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Culture and Festivals
Papa's singing always unleashed these emotions which were unfamiliar and instinctive at the same time, in a language I could not recognize but felt I could speak in my sleep, in my dreams, evocative of a country I had never visited but which sounded like the only home I had never known. The songs made me realize that there was a corner of me that would be forever not England.
Anita and Me(1996) by Meera Syal.
The children of South Asian migrants, born in the post-war period, have grown up in a Britain shaped by subcontinental as well as British influences. An East-West cultural mix in the home, at school, on the streets and social world has forged a distinctive identity among a second generation of 'British Asians'.
Some of the early male South Asian population settled in Britain and married local English women. The 19th century writer Henry Mayhew's study of Victorian London, London Labour and the London Poor 1861 refers to several of these families. By the inter-war years, families with South Asian lascar fathers and English mothers had become part of the inter-racial communities in the dock areas of Britain.
At the other end of the social spectrum, several Indian princes attended English public schools, such as Eton, and universities in Britain. Read more about the education of these Indian princes.
Most of the early post-war migrants came to Britain alone, ahead of wives and families left behind on the subcontinent. Others married upon arrival in Britain. Some, like their predecessors, married local English women.
In the 1960s, wives, children and other relatives began joining the husbands and fathers who had gone ahead. As families reunified and grew, a 'second generation' of South Asians were born in England or arrived as small children with their mothers. A 1960 Home Office Report recorded a total of 34,600 Indian children and 4,800 Pakistani children in Britain, of which 63%-65% were British-born.
The experience of growing up varied enormously for this second generation, particularly between areas with large South Asian communities and far-flung regions with very small ethnic minority populations. However, experiences of culture clash and racism feature prominently in the childhood memories and oral testimonies of many British South Asians growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Newham boy Iftikhar Din, remembered how he was racially abused by local English boys and could not play football because his father thought it too dangerous for him to go to West Ham Park.
Children (particularly those whose parents came from a rural background) found themselves in an education system and culture that was not only unfamiliar to them but also to their parents. For many, the first day at school was also the first intimate experience of English culture, food, people and even language.
For the children of western-educated, urban professionals such as doctors, there were no such language problems, and some middle-class families chose private education for their children. But for the majority, the local comprehensive was the only option. Zubair Khan came to Birmingham from Pakistan as a 12-year-old and could not speak English. After six months of special English classes, he joined a local comprehensive and recalls, 'It was hard work, I wasn't able to communicate with people effectively till I was about fifteen...that was the real turning point'.
No special provisions appear to have been made in the UK for South Asian children in State schools until the 1960s, when the British Government began looking more closely at the issue. Read the comments given by the educational authorities across the country to a questionnaire about the education of immigrants in 1969 or the letter to Margaret Thatcher, who was then Secretary of State for Education, about the education of Ugandan Refugees in 1972.
Ajit Rai, a Nestle factory worker in West London, recounted the policy known as 'bussing' in the early 1960s which led to Asian children in the London Borough of Ealing being bussed to schools in all-white neighbourhoods. The policy sought to achieve integration but English parents were upset about the large numbers of Black and Asian children in some local schools. Rai fought to have the policy overturned: 'In our case, Ealing Authority was taken to court and the court ruled against the policy'.
By the time Bangladeshi children arrived, the issue of mother-tongue teaching had begun to gain ground, and was eventually introduced in areas of high Bangladeshi concentration such as Tower Hamlets in East London. The Bangladeshi Educational Needs in Tower Hamlets newsletter indicates the political hue of the mother-tongue teaching dispute.
Although detailed information on the educational achievements of British Asian children today are scarce, The Parekh Report by the Runnymede Trust (2000) outlines some broad patterns. The report warns that averages can hide substantial polarisation:
The Islamia School, founded in 1983 by Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), was the first to obtain State funding in 1998, after a long campaign for Muslim schools in Britain. There are now 60 independent Muslim schools in Britain.
Listen to Ahmed Din's memories of starting Islam classes in East London in the 1970s. A school teaching Hinduism is attached to the Swaminarayan Temple in Neasden, north London while the Guru Nanak School in Hayes, West London illustrates the growing demand for single-faith schools among Britain's South Asian population.
Many South Asian children attended religious and language classes outside school with parental encouragement. Usman Ali recalls an exhaustive regime: 'You would spend your daytime at school, your evenings five days a week at Islamic school and your Sunday afternoon would be spent entirely learning Bengali'.
South Asian home life in Britain emphasized links with the homeland. Youngsters spoke in mother tongue, regularly attended mosques, mandirs or gurdwaras, watched Bollywood films and made family trips back 'home'. But the second generationers also began to find their own cultural niche. Usman admits, 'As a kid, I couldn't get enough of Asian films....My mum and dad listened to [Hindi film music] along with Bengali music on the radio and my friends were quite big on the Indian cassette tapes of various stars like Amitabh Bachchan. [But] rock music was my outlet'.
Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney spearheaded the musical fusions, and cross-cultural ventures such as the style magazine 2nd Generation captured the zeitgeist, confidence and energy of a British-born South Asian generation.
The westernised outlook of a younger generation also conflicted with the deep-seated social and religious conventions of an older generation, affecting family duty, arranged marriage and community expectations. Born of orthodox Sikh parents, Tas describes how his sister eloped with a Rastafarian, causing a family and community scandal. Tas goes on to explain his own choices, 'I'm a very independent person. I never, ever told my parents I was homosexual because I personally feel that their generation was so far removed from me that what they didn't know wouldn't harm them'.
For others, experiences of discrimination and social dislocation in Britain drove them to reconsider their roots anew. The growing threat of racism and the activities of the National Front led to the formation of Asian youth groups intent on community self-defence, such as Bradford's Asian Youth Movement, formed in 1976.
Ranjit Randhawa anticipated such sentiments back in 1968: 'Before Enoch Powell's [Rivers of Blood] speech I was accepting English life...But this speech made me take a completely different look at myself and my people', Black British, White British by Dilip Hiro.
The 1980s heralded the dawn of a creative British Asian identity.
Neerja explains: 'I feel that I've got a judicious mixture of the two cultures. I'm extremely proud that I have been born in an age where I can recognize both identities and I can take the best of both worlds'.
Creators: Dr. Shompa Lahiri
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