Who’d have thought it, 50 years ago, when we started infiltrating in droves from the great sub-continent? We came, we stayed and we conquered – in spite of the warm beer, the bad jokes and English tea. Now we make the best beer (Cobra), tell the worst jokes, (Meera Syal) and Tetley’s English tea is owned by an Indian firm.
My generation of Indobrits, the second and third generations, are savouring a moment their parents only dreamt of and their grandparents never even imagined. Asian businessmen are honoured in the Queen’s lists, quintessential English institutions such as the Fabians and Liberty are headed by Indobrits. From the media to mainstream politics, we have arrived.
Ignore those silly Asian achievement awards that roll-call the same old names and faces. Forget the usual perception of the Asian as a corner shop-wallah. Today, the fashion and creative industries are bursting with Indobrit talent, from Asif Kapadia’s cutting-edge films to Imtiaz Khaliq, an alumna of the London College of Fashion who is described as one of the UK’s top four women’s tailors (she is patronised by Michelle Pfeiffer, inter alia) and whose designs celebrate her Asian upbringing.
In the world of music, Rishi Rich from Southall is the wonderkid behind this year’s hit singles by Craig David and Mis-teeq, and produces Britney, who goes bhangra later this year. Rich is also behind a new talent on the block – Jay Sean, the 22-year-old British-born Asian from Hounslow, west London, who has just left medical school to pursue a career in music.
Today’s young Indobrits have a built- in sense of belonging here that the first generation could never have. My father, in spite of making a fortune here, went “back” to Africa nine years ago. He had had enough of the British, his bastard bank manager and all the things that reminded him that, despite owning the best bespoke suits and a sizeable chunk of Soho, he was still regarded as un-British.
Our parents tried far harder than we do to assimilate. Mine were the epitome of Asian success: new Mercedes every year, a house in the suburbs. To them, fitting in was about acquisition, ownership, chattels. My generation is on a less tangible search for definition, cultural identity and investment in the intellectual and artistic dialogue of this place we call home.
Perhaps we are already perceived as being “inside” or “part of”.We have a confidence that shines a light on whatever career path we choose and although there are obstacles, there is also optimism.
Besides, my generation has the emotional and financial safety net (and usually the approval) of parents and extended family – a must in Asian culture, no matter how westernised we become.
We’re not completely sorted. There is still the freaky tokenism of Greg Dyke and his White City cronies, whose documentaries on Asian success are running in BBC2’s Big Dreams season as I write.
But the process of assimilation will only accelerate. There are those who have forged the way ahead – the contribution of Salman Rushdie, which could give rise to Hari Kunzru; Anish Kapoor’s unsurpassed sense of space, which allowed Zarina Bhimji’s conceptual art to breathe; and Baroness Flather, whose fervour and ambition paved the way for other political careers such as those chosen by Sandip Verma and Shailesh Vara. To them we owe a silent namaste for giving us the courage and the vision to take up the part of us that fits here. The Indobrit bit.
Farah Damji is the editor of Indobrit, a quarterly magazine for British Asians living in the UK