Bristol-born Sandeep Kaur is a Sikh Punjabi multifaceted woman who is married to a Greek Cypriot with whom she has two “appropriately disruptive” beautiful girls. The family resides in London, and after nearly five years at home with her children, she has recently returned to a career in law.
I have been following Sandeep @panjabimg for a couple of years, fascinated by her passions and integrity, her ability to be equally humorous and searingly honest in the same breath, and most recently, beguiled by her newly-renovated beautiful statement home. It’s so clear to me – a relative stranger on the internet – that her home is a unique reflection of her family’s cultural backgrounds and their love of art, adventure, community and food.
In Sandeep’s own words, she is a “sun-dependent, passionate (about everything really – social justice, education, the real housewives franchises…) sweary, creative, deep-thinking, empath. I’ve been guided since childhood by a very strong intuition and an insatiable appetite for progress, art, truth, and all of the flavour.”
I reached out to Sandeep curious to know more about this flavour and how it is reflected in her home. On her Instagram platform, she has spoken openly about the privilege of owning a property and how generational support has made this possible for her family. In this feature, as well as diving deep into talk around financial privilege, Sandeep paints a rich back-story with wonderful and challenging memories of growth, and she brings a gorgeous lightness as she explains the importance behind all those mouth-watering meals she shares on Instagram.
Sandeep’s detailed responses provide such a fascinating insight into her home and life, with her voice so strong and welcome, that full attention is required. So grab a cuppa and settle down for a unique story of home.
What is your first memory of home, and what does the word home mean to you?
My relationship with the word and feeling of ‘home’ has been a focal source of discomfort and grappling. I was raised with financial privilege for the most part, and certainly the veneer of a comfortable home life, but the reality was much different; it was unpredictable and unsafe, heavy with expectation, uncomfortably frugal and utilitarian, and anchored me in a way I knew homes shouldn’t. I very rarely felt ‘at home’, and so when I came to University in London, aged 18, it was very much the start of me letting go of what I’d learned of home and allowing myself to feel worthy of another version; and for that to be a realistic prospect, in spite of the fear. For as long as I started to imagine a reality other than the one I was living, I conceived of home as blissfully nomadic, quiet, solitary, impermanent and untethered. This escapism, I convinced myself, was home.
Intuitively though, home was rooted in people; small but monumental acts of love; comfort and safety; the full expression of a past, present and future. My first experience of that was my Nani Ji’s home in West Bromwich. The walls contained the story of personal struggles and sacrifice, but they also held within them the spirit of a 1950’s immigrant community, united in its oppression, and an expression of love and home through food and storytelling. My Nani’s home was a bottomless supply of cheese on toast and fried plantain; the heater on at even the thought of anyone being cold; falling asleep on the sofa to the free laughter of unsung matriarchs, enveloped in handmade pillows and duvets brought from India; the engraved and embossed Sri Harmandir Sahib landscape (with clock) watching over us all; along with the first portraits of a life coveted in this country, the reality weighing heavy in the faces of our elders, the hope vested in the children at their feet. This physical homecoming I’ve experienced recently has been the biggest part of my healing. I’d describe it as a dreamlike state, with firmly held gratitude; and a reassuring nod to my younger self and to my Nani Ji.
Please can you tell me about your current house?
Our house is a very typical North London, Victorian terraced. Its interior isn’t necessarily in keeping with the age of the house, but contains a vague attempt at what I’d describe as variegated Indian/Cypriot modernist design with Victoria accents. It’s certainly an amalgam of our family’s collective history, our favoured aesthetic and lived-in chaos. We bought the house in 2019 but moved in last summer after we’d extended the kitchen, opened up the living area and renovated the tired interior, plus a portion of the roof that we didn’t realise was leaking. In its previous life the house was incredibly dark and incredibly grey and magnolia; none of the original windows are particularly big and the kitchen used to be a long, narrow space with a small door on to the most beautiful, half-walled garden.
The mature wisteria tree and the cornicing in the living room had me, plus the fact we have friends that live on the same street who shared rumours of an elusive neighbourliness. My husband was not at all on board with the house at first and I think he was surprised by my optimism. Our offer was only accepted because the couple we purchased from were going through a very acrimonious divorce and their previous offers had fallen through – the atmosphere was thick with a sadness that was familiar in a way that wasn’t off-putting. I knew that we could give this space new life and that the walls could hear a new story.
Going from a 2 bedroom flat with no garden and a kitchen the size of a postage stamp, to this, has been nothing short of the most immense and intense, heartfelt gratitude – we’ve only just accepted that this isn’t an Airbnb Plus.
You have spoken previously on your Instagram about how your family provided support that enabled you to buy your house – can you talk a bit about this, and also explain why you feel it’s important to be transparent about this?
I’m an open book always, but I do think it’s especially important to be transparent when buying a property in London; and no more so than during a pandemic, where we find ourselves restricted to our ‘home’ and fully confronted by the beast that is inequity and privilege. Our home is borne of an intergenerational will and learned longing to forge some sense of stability and belonging in this country; of frugality, sacrifice, forethought, and prudence; initiating the process of breaking familial, societal, and cultural cycles; and racial privilege. It’s also borne of a love affair with the only City I’ve ever called home.
My husband’s maternal grandparents came to London from Cyprus and bought a North London house in the 1950s on a Barber’s and seamstress’s wage, with a Council mortgage and controlled tenants; an opportunity that wasn’t afforded to my grandparents or their neighbours. Before they returned to Cyprus they divided their property into three flats, one for each of their children, which they sold to them at a diminutive price. His paternal grandparents had bought a semi-detached house in zone 6 and gifted this to their son when his family had grown four-fold. By doing this, each set of parents had given their children the freedom to choose careers they enjoyed, without the pressure of making huge salaries to overcome what had then become a hostile London property market. They removed the greatest financial stumbling block.
My parents’ marriage was arranged. My dad came to this country from India, aged 18 and wed my mum, a 17 year old Panjabi brummie. She worked multiple jobs to support my dad as he went to university and trained to become a doctor. Both of them were well versed in the tenet that a ferocious work ethic and education would liberate them and their children from the constraints of their race and class. There was no real option but for me and my sibling to take on a profession; preferably medicine; preferably as a GP. I was told that this was a solid, predictable and safe occupation for a brown girl; that it would be an attractive asset for potential suitors; that it would establish my financial underpinning in lieu of any inheritance intended only for my brother. As much as I insisted I’d be an artist, I forewent my unconditional place to start a foundation diploma in art and design, for a degree in philosophy, followed by law. The rebellion increasingly diluted but still extant, as I refused to go corporate. My mum took the bold step of encouraging me to think beyond the box she smashed through after 20 years of marriage. With the money from her divorce she put a deposit down on a flat in zone 3 London. What should have been her future financial comfort, became her greatest love note to her daughter and greatest f*** you to the patriarchy; my first step into a whole new life; and a mountain of expectation.
My husband and I were then in the infancy of our relationship, which we’d known was a certainty throughout our preceding 3 year friendship and began in full knowledge that there was a depth and weight to our union that differed to our friends’ experience of first love – we immediately became a family, united in love and purpose, and accepting of compromise, including the prioritisation of a large mortgage in our first year together, aged 21. Not the escapist, nomadic self-discovery and detachment from capitalism I’d envisaged for myself; no travel and frivolity; no passion projects or risk taking (beyond just existing as the first interracial couple in each of our families). We were fully propelled into traditional adulthood. I had been working alongside my studies since I was 16 and we both kept on with this momentum as we each studied for our postgraduate legal qualifications. We both obtained scholarships and part-time jobs, and rented our spare bedroom to tenants up until our first child’s birth.
My husband is zone 6-raised; the first in his family to go to university; and deeply committed to returning to the zone 3 of his early youth, but with space. He wanted our children to experience the childhood of a Shirley Hughes book. We both were deeply committed to continuing the steely determination of our ancestors and paying their efforts forward to the next generation – with stability and also with options, to break free from a cycle and make their own path. By the time we had our second child my husband’s career had been catapulted from social housing legal aid to the financial sector. We had made a good dent in our mortgage and took out some of the finance to renovate our flat into a young couple’s scandi-inspired, monochrome dream. Even though it was on a highly polluted road and a largely unknown corner of North London, it sold within weeks. I honestly put this down to the installation of a crittal-stlye internal door.
While we decorated the flat we were able to live with my husband’s parents and by the time it had sold, his maternal grandparents insisted we stay in the flat they had made decades before, which was now rented for income. They told us that this was exactly its purpose. So, my husband’s parents sacrificed a substantial part of their income while we found our feet and a property we could grow into as a 4. I can feel the weight of this house at times and worry that we’re working like my parents did to keep to something we’ve been conditioned to believe is some kind of necessity. But then I see our children’s faces and I see us parent in a new way, and I know we’ve done what we set to do for ourselves and for them, for right now.
I can never short-form this story, because buying this property has involved so much more than just us.
Can you talk about how you have combined your cultures in your home and why it’s important for your children?
I found a photo recently of me as a child in my paternal grandparents’ village in Panjab, and noticed that the wall behind me is an almost exact replica of the walls of my living room now. The floor is concrete, polished by the feet of generations of farmers and the hooves of the house cattle. We originally looked for this kind of flooring for our kitchen, until we realised its cost in the western world. I hadn’t even noticed that I was decorating from a catalogue of memories, the details forged upon that restrained creative portion of my heart and mind. In the end we decided upon terrazzo, the type of flooring that instantly takes you abroad and to the Indian, Greek and Cypriot homes we have visited. Just when we thought this too wouldn’t be an affordable option, we found one tile that was within budget. Its name was “Birmingham” and I laughed out loud. Our youngest has recently been demanding cheese on toast for breakfast (having never had it before) and I just know this is my Nani Ji’s doing – making herself known in the centre of our home and our children’s lives. She had long passed before I met my husband, but this is her welcome.
Our home is our history, and our telling of everything we hold to be true, good and beautiful about our cultures; that we want our children to feel, smell and see as they grow, with a sense of pride. We have shelves of tiffin, brass jars filled with dried wheat that remind me of Panjab, Diwali divas, douf (incense), carved elephants from India, pepper grinders and utensils from Athens, a hotel tea set “acquired” by my husband’s yiaya in Cyprus, and my first set of thali from Leicester. We also have a huge collection of art and literature representative of us and the marginalised many. Our garden houses the epicentre of my husband’s existence (other than us), his prized Archway sheet metal foukou (BBQ), which his parents and siblings pooled together to buy him for his 30th birthday.
Revealingly, we house so many relics of a past I thought I’d want to erase completely: My mum’s dowry trunk – an imposing steel, black and brass vessel that has captivated me since I was a child and holds so much feeling that I wouldn’t know where to start; the green tiles and brass fixtures in our bathroom are inspired by my childhood bathroom. It was stuck in time along with the carpeted floor, still situated since at least the seventies. The colour green has always settled and soothed. As soon as my parents were divorced I changed my bedroom and put up a floor-to-ceiling MDF headboard, to which I stapled taut green sari fabric. I had a lock on my door, for safety, but I’d bathe in the green bathroom and spend my time between those two spaces, imagining it was a rented apartment in Brooklyn, NYC. I bought my first piece of furniture which I chose for its beauty, not its use, and is now my eldest child’s bedside table.
The plain wooden engraved silhouette of an Indian woman used to hang in my parents’ hallway. I had so many mixed feelings about that piece – about double standards and the objectification of women; about the strength and utter magnificence of women; about the perverse fact that this one piece of art in our home had been chosen by my dad, of all people. But all of these items I’ve held on to are kept because they are representative of a culture I embraced only tentatively as a child; that was afflicted by doubt and complexity because of my personal experience; that was veiled in an attempt to fit into a majority mould. We ensure that our children are surrounded by physical prompts for discussions about their roots; the richness of their heritage; and the knowledge that nothing is stagnant, and that they are part of a wonderful process to learn, unlearn and to exist fully, with confidence.
I know you are a family that is big on food and cooking – what meal reminds you most of home?
Food is synonymous with love and with family. The langar hall in the Gurdwara has always been the blueprint for my understanding of what kinship looks and feels like – a nourishing, free meal, cooked by a community, fed to anyone regardless of their race, religion, caste, status or any box of any kind. You eat together, in the same hall, on the same floor, as true equals. And no Indian food cooked at home or ordered in will every quite taste like langar. It’s love en masse and home to everyone.
My husband and I love to cook and to feed, and we pour ourselves fully into the process. We’ve certainly been shaped by example – the simplicity in my Nani Ji’s expression of love, the way my husband’s maternal yiaya welcomes us to Cyprus with her makaronia tou fournou, lemon chicken, yemista and salad cut from her own garden and into her own hands, doused in olive oil from the family grove that her husband, at the age of 87, still cultivates. It is the most enveloping welcome. During our wedding my parents somehow co-existed while creating a homespun feast that I hadn’t experienced for at least a decade, but was a fixture in our social calendar some time prior – huge karahis filled with sabzi and meat curries being cooked on gas rings in the garage, with the door open for all of the neighbours to peer in, some aghast, some curious. Large pans of boiling hot oil from which emerged mountains of samosa, paneer spring rolls and pakora. Dahi vadde, salad, roti and muthiya on a scale I’d only ever seen in the Gurdwara. If there’s one thing I want to recreate for my children, it’s this kind of warmth – one of my strongest memories is of being in a somosa-making production line, entrusted with the final seal. My mum’s aloo paratha with dahi and lime achaar, and my dad’s fish pakora made with “the cheapest fish. You wouldn’t believe it puttar!” are foods that put my husband and I at ease whenever we visit my family. The foukou has certainly been the main feature of our new home and our Diwali feast and last fish souvla of the summer are the most memorable we’ve made yet. Food without pretence or expectation is home. Oh, I could go on…
Sandeep’s favourite texture:
“I have so many favourite textures, one of which is the woven jute that’s found on Panjabi manjas and stools. It’s the first texture that I remember being captivated by – I loved sleeping on a bed that was strong, but breathable, portable and beautiful. I am also drawn to rattan (if you hadn’t noticed), marbled glass, concrete or clay rough bare walls, carved wood and engraved metals. I love the texture of of our oak veneer kitchen cabinets. I found an excellent family-run business in North London that produce the most beautiful bespoke doors to Ikea kitchens. Part of the process involved the owner, Duncan, taking me to a huge veneer factory to choose a front. I felt the grain of this beautiful tree, yet untouched, which now roots down the centre of our home. Not all of these textures are yet incorporated in our home but I take my time with these things and wait to fall upon a piece with meaning and feeling.”
Sandeep’s favourite space:
“My favourite space at the moment is our kitchen, seated on one our rattan cesca chairs that our grandparents had in their homes before they were a trend, and specifically, when the sun shines in and on to the terrazzo, and I look over at the walled part of the garden, which is framed by one of the original windows we kept because of the red stained glass, etched with a sunburst that reminds me of our first born. In that moment I feel the most intense calm and stillness. Another favourite space is my husband’s maternal grandparents’ garden – I haven’t been to India since I took my Nani’s ashes back to Ma Ganges in 2000. Every time I go to the village in Cyprus I’m always blown away by just how familiar it feels, and how closely interlinked the Indian and Greek Cypriot cultures are. Their garden is where the cooking starts; where the kids run freely, tracing insects, chasing cockerels, inspecting new plants and flowers, eating fresh apricots and figs just picked with their great grandfather; and where you can while away an entire day doing not much at all. The favourite space I have never been to and which has inspired the entire colour palette of our bedrooms is Bar Palladio in Jaipur. My mood is so easily impacted by brightness and light – I need the vitality. I love the feel of space; the contrast of a light green teal with peach, red and white accents; and the symmetry. Symmetry and neatness were a (possibly unhealthy) preoccupation of mine in a world that felt out of my control, and so I am very drawn to neat lines and order. I am forever grateful to our builders who managed to realise the ambitious paint project in our living room so beautifully. I am so satisfied by the cut of the bold orange ceiling into the white wall, and the continuation of the half wall over the doors.
I have had a book of Indian Interiors since I was 14 years old and the image of The Maharaja’s Apartment in Udaipur City Palace reminded me of the blue/green walls in my paternal grandparent’s living room in India, with shuttered cupboards in the same colour, that housed the mithai and parle-G biscuits. But it’s the mix of traditional with modern design that gets me exited. I love Kamala House BV Doshi and I tend to trawl the Modern House website and design walking routes past my favourite modernist house in Hampstead. I’m on the search for a mid- century diamond breeze block wall to incorporate into our garden, just like the one that screened the outdoor bath in my grandparents’ courtyard and that lines the periphery of my husband’s grandparents’ garden in Cyprus. We’re yet to inject our space with the art we’ve been collecting over the years – I was so close to asking a friend (the incredibly talented Aleesha Nandhra) to paint a piece directly on to the walls of the girls’ bedrooms but we settled on a canvas that can travel with us, and that beautifully captures us and the essence of a home long unvisited. “
All images courtesy of Sandeep Kaur.
Follow Sandeep on Instagram @panjabimg
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