Home's what you fight for: Old soldiers may not die, but they do get disillusioned. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
November is inevitably a poignant time for the group of Indian ex-servicemen who meet regularly at the sparsely furnished Milan Day Centre in Southall, west London. Besides the melancholic feelings evoked in recollections of the war, for years they have been waiting for their enormous contribution to be recognised, or even mentioned in the endless stream of memoirs and nostalgia that sustains the unique significance of the Second World War in this country.

This year, fury and fear have been added to their despondency. Sergeant Major Rajinder Singh can hardly contain himself. 'Today in Britain, a fascist has won an election. Can you imagine how we feel? I am a proud and loyal man, madam. We had so much faith in this country. In the war, I thought it is time to help Britain to save democracy and fight fascism. They don't remember what we did, three million of us fought as volunteers remember - in the desert, in Burma. It makes me so sad.

'And that man, Winston Churchill's grandson, saying we do not belong here. We gave our blood and we still don't belong? We wrote to him and told him to remember what his forefather owed us. We Asians are very sensitive. We have no peace of mind these days, especially after BNP and such speeches.'

Bill Nalty came over during the war from the West Indies with thousands of others to join the RAF; a suave, immaculately dressed retired civil servant, he is similarly dispirited. 'To see all this in 1993, it makes you think. If that time were to repeat itself, there is certainly no way, knowing what I know, that I would have come to fight for this country or embarked on the journey to come here. We were so nave, we truly had faith the mother country would treat its subjects equally.'

Like many other people of that generation, expressing these opinions is not easy for these intense, contemplative men. They are conscious (almost too conscious) that they might sound rude and ungrateful. They accept that many of their home countries are in a mess. They are acutely aware, too, that portraying themselves as victims is likely to invite contempt and that giving in to such dejection is an admission of failure on their part and a loathsome victory for those who have always resented their presence.

Many of these feelings, about what can and cannot be said, have intensified since the recent remarks on repatriation made by the London MP, Bernie Grant. But self-denial of this kind is proving to untenable when there is such a surge of disillusionment and anxiety within the minority communities. This has been caused by the cumulative effect of recent events: the perceived indifference of the West to 'ethnic cleansing' in Bosnia, anti-immigrant statements by respectable people and some sections of the press, the rise in racial attacks, estimated to be in excess of 140,000 in Britain per year, European xenophobia and, most of all, the British National Party victory.

It is this tension between the pressure to remain taciturn and the pressure to speak out that Bernie Grant was attempting, in his own robust way, to communicate: 'There is a growing feeling of outrage and helplessness among our people - how can we not discuss it? I saw it after the Stephen Lawrence murder and the other killings. The BNP victory has focused the minds of people. So the extremists have forced the pace.

'Many people feel now that the situation is in such decline across Europe that there is nothing here for them any longer. I don't necessarily think they are right, we still have to fight for a multiracial Europe, but in realistic terms I do feel quite pessimistic. And I think for the older people, those who fought for this country and helped in the post-war reconstruction, they feel it really was not worth it in the end.'

Much of this collective despondency is springing from a particular set of political and social circumstances. When people move beyond that, a more complex picture begins to emerge. Men such as Nalty and Singh accept that British society has changed phenomenally since they arrived. Some individuals have made it in a way that might once have been unthinkable. The experiences of the two communities have also been radically different. Caribbeans are economically still disadvantaged compared with many (though not all) of the Asian communities, mainly because these Asians have depended not on mainstream employment but on their own small business networks. The Indian ex-servicemen all say that economically and in terms of education their children have done extremely well. On the other hand, because of a common language and religious base, and their contribution to popular culture, Caribbeans are to be seen less as 'aliens' in the way Asians are.

But in spite of the differences, striking similarities surface as the older people from both communities appraise their lives. They obsessively recount the struggles they went through, and how these were never valued. Most feel that their children were encouraged by this society to despise and deride the values of their parents which might, in the end, have served them better. Respect is a word that keeps cropping up.

It a curiously ambiguous position, where there is anger at what the young are going through, but also a deep disappointment at the way many have turned out. Bill Nalty laments the way so many young blacks have been wasted: 'Perhaps having indignities heaped upon you as a child makes you just want to strike back. But you know, our stern upbringing taught us to be circumspect. Some of us and our children have lived down rather than up to that upbringing. But they feel we compromised too much.'

Rajinder Singh is bitter that his son, a highly qualified engineer, a British subject, is having to move to the United States because his wife has been refused entry here: 'Never mind, he will earn dollars 60,000 over there.'

So where does it go from here? For many, the option is to leave, says Lovena Simmonds, who helped set up the Association of Jamaica's Returning Residents, which is campaigning for practical help. 'What future do we have? Education is in a shambles, we continue to suffer hardships, there is an actual atmospheric hate that grips you when you step outside the door. When I reflect on my life, although I have not done badly, I am impressed by the way the people I left back home are more balanced and the wholeness of their children. They are more solid because the world has not been telling them they are a problem.'

Graham Gibson, a trainee journalist and his partner, Kuumba Miah, an education adviser, both graduates, have made the same decision, mainly because they have watched what their parents have been put through, says Gibson: 'You have to give so much just to be accepted. Our parents' dreams have been shattered and it's time for us to wake up.'

But while optimism is hard to find, most older immigrants I interviewed are choosing fight rather than flight as the way forward. People who struggled for so long do not run away, however tempting it may be, says the Rev Christian Weaver, MBE, magistrate and a leading black churchman. 'You underestimate the strength of the people who came here. We took on British society when they were putting out notices like 'No Blacks and Dogs', when even the churches were racist and we proved that we are not just 'yes master' people. We have done it before and when there was nothing to help us. We can do it again. And we will challenge and change the forces of bigotry sweeping across Europe.'

This all makes sense up to a point to Gurbak Singh: 'It will be very tough for five or six years. They will try to attack us and there will be a civil war against the coloureds because our children will not be able to stand these things. It is a great pressure on my heart. But we will fight. We used to be soldiers. It is our right.' He pauses and then adds: 'But maybe our ashes and bodies will go back to our homelands, so we can be sure that we will not be reborn in this country.'

(Photograph omitted)

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