Sun, May 18, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Leicester's newest first citizen

Manjula Sood, the new lord mayor of Leicester, is the first woman of South Asian background to hold the largely ceremonial post in the 1,000 years or so that it has been in existence in Britain

By Phil Hazlewood  /  AFP , LEICESTER, ENGLAND

Lord Mayor of Leicester Manjula Sood smiles after she was officially given the title on Thursday. Leicester is expected to become the UK’s first city with a non-white majority.

PHOTO: AFP

Manjula Sood made history this week when she slipped the gilded robes and chain of office over her sari and became lord mayor of the British city of Leicester.

A south Asian woman has never held the largely ceremonial post in the 799 years since it was created in the city nor in the 1,000 years or so that it has been in existence elsewhere in Britain.

It is a first not just for Sood, 12 years after following her late husband, Paul, into local politics, and just over 38 years after she arrived in the English East Midlands from the Punjab on a cold, dark snowy winter’s day.

It is also the latest sign of the transformation of Leicester, famous for its textile, footwear and hosiery industry, as it moves towards becoming the UK’s first non-white majority city in the not too distant future.

“To be the first is a great honor for me,” the Indian-born former primary schoolteacher said of the 12-month post, which began on Thursday.

“It’s made me very proud of myself that I’m going to represent my city ... . I wasn’t expecting it.”

The appointment to lead Leicester’s 288,000 or so citizens, 25 percent of whom are of Indian origin, puts Sood among the UK’s establishment, although she has held the ancient post of High Bailiff of Leicester for the past year.

On a wider scale, it also says much about the positive aspects of immigration that are often overlooked here by the debate over the extent to which new arrivals benefit the UK and affect its culture and identity.

At a glance, Sood seems the embodiment of the successfully integrated immigrant championed by modern-day politicians, many of whom she says have been fed at her kitchen table and passed through while campaigning locally.

It is not just the immaculate black sari set off by the shiny Blackberry personal organizer, the comfortable semi-detached house in a residential suburb or the fact that she has taken UK citizenship and speaks fluent English.

There are photographs of her two grownup sons, in gowns and mortar boards, proudly clutching degree scrolls from British universities: one is also a municipal councilor in Leicester; the other works for an investment bank.

A framed woman of achievement and a national merit award from the governing Labour Party are hung on another wall.

On a corner table by the coal-effect gas fire is a photograph of Hindu guru Sathya Sai Baba next to medieval-style Christian religious icons and rosary beads.

An Anglican canon is a close friend; she sits on the Leicester Council of Faiths and social, health and women’s groups; two African Caribbean men have the keys to her house to do odd jobs, she says.

Sood says she feels a duty over the next 12 months to uphold Leicester’s largely harmonious diversity at a time when critics of multi-culturalism warn of no-go areas for non-whites and communities living parallel lives elsewhere.

“I’m going to be the lord mayor not for one faith but for the city of Leicester,” she said.

One of her spiritual advisers will be Christian. The other will be Hindu. The civic service to mark her appointment will also be held in the city’s Anglican cathedral rather than a Hindu temple.

“Leicester’s a British city,” she says. “I’m representing Leicester as first citizen. The religion of this country is Church of England.”

Sood, though, recognizes that her story is not typical of the vast majority of immigrants that came to the UK and that she was fortunate.

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