Namastey London

“Well, I suppose overall it was an enjoyable film,” I said, as we wandered past the pop-corn. “I loved Ashkay Kumar’s shirts, I would like some like that. And he got the girl in the end.”

But there was a ‘but’.

“But I have to say, I did feel all the English characters were ludicrous stereotypes. The film portrayed the England as full of nothing but obnoxious, race obsessed toffs who live in huge Georgian estates. It was a wholly negative and false portrayal of my country and culture.”

My Pakistani friend shrugged and chuckled. “Now you know how we feel all the time.”

Celebrity Big Blunderbuss

Of course, I never ever watch Celebrity Big Brother, full as it is of vacuous has-beens whining about their personal life. However, yesterday evening I just happened to walk into the living room, when a freak bolt of lightning turned the TV over to Channel 4, at coincidentally the exact moment when I tripped over a wild hamster. Prostrate on the floor, I randomly caught sight of this strange TV programme out of the corner of my eye. I leapt up, and immediately turned it off after only an hour and half viewing.

shilpa shetty cryingI could not help rubber-necking the foreigners’ car-crash into the British class system. Neither A-Teamer Dirk Benedict, or Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, sees anything wrong in laughing at the poor diction of some of the other housemates. They did not seem appreciate that their comments are seen as snobbish. Nor did not understand when those ‘down-to-earth’ housemates predictably turned sour, mercilessly criticising Shilpa’s naive attempt at roasting a chicken.

It is a shame some of the comments flung in her direction were disparaging to India and its culture, prompting accusations of racism: apparently over 10,000 people have now complained.

Its interesting that the celebrity version of Big Brother should prove a microcosm of the country as a whole, an illustration of the race debate in the UK. What is crucial here is that the offenders (in this case, Jo, Jade and Danielle) genuinely do not believe they are racist. They are not picking on Shilpa because she is Indian. Her transgressions, such as they are, seem real to them, and crucially nothing to do with her race or nationality.

When so-called culture wars periodically blitz the media, the examples of cultural conflict are stark, dealing as they so often do with life-changing issues such as marriage, sex, or the role of religion in political decision-making. They are noticeable. What goes unremarked are the tiny issues, the little differences, than can turn two people off each other. There is nothing wrong with using spices in food, or using your hands to eat it. This is part of Shilpa’s culture. Jade, Jo, and Danielle, who are ignorant of Shilpa’s culture, do not understand this. When they criticise her, they do not for one moment believe their comments have anything to do with her being Indian. They think they are criticising her. They do not realise the subjectivity of their criticism. They do not even realise that they are actually criticising a part of Shilpa’s culture, and others by association. The ‘racism’, such as it is, lies in these ignorances (I would prefer to call it an ‘unwitting prejudice’).

Whether one has any time for the ‘racism’ charge depends on whether you believe the invective levelled at Shilpa was directed at her alone, or her cultural practices in general. Those who said them would passionately, genuinely argue that the former is true. Those who heard them, would say the latter. Neither would be completely correct, however. Like a blunderbuss, no matter how careful and ‘genuine’ the aim, you will always hit something you did not intend. The problem is caused by shooting the invective in the first place! It is a kind of second-degree racism: the Indian viewers of Celebrity Big Brother have been caught in the cross-fire of a domestic spat. They have a genuine greivance, even if the mens rea is absent.

The same argument can, I think, be applied to the remarks about the accents of certain housemates. You can appear to be a snob without realising it. But just like culinary practices, the way someone speaks is a matter of culture and upbringing. To laugh at it is to laugh at everyone who does it.

We’re all guilty of second order prejudice on some level, because it is impossible to know what is going on everywhere in the world, or how everyone lives. The key to reducing this, is to make an effort to learn more about the people who you live with (whether you live in a multi-ethnic democracy, or the Big Brother House). To avoid learning more about others, or to declare it unnecessary, is the real prejudice.

India actually has its own version of the TV show, called Bigg Boss. I haven’t seen it myself, but those who have tell me it is actually more interesting, with nudity and frolicking at a minimum, and the contestants getting stuck into political debates instead.

Perhaps I am being too diplomatic. Apparently slurs like “Paki Bitch” are being bandied about. That’s first order racism, and certainly didn’t make the cut yesterday evening.

Three days on; Five years on

I happened to catch an interesting CCN-IBN special news report this evening, discussing the aftermath of the bombings in Malegon three days ago, where a Muslim cemetary was attacked during Friday prayers. We were shown footage of a Hindu man returing to buy groceries from a stall opposite the blast site. Unafraid to visit the vicinity of the attack, and unwilling to disrupt his routine, he made a point of taking his eleven-year-old son along with him. There were also scenes of Hindus queuing to give blood, to help the Muslim victims of the blast.

Whatever the religion of the interviewees, the message was unianimous: “They are trying to divide us, and we won’t let them.”

On the fifth anniversary of the atrocities on the World Trade Centre, we will ask ourselves again: “What was the aim of the hijackers when they did this? What was Osama Bin Laden’s purpose?” The attacks on the world trade centre ignited a global conflict that has polarised world opinion, and ostracised an entire race of people. Sure, we didn’t start the conflict… but I cannot help thinking that we rose to the bait. When, on 14th September 2001, George W Bush named the ‘War on Terror’, it was seen as the beginning of the Fight Back. But it was also endorsement of the enemy’s terms of reference. That was the real defeat, and it happened after only three days.

Encounters with souvenir sellers: scene I

Anaradhapura: A serene and shaded park conceals the ruins of a vast ancient city, which was a centre for Buddhist learning and civilisation, a thousand years ago. For centuries the city lay hidden beneath the jungle, but the foundation walls peek above the grassy banks, like milk-teeth breaking through a baby’s gum. We see stores for rice, plenty of areas for meditation and prayer, and some swimming pools in which monks would bathe.

We lean on some modern iron railings to view a moonstone. These are semi-circular floor sculptures, which lie at the entrance to temples – a kind of door mat for the soul. Our guide tells us that this is one of the finest examples in all of Sri Lanka, and explains that the four layers to the pattern symbolise the obstacles on the path to nirvana. One set of animals represent cravings, and another set symbolise desires. We have a short semantic debate about the difference between craving and desire, and decide that one is physical, the other cerebral.

Strolling back to our bus, we are approached by two young men in grubby T-shirts. They each have a tray of souvenirs, and I cannot help but steal a glance at their merchandise. They have an interesting selection of brass trinkets and bangles, but nothing that I crave or desire.

I try to walk on. “No thank you.”

“You are British?” I know they want to engage me in a sales pitch, but I owe them the courtesy of answering.

I nod, and smile. “Yes, I live in Scotland.”

“Tell me,” he says, “why is it that the Germans and the Americans will buy from us, but you British always say ‘no thank you’? Then you always go and buy the same things from the shops in Columbo!”

I am taken aback. This is not an effective method of endearing oneself to the customer.

“I’m not going to buy anything from the shop in Columbo,” I retort.

He looks at me with scorn. “You say this, but then you will buy somewhere else for a higher price. You won’t get these prices in the hotel shops.”

Now I am quite agitated at this effrontery. He is missing the point. “I realise that, I really do. But please understand that I don’t actually want any of those things.” I almost say, I have enough tat in my house already, but I bite my tongue. “Even if you offered me these things for one rupee only, I wouldn’t take them.” I also do not mention that the Buddha suggests we relinquish, not accumulate, worldly goods.

He shakes his head in disgust, turns his back on me, and wanders off to greet the next tour bus that has pulled up to view the moonstone. His silent companion follows a few steps behind. A few Japanese in wide brimmed hats and big sun-glasses step off the bus and into his path. Perhaps he will have more luck with them.

Rejoining our group, we find that Jude our tour guide is getting excited. “Now,” he gushes, “Who wants to see a well in the shape of a key?”

Quake Day

After the Boxing Day Tsunami and Hurricane Katerina, people have been suggesting that we may begin to suffer from Disaster Fatigue, an ailment that is just as dangerous as avian flu, and then some.

DesiPundit have declared today to be Blog Quake Day. Visit the Quake Day page to find links to those organisations that could use a small donation.

Eloquent Kashmiris

As the death toll rises, there seems to be very little I can say on the latest natural disaster to wreak havoc on unsuspecting peoples.

One thing that struck me: I was watching a report on the relief effort, and a random Kashmiri farmer was being interviewed. His son had an arm in a sling, and they were describing their predicament. They were talking in English… It never ceases to amaze me the capacity that other nationalities have for bilingualism, when in the UK its a struggle to get students to take a GCSE or a Standard/Higher in another language.

Clearly these people have a different conception of language and nationality to us islanders. Kashmir is a divided region of course, with several ethnicities, affiliations and identities. The requirement to speak more than one dialect is a fact of life.

Next time there is a river bursts its banks and swamps an English flood plain, I wonder how many people will be able to describe their experiences to the foreign news agencies?