Colonialism chokes the Indian summer

8th August 1997 at 01:00
We went to a Victorian crafts fair on the local common the last weekend in July. We walked around under the bright beautiful sun eating chunky, oversweet homemade biscuits and bread which had not travelled well. The walnut liquor was interesting, the gooseberry wine foul. And yes, the place was full of nerds or beaming women in elasticated floral skirts selling resistible goods like clay daisy earrings and framed pictures of country cottages with bulbs on the back so you could light the windows up.

I felt smug and happy until I noticed the entertainment programme. At 2.30pm, the "unmissable" Our Days in the Raj. The good mood vanished. It was already 3.30pm so I asked the young lady with the lazy pony what this was. Mock officers in uniform singing Rule Britannia she said, enthusiastically. No beaten-down coolies, punkah wallahs, Captain Merrick and GTs then? The badly-aimed sarcasm floated past her pretty little head.

I feel I am choking and spluttering even more than usual this summer. It's impossible to breathe in this air so thick with Empire. First came Hong Kong. Not an honest assessment of Hong Kong as the honeypot or of British hypocrisy or racism, but prolonged elegies starring the plump and plummy Patten princesses, memsahib Lavender and the last governor wiping tears from his cherubic face as finally the flag went down. Jonathan Dimbleby was still going on about this weeks later in his The Last Governor programmes. I remember clearly that same moment at home in Uganda in 1962 when there was open weeping among my people, the Ugandan Asians, as the rulers retreated. It reminds me also of the time I was thrown out of a cinema just before a Charlie Chaplin film because I refused to stand up during God Save the Queen. Mother felt the shame of it for a long time and was unforgiving. Republicans are born not made, perhaps.

Little appears to have changed since those days when I was that recalcitrant Lilliputian subject of the British Empire. There is still no sense of contrition. Worse still, this ex-colonial power now increasingly "owns" the stories about colonialism and what has happened since in those countries.

Just look at the coverage of the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. David Dimbleby's India is followed by Mark Tully's India, Andrew Whitehead's India, Mike Wooldridge's India, while Kirsty Wark, William Dalrymple and even Jeremy Clarkson get in on the act. The forthcoming 25th anniversary of the Asian expulsion from Uganda shows exactly the same pattern. This must be what the brilliant Indian writer Sunil Khilnani describes as "historicist nostalgia - a sense that without the carapace of imperial authority, things fall apart". I wonder if I should reciprocate and propose a series called Alibhai-Brown's England for the millennium?

Later in the same week, these subjects came up in an unexpected place. I was in a tatty youth club in west London full of black and white teenagers, chewing gum threateningly, looking blank and cool. I was brought in as a "role model" to motivate said black (not for some reason white) kids.

In spite of the energetic youth worker, only five drifted in my direction. The three black girls and two boys, one Asian, the other Turkish, sat on the floor and quizzed me about my work. They were unimpressed. Especially when I said there was no money in it. Then Aly, the Turkish boy, said his father used to work in Hong Kong as a chef to a British businessman and made much money. Conversation began to take off and four white boys came away from the pool table and joined in. Aly mentioned the Opium Wars. Steve, blond locks flying, said knowledgeably: "Yeah, the Chinese were dealing coke man. So we had to stop them. They still do it in Chinatown. I seen them. It's like the Americans and Colombians, innit?" I asked them what they knew of Indian independence and Partition. (I have now become obsessed.) Samir, whose parents are from Pakistan, replied: "It was a religious war. Muslims and Hindus, they always hate each other. They are stupid. So they had different countries like. " No sign of British culpability. Then he asked: "Miss, do you listen to Hindi songs?" Yes, most of the time, I said, especially Lata Mangeshkar, the Indian singer who has sold more records than anyone else in the world, ever. "Even Oasis?" Yes, and the Beatles, Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones. She is the original Spice Girl, though a little older than her shallow imitators. The other kids were deeply sceptical so, like an overbearing teacher I instructed them to watch her on Channel 4 on the 16th.

Driving back I was reminded that not everyone in this country is locked into willed ignorance or imperial fantasies. I listened to a preview tape from the wonderful Radio 3 series Books Abroad. Without any mediation by authoritative white British voices, a Kenyan spoke of the pain and beauty of Kenyan prison writing, an Egyptian discussed the changing cultural identity of his country.

Back home, my daughter Leila (aged four and a half) was grappling with her identity after a visit with her friend Sarah to the breathtaking Shamiana Mughal tent at the VA which has panels representing their lives embroidered by Asian women from around the country. Her brother (19) wanted to know what she saw on the panels. "Peacocks and a computer and fountains." The idea of embroidered computers he finds unconvincing. "Yes," says Leila passionately, "it is India. I am half Indian so it's true. I sawed it." Sarah added her voice of support and said her mummy was going to buy the tent for her. Somewhere in that exquisite exchange lies real hope of change in the next 50 years.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a writer and race relations campaigner

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