A Passage To India (Part 2)

Originally Published in The Independent on Sunday 2003


Our time has come. For the so-called ‘second generation’ – the sons and daughters of that first wave of migrants who arrived here from the Indian subcontinent– the moment has arrived. The stigma of previous decades has been replaced with a cachet: to be British Asian is to be cool. You can’t flick through a magazine or turn on the TV without being slapped in the face by a dollop of Indo-chic. The West End laps it up. Even The Halifax Building Society has decided to Bollywood-up its ads - and only natives of Halifax, like myself, can grasp the true irony of that particular Yorkshire town embracing bharat natyam.  Throughout the country, the people with the money are chucking it in the direction of anybody with a sub-continental story to tell or a swahleen to play. Producers are hunting for the next Bend it like Beckham. The literary world rejoices as it discovers Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. And to be frank, we love it. Why shouldn’t we? After years of standing on the sidelines with sacks of unwanted merchandise, we suddenly discover that the Suits want to pay a high premium for our back-catalogue.  It’s Christmas, or at least Holi, everyday.


Second Generation, a three-hour drama for Channel 4 to be broadcast this September, typifies this new self-confidence. It is an epic British Asian love story that weaves together the lives of three generations of Indian immigrants, drawing together the narratives of class, family, religion and nationhood. We travel from the Thames to the Ganges, from Brick Lane to Chitpur Road and are shown a world never seen before on British TV.  When I first read the script last September, it was immediately clear that Neil Biswas’s writing tapped a new Asian consciousness. The themes that dominated Asian narrative in the eighties and nineties were rendered irrelevant. The Buddha of Suburbia and My Beautiful Launderette, brilliantly apposite for their time, both grapple with the cultural catch-22 of immigration: how much of our heritage do we have to sacrifice to be accepted in this country? Moreover, are happiness and economic success mutually exclusive in a foreign land? But that was yesteryear. The British Asian world depicted in Second Generation suffers no such identity crisis. The Asians of twenty-first century Britain are not only proud of their heritage but are encouraged to shout about it. Sharma, played by Om Puri, is a magnificently wealthy and well-respected curry magnate. He is not ridden by anxieties about his success because his achievements are self-evident. But whilst his children bask in the glory of this new found cultural freedom, he is haunted by a different question as he nears the end of his life: What is the cost of this success or, more brutally, What has this country done to me?


My work on Second Generation brought into sharp focus how much emigration had cost my own father. During the summer of 1980 I was six years old but have a clear memory of my brother and I mucking about at the local park during the holidays. Out of the blue, we found ourselves victim to a particularly vitriolic and racist invective from a couple of teenage girls. The memory sticks even now. Not because it was my first experience of prejudice and not because it robbed me of a childhood innocence, forcing me to contextualise the comments and stares of which I was increasingly aware. It lingers because of our instinctive reaction: we raced home and demanded our passports so that we could prove to these bullies that we were British. It turns out that, amongst everything else I had inherited from my Bengali father, was his overwhelming desire, during those unwelcoming decades, to be accepted as completely British by those who took it upon themselves to define the term. 


As an Indian GP arriving from Calcutta at the dawn of the sixties, my father had consciously stripped himself of his Indian identity as far as possible, he did so, as he would tell us, ‘to get on.’ The photographs from that time say it all: dapper suit, Brylcreamed hair, handkerchief arranged in top pocket, eyes burning with ambition. This was a man determined to beat them at their own game. So whilst other arrivals from the sub-continent found strength and solace by regrouping in their communities, my father turned his back on his roots. To international consternation he married my English mother, ditched Hinduism for a hard-nosed atheism, resisted any pressure to give his children Indian names and refused to teach them one word of Bengali. Let’s be clear: my dad went native.


Armed with 21st century hindsight and a pluralist mantra, my temptation is to condemn his behaviour as criminal.  The decision to rob one’s children of the opportunity to be bi-lingual seems nonsensical, even absurd. Yet I know that his decision to jettison his past was based on ruthless pragmatism and a genuine desire that his children would not stagnate on the fringes of British society as he feared they might. Such is the hidden violence implicit in the colonial spirit. Integration and assimilation, lionized in the West as beacons on the road to multiculturalism, are thinly disguised footholds on the road to uniformity. Migrants are encouraged to fit in by expunging their own language, identity and history. They are led to believe that this will hasten the decline of discrimination when it patently does not.  That they are forced to exact this upon on themselves makes the cultural metastasis even more iniquitous. 


Whatever choices those first pioneers made to cope with the stress of uprooting themselves, their sons and daughters are the ones ultimately faced with the dilemmas of what to hold on to and what to discard. Those of the second generation that have had to fight to sustain part of their heritage are acutely aware of it. As I travelled to India in January this year, I was achingly aware of the personal symbolism of my journey to Calcutta. On hearing that I was working in his hometown, my father was, at first, completely bemused then quick to warn me off stirring up the past. But every step I took in India, I never felt far from his footprints.  Every street and every corner seemed to wear his presence. As I stood on the banks of the sacred Ganges, having just completed the last day’s filming, I found my mind drifting to what my father must have felt forty years ago as he made the decision to leave. What fears and hopes had been racing through his mind as he decided to undertake the three-week boat trip from Calcutta to Dover? And, blessed with foreknowledge, would he do it all again? With his warning words ringing in my ears, I turned to find two worlds colliding: the camera crew were heaving film equipment through the abandoned puja shrines decaying on the riverbank. It was then that I realised, warning or not, this visit to India was about my past, not his.


The next morning, I set off armed with the address of my father’s village and the name of a childhood friend.  The last time I had stepped foot in Kola was during a fleeting visit in 1984. All that remained with me were shards of childhood memory that no longer fitted together. I had no idea then that it would be almost twenty years later that I would find myself in a taxi, ploughing my way through Communist demonstrations and herds of cattle, to return. The taxi driver was less interested by my genealogical gold digging than by the fact that I had worked with Om Puri. As I mentioned his name, a huge grin leapt to the man’s face. It was a sign of the times that the name of a Bollywood star and nothing else had become our Esperanto. After a couple of hours, we progressed from tarmac to no tarmac. The driver zeroed in on the exact location through a prolonged series of question and answer sessions with several farmers. And then it was there. Kola. Arural village of the very outskirts of Kolkatta. The place where my father had spent the first twenty years of his life. I tracked down the house of my father’s friend and knocked on the door. At last, Bekai Roy opened the door. I didn’t have to explain who I was: clothes, hair and a passing resemblance to my parents said it all. Meeting Bekai and his wife after two decades was, of course, overwhelming for all of us. Nothing, however, had prepared me for what I encountered in the main room: a wall-mounted picture of my brother and I as we left Kola in 1984.


As I returned to England to complete post-production on the film, I began to appreciate the great privilege it is for the second generation to be able to tell their stories.  The first generation did not have the means nor the medium to do so. As such, it becomes our responsibility to tell their stories as well. Ironically, the only threat to all this is within. You can imagine my shock when, during a casting session, an Asian actor discovered my roots and informed me that, in his eyes, I was a ‘coconut’ – the insult levelled at people deemed to have become excessively anglicised. As I sat there, apoplectic (that’s the odd thing about prejudice, it happens when you least expect it) I realised that whereas twenty-three years ago, I had courageously cycled off armed only with my British passport, I was now being challenged to prove the opposite: my Indian credentials. The over-riding irony is that, by challenging my right to tell a second generation story, the Asian actor was actually as guilty as the racist whingebag who believes that foreign invaders are taking all the jobs.


The ultimate folly of such protective and defensive attitudes is that they are damaging to the credibility of British Asian culture. If ethnicity is seen as a cash cow rather than a significant part of a community’s identity then it will eventually outlast its use. If we are complicit in marketing ‘Asian-ness’ as we do mobile phones or pop groups we will end up back at Go, albeit slightly more embittered. Fashion, as Leopardi warns us, is the mother of death. The only way in which we can ensure that this upsurge of interest in the sub-continental experience is not eventually consigned to the dustbin of British history is to take pains to locate the Asian experience as part of the British one. This British Asian experience is just that: our experience of growing up in British society. As such, we must insist other voices participate in the telling of multi-cultural narrative rather than surrounding ourselves by a protective wall and promoting ourselves as a cottage industry. Only then will we be able to sustain our place in 21st century Britain. British Asians require a knowledge, not only of where we have come from, but where we are going to. Not only who we are, but who we are becoming.