London 1984. “Send the Pakis back, glory to the Union Jack” went the song. The angry voices rang through the chilly South Harrow air as I squeezed into the back seat of a bright red Datsun. The jingle played back on a continuous loop in my head. The National Front sure knew how to put together a catchy tune. I took a final look through the rear window at the two young white boys who had been serenading us moments earlier. Not an Adam’s apple between them.
“You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Cool Britannia; that fleeting moment where the metaphorical stars magically aligned.
Where Britain felt like the centre of the world. For 2nd generation British Desis (South Asians) in particular, it was more than that. We were no longer the snotty-nosed kid with the greasy side-parting watching on jealously from the sidelines. We were part of the zeitgeist.
The mid-nineties in the UK was a far cry from the economic and social angst of today. The National Front was on its last legs while the modernization of the BNP was just a glint in an evil Cambridge graduate’s eye. Tony Blair was our JFK, a 90s white Obama, rolling out a barrel of hope and change. He played guitar. He played head tennis with Kevin Keegan. He was Labour. And he was on his way to Downing Street.
British Desis were finally making their mark. In the world of art, we had Anish Kapoor’s display of “parabolic waters” (yep, me neither) outside the Millennium Dome. Lisa Aziz and Krishnan Guru-Murphy popped up on the news. (This was before Tarantino shut Krishnan’s butt down.)
Britpop gave us Cornershop, a couple of Northern Sikh lads with a Brimful of Asha playing on the forty-five. The Asha referred to in the song was Asha Bhosle, the legendary Bollywood soundtrack singer. But in a play on words that perhaps only British Desis would understand, Asha also meant Hope.
Prince Naseem dazzled with unorthodox pugilistic brilliance in the ring. The son of a Yemenese immigrant, he was flash, cocky and in your face. And people of all colours loved him for it. He wasn’t even Asian, but he looked like us and that was enough.
The England football team inspired a nation at Euro 96. Baddiel and Skinner sung about football coming home. And home was what it was to British Asians as the flag of St. George was reclaimed from the far right. Football fans tunefully bellowed out “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk”. We were off the bottom rung at last. Multiculturalism was working and we had finally been accepted. Or at least it felt that way.
“…with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
And then one cold tragic New York autumn day, the twin towers collapsed, along with a million multi-cultural Bollywood Dreams.
Tony Blair morphed into a violent Willy Fog. He became a cheerleader for the fake-cowboy in the white house, accompanying him on globe-trotting military adventures, entrenching us in a never-ending war against a never-ending enemy.
Suddenly there was an acute self-awareness and defensiveness of how we were portrayed in the media. The Kumars moved in at number 42. Finally our own comedy show, where we could take the piss out of ourselves rather than leave it to the likes of Jim Davidson. Launched a few weeks after 9/11, it portrayed British Asians in a much-needed positive, jovial light.
Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham, a light-hearted comedy was a cinematic hit. “How wonderfully ethnic”, exclaimed the loveys and darlings. Yes it was a bit rubbish but we embraced it because it railed against the negative stereotypes prevalent in movies such as East is East, the other big “ethnic” hit from years earlier.
Unfortunately, it transpired I was no longer part of the British Asian label but a much-maligned spin-off. I went from Happy Days to Joannie Loves Chachi. From Friends to Joey. I was now officially a British Muslim. My new homogenous brethren were Somalians, Ethiopians and Arabs, despite a cultural divide the breadth of the Indian Ocean.
The Kumars weren’t British Muslim. And neither was Jesminder Kaur, the football-loving protagonist in Bend it Like Beckham. The goalposts had shifted and a large part of my identity had been unceremoniously taken away, replaced by an altogether more suspiciously looked upon one.
If 9/11 was a global earthquake of a magnitude 10, then for Brits the 7/7 bombings were an aftershock of a similar scale.
“Please don’t be us”, I prayed. Maybe it’s the Irish. After all, Gerry Adams and the boys had been quiet for a while. Or if not the Irish, how about a single-white-crazy? A disillusioned ex-military man with a grudge to bear.
Nope. This had the hallmarks of a coordinated Al-Qaeda attack. Experts on the Tellybox said so. Grainy footage of Asian blokes in backpacks on public transport emerged. Let’s not jump to conclusions here. Could be tents and sleeping bags in those backpacks. Maybe they were off for a spot of camping in Milton Keynes. Lovely this time of year.
Next stop, the video confessional. Traditional Arab garb? Check. The pointy-shouty thing at the screen? Check (What is it with nutjobs doing the pointy shouty thing at the camera? Osama, the 7/7 bombers, Hannity). Proclamations of martyrdom? Check. And horror of horrors. A British Northern accent. Clutching at whatever conspiracy straws I could grab, the video could just be an elaborate hoax right? You know, like the moon landings or Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
And then the smoking gun. Another video. A bomber in his living room saying goodbye to his baby daughter. No cave here. The backdrop was a faux-brick mantel piece with a shisha on the floor. Definitely a British Muslim living room. Not even the combined forces of the CIA, Mossad and HYDRA would be able to produce that level of authenticity. There it was. It was us. Terrorists as home-baked as yer mum’s chappati.
It didn’t make sense. Any of it. These weren’t desperate foreign-types living in poverty with nothing to lose. These guys had families. They had jobs. And neighbours. They had a future. It was Chris Morris’s 2010 subversive comedy “Four Lions” that expertly captured the tragic senselessness of it all.
As the nation’s period of navel-gazing kicked in, the change in mood became apparent.
Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail wrote of a “Londonistan”. Mutterings of a fifth column (the enemy within) became commonplace. Paranoia and suspicion was the order of the day. Signalling the end of multiculturalism in a speech in 2007, Tony Blair directly called out a subsection of British society (Muslims from “certain countries”) for failing to integrate. Integrate with whom and what I thought? I bought some pre-packed Ambrosia apples from Waitrose once – would that exonerate me?
The by-product of an on-going social experiment, we had spent years painstakingly weaving our thread into the great British fabric, contributing to a complex, ever-expanding beautiful tapestry. With one pull of the wrong thread, it was unravelling before our eyes.
The National Front rose from the dead, in the guise of the revamped BNP. Led by Nick Griffin, they were more politically savvy than their ancestral fathers but the sentiment was the same. “Voluntary resettlement whereby immigrants and their descendants are afforded the opportunity to return to their lands of ethnic origin.” The 9/11 and 7/7 bombings gave the BNP an Islamaphobia-stamped wrecking ball to make an electoral breakthrough in 2009, winning three county council seats in Britain’s working-class heartlands.
Britannia had lost its Cool, trapped in an inescapable time capsule. The Gallagher brothers were busy squabbling and one of the Blur boys went off to make cheese for posh folk. Cornershop continued to produce ground-breaking music to “critical acclaim” (a euphemism for “sold f**k all”) but hopes of them becoming the first Brit-Asian rock superstars had faded.
The England football team failed to qualify for Euro 2008. An uncomfortable undercurrent of racism descended upon the terraces, led in part by the far-right English Defense League. Baddiel and Skinner’s old hit contains a line about Jules Rimet still gleaming. For British Muslims, Jules Rimet had lost some of its shine.
The mantle of sporting role model for young Asians was taken up by Amir Khan. The young Olympian with a Bolton twang and Union Jack Shorts had previously issued a clear condemnation of the 7/7 bombings. In a particularly incendiary, racially-charged night in Manchester, a large minority of whites refused to back the Brit, favouring the equally dark-skinned tones of the Mexican legend Barrera. Norman Tebbit’s cricket test was turned on its head.
Standing numb and listless amongst the throngs in the MEN Arena, I overheard a conversation between two white lads. “Why are some people cheering for a Paki?” inquired one. Aha! Some good old fashioned racism I thought. How I’d missed you old friend. None of this new-age Islamaphobia nonsense. Perhaps I’d be treated to a classic National Front ditty, like those two darling racist cherubs from days of yore. Alas, his friend was more in tune with current trends. “Don’t matter if he’s a Paki. They should boo him cos he’s Muslim.”