Always an 'Other'
The Telegraph, 23.01.2007
“Do you have spoons in India?” A combined choking and giggling followed this question from the other side of the table. I was the 15-year old schoolboy expected to answer this question. My problem was not so much what I would answer — it was the fact that the answer had already been decided for me. No, we Indians didn’t have spoons, and ate with our hands from the floor since we didn’t have any furniture or crockery either.
Shocked? I’m not. And this is why I hardly turned a hair when Danielle Lloyd — a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother — wondered behind Shilpa Shetty’s back whether Indians were too thin because they ate undercooked food (and not because of poverty and malnutrition), or because they ate with their hands. The outcry among the protesters, largely Asian, here in the United Kingdom, and back home in India, is primarily because most of them haven’t experienced this sort of discrimination before. I have.
One of the ‘best’ questions I was asked was whether Indians never showered, since our hands are so much darker than the Europeans. Channel 4 made much of what they perceived as a ‘clash of cultures’ in response to the barrage of criticism that has now reached the Prime Minister’s Question Hour in the House of Commons. But you can hardly forgive those making fun of Shetty’s accent for being ignorant. Thanks to the spread of global information networks, ignorance is no longer a convenient excuse.
And what exactly does ‘clash of cultures’ mean anyway? Perhaps it means that some people are prejudiced towards other cultures. Or perhaps, it means allowing people to make fun of others’ accents in a spiteful manner. For me, it is nothing but racism, plain and simple. Oh yes, I said the r-word.
Many, including Shilpa Shetty, think that such intimidating screeching and abuse-hurling is owing to the insecurity of the perpetrator. I disagree. Jade Goody and Danielle Lloyd have no idea what Shetty’s credentials are. The person who threw a can of beer at me and my friend on a train (for which we were offered £2 compensation by the rail company) and called us “Pakis” didn’t have anything to feel insecure about. It was sheer malice and prejudice.
Now don’t try to pass this off as the behaviour of a microscopic-to-the-point-of-being-invisible minority. These people are a very visible chunk of the British and Western public. The whole façade that exists in Britain about multiculturalism being the country’s core belief is laughable. On the ground, you have to display certain characteristics to prevent being socially ostracized. Some of them include going to pubs and getting drunk, trying to get a girlfriend, and talking about ‘interesting’ topics such as football and ‘telly’.
No win situation
So you integrate and you’re safe? Hardly. First of all, it’s not integration. What Britain demands from outsiders is assimilation. Diversity is frowned upon — not on government white papers, but on the streets. But sometimes you can’t win. Shilpesh was a British-born Indian in my school. He had all the attributes to integrate — an Essex accent, a girlfriend, spiky hair, lots of knowledge about ‘footie’, love for night-outs and pubs. But when he got involved in an argument, I overheard someone scream, “You’re a Shit-pesh”, a rather clever pun on his name, hinting towards his complexion. He was always an ‘other.’
The one brilliant question asked by Shetty is — “Is this today’s UK?” I’m afraid it is. Ignorance definitely plays a part in some circles, but bigotry and intolerance are the main catalysts for this kind of aggressive behaviour. It is the failure of 21st-century Britain to accept that the sun that never used to set on her Empire, did so 60 years ago.