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Belfast Mela: They were born thousands of miles apart, so just how did these women end up starting the city's most exotic festival?

Nisha Tandon and Stella Tsang speak to Una Brankin about their roles in Belfast Mela and talk frankly about the highs and lows they experienced since moving to Northern Ireland

Published 29/08/2015

Nisha Tandon and Stella Tsang preparing for the Belfast Mela at the Botanic Gardens
Nisha Tandon and Stella Tsang preparing for the Belfast Mela at the Botanic Gardens
Nisha with former Lord Mayor Nicola Mallon at last year’s event
Belfast Mela last year
Belfast Mela last year

Nisha Tandon OBE came to Belfast in 1977 from a well-to-do family in New Delhi, India, as the bride of an arranged marriage. The history and drama graduate faced difficulties in integrating in Northern Irish society in the beginning, but gradually found her feet through women's groups.

And when her husband, Vijay, a teacher, advised her not to travel across the city from their east Belfast home to a community project in Twinbrook, she broke with the Hindu tradition of spousal deference and went anyway. More than three decades later, Nisha (57) is director of Arts Ekta, one of Northern Ireland's largest ethnic arts organisations, as well as this weekend's Mela festival.

She has three children Sonia (33), Natalie (30) and Krishan (25), and a baby granddaughter, Amelia.

Nisha says:

People think that those chosen for an arranged marriage are picked at random, but in most cases, like mine, the families know each other and make recommendations. I used to go on holidays to my uncle's home in Wolverhampton and he knew Vijay's family in Belfast.

So, my uncle arranged a party for about 50 people at his home in 1976. I was introduced to Vijay and that was that. Being the eldest in my family, I had to carry on and abide by the decision of my parents and my uncle, my father's brother. I was happy to do so; it wasn't that I had no other choice. I was an obedient daughter and I had to set an example - but my sister didn't!

There's an eight-year gap between us and she made her own choice. Arranged marriages in India still exist and it's part of our culture, but modern India today has given a girl the freedom to make her own choices and they put their education and career before marriage.

Vijay was happy to take the recommendation, too. There was no problem. I had to finish my degree - drama was my passion - so it was a year before we got married. I was very nervous. Did love develop? Yes, it was perfectly all right. Marriage wasn't a problem at all. You grow with someone. I can't ever say it was love at first sight, but you grow into a situation and abide by the way you have been brought up.

I have very high values of culture and tradition, and I had come from a sheltered family environment. I had no idea what I was coming into. My grandfather had been very dubious about my leaving India; I was the first one, after my uncle, and the first female. And at that time, no-one knew about the situation in Northern Ireland. The news we heard on the radio was London- and wider UK-based.

We got married and landed in Belfast on August 15, 1977. I'll never forget it. It was not a dark, unhappy place. I wasn't used to the Army and no-go areas, and being so restricted. But I have grown so much in this country and learned so much. I have become very much a Northern Irish woman who wants to succeed, and help and support those around me. That is my nature.

Last year wasn't very good, though. There were so many racist attacks, including the one on [Alliance MLA] Anna Lo, and I was getting so much racist abuse on social media, I had to contact the PSNI. I was being called a slut and a bitch, told that foreigners were ruining the country, and told to 'go home'.

When you have spent your whole life trying to contribute and to empower your local community, it is hard to understand why there are little pockets of people who are so jealous.

Last year certain communities, especially the Polish, were a big target - and I was too, due to being in the media. Then it just suddenly stopped and went back to normal. The PSNI were great - they take hate crime very seriously and they mean business. But I had been disheartened and thinking about leaving, especially with the arts sector not getting the support it needs.

And we are still second-class citizens here, after the Green and Orange. It is very challenging and I'm not getting any younger. I do wonder if I should just plan my life for me now? But I'm a survivor, like most women are, and in the women's groups, you're not alone.

Indian and Irish women have a lot in common - family life, tradition and faith is important to both. I am Hindu and I have an altar in my home, in the same way that Catholics have their religious things. I don't have to go to a temple. I practise my faith every morning and evening. I am very spiritual and I live my faith in my every day work - I don't hurt anyone and I embrace everyone.

I believe in reincarnation and that your karma in this life dictates your next, whatever form that takes. The caste system still exists in India but it's much more like our social class structure now - upper, middle and working class. A Brahmin can marry an Untouchable now.

My mother is 77 and still lives in India in Bangalore. She's a yoga fanatic - she gets up at 4.30am to do it before sunrise, and then she loves her cup of tea afterwards, made in her very stylish, traditional way: with hot milk and no sugar. I do yoga too, but not as early or as often. The five-minute meditation that we do at the end of a session is very good for stress.

I'm also a trained dancer. No, Indian dancing is not all in the hips! Classical dancing is not easy to learn: it's sheer hard work and dedication to achieve the goals. We use hand movements, facial expressions and feet movements. It is a way to tell mostly the religious and nature stories.

I used to love John Travolta - he's a great dancer - but my love of dancing started well before I discovered him in the movie Saturday Night Fever. I didn't face any restrictions in what I saw in the cinema; my parents were very liberal and I went to a co-education public school.

The World Music & Dance on the main stage and the health zones is one of the highlights of this year's Mela. I think the festival shows Belfast as a beautiful place, where everyone has equal status. Give us that and we can prove that we can do anything we set out to.

Stella Tsang had to face the heart-breaking decision of letting her first child be raised until the age of three by a Northern Ireland couple, while she toiled in a takeaway to send money home to her family in Hong Kong. Now in her 60s, Stella is an active member of the Chinese Welfare Association, promoting and raising awareness of Chinese culture and arts in schools and communities, and delivering workshops on Chinese calligraphy, origami, opera singing, and Chinese cookery. Stella says:

My husband Raymond and I took on our English names when we came here, because they were easier to pronounce. I was only 24 and I spoke no English at all.

The early days were very tough. We had to work very hard to set up our takeaway and send money home to my three brothers and my sister, because they couldn't get jobs in Hong Kong then. We had no social life at all and no time to learn English and make friends. I needed to work all hours, so my first daughter, Tracey, was looked after by a family we knew in Carrickfergus for her first three years of life. They already had a baby and they were very good to my daughter.

But it was difficult for me as a mother, because my daughter hadn't learnt any Chinese by the time she was three, and she thought that she had two mums and dads.

The family is called Burr; we used to talk about 'Mammy Burr'. They became very good friends and still are. I went on to have two more children, Julianne and Jonathon, but I have no grandchildren yet.

I remember when I first came to Northern Ireland, I was very scared. There were soldiers at the airport with guns and when you went into town, they would search your pockets and your handbag. I was so scared of bombs.

The weather was ok, quite similar to home, and I liked the food, especially Irish stew. We had to make our food to suit the local people. They like their curry and gravy quite different; heavier. I remember they didn't know what black bean sauce was - they said "What is this? Give me some fried rice!"

We prefer our meals to be lighter and healthy. We wouldn't have fish in batter; instead we steam it, and we have stir fries. I like Ulster fries but not black pudding - I think it spoils a good Ulster fry. And I dislike alcohol unless it's in a dessert or chocolates. When we came here in the eighties, the fashion was for big shoulder pads - which was not a good look for someone like me who is 4ft-nothing! And I hate any clothes that you have to iron. But I shouldn't be moaning - I dislike moaners. I just prefer to get on with life and with a smile.

Anyway, I eventually learned to speak English. I try to help others to now, to help them integrate into local life. People come from China and can be intimidated with attacks on their homes which they can't report to police, because they may not understand them. We have been shouted at and had our windows broken. Some people have refused to pay us for their food.

It's not nice, when all people want is a better life for themselves, to study and support their families. With these recent racially motivated attacks, I'm worry about the threat I may be faced with when I am out. People seem to think we might take their jobs but we don't. Really, we actually offer jobs.

It is good to see more people are standing up to racist behaviour and attacks. The community is getting behind those who are racially abused. One word can be better than 100 attacks.

As the years went on, Raymond's health wasn't good - he has arthritis and heart problems - so the takeaway business was sold and I started to do voluntary work for the Chinese Welfare Association. I took the opportunity to learn and experience new things. I met Nisha and we became good friends - she does the Indian culture at Mela and I do the Chinese.

I joined the Women's Information and South Belfast Community Health Information Workers Groups, to help gather information on health and social welfare for women, and I work on the Generation Y Youth Group for youth aged 10 to 18. I am also an organiser of activities for the Hoi Shum Elderly Group and I am a member of the ArtsEkta's Lion & Dragon Dance Group - I organise Dragon and Lion dances for big events, like Chinese New Year and Belfast Mela.

I've been coming to Mela for six years. There is so much to see and do, but I don't get time to watch. I am too busy in my workshops! But I love it. Chinese culture is very rich. What can people learn from us? For their hearts and minds, I would say our tradition to respect your elders. We wouldn't be here without them and we will all be old one day.

Belfast Telegraph

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