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Culture Shock

Volume 13, Issue 1  | 
Published 21/07/2016
Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.


Consider this headline in the MailOnline of 13 November 2015: `Samantha Cameron looks radiant in a stunning scarlet sari as she joins her husband for the Indian PM's rally at a packed Wembley Stadium`.  She of course is the wife of the current British Prime Minister David Cameron. The accompanying pictures and video footage showed that while Narendra Modi himself was fêted by the thousands of his desi folk who had gathered there, she was loudly cheered as well, as was her husband

And a year earlier, on 17 September 2014, the headline was: `Sari Cherie - it's time to find a new style! As Mrs Blair poses up with her daughter in Indian dress, a look back at the barrister's obsession with Asian clothing`.  What that piece informed its readers was that ever since Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 (and he remained in office until 2007) his wife Cherie, an eminent barrister and part-time judge, has consistently opted for traditional Indian dress while attending any number of posh parties, and not only that but has `passed on her taste in Asian attire down to her daughter Kathryn`, herself a lawyer now in her late 20s. The report contained a collection of brilliant shots of her at public functions dressed in a variety of colourful saris, and some in salwar kameez.  It also included a few more recent ones of mother and daughter together in similar fashion.
So what does this tell us?  That Indian attire, and the sari in particular, as a sartorial adornment is no longer a novelty and it is perfectly ok for the indigene society ladies to wear and be seen wearing it and, who knows, one day may even receive the seal of royal approval.  And not just Indian dress: Indian food too has long become an integral part of the British national diet, not regarded as alien or exotic any more.
But those of us who have lived long enough to remember what things were like in the past, do sometimes marvel at how they have turned out.  Let us rewind the clock back, say, to 1946 when, though bruised and battered by the war that had ended just a year before, Britain was still an imperial power, even if the beginning of its liquidation was not too far off. The sight of a British Prime Minister`s wife dressed in a sari in public would have been unimaginable then.

Next to 1956: in the intervening 10 years, large numbers of the Empire`s former and existing subject peoples from the South Asian sub-continent and the Caribbean had begun to settle in the country and the flow was continuing, much to the bewilderment of the indigenous population. This was to turn into open resentment and hostility in the following decade, exacerbated by the arrival of the Kenya Asians in 1967/68 and Enoch Powell`s `Rivers of Blood` speech in its wake.
At the root of it all was culture shock, for both the newcomers and the natives. The immigrants had to adapt to local ways, and to learn to communicate in English, which not all of them spoke well or at all.  In addition to language, there were all kinds of social and other factors involved, which too had to be negotiated.  For their part, the locals had to make allowances and get used to the strangers in their midst. All this was taxing for both sides, but gradually over the next 20 years there did emerge a degree of mutual acceptance and accommodation and a cultural transformation began to take shape.
Fast forward another 30 years and this is now the new reality.  Britain`s demographics have undoubtedly undergone a massive change. The descendants of the early post-war and subsequent waves of migration from the old Empire have been joined by new additions from elsewhere, including more recently from other parts of the EU and the rest of the European mainland.  Every corner of the globe is thus represented in the country`s population makeup.
How does this reflect in the country`s cultural profile?  Briefly, very well and in every sphere, not just in food and fashion.  To give one example: remember the 2002 hit `Bend It Like Beckham`?  It was produced, written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, a Kenya born leading British film director renowned for her culturally rich themes. Bend It was a huge critical and popular success on both sides of the Atlantic and won a host of international awards, including nomination for the Golden Globe for Best Film in 2003.  She had actually made her name in the 1990s in film and tv with, inter alia, `Bhaji on the Beach` and `What`s Cooking`, which was the Opening Night Film of the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.

Nitin GanatraIn music too, there is so much going and such a wide range of talent that whatever or whoever is mentioned here can only present a partial picture.  We have performers, composers, singer-song writers and the like from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who are at the top – in classical and world music fields as well as standard pop, hip-hop, jazz, and rock. The names that readily come to mind are: Nitin Sawhney, Michael Kiwanuka (Ugandan connection), Laura Mvula (Caribbean/Zambian connection), Patricia Rozario (Mumbai born) plus many others, some with a mixed race or part UK ancestry.
And then there is a large array of actors and actresses who are world famous.  Again, to name a few: the late Saeed Jaffrey, Thandi Newton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Naomi Harris, Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Adrian Lester, John Boyega, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Delroy Lindo, Lenny Henry ... the list is endless!  Among others are the Kenyan-born Kiran Shah (the stuntman and actor who has starred in all the three Lord of the Rings movies as well as The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia and Titanic) and Nitin Ganatra (tv soap EastEnders).
On the literary front, those with a global fame include Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Kamila Shamshie, and Jackie Kay (half-Nigerian) recently named Scotland`s Makar (poet laureate).  Then there is Lemn Sissay (writer, poet, playwright, with an Ethiopian pedigree) and Yinka Shonibare (British Nigerian artist).
In sport and athletics of course there is no shortage of high achievers, including gold medallists in every Olympics from 1980 onwards. The front page of The Observer on Sunday 18 March, 2012 carried a picture of Fabrice Muamba with a caption at the top `“Critically ill” footballer fights for life after collapsing during FA Cup quarter-final`, and an inner page headline `Shocked fans leave in silence after Muama`s collapse on pitch: Bolton Wanderer star in intensive care after he stopped breathing 41 minutes into game`. That said it all really: our football mad nation had taken this refugee from Mobutu`s Zaire, who had `arrived in the UK unable to speak English but quickly picked up the language and excelled at school` to its heart and was upset by what had happened!  
And such black and ethnic minority luminaries are everywhere: in medicine, science, academia, media, architecture, high finance and banking, the various professions, the judiciary, the civil service, politics and parliament, central and local government, business and technology, engineering and electronics ... the list goes on.
Are these not just a few examples of people who have made it good? No, this is actually the new face of Britain: a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultured, multi-religious mix of all colours and creeds. What it shows is that far from remaining on the periphery of society, the visible ethnic minorities are fast becoming part of the cultural mainstream. Their passage into the national agenda and consciousness has been accomplished over a relatively short span of less than half a century.  
Is this not multiculturalism, the much vaunted ideology of co-existence that had become the politicians` mantra but is now being seen as discredited?  No, what we have arrived at is a state of cultural plurality and fusion, superseding the earlier years of mutual suspicion and confusion.  But all this has been achieved despite varying degrees of integration.  While most of the non-white immigrant population has embraced majoritarian values and norms, without necessarily abandoning their own, a significant minority within it had always remained embedded in a ghettoised sub-culture rooted in their homelands of, among other things, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and other practices which relegate women to a second-class status.  Here the culture shocks of the past were internalised and are now coming full circle, with the growing phenomenon of identity politics and the rise of disaffected and `radicalised` young Muslims, linked to terrorism abroad and the implicit threat of it at home. They are second or third generation off-spring of the post-war wave of immigrants, who feel alienated from a secular British society and even from their own elders as victims of their upbringing. They define themselves as Muslim first, over and above everything else, and lack a sense of common nationality.  Much has been written about them elsewhere.  The delicate balance of acceptance and accommodation between the host and migrant communities that was achieved over so many years is now at risk of being upturned.  That is the challenge and danger now facing all of us.

Ramnik Shah
© 2016  01/04/2016