East Is East. West Is West.

East Is East West Is West

The English poet Rudyard Kipling once said “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet” what he meant by this was that the Western world and the Eastern world are polar opposites, and the two will never find a harmonious middle ground. However, I can easily dispute this, because I was born to an English mother and Gujarati father, growing up I was exposed to a healthy mixture of English culture and Indian culture, for example my maternal grandpa Maurice, from Hampshire, taught me the ways of the English countryside, about horse riding, gardening and his favourite summer past time whittling, my paternal grandpa Darius, from Palanpur, Gujarat, taught me about Gujarati history, how to play chess like a gentleman and passed on to me a text book knowledge of the music of Kishore Kumar. Both proved strong influences on me as a child, and both instilled me with a sense of pride at my dual Anglo-Saxon and Indian roots, there was never any confusion as to who I was or where I had come from, also I was able to notice glaring similarities in both sides of my family, despite the obvious differences in skin colour and languages. Both sides placed great emphasis on the importance of the family, manners and fair play, even down to cultural tastes, like a shared love for tea and horse riding. As the Man Booker Prize winning author Zadie Smith remarked in her book White Teeth – “there is no one more Indian than the English and no one more English than the Indian’s.”

Being raised in a mixed Asian and British family had more benefits than draw backs, because in the last 30 years Britain has become a far more culturally inclusive and diverse place, with Asian screenwriters, comedians etc becoming some of the country’s most treasured artists. Personally, it wasn’t odd being part of a mixed family, particularly when I first saw Ayub Khan-Din’s 1999 smash hit comedy-drama East is East, which centered on the trials and tribulations of a mixed English/Pakistani family in 1970’s Lancashire. The head of the family George Khan (played by Om Puri) who had arrived in Britain in the late 1930’s, has divorced his Pakistani wife and married an English woman Ella (played by Linda Bassett) and together they have 7 children Nazir, Abdul, Tariq, Manseer, Salim, Meenah and Sajid. All of them have pretty much abandoned traditional Pakistani customs, and are freely embracing a liberal and westernised life, much to George’s consternation. The film was a tremendous microcosm of what children of Asian immigrants were going through, growing up in the west, surrounded by different cultural customs and life experiences, yet living in the shadow of their ancestral culture.

Previously, in the 1980’s and early 1990’s a culture had emerged where British-Asian writers were exploring this very specific theme of inter-generational and inter-cultural life. The 1985 comedy-drama My Beautiful Launderette written by the Anglo-Pakistani author Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears was one of the first of its kind to explore the complex relationships between the Asian community and the white-British community. My Beautiful Laundrette was revolutionary at the time, with a narrative that shone a light on racism, immigrant life and homosexuality in Britain during the 1980’s. The two protagonists Omar (played by Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) are old school friends, who meet after years apart, Omar is assigned by his father to help his uncle Nasser (Saaed Jaffrey) run a laundrette in an economically deprived area of East London, which is where he reunites with Johnny, who is now a member of a far-right nationalist gang. The two begin a clandestine relationship, first as friends and then as lovers, what proceeds is an exploration into their affections for each other and the consequences of their relationship, to the backdrop of wider society.

The many comedic elements of growing up in an Asian or mixed Asian and British environment have been greatly explored in Britain, more than any other. In the late 1990’s the BBC produced a comedy sketch show called Goodness Gracious Me, with an entirely Asian cast, it explored the lighter side of being British-Asian, with all its contradictions and misunderstandings, featuring numerous characters including two Indian families who were determined to be as English as possible to the parents who were frustrated that their gay son couldn’t find a “nice” Indian boy to date. To many people, including myself, Goodness Gracious Me was the best show to clarify the Brit-Asian experience in the most hilarious way possible.

As the Millennium dawned British-Asian culture had come of age, and was now a staple part of the entertainment industry. With this came the most successful British-Asian film of all time Bend It Like Beckham (2002) by the Sikh director and screenwriter Gurinder Chadha. Starring Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra, the film focused on the sporting aspirations of Jess, a Punjabi Sikh girl from Hounslow and her best friend Jules, from a neighbouring English family. Telling the story of Jess’ desperate desire to play football, like her hero David Beckham, at the irritation of her very traditional family, the film marked a watershed for the Asian community, now finally proving that films of this kind could become global successes.

Since the 1950’s and 60’s South Asian culture has intertwined with traditional British culture, and in the process it has given birth to some of the most interesting and inspirational films ever seen. Through a culmination of gentle humour and superb drama, people like Hanif Kureishi, Ayub Khan-Din and Gurinder Chadha et al have highlighted the British-Asian experience, and gone some way to increase the visibility of the Asian community in Britain as a whole.

Share on FacebookShare on Twitter+1Share via email