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Ajay Chhabra jumped at the opportunity to manage a Covid test centre in the heart of London’s South Asian community. He found that one size never fits all.

A group of people wearing masks standing outside southall manor
Covid Test Centre, Southall Manor, London

© Kois Miah

Covid-19 and the wider implications of the pandemic continue to shape every decision I make for myself, my family and our wide pool of freelancers. As the nation came to the end of its first week of lockdown last March, my mother was being driven from a respite care home to an A&E unit in London. Two days later, in the hospital with the highest recorded cases of Covid-19, she passed away.

As spring turned into summer, more family – aunts, cousins, friends – would lose their lives to the pandemic. Our reality simply did not match what was on the daily news; it was worse. We suffered in silence.

Making a difference

Doing nothing was not an option. We asked ourselves: what real role can we play that would make a genuine difference? Who was benefiting from the endless Zoom invitations and conversations with others in the sector? The order of the day, it seemed, was having the same conversations, just with different groups of people. Nothing practical was coming through. The notion of seva – the desire to help others; selfless service – that was a staple of my upbringing was missing.

Nutkhut (mischief in Sanskrit) began as a desire to tell stories and narratives that were missing from the public domain. We started off in theatres and arts centres and once we tasted the freedom of alternative spaces, we started touring to parks, public squares, fields and shopping centres. As the stories of loss in our community grew, I became familiar with care homes, A&E wards, crematoriums, chapels, and funeral directors. We made it known that we were available to help, by any means necessary.

Finally, the opportunity arose to manage a Covid test centre in the heart of London’s South Asian community. I knew the area, I knew the community, I speak three of the languages common to the area. Southall in West London was calling and I was ready.

One size never fits all

First built in the 1500s, Southall Manor, the area’s oldest building, was converted into a clinic during the Second World War. Now, 70 years later, it serves a similar purpose, 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

Southall is the oldest South Asian settlement in Europe and the authentic, energetic, entrepreneurial heart of the South Asian diaspora. It’s home to the London Mela, the largest outdoor festival of its kind. For almost two decades, the London Mela has entertained and educated thousands of intergenerational family audiences, creating new opportunities for young people in the arts. In Sanskrit, Mela means ‘to meet or gather’ – a Covid Test Centre is a meeting place for many different people and sectors.

Our morning mantra is “ensure people leave much calmer than when they arrived”.  English is often a second, sometimes a third language for the community using the centre. We have people on each shift who can provide language support; it’s reassuring to speak to someone who has more immediate empathy and understanding of the local culture. Each day a queue of people wait silently in line. They are teachers, care workers, bus drivers, delivery drivers, cooks, warehouse workers, cleaners – people who keep our city moving. We are humbled to serve those who serve us.

The response to the pandemic has demonstrated that one size never quite fits all. I am often reminded of the role my father and grandfather played in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, helping others to write letters, make applications and access support. They were the scribes of their communities, sharing their knowledge, offering their seva in peoples’ time of need. Over the past two months, our centre has been shaping and changing perceptions about how different communities have engaged with public information. When I leave there each evening, I think about how remarkable the people I work with are. This environment is not for the faint hearted.

Trust in testing times

We believe the service we are offering is unique and an example of cross sector partnership at its best, with arts, heritage, health and faith coming together to deliver a single service. It's clear that those who thrive in this environment can think in more than one language, approach each day as if it's the first, anticipate people’s needs and go the extra mile. In doing this, we have quickly established a relationship of trust with the local community (which largely stems from knowing our audience in the first place).

Every lunchtime, the local Gurdwara (Sikh temple) drops off langar (meals from a community kitchen) for the entire team. Nutkhut has always seen itself as an extended family of freelancers, associates and advocates and sharing food has been a constant theme in everything we do. The service we offer is at its best when people with different experiences come together in a welcoming environment. We try to have empathy, be aware of cultural differences and inject a sense of humour to remind us that we are only human.

At the time of writing, the first anniversary of my mother’s death, 148,125 people have died of Covid-19 in the UK. I often ask my team to think about where they might be on New Year’s Eve in 2029 and how they will feel about the role they played at the beginning of the decade. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of engaging with other sectors and how bringing people from different walks of life together can result in meaningful support, particularly at a time when people have not had the opportunity to interact or engage.  

We have much to learn from each other: empathy and understanding of the people we serve, our ability to identify what different people prioritise as important, trust, respect, and above all, kindness.

Ajay Chhabra is CEO and Co-Artistic Director of Nutkhut

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Head photo of Ajay Chhabra