Farrukh Dhondy | Does African link colour attitudes of Indians in British politics?
s there a way of telling the mind’s construction by the candidacy or the policy?
“O Bachchoo is it true that everything’s been said
By the prophets and poets, now long dead?
Must we now accept that no proverbs wait
To be formulated to govern life and fate
Or does each expression in words renew
The bonds of emotion between me and you?”
From Garmi ki Raat ka Sapna, by Bachchoo
When a national British newspaper, publishing its survey of the nation’s favourite dishes, declared that Chicken Tikka Masala was top of the list, some fools publicly opined that the Empire had struck back. The adoption or adaptation of subcontinental dishes and tastes was so wrongly cofounded with political revenge.
The Raj Brits were consumers of “curry”. Some etymologists claim they actually invented the term after appropriating some Indian dish. They certainly invented “kedgeree” -- fish in rice, which is a perversion of the unfishy-daal-rice-turmeric boil-up that granny used to serve when we were ill or indisposed. It’s absurd to regard the Raj appropriation of curry and kedgeree as part of colonial oppression.
And then in reverse, my mum used to cook something called “Country Captain” -- a sort of slice-potato-topped meat pie. Was that part of colonial oppression? And if the Brits transformed khichdi to kedgeree, was that the colonials subverting the Raj through cultural conversion? I think the answer is obvious -- just as is the answer to “Is the Pope a Protestant?”
Nevertheless, through the 1960s till the present-day, Indian restaurants in Britain have frequently been proudly named The Empire Strikes Back. I used to regularly eat at one called Last Days of the Raj.
The culinary adoption and the taste for foreign foods everywhere, is just a broadening of culture, even though, at least in one British linguistic instance, this broadening is expressed in violent terms. Of which I took advantage.
So, if you can tolerate it, a brief story:
In 2001 two British national footballers -- Lee Bowyer and Johnathan Woodgate -- were accused of attacking and brutally wounding an Asian student who they thought had been contemptuous of their celebrity status and intellects. Their trial proceeded and ITV, the UK’s commercial station, asked me to write a drama-series about the attack and the trial. I submitted a pitch and used as its title the phrase that the likes of Lee and Jonathan would use after a beery evening to describe their lust for a curry meal: “I could murder an Indian”.
The ITV editors thought it was funny and appropriate and I began attending the court. The trial collapsed when a national newspaper, I think connivingly, invited the victim’s father to give an account of the assault which it published prominently, thus prompting the judge to abort it.
Now within two decades of that trial, the phrase The Empire Strikes Back has taken on a new and more plausible usage. I allude, gentle reader, to the election of Humza Yousaf to the leadership of the Scottish National Party to be the First Minister of Scotland. His Labour opponent, Anas Sanwar, is also of Asian origin, as are Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, Priti Patel, former home secretary, Sajid Javid a former chancellor of the exchequer, Sadiq Khan the mayor of London, and Leo Varadkar, former Prime Minister of Ireland.
What’s intriguing is that Yousaf, Hedgie Sunak, Cruella and Pritti Clueless are all descended from one or both parents who were subcontinental immigrants to Africa and came subsequently to the UK.
Does this parental link to being an Indian immigrant to Africa influence their attitudes and politics in any way? The latter three, Tories all, have parents who settled in West Africa in the closely-knit and isolated Indian communities, and left Kenya and Uganda when the ever-present racial conflicts, most prominently exemplified in Idi Amin’s purge of Asian citizens, forced them to seek a life in the UK.
The stereotype of immigrants tells us that they work hard. Undoubtedly. And yet in the case of Indians migrating to Africa in colonial times, there was certainly a racial attitude, not a positive one, towards Africans. Did this attitude affect Priti Clueless’s father’s decision to stand for election from the openly xenophobic Brexit Party? Did it inspire her home secretarial policy of sending desperate asylum-seekers to Rwanda? Is there a way of telling the mind’s construction by the candidacy or the policy? And Cruella dreaming of sending desperate refugees to the same Rwanda?
The hard-graft-and-get-on attitude has certainly promoted today’s 66 ethnic MPs through the British meritocracy and into Parliament. Tulip Siddiqi may be the niece of the Bangladesh Prime Minister and Hedgie is the billionaire husband of a billionaire heiress, but the large body of the rest of them have fought their way up through education, opportunity and cunning. Their parents arrived from poverty-stricken parts of the ex-Empire to Britain in the era when the class system was being eroded by the capitalist mechanism of progress through merit. And it’s clear from the policy allegiances of every single one of them that their presence in Westminster doesn’t amount to The Empire Striking back. They are all British meritocrats and align themselves with their party’s ideologies.
And, gentle reader, I bothered to check the backgrounds of the sitting Asian Labour Party MPs and none of them have parents who emigrated to Africa before coming to the UK. So probably Sir Keir Starmer as leader of the Labour Party is safe.