Balti Britain, by Ziauddin Sardar

New spice in the British Asian mix
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The Independent Culture

Nowadays, people of South Asian origin define themselves in cool parlance as "desis" ("people of the land"). So too, in an appetising metaphor for the formation of global Britain, the Urdu word "balti" – originally meaning "bucket" – has come to refer to a small and elegant wok. Ziauddin Sardar's post-colonial starting-point in his "journey through the British Asian experience" is as a "participant observer" of his own, not untypical, family history. His grandfather served in the British Indian Army while his great-uncle – a key influence – was a fount of traditional healing and Sufi wisdom. Sardar criticises the deliberate suppression of the interwoven and mutually-defining histories of Britain and South Asia. That convenient elision resulted in the wholly inaccurate depiction of the post-war Asian British of the 1950s and 1960s as "new" arrivals.

In the 1960s, around his Hackney home, "Pakistan was recreated". He was moulded also by the counter-culture, while wrestling with Blackshirts, skinheads and the bespectacled Neo-Nazi arriviste, Lady Jane Birdwood. Tangential narratives from restaurateurs, academics, artists, politicians, youths, imams and home-makers in various UK cities sharpen the author's nuanced analyses of patriarchy, tradition, modernity and the overarching concepts of "India" and "South Asia". Sardar's journey is a cartography of collective memory, its context the phenomenal diversity of experience within South Asian British communities.

Today, Enlightenment-style imperialism, liberal individualism and the Kipling effect often coalesce into the kind of diatribe against multiculturalism which Sardar thinks "little more than thinly disguised anti-Muslim racism". He sees it as a denial of the shared rootedness and plurality of the "British" (English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish) Isles. Together with "the pernicious stubbornness of social class", neo-liberal and neo-conservative policies, and a colonial application of "multiculturalism", this amnesia has resulted in preferential selection among Asian groups. Particularly in Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, inequality leads to a state of "visible invisibility". Kids educated to expect equity end up floundering between exclusion – "the feeling of being a citizen and an outsider" – and extremism.

However, Sardar resists the label of "institutional racism", preferring the view that institutions merely reflect social attitudes. The police and Crown Prosecution Service at least have recognised the problems, unlike many other sectors (including, arguably, the arts).

It's undeniable by anyone who was around during the 1970s that multiculturalism has effected enormous progress. But it needs to be a fluid, creative dynamic in which the white communities, too, are an integral part, rather than an ideology of ethnicity derived from the Raj in which people are left alone "to get on with being different". Sardar exhorts the growing base of intellectuals, activists and artists among British Muslims to lead in confronting "the rhetoric of puritanism" that dominates their community, and its representation within the state.

Solutions require extensive groundwork and a sea-change in funding attitudes. Intelligent intervention in Tower Hamlets in east London has depended on belonging, rather than difference, as a source of pride, and on a "mental transformation" from a culture of "we demand" to one of "we do".

Even the changing names of Brick Lane restaurants reflect this empowerment; no longer boozy curry houses or deferential "Nawabs of Bengal", but places of "Dawaat" (Invitation). In this book the workings of an incisive scientific intellect, rendered supple by optimism, humour and humility, give an impression of life as a work-in-progress, and of a collective life infused with hope. Energetic and accessible, Balti Britain is a powerful evocation of both the profundity and the myopia of the relationship between South Asia and Albion – and of the enormous, but all too often frustrated, potential of desi-Brits in the UK today.

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