British Asians

Hendrix was on the stereo. They were passinground a chillum. “Boam Shankar,” said one, handing it to me. “That means,” he explained, “may the seed of your loin grow in the belly of your woman.” These days some of my friends say my name with a short “a” and some with a long one. A few even make a stab at the Indian pronundation. I couldn’t teli you who says what, because I don’t hear the difference. I’m ali three: ’arry, Haah ri and Hari. As a member of the South Asian diaspora, I’ve even got my own label; in Britain, the “second generation” is now a defined target market. Lifestyle magazines, television shows and clubs have sprung up to seli things to us and, crudally, to seli us to the rest of the world. There are many successfîıl and visible young British Asians:

newsreaders and DJs, actors and sportspeople. There’s an established middle class of lawyers, doctors, pharmacists and engineers. We are invited to endless public debates to discuss who we are, debates in which we usually fail to come up with any concrete answers. Ali we can agree on is that suddenly we look good, espedally to politidans. Our parents are admired by the Right for having clawed their way up through the social order, and by the Left for their sense of community. We, their children, are held up as an example to the dtizemy that the bad old days are över, that Britain isn’t radst any more. We are becoming a kind of goodnight stoıy, told to newer immigrants to persuade them that if they follow the rules they will be rewarded; and to nervous Middle Englanders to persuade them that things aren’tl as bad as their moming papers might claim. There are many things wrong with this picture. British racism is alive and well, although increasingly disreputable, at least in metropolitan circles.

The brunt of it is being borne by new immigrants the Somali s, Bosnians, Afghans and Romanians who have recently washed up in Britain looking for wars of the last decade. They are not fashionable. They are just a social problem. Even the gilded Asian second generation is partly composed of young people living in “ethnicaily concentrated areas” (the current euphemism for ghettos). The riots in northem industrial towns in 2001 were a reminder that, despite the back slapping about Bend It Like Beckham and Bombay Dreams, the stoıy of a fashionably assimilated and prosperous Asian immigı*ant community isn’t the only one we could be telling. Do I feel second generat ion? I don*t know. 1 walk through Banglatown in east London, past the skinny Street kids with the gelled hair and the Armani jeans and the slang that is one third Jamaican, one third Bangladeshi and one third Cockney.

I get a wedding invitation from a wealthy British Asian couple that indudes a flyer for a bhangra class they are worried that theii’ guests won’t know what to do when the dhol drummers start to play. 1 watch an old R^j Kapoor movie, reading the subtitles because 1 don’t understand the Hindi. I go to an Indian restaurant and eat food that is nothing like the food in my aunt’s house. These experiences constellate around me, but don’t seem to settle into any one pattern. There are always various ways they could be interpreted, various ways they could be pronounced. In the end, I think, it ali comes down to vowel sounds. Hari Kumru s new , “Transmission”, is published by Hamısh Hamilton, £13 Inter racial sex lies at the centre of The aj Çuartet. An Engiishwoman in India is ıped by a gang of Indian men. Her Indian Over is accused and wrongly imprisoned for erime.

Though he is British educated and 3rves in the Indian Civil Service, the forces ıat conspire to separate the couple are too reat. The stoıy of Hari Kumar and Daphne lanners (who dies in childbirth) is a tragic ne, and might be thought an inauspidous ıgn to hang över your own attempt to bridge he Anglo Indian divide, which, though arrower than in Scott’s colonial India, was tül a reality in Sixties London. Nevertheless, ıy parents saw two advantages in the name lari. Firstly, it was similar to a common English name: at public school, the Scott character is known as “Harry Coomer”. Secondly, my great uncle, the politician Pandit Hridaynath Runzru, had always been known in the family as “Haribaba”. Though rather old fashioned (“Why do you want to cali him that?” asked one of my father’s sisters), Hari was a Runzru name. So, I became Hari Mohan Nath Runzru, and embarked on a life of variable vowel sounds. I started off with a dropped “h” and an “a” to rhyme with the “a” in “cat”.

“Alright, ’arry?” This was the sound of Essex, where the eastward suburban sprawl of London fades out into forest and intensive farmland. There weren’t many Asian kids at my school, and in the hostile racial elimate of the time, we were often reminded that our dark skin made us less good, less valuable, less desirable than our white elassmates. No matter where our parents had come from, ali of us the Bengali mimlim boy, the tmoSikh brother, the Tamil, the OtyarBti girl and even hnîf white me, were “Pitkia”. Think about that for a moment. Spit it out, like it’s the won»t İnnult you can think of. Greısy Paki. Smelly Paki. And there you have it!

A little emon for ali the proud Indian and Pakistani patriots rattling their breat each other över the Line of Control, with love from the whıte racisU of EMİex. At a diütance, we ali Look the name to them: we’re ali “Pakk* regardless of our oh so important diference of religion, caste or language. At 18, I went to Oxford University and, along with some retrospectively embarrassing fashions and a smoker’s cough, 1 acquired a long, drawled “a” the “a” of “car” or “guitar”. Haah n. Pretend your name is Arabella or Emily, and you Ve just been let out after seven years’ incarceration in a giriş’ boarding school. Flutter your eyelashes a little while you say it, and then teli me you Ve always been attracted to India’s spirituality.

Yes Emily, we are rather spiritual, aren’t we? Shall we go outside? British people don’t really hear anything between the “a” of “bat” and that of “bar”. The intermediate “a/u” vowel sound made fay Indian speakers, similar to the “u” in “huny” (or, indeed, “curry”) doesn’t register in their ears. My new, long Oxbridge vowel indicated, among other things, a switch in social class. Haah ri was a name to emphasise difference, to bring out the exotic, rather than repressing it. Though being a Paki was now interesting, even sexy, it left a train of weirdness in its wake. On one of my first evenings at Oxford, I found myself sitting in a room wi t h a group of Old Etonian hippies: immensely tali (you might say viceregal) young men with cut glass accents, dreadlocks and Rajasthani mirrorwork waistcoats.


British Asians

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