Virtual Mohallas: How Facebook Groups Empower Migrant Indian Women In The UK

Settling in a new country, getting adjusted to its different ways of life and building your social life from scratch is as much daunting as it is exciting. I first moved abroad in 2010 and made some lovely friends from all over the world. Still, I longed to have Indian friends just to have a sense of familiarity in an unknown country.

Fast forward to 2015! I have discovered Facebook groups targeted at migrant Indian women living in the UK that allow womenfolk from different walks and stages of life to connect with each other and seek advice on everyday matters.

The Indian Women in London group on Facebook with over 3,000 members is one such platform where discussions range from the best place to find a specific Indian grocery item in a London suburb to more serious domestic issues such as finding help with childcare among others. Picture this. You have recently moved to London and are keen to find out if any one from your home town lives in your local area. Unfortunately, Google can’t help in this case. On the Indian Women in London group, you are likely to meet many from your home town living in your local area.

Deepti Belwal, the founder of Indian Women in London and a mother of two young kids, formed the group last year. “I could closely relate to those isolated women who migrate from their homeland, sacrificing every wish of theirs for the sake of their husbands’ career. The realisation that I sacrificed my social life to an extent and had no friends when I needed them drove me to create this group,” Belwal said.

Sharing similar interests, many have extended their friendships offline by regularly meeting for Bollywood themed dance parties or for cultural events such as learning to drape the saree in different ways. Members also help each other send small things for family in India or bring items from there. This sets the group apart from popular online forums where discussions largely remain virtual.

A different group targeting Indian mothers, aptly named Indian Mums in UK, has emerged as the one-stop online destination for parenting queries. Traditional home remedies for children’s illnesses, travel and vaccination advice before visiting India with kids or experiences of raising children in a multicultural environment are all regularly discussed on this forum.

We were looking for a primary school for our daughter and my husband spent hours switching between rankings, browsing school websites and reading online reviews. I, on the other hand, simply browsed through the Indian Mums in UK group where this topic has been discussed several times. An hour later, I could compile a more relevant list of decent primary schools in and around my area, recommended personally by other mothers.

The groups also provide opportunities for migrant entrepreneurs to reach out to a relevant demographic and develop friendships along the way. “I wanted to help fellow mums through the journey of motherhood, sharing our experiences and also to provide mum enterpreneurs a platform for their business,” said Mini Yadav, the founder of Indian Mums in UK.

These groups have gone beyond providing a platform to find Indian friends to providing solutions and fixes to expat life issues.

To my mind, these groups are the digital avatars of local ‘mohallas’ where women can freely share their migrant experiences, thereby empowering each other.

(This post was published by Huffington Post India, here’s the link)


Global meets Local in London

(Published in Hindustan Times Next)

London’s characteristic local markets are a delight for the senses and once can pick a good bargain too.

Talking of London as a shopping destination, one usually conjures up images of high street fashion brands and supermarkets. Truly, from designer labels in clothing to global shopping chains, London offers top class retail experience. As a complete parallel to this high street life, London also boasts of its rich and very characteristic local markets that offer a rather delightful shopping experience.

The oldest and most famous of all is the London Borough market. This food market is one of London’s largest and is always bustling with traders and buyers. Imagine seemingly endless rows of stalls selling fresh vegetables, food from all over the world, cooked snacks and the likes. I was amazed to discover just the vast varieties of cheese that were on sale at the Borough market. Sellers are more than willing to let people taste their samples before buying. This market is quite popular with tourists as well and it’s common to find people moving around with their cameras clicking pictures.

Then there are other local markets famous for selling antiques. The Portobello road antiques and flea market is one such place where you can find rare maps, old books, crazy posters and other such stuff. While strolling through this street market I once came across the entire works of Shakespeare. I also found some very old world maps which were quite expensive at about 70 pounds each. Even though I did not actually buy a lot of stuff, the experience made my trip worthwhile.

Even more local than the Borough or Portobello markets are London farmers’ markets. More popular with local residents, these weekly markets are held across different suburbs of London. Here, you not only find just vegetables or fruits but also cooked local foods, flowers and bakery products made by local artisans. Sellers lay out their stuff on stalls giving the markets a very fair-like feel. You may find local music artistes singing along or playing an instrument in the background as is common here. The ambiance feels festive with the smell of fresh food and cheese combined with the pleasant sights and sounds.

An interesting aspect of these farmers’ markets is that the items sold here are grown within 100 miles of London and that their sellers are also the producers. This eliminates the role of middlemen and the produce is fresh. You can also look forward to hearing exciting stories about farmers’ experiences such as how some of them start rearing turkeys in June to get them ready by Christmas or how farmers brave the snow in bringing their produce to the market.

I find it amazing how London has a place for both global and the local. Next time you visit London, watch out for the city’s local markets that will make for a memorable experience irrespective of whether you actually buy something or not.

april 2013