By Shivani Bhasin
Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
On May 7 2016, Sadiq Aman Khan was sworn in as the new mayor of London, bringing an end to eight years of Conservative rule of the city. Khan was hailed worldwide as the first Muslim mayor of the English capital, but it is worth noting that he is also the first South Asian one. His victory comes at an increasingly polarised time. With right-wing parties rising to prominence in much of neighbouring Europe, and the prospect of President Trump, Khan’s victory is a strong statement to both British Muslims and South Asians.
The British Asian identity is a complex one. Asians, in themselves, cannot be seen as a monolith. For South Asians, the cultural myth woven about East and the West has suggested that they are a dichotomy, and cannot exist in two spaces at one time. They have been projected as having different times, traditions and ways of living that cause tension when they come into contact. This conflict has been captured memorably in literature (The Buddha of Suburbia), television shows (Skins) and films (East is East). It is a conflict that has taken new forms over recent years, and shows little sign of abating.
Post 9/11, fears of terrorism led to racial profiling and increased hostility towards the South Asian community. People who had lived in America or England for years were now being looked at with suspicion. People of colour were increasingly clubbed together as one giant exotic ‘Other’. The subtle differences that distinguished a Bengali Muslim from a Punjabi Sikh or a Malayali Christian from a Gujarati Hindu seemingly vanished, if they existed in the first place. The overwhelming message that South Asians received was that the society in which they were born and nurtured no longer wanted them. At the same time, the culture of their parents and their grandparents was one that many could no longer relate to.
This fractured sense of being, of feeling – that you are a part of an alien hybrid culture that claims no recognizable public space – is an extremely traumatic experience. It is also pushing British Asians headlong into artistic spaces, where their identity cannot be limited.
The rapper Riz Ahmed, better known by his stage name ‘Riz MC’, has long spoken about how his British Asian identity has fuelled his art. In his breakout single Post 9/11 Blues, Ahmed raps, “Shave your beard if you’re brown and you best salute the crown/ Or they’ll do you like Brazilians and shoot your arse down”. His single caught the attention of various radio stations, with some initially banning it for ‘politically sensitive’ lyrics. His latest mixtape Englistan captures the unique world he occupies, where England and Pakistan intersect. Perhaps the most evocative number on the album is Benaz, a meditation on 20 year old Benaz Mahmod, who was murdered in London in an ‘honour’ killing orchestrated by her father and uncle. Benaz is an ode to women of colour who are caught between the demands of a sick culture and hope for freedom. The song sharply criticises the ‘immigrant whose only currency is honour’ and the plodding policeman who dismisses the cries of a battered woman.
Impoverished South Asians, who live in ghetto-ized communities, are often disregarded by the State while other members of their community are tokenized as a model minority. This dynamic continues today. It is easy to say that South Asian culture is an integral part of English culture. It is easy to point at the ubiquity of bhangra music or chicken curry, but a truly multicultural society can only exist when the myriad cultures within it are accorded equal respect.
The Changing Face of British Asians, a conversation between Mukulika Banerjee, Sathnam Sanghera, Yasmin Khan and Patrick French, will take place at the JLF at Southbank in London on May 21, 2016. The panel will explore issues of difference and belonging, integration, adaptation and alienation, and the changing attitudes and affiliations of the second and third generations of South Asian Britons.