the rain rattling against the pub's grimy windows-eyes glazed to the cheesy music videos, their lips gleaming with chicken fat. The pub hums in diversion.
In 'post-colonial' England, racial lines are the new class divide. They have slowly taken precedence over the old class boundaries as the primary marks of difference in English society. In the midst of this transition, The Junction has made its inevitable debut. Five years on since its founding, The Glassy Junction is in every way representative of present day Southall, a Panjabi Sikh neighbourhood that has been completely gutted of its working class English past. Its patrons are predominately neighbourhood Sikhs, as is the ownership — the pub is even located across the street from a Sikh gurudwara. But if the patronage, in any way, defies the makeup of the neighbourhood, the aesthetic cakes itself in it. Beyond its standard boutonniere of ugly carpeting, miserable print wallpaper, and dim lighting — ubiquitous to every English pub — The Junction is proudly accessorised with all the necessary features to make it look as round-the-way as possible. On the exterior, the presence of four larger than life posters of 'men-doing-bhangra' tag The Junction's walls the way action-hero stickers would a child's lunchbox. Inside, the heavy-handed scent of Indian spices vigilantly patrols a barroom mapped out with signs named after Panjabi towns such as Hoshiarpur, and Jullandhar. Even the condom dispenser in the mard (men's) washroom yields prophylactics labelled with an adequate degree of cultural innuendo, 'Milan ki Raat' (The Night of Meeting).
The agitated bartender who cleared out the poolroom talks about the reason for the Junction's existence, "There was a demand in the neighbourhood for this kind of place," he says, "a place where locals could go." In the five years since The Junction's formation (the current owners bought out a previous pub in the area), it has become that place of local flavour where accents melt into the background instead of sticking up like a stubborn cowlick. The clientele is mainly immigrant, and more notably it is overwhelmingly male — save two blonde escorts at the bar there are no women in the pub. Overseeing the joint, a large Sikh bouncer-slash-waiter stands by the door, one hand curling his handlebar moustache and the other helping his belt support his belly. At the bar and on the tables, groups of men hold each other close and shower drinks upon one another.
But as much as The Junction is about drinking, so is it about dancing.
It is Friday night, and the mood in the pub is festive. But as much as The Junction is about drinking, so is it about dancing. In a separate room linked by hallway to the main section of the pub, a local troupe named for its singer, Balbir Jagat Puri, is performing for the evening. He leads the audiences through the chorus of the classic, 'Dancing my hair came loose, oh sister-in-law will you braid it?' Hearing it, the men that were previously holding hands drinking by the bar, rush to the front, drinks, pound notes, and dancing partners in hand.
One of the dancers stays up in front of the makeshift stage and grabs the mike from a helpless Balbir Jagat Puri. It is a group session, his heart has been broken, and he has something to say. The recital begins in Panjabi, 'People will torment you.' And again, this time with greater intensity, 'People will torment you!' the short man in track pants continues. 'You who picked up my love and threw it [all over].'
You! who shoved my love in its back,
You! who spat my love into the dirt,
You! who tore my love into chunks
and threw it into a well,
You! who punched my love and made
its fat eyes black,
You, who will not release my heart.'
After a round of acknowledgement from the audience, the mike eventually makes its way back to Balbir who launches into his next number, 'Oh you dance so beautifully, who has taught you?' The men who dropped off to the side for the poetry recital return to the front, a sea of floundering arms lap against the shores of a retreating island.
The Glassy Junction is an establishment, like all other English pubs. It is a muse on distant horizons — whether incited by ploughs pinned to walls or poetic compositions recited from tattered hearts. That is what brings The Junction into the fold of English pubs. It is a place where patrons come to renew ties to their past, to strengthen ties to the present, and to chase away any thoughts of the future. For outsiders, The Junction is a pilgrimage sight — one that invites them to commemorate the kitsch that forms the living memories of the men who come here to drink. But for the regulars who have built this shrine, theirs is not such a distant sojourn. For them, as for all others who frequent their favourite locals night after night, their journey is a routine passage to a place not so different from home. It is a journey, that for all its erosion of surprise or new-ness, is made again and again. From transience arises permanence as patrons transform a journey into a short jaunt, a skip over to the neighbourhood pub. The Junction settles into the landscape. It becomes another lantern turning out the darkness back into the night — an inn amongst many others, where locals find a warm well-lighted place and their neighbours listening blithely to the ceaseless patter of English rain.