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‘My work for the city is not going to stop’

Pukaar Magazine speaks to councillor Manjula Sood about her decision to enter politics and the close bond she shares with the people in her constituency.

Photo credit: Leicester City Council

On December 18 1970, a young Manjula Sood arrived in the UK along with her husband, who she’d married in October that year. With the unbearable cold weather and barely any money between them they were forced to stay in an old Victorian flat with no heating and no carpets. Not used to such conditions back home in Punjab, she immediately rang her grandfather and begged him to let her return home. His stern reply still remains fresh in her head. “Now you’re married you must stay with your husband, ” he said. Since that day she has never looked back and has fully embraced the city of Leicester as her new home.

With a masters in sociology and an offer of a PHD scholarship which she sadly had to decline, Manjula is an educated woman with plenty of ambition. She said: “Inside I was determined to do something so I told my husband to take me to a university when I arrived here. We were walking along University Road and the first building that we stumbled across was the School of Education – I suppose that’s where my destiny was written.”

Within 21 days of arriving in the country she started a PGCE course to train as a primary school teacher. Despite finding out she was expecting her eldest son during this time she carried on studying. After giving birth in July she started working in September. With sleepless nights, two bus changes to get to work and a small baby to look after, things were anything but easy. However, she managed to overcome the challenges and continued to teach for over 20 years, before having to retire due to her ill health.

Her determination and natural fighting spirit is what has helped her overcome a number of challenges over the years, including fighting for her rights as an Asian woman, battling cancer and dealing with the death of her husband, councillor Paul Sood in 1996. Speaking about this difficult time, she said: “His death is the biggest void in my life.”

“Everyday I was in bereavement. I was shocked and could not even think about coming into politics. I kept on declining and said my husband died in politics why would I want to be a part of it. But, with lots of persuasion from family, friends and the community and my younger son who said mum it will be the best tribute to dad, I half- heartedly said yes.”

Photo credit: Leicester City Council

On October 14 1996 she took her husband’s seat in Abbey ward in the by-election, which has since been renamed to the Latimer ward. “I am very grateful to my constituents, I love that community. Abbey Ward has been so good to me and I had a very high majority in that by-election. I owe my political life to them,” she added.

However, her initial political journey was tough. Councillor Sood said: “For the first three months I did not like it at all and thought this isn’t for me. When I walked through the door I couldn’t go in the lift I thought this is Paul’s place what am I doing here? The council then rang to say you have to come to take your oath.”

She even handed in her letter of resignation to the then leader of the council Sir Peter Soulsby who simply ripped it up and told her she was a good councillor and advised her to take some time out. Being a spiritual person she turned to God and felt in time that politics was where she needed to be, and in her own words, went in with ‘full force’.

Despite her initial hesitation she has gone on to be one of the most popular politicians
in the city. Naming just a few of her many achievements; in 2008 she became the first Asian woman in the Midlands to become the Lord Mayor, was awarded an MBE by the Queen the following year, received a doctorate from both the University of Leicester and De Montfort University, is the chair of the Leicester Council of Faiths and is also currently working as the assistant city mayor.

“I opened the doors for other women,” she said. “People kept on saying that she won’t be able to do it but I proved them wrong. And I am proud that I kept my identity. I remained a vegetarian and always wore sarees on my official visits.”

Photo credit: Leicester City Council

There have been a number of memorable moments for her during her political journey which include welcoming the Queen to the city as the Lord Mayor for the opening of Curve, opening the new Highcross Shopping Centre and meeting many inspirational parents from Leicester and elsewhere with disabled children during the 2009 Special Olympics. She’s also met a number of well-known personalities like Engelbert Humperdinck and recruited various ambassadors for the city like Dalip Tahil and Sachin Tendulkar.

But for her, nothing brings greater satisfaction then helping people who are less fortunate. She continues to mentor girls during her spare time and also sponsors girls in India so they can receive an education. “I was very shy and frightened and wouldn’t even go out in the dark but now nothing scares me apart from God,’ she says. This transformation is something she hopes to see in many women and girls alike.

The great connection and passion she has for her ward is always evident. Manjula said: “My ward is such a diverse ward, we’ve got the Golden Mile and I am very proud of the business community. These are people whose first generations came and worked very hard. Yes, there is the whole regeneration programme going on which is much overdue. We also have the Belgrave Neighbourhood Centre which is an integral part of the community. The staff always go the extra mile and are playing a great advocacy role. The centre is booked out daily and hosts so many activities which is great for the community.”

Are there challenges she still sees ahead in the city? Yes. She talks about equality projects and gender barriers and homosexuality in particular. “Why do we put it under the carpet? It does happen,” she says. But in addition to this, she would like to see issues like learning disabilities come to the forefront and of course see more women taking up higher positions
in policy making, whether it be in politics or in whichever careers they hope to pursue.

Though Manjula has her hands full most of the time, when she does have a bit of spare time she enjoys watching Bollywood films, watching the news, documentaries and spending time with her 21-month old grandson Yadav. A self confessed ABBA fan, she also admits to owning all of their records.

When asked whether she sees politics in her future, she said: “My life principle is to live for today and not tomorrow. Whether I’m in politics or not, my work for the city is not going to stop.”