Indian summer - Bombay takeaway

Kamila Shamsie on the British appetite for a taste of inauthentic India

An Indian friend who lives in Australia visited me in London recently. He said that while in India he had heard that Pakistan was stirring up trouble precisely in order to force a stand-off between the two countries. This would make governments around the world sufficiently nervous that they would advise their citizens not to travel to India. Pakistan's devious plan, so this story went, was to cripple India by drastically reducing its revenue from tourism and foreign investors.

A little while later, my friend saw a billboard in London advertising "Indian Summer" and almost fell over laughing.

"What's that?" he asked.

"That's Pakistan's devious plan being thwarted."

Where India and Pakistan are concerned, there are always a million conspiracy theories floating about, but this particular one struck me most because of its concern with foreign markets. There is much speculation at the moment about why India is so marketable (or at least so marketed) in Britain this year. The reason that seems to carry most weight has nothing to do with Madonna, Baz Luhrmann or Andrew Lloyd Webber, but rather with the declining fortunes of the Bollywood film industry.

That is not something we hear much about these days. Instead, we hear that Bollywood has gone global. Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar, Devdas was number five at the UK box office in its opening week, Twentieth Century Fox is turning its attention to Bollywood. It's all going swimmingly! Well, no. It is precisely because things aren't going swimmingly back home that Bollywood has had to turn its attention to the global market, and particularly to NRIs (non-resident Indians), to bolster its flagging ticket sales. This time around, the push for the UK to "go Indian" is coming from India itself - and it's being picked up in the UK by everyone from Channel 4 to Pot Noodle (with the new flavour, Bombay Bad Boy).

The most positive consequence of having the push come from India to England rather than being created within the UK itself is that we're finally getting away from the twin stereotypes of mysticism and poverty which imbued the Seventies Indophilia, made popular by the Beatles. The India being sold today is colourful, glitzy, young (yet conscious of its familial obligations). It is a welcome change. But is it reflective of the real India? And what do we mean by "the real India"? Hollywood may have very little to do with the "real" America, but from developing countries, somehow, we demand authenticity. And that, to me, is reason enough to thumb one's nose at the idea of pretending to feed authenticity to a country that still largely thinks chicken tikka masala is an Indian dish and not one developed by Bangladeshi migrants in Britain.

No one has leapt on to the Indian bandwagon with greater fervour than Channel 4, with its highly publicised "Indian Summer". There has been a wonderful range of broadcasts - films, documentaries and news programmes - tied in to Indian Summer, which do go far beyond the glitz and look into such matters as the communal killings in Gujarat, the reactions of a British Asian playwright to the UK's Bollywood craze, the world of call centres and so on. And for a week, Channel 4 News live from Delhi looks into a range of news stories within India - though it all started, perplexingly, with Jon Snow asserting that perhaps no country outside America has felt the impact of 11 September as much as India. There is that tiny matter of Afghanistan, but never mind.

Even the weather, it appears, has decided to enter into the spirit of all things Indian. The weekend celebrations in Regent's Park, which included a screening of the glorious Monsoon Wedding, giant TV screens broadcasting two days of the India v England Test match, and a free concert with Nitin Sawhney and Friends, all took place on days of blazing sunlight (the Indians sat in the shade, the English got sunburnt). It was all festive and fun - I sat there for hours with my friends, delighted by the pamphlets that invited us to take part in the Miss India UK concert, and almost intrigued enough by the "wedding tents" at the other end of the park to go and see what they were all about. It seemed you'd have to be a terrible curmudgeon to criticise any part of the day, which was clearly all about entertainment and nothing more. (Of course, entertainment is almost always about some kind of consumerism, but I'd be quite happy to spend my money on CDs by any of those artists.)

But then I got home and read Channel 4's press release, according to which the concert I had just enjoyed involved "great musicians whose work reflects the heart and spirit of present-day India". Oh, oh. There we have it: the claim to authenticity. Nitin Sawhney and Friends were fabulous in Regent's Park - they were fabulous British Asians demonstrating how a country can be culturally enriched by its migrant community. Or, as Sawhney puts it, further down in the Channel 4 press release, they "represented the renaissance that has swept multicultural Britain over the last ten years" - and there was no need to play that down by dressing the act up in some "heart and spirit of present-day India" nonsense.

In that vast gap between Sawhney's description of the music and the press officer's description of it lies the real problem at the heart of Indian Summer. It tries to be "a season reflecting contemporary Indian life and culture in both India and the UK", but it is clearly so much more at ease with the idea of India than it is with the notion of British Asians (or British Indians, more specifically). India is, after all, "over there". You can watch the films, listen to the music, eat the vindaloo, and then go home to The Archers. One could say that it is exploitative, or one could say that the Indian economy needs it, encourages it, gains from it. I would argue that India is now blessedly far enough outside Britain's grip that it need no longer be treated like the cowering colonised figure being pillaged by marauding Englishman.

So if Indian Summer (and I now use this term to refer to the marketing of everything faux-Indian from Bombay Dreams to Bombay Bad Boy) was just concerned with India, I would probably do no more than roll my eyes slightly at the absurdity, and cliches, of some of the marketing, while enjoying select parts of the end product (and, doubtless, I would grumble about India's excellent PR skills, which allow it to appear a secular, modern nation and draw attention away from its ultra-right-wing government and the atrocities in Kashmir and Gujarat).

But as soon as you throw in a phrase like "Indian life and culture in both India and the UK", you set yourself up for all kinds of questions. Why is British Asian life referred to as "Indian life in the UK" rather than "British Asian life or British Indian life?" Why are Asian artists easier to market if they're representing the heart and spirit of India than if they're representing an aspect of Britishness? And when will Nitin Sawhney be considered as British as rain rather than part of some "Indian Summer"?

Yesterday, a South African friend said: "Give the British a couple of days of temperature in the 30s and they're ready to go back to rain and clouds."

"That's it!" an Indian friend responded. "That's the truth about Indian Summer in the UK. The English like it for a couple of days, and then they just want it to go away." Bollywood is welcome enough, I suppose, precisely because it can always be sent away - but the same cannot be said for the Asian communities within Britain.

Kamila Shamsie is the author of Kartography (Bloomsbury) and a columnist on the Guardian