First Hand: 'Going back just doesn't work - I tried it': Jasbir Kaur says her experiences in returning to her birthplace in India show how Bernie Grant has got it wrong

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BERNIE Grant may think his idea of offering black people money to 'go home' if they are unhappy here is a way of helping, but I wonder if he has stopped to think about what the reality mean. It just cannot work in that simple way.

I know, because I have twice made journeys to India, my country of origin, spending several months to see whether living there might be an option. I wondered if things might be better for myself and my five daughters in the country where we would not stand out because of our skin colour.

I have lived in Britain since I was a year old and I feel I have a right to be here, that I belong here. Yet I have endured a great deal of racism and have watched my daughters name-called, bullied, and treated as second-rate because they are black. I wondered if we could feel more at home in a country where that would not happen. But I was seen as a foreigner in India. My parents had moved to Britain and there are only more distant relatives in the town where I was born, who do not know me. I was treated as a rich Westerner to be courted because I had wealth. I could not live like that.

I was 26 the first time I went. I was married and I had four daughters and life was not too easy in England. I am a Sikh and I wondered whether it might be better to bring my children up in the Punjab because we do have a strong culture and sense of community. I spent five months there, visiting Delhi, Amritsar and the small town Der-Dun, where I was born. I went to villages and tried to know the country, to become familiar enough to judge what life could be like.

I never stopped being a foreigner. I wasn't even a tourist. I was recognised as someone who had my heritage in India, yet whose way of life and expectations separated me utterly from the people I met. They were friendly and kind, but they did things like putting garlands around my neck, inviting me to their homes and laying on elaborate, special entertainment as though I were a rich VIP. I always felt I was seen as a potential benefactor.

I visited for the second time last year and took my two eldest daughters and my youngest who is 10. We were all struck by the noise, the dirt, the poverty in the towns and in the villages, things like the fact that roads turn to mud when it rains. When you are used to a Western way of life these are real issues. But those things we could get used to. I'm not be at all sure that I could cope with the heat. I found it very hard and got terrible headaches.

In England I mix a good deal with the Asian community and I value being part of the culture, the rituals which we still have, but I also value my white friends who are close and supportive. I know I would miss having these close, sisterly white friends if I lived in India.

On both visits I made a particular point of seeing what life was like for women and what kind of work was available for them. If I lived in Der-Dun I would be spending long hours on domestic labour, collecting water from a pump, finding the places where there was food to make a balanced diet. I do not want to spend my life that way. In Britain I have a job as an organiser in the community in Bristol, where I live. I am very involved in women's organisations and the King's Cross Women's Centre, where I can use my organisational skills to really help women, including Asian women, to change their lives. I am on income support, which I value and consider my birthright, and it enables me to do this work. I would not be wealthy if I went back, and as I am separated from my husband I have responsibility for my children's welfare. In India, you have to pay for an education which is in any way comparable to what is available here. My two elder daughters who came with me have jobs here and aspirations for their careers. They would almost certainly have to settle for a very different way of life. Although there are changes taking place in India and some impressive women's groups, it is still very difficult to be an independent woman there. My children, who have grown up believing they have rights as individuals, that they are equals with men, would find life very hard. And they speak only a little of the language. They told me very clearly they did not want to live there.

I stayed in an unhappy marriage for 25 years because that is what 'good' Asian women do. When it broke down, my mother said my life was over, that I would just have to live through my children. Imagine how it would be as a separated woman with independent ideas living in India. I would be ostracised.

Of course there are wonderful things about India, and there are things about developing countries and their values, which the West could well learn from, but that does not mean returning there to live would be an easy or desirable thing to do. It is vital these things are thought about before black people whose lives are made miserable because of racism are offered this kind of 'escape'.

It would be different if we were offered the opportunity to return to have a look - but with the absolute right to return any time we wished. But I am certain that would not happen, and I do not want to be put under pressure to accept a one-way ticket. If black people (who were welcomed into Britain when it suited the British and have made their lives here) are subjected to such racism that they find it intolerable, we should surely be tackling that.

I feel this is very undermining to people like myself who are involved in the fight for immigation rights. Black and immigrant people are leading this fight. I do not believe people like Bernie Grant should be finding ways to play into the hands of those who would happily put all blacks on banana boats and ship them out.

(Photograph omitted)

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