A reflection on the aspirations of British-born Indians caught between their roots and their British surroundings.
The day I arrived in London, my friend hooked me up with a snazzy tour guide. He’s Indian she said, so you will not feel out of place. Of course, I couldn’t help but accept the offer, besides the sheer thought of being in firang-territory scared the daylight out of me. But it seemed a rather complicated picture – he was an Indian, born and brought up in Britain. He listened to alternative garage trash yet visited the Krishna temple religiously every Friday. He loved to cook meat, yet was a staunch vegetarian. To me, this Mister Snazzy seemed to be the face of the a million Indians living today in Britain – a man with two faces. How is it that you balance? I asked him. ‘I just do’, he admits calmly.
Three streets down to the city centre waiting for a bus home, we watched other British Indians throng nightclubs playing the latest Punjabi and Hindi hits. It was unbelievable. They sang to the songs in perfect Hindi, and jittered excitedly about nearly every Hindi film star in the music videos. They seemed to know A.R.Rahman, Lata Mangeshkar and even singer Shreya Goshal. I was appalled witnessing their life from a high horse – they were strange people indeed. Mister Snazzy then tells me that they were called ‘coconuts’; white on the inside, brown on the outside. I cringe at the utterly racist term but he assured me that I should not take it to heart, as this was a rather mundane description of British Asians abroad. They blended in smooth with the urbane English crowd; they spoke like them, they partied with them and juggled a good balance between these two lifestyles. But now, in just six months of travelling between London and Leeds, I discover that somehow, something seemed amiss. Underlying the beautiful multicultural surface of Britain, I was startled to discover that there seemed to be a real issue of culture and identity among Indians living in the British community.
To begin with, anyone with some exposure to British-Indian cinema and mindless reality shows can be forgiven for believing how hopelessly dysfunctional a British-Indian home is. No, and it isn’t an idea that has been fed into the media by racist white writers who have no idea about the vivaciousness of Indian life, it seem to be our very own writers and film-makers who had reinforced the cultural stereotype of the Indian abroad – the typical arranged-marriage syndrome, the consequent conflict with elders, the shamble of an identity crisis and the virtual struggle against a cruel repressive regime of tradition. At first, I laughed at the stereotype like the rest of the world, but now I come face to face with the dreaded question – is the stereotype a reality? I couldn’t help but wonder, is there no ‘normal’ British- Indian family?
The idea of personal freedoms being deeply rooted in conservative tradition is startlingly more pronounced in Britain than in India. Indians abroad seem to travel extremes trying to maintain their identity in the multi-ethnic populace by gathering every morsel of tradition left behind their cupboards. A recent BBC poll revealed an astonishing 38% of Asians living in Britain claiming they felt ‘slightly’ or not at all British. This deep-rooted struggle to balance identities seem to stem from the first generation of Indians who vehemently embraced their cultures to find a place for themselves in Britain’s white environment. Experiences of culture clash and racism feature prominently in the childhood memories and oral testimonies of many British South Asians growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. So much so that decades later, the younger generation growing up in Britain seem to possess a ‘double consciousness’ wherein they try to nurture their roots to the subcontinent while engaging in mainstream English culture. There seemed no British-Indian family that resorted to blend these two generations smoothly. British Indian youngsters seemed to be caught in a war of ‘here and there’.
Was it deeper than a simple identity dilemma? Heck, it was. It seemed a fact riddled with questions. The cost of being misfits in both in the British and Indian Diaspora range from class wars and job wars, the worst of all of them being hate crimes. How is it that you manage to find a sense of belonging? I asked Mister Snazzy on the way back from the club. He laughs and says it isn’t too difficult because he knows that in his heart he would always be Indian, and even if he did feel British sometimes, there was always Roti and Chicken curry to remind him of home. I wondered if he believed what he said, but didn’t press further.
When he dropped me off at the airport last Friday, I got a call from him again, asking me to give his regards to my family back home, and inviting me for his daughter’s marriage to a Polish boy. How do you know that would work out? I asked him. He laughed and said ‘I just do’. Try as I might, I realized, I could never understand who he really was.