All Aboard The Darjeeling Express
A few weeks ago I went for a well overdue catch up dinner with a very dear friend who I have known since we were at school. We went to Darjeeling Express on Carnaby Street; I had been keenly following the head chef and owner, Asma Khan, on social media since back when she used to host her supper clubs in Kensington. The images of her dishes and descriptions of her techniques have repeatedly elicited wonderment and salivation, and I was silently ecstatic throughout the day. The food did not disappoint. We savoured authentic street food like paapri chaat and puchkas, immersed ourselves in the decadent Mughlai venison koftas and robust Bengali goat curry, and finally, full to the brim and slightly tipsy thanks to my irresponsible compulsion to sample one too many of the gloriously sweet and fragrant whites, we settled on ordering just the one bhapa doi to share. I find the term “mind blasting” ideal for the sensory experience that followed: a thick and creamy, very slightly set, steamed yoghurt with a deep and raw – yet never overwhelming – sweetness much like that of jaggery or treacle, delicately perfumed with cardamom and garnished with dried rose petals. There was silence.
What ensued immediately after was, to me, a very interesting discussion.
I am not sure where it came from, but we were suddenly talking heatedly about ethnicity and identity. My friend’s parents are from the former British West Indies, part of the diaspora of indentured Indian labourers sent across the colonies after the end of slavery. She herself was born and raised in London. If I remember correctly, I was either attempting to unravel the mystery behind where in South Asia her family originated, or I was bemoaning yet another incident where I had observed fellow South Asians failing to unite, continuing to publicise and promote ideas of segregation within the community, and / or distance themselves from their ethnic identity. I suppose it was always the same with me, and my friend had expressed earlier on in the evening that she refused to get into any sort of conversation on such topics.
“I don’t really care,” she declared wearily, laboriously going in for another spoon of that irresistible bhapa doi.
“See, this is what’s wrong with our lot,” I said. “No one cares. Everyone wants to do their own thing: get their heads down, earn a bit of money, start a family. It’s typical contemporary Indian mentality. No one wants to deviate from the norm and nurture the arts, or to delve extensively into, or even promote, their own history… Like…What happened to your acting…?”
“I’m not Indian.”
“Okay, well from a South Asian back – ”
“I don’t consider myself Indian,” she reiterated clearly before putting down her spoon.
I have to admit, I was shocked. And speechless, for once. But not for too long. Could it be the wine? She did not really drink as much as I had. Was she just really full, and therefore exhausted after a hard day’s work? It was also a pretty stuffy evening. Perhaps she was not able to think straight. Unless she was genuinely annoyed at my bringing up the subject yet again, despite her insistence, and was trying to shut me up.
I questioned how she could say that. Were the names of her family members not of Indian origin? Were her parents not practicing Hindus, enough to convert an entire bedroom in their home into a puja room? Did they not wear saris and kurtas at religious and ceremonious events? And what about the food? Was she not comparing the daal we were served earlier to the one that her mother made? She replied, quite matter-of-factly, that it was West Indian culture.
Okay, but she was not ethnically West Indian. Did she have Arawak, Wai Wai, or Carib ancestry? Did Afro-Caribbeans not acknowledge their African roots and history? But she kept insisting that she was not Indian, and that she did not identify as South Asian in any way whatsoever. “So what are you?” I asked. She was British West Indian. So that would mean I could refer to myself as British East African, seeing as my dad was the second generation to be born in Uganda. Apparently, I should.
We argued back and forth: she maintained that identity was by no means tied to ethnicity, and that she and her family associated their part of the West Indies with Back Home. As long as she had no existing ties to the Subcontinent, why should anything relating to that part of the world shape her identity? I, on the other hand, still incredulous, took the unnecessarily dramatic route, bringing up factors such as DNA and physical characteristics, criticising our media for failing to represent us, lamenting our education system for offering us neither a place in history nor a story to present our very existence on this island. More interestingly, why was it more acceptable to express pride in West Indian cultural ties over South Asian ancestry? In the same way, why do some British South Asians like to identify themselves as something other than what they are?
The Totally Buzzy New Zealander
I had taken in a lodger a few months back. Funnily enough, my dad had introduced him to me, leaving me an excited voicemail enquiring over my spare room. He said that the guy was from India, that he was looking for a room specifically in East London, and that he bore an uncannily similar resemblance and manner to me. So much so, that my dad relayed having to do a triple take when he first saw this young man eating dinner at the Spiritual University in Dollis Hill. So the guy turns up for a viewing, and he looks absolutely nothing like me. I am not sure if my dad is blind, or if he has a questionable sense of humour (I actually moaned to my mum, and she was not best pleased with my dad!). He did, however, speak with a charming and unmistakable Indian accent, he was polite and engaging, he seemed really laid back, – almost eager to please – and we ended up having a laugh.
I asked him what he did for a living, how often he planned on using the kitchen, what he considered best hygienic practice. I asked him where he was from, and he replied, “Actually, I’m from New Zealand”. That didn’t seem right. Where was the accent? Did he recently move out there for work? Was he studying there? And then it came out that he was a Tamil Brahmin from Hyderabad who, after a number of years, had become a naturalised citizen of New Zealand. It was not that I really cared, I was just interested to know if I had visited the part of India that he was from, but if we put it this way: an Englishwoman born in Surrey with roots in Dorset moves to America to study. After gaining her Green Card, she decides to travel across Europe, settling in Prague for a few months. Does she tell the people there that she is from America, or does she refer to herself as English? I communicated this example to him a month or so later when he was briefing me on his “totally buzzy” weekend one Monday evening, and casually dropping how he introduced himself to the spaced out, hipster “bitches” as being from New Zealand.
Never mind looking absurd, my point is that South Asians already have a stereotyped image attached to them – and they always have had, from the turbaned lackeys of yore to various exotic but obsequious, and frankly ridiculous, restaurateurs near the turn of the century – thanks to the media. In today’s America you have the submissive, heavily accented IT workers and taxi drivers, and here in the UK you have your arrogant and contemptibly avaricious business owners and opportunists. Both stereotypes remain conservative and religious, always tied to their culture. And here was someone, my lodger, who could be perceived as “cool”, as “different”, as “refreshing”, “for an Indian”. Someone that was a trance DJ, was always experimenting with astral projection on psychedelic drugs, was not working in finance in Canary Wharf with an arranged marriage ahead of him next winter. However, he did fit the positive stereotypes: he practised yoga and chanted mantras every morning, he offered alternative healing therapies as his means of income, and he dressed and behaved like a white man in Goa. Why would you want to hold back on your Indian roots? He pondered over it for a moment, his bulging eyes looking to the ceiling, his mouth pursed in an ‘o’ shape, exaggerating his already herpetological features, before he beamed, declaring the revelation buzzy.
My friend too, being from a part of the world that is respected and acknowledged in Britain for its vibrant culture, for its community spirit, and most notably for its contribution to music. But how many know that people of South Asian ancestry also contributed a respectable portion to this culture? When I had first met my friend’s mother I was confused. I had never seen an Indian-looking person speak in a West Indian accent before. My next door neighbours growing up were from Jamaica, and I had heard Grandma and all the aunties and uncles speaking in their gentle, sing-song ways, along with some of the mothers at my school, and the stern nurses at the doctor’s, but they were all black. Would it not break the stereotype if it was widely known that there were South Asians from these parts of the world, whose mothers spoke in Jamaican accents (the entire Caribbean was Jamaica to us growing up – sorry, we were ignorant), and who legitimately danced at weddings in their salwaar-kameez to soca and dancehall music, as opposed to bhangra and Hindi film remixes? By at least being open about, if not proud of, your South Asian roots it offers an important opportunity to start discussions and question tired and offensive stereotypes.
In the end, my friend and I had no choice but to agree to disagree in order to avoid our delectable evening turning sour.
But that was by no means an isolated incident.
The Pakis are Here!
I have near and dear ones, all with the same or similar family stories of immigration and terrifying discrimination, who are with white British partners and spouses that voted to leave the European Union for reasons relating to such ludicrous ideas as immigration and the overpopulation of the United Kingdom being a direct strain on jobs, housing, and the NHS. But we are deemed okay because we have assimilated into the culture. I apologise to even have to explicate that ‘we’ have nothing to do with the European Union, and the European Union has nothing to do with the broad range of people, cultures, and races that are currently being accused of failing to assimilate. My near and dear ones grow to agree with their other halves because they are not part of those being ostracised by the whole of the “developed” world.
I was speaking to my aunt the other day, now that it has been two years since I moved into the old family home in Stepney, and I was asking her what it was like to live in the area over forty years ago. As I had imagined, the row of quirky renovated houses along the charming cobblestone mews leading up to the old church of St Dunstan and All Saints, used to be a row of shops selling everything from children’s toys to ladies’ underwear. There used to be a pub on every corner, with the two almost adjacent to the block having since been converted to an NHS Health Centre and a chicken shop. “I used to go into both of them sometimes,” my aunt told me in her ever-strong East End accent. “Everyone used to know your name and ask how your family was.” She told me how in her teens in the late Seventies she used to spend most of her wages at a record shop run by an old Jamaican man on Grove Road, and how a group of black boys always protected her at school when the white kids used to pick on her and throw chewing gum at her hair. I asked her what it was like when they first moved to the block. My aunt described how the family – my grandparents, along with my dad, two uncles, and two aunts – were given many options to relocate from the RAF Camp turned refugee camp at Greenham Common in Berkshire, to such enticing destinations as Manchester, Leicester, India, and even Canada and the United States, but my grandfather was staunchly set on London, and that too the East End, with its textile and wholesale fashion industry on Commercial Road and the abundant possibilities of work for a tailor like himself.
After almost a year at the camp, my aunt remembered how a group of families finally hopped on board a minibus destined for London. One by one, not too dissimilar to a travel company coach dropping off families at their luxurious, all-inclusive destinations along a strip of glitzy yet oppressive hotels, my family was let off at their final stop: a smart and tidy council block just along Regent’s Canal. I was told that we were the first and only non-white family to move into the block, and that every resident of each flat had come out to see who had arrived. The woman that lived downstairs was a “racist bitch”, being the first to loudly bemoan, “the Pakis are here!” as my family huddled confused, unsure what to make of this new future ahead of them. “Pakis, Pakis, Pakis, Pakis, Pakis, Pakis,” my aunt whispered almost manically, “That’s all I could hear around me. And we were thinking, hang on! We were confused. Why were these people calling us Pakis?”
I had recently finished reading, and thoroughly enjoyed, Shappi Khorsandi’s autobiographical A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, where she describes her own experiences as a child from pre-revolutionary Iran growing up in West London during the 1970s and 1980s. Many times in the book her family are insulted as Pakis, with one particularly memorable passage relaying a time with her father at Portobello Market. Her father is haggling down an item when the aggravated stall owner resorts to racial abuse, with someone ultimately calling him a Paki. Her mother is shocked at the ignorance of the English, who are not even able to tell the difference between a Pakistani and an Iranian. Khorsandi herself makes many subtle references throughout the book to distinguish herself from South Asians, be it mentioning the boys in the playground who enquire over whether she is an Arab, Pakistani, or Bengali, though “The boy himself looked Indian” (?), or even making one of her closest friends seem almost like an exotic alien because she came from India. Although, to be fair, Khorsandi also ardently differentiates herself from Arabs and Iraqis, and any ethnic group that is not Iranian.
Regardless of whether we are from the West Indies, East Africa, South Asia itself, or even evidently parts of Central Asia and the Middle East, when push comes to shove we are indistinguishable in the eyes of many. Before 9/11 we were collectively known as Pakis, and we have since turned into Muslims and terrorists regardless. I can imagine a contemporary role reversal of Khorsandi’s book playing out with North Indians: “Of course I am not an Arab / Iranian / Turk! How can I be a fundamental Muslim if I am Indian?” (and I have experienced a very similar example with a middle aged work colleague who, when staff were asked if they would be taking time off for Eid, flatly declared, “Why would I? I’m Indian”). What difference does it really make? Why succumb to their divide and conquer?
I understand and accept that it is fair to identify with what you choose, be it your ethnic or racial background, the country of your ancestors, the country of your birth, or even your adopted country. But all of that is superficial in the fight against ignorance and prejudice. There are many varied and beautiful cultures from all over the world in Great Britain, and I feel as if all the different ethnicities, from Moroccans, to Kurds, and even to Nepalis, who are still considered South Asian, acknowledge their ethnic identities with pride. What is wrong with the rest of the South Asian diaspora?