A colleague, a couple of years ago, came over to my desk after having watched Slumdog Millionaire the night before. With a great big smile he said, "You're from Bombay, right? I'll call you Slumdog!" A friend said to me in a different context, "Oh you could never be British - you're Indian." Leaving aside the slightly dumpy way these thoughts were delivered, it has made me wonder whether my own view - that I am British - is slightly delusional.
Identity is fluid, but I've lived in Britain since my teens and will soon have lived longer in Britain than I did the country I was born in, in India. The first time I voted, the first time I had sex, the first, second and third time I got a job - all this has happened in Britain. I'm a British citizen and long ago gave up the Indian citizenship I had as a teenager. I would never live anywhere else but Britain. And yes, the old Norman Tebbitt test - I support Britain whenever it plays anyone else.
Simon Amstell the comedian says the idea of nationalities is absurd. "It's just about the place in which you happened to emerge out of your mother's vagina," he said. He went on to say that if we do come from a country, we all come from the same country - Vaginaland.
"Flags and stickers are for mad people," noted Matthew Paris in relation to St. George's Day. But I disagree. We need identity. And Britain has it in spades. When I have been away from Britain and the plane descends back into London, I look out and see the London Eye, the Olympic stadium, the curve of the Thames (which always reminds me of EastEnders) - even the former Millennium Dome - and my heart leaps with joy. "The suet puddings and the red pillar boxes of Britain enter into your soul," said Orwell, about the quiet hold Britain exerts in our consciousness.
I asked my father, someone who has known me forever, if he felt I was British or Indian. He was unhelpful. He said he didn't have the time to answer my question. "Your mother refuses to learn how the TV set top box works and waits for me to turn it on for her. Now you ask me these questions. It's bad for my blood pressure and you are wasting time. I think you should return to India and help us with these things. The washing machine has to be run after dinner." I asked my mum the same question: was I British or was I Indian? "You can be whatever you want. You are my little rabbit," she said. I preferred her answer.
Maybe I just have low self worth with my weak musings on identity. Charlie Brooker, patron saint of the fragrant, middle-class, right-on, left-wing - the person whose job it is currently to tell the bourgeoise Guardian readers what to think and feel - says, "I've never been a patriot. Because nationalist pride is clearly the pastime of choice for furious thimble-minded morons so thoroughly inadequate that they need to leech off the history and status of an entire nation to bolster their own self-worth."
Nevertheless, I feel very aligned to Britain. Apart from it being my home, I feel very defensive about its position on the world stage and feel very proud that Britain bats for freedom and human rights much more than most Western states. Britain's ability to speak up (and sometimes take up arms) for free men and women in tyrannies like Burma, Libya and Serbia makes it distinct from many appallingly hypocritical 'impartial' European countries.
The friend who said to me, "Oh you could never be British," was amazed when I said I was British and considered myself British. "Don't you have an Indian passport?" he asked, slightly aghast. "No, I don't," I said.
In the last year, I've been asked a variety of strange identity-based questions by people when they find out I was born in India. Some of the amusing questions I've been asked include:
- "Do you eat with your hands?" ("Sometimes," I reply. "Always when I eat crisps, sandwiches, burgers.")
- "Do you eat curry every day? I hear some people eat curry for breakfast." (Me: "Yes I eat 'curry,' - quite a lot of it and I love it, although I also eat Italian food and other cuisines which I deem yummy." I also feel like asking back, "Do you stuff yourself with endless plates of bangers and mash followed by Jacob's cream crackers?")
- "Do you use toilet paper?" (Couldn't find the words to answer that - what is this, the British citizenship test for the paranoid of Tunbridge Wells?)
The Institute for Social and Economic Research found that ethnic minorities feel more British than their white counterparts. This feeling of being British increased further amongst kids and grandkids of migrants. It makes sense - immigrants make an active choice to come to Britain, work in Britain, make Britain their home. We underestimate the hugeness of the decision it often takes to move from one country to another. And the commitment it involves.
"Our team is playing your team," said a British work colleague to me when India was playing Britain at cricket. "The British team is my team," I said dourly. Confusion in the colleague's eyes. "The native claims to be one of us," the concerned eyes seem to be thinking. There is also, I think, a bit of excitement in his eyes: "Someone still wants to be one of us? We thought we were the bad guys, the guys of Empire."
Britain is very far away from being the bad guy. Britain led the fight against the Nazis. If we need reminding, over eleven million men, women and children were slaughtered in my own parents lifetime. This included the murder and gassing of the mentally ill, the gay, the physically disabled, the deaf. Two and a half million Poles murdered, a million Jewish children. Britain - and its allies, including many millions from the Commonwealth nations - stood up to that evil. This makes Britain a golden nation, in my view - one I wanted to move to, contribute to and belong to. Being a woman, being gay, being disabled, being political, being an artist - basically being who you are and flourishing - is much easier in Britain than in most other countries because Brits have fought hard for these freedoms over centuries. For me, this makes my country special.
The attitude to British immigrants can be confusing. It's hard to know where the reality (or the truth) lies. If you look at the media, the fashion changes almost by the month. Either immigrants are seen as British, delivering us Olympic Gold medals (Mo Farah) and enriching Britain's culture (music, literature, the list is endless) or immigrants are seen as disproportionately criminal and responsible for creating harmful cultural ghettos.
The harmful cultural ghetto point is valid of course - the brutality of honour killings, forced marriage and female circumcision exist exclusively within immigrant cultures. The two horror Abu's - Hamza and Qutada don't help either. In the whey faced Guardian (hardly a bastion of anti immigrant fervour), I still read comments like, "We have raped our culture in Britain by removing everything [in Britain] that might cause offence to some wingnut instead of saying, 'look mate in your old country they killed you for having a different opinion, develop some tolerance or go home.'"
So, should the media decide on how British I am? Should my friends? How much I should take it on the chin when I'm told, "Oh, you could never be British," when I plainly feel otherwise? Is it really a case of me being all Oliver-like, "Please Sir, can I be British?"
Mo Farah came to Britain from Mogadishu when he was eight and spoke not a word of English. Now, Mo lives in Teddington and speaks with a London accent and is, as Boris Johnson says, "as British as the beefeater in the Tower of London, as British as a pint of bitter, as British as a bulldog, as British as a wet bank holiday Monday or a bad pun in a Carry On film or a hot Cornish pasty on a cold platform at Reading station."
In my view each person decides who they are, what their identity is. Some Scots feel Scottish and don't identify with a British identity. Other Scots feel Scottish and British, and proud of both. I am from India - but if we were limited to our ethnicity and ethnic stereotypes it would be a dull world indeed.
People who tell us who we are, people who tell us what our identity is, are bullying us out of our right to our own self-description. This is precisely what Hanif Kureishi means when he talks about how, "If one person tells another who they are, while denying them the right to self-description...[the other person's] version of events, his story, will not be considered. There is no question here of the [other person] having his own pen."
Recently, a British journalist asked Mo Farah if he would have preferred to have represented Somalia, where he was born, rather than Britain, where he has lived since he was a boy. Mo said, "Look mate, this is my country. When I put on the Great Britain vest, I feel proud. Very proud." Couldn't have said it better than our very own Olympic hero.Suggest a correction