I was in India this past fortnight, invited over by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations ( ICCR), to perform my one-woman show, a homage to Shakespeare.
The show was staged in three major cities where I was also scheduled to lecture to various audiences on life as a brown immigrant in Britain. My talk was titled: "The Worst of Lands; the Best of Lands".
All was going well, when elegant discourse was busted by the beastly Jade Goody. Then, as if that wasn't enough, Gordon Brown turned up. He played the brawny, towering leader, strong yet tender, described himself a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and delivered his condescending rubbish about Great British values. (An eager young journalist asked me: "Your husband, future PM Mr Goldie Brown how is he enjoying India?" Most disappointed he was to learn I was the missus of an altogether different, more modest Mr Brown.)
These two compatriots, in very different ways, represent the most unappealing faces of New Labour's Britain. Indians I met wanted to know what had happened to the once-impeccable Imperial nation. Horrified by Jade and co, they talked not of race but grace. India, the waking economic giant still has many, many failings - its terrible caste divisions, the hideous snobberies and materialism of the haves who ignore the millions living in utter povertyHindu nationalism, Muslim terrorism - but it remains one of the most courteous nations on earth.
Guests visiting the country step into a world of gentle hospitality and instinctive politeness. The old pass these priceless gifts to the young. Performing before a crowd of three hundred secondary pupils at the prestigious Delhi Public School was an experience I shall not forget. The children were bright and engaged and extraordinarily respectful of each other.
The teachers told me there was no problem of bullying and that even the spoilt children of the rich behaved with "the correct manners". Imagine their reactions when confronted with the barbarians on the Big Brother. Imagine how it felt to be a sort of ambassador from a country that relishes these barbarians.
"Shilpa is a guest in your country," said one acquaintance. "She was invited over to participate in a TV show. They have treated her worse than they would a pet dog. She will be fine, when she returns. We will take care of her. But who will take care of those idiots who have been abusing her?" Another, an old friend, commented: "My father studied at the Inns of Court in the Fifties. He always said he met excellent manners when he was in the UK, that unlike brash America people behaved with great politeness in England. Where has that gone?" The shame of it all prickles on my skin.
Racism as entertainment was cynically set up by Channel4 and the makers of Big Brother and I hope the time has come when these purveyors are held to account. Jade and her trashy mates have been roundly condemned and ostracised. Those who voted her off Big Brother have proved that racism is not acceptable, understandable or just a laugh. But regaining our national dignity and good name will prove to be much, much harder.
Gordon Brown has been a powerful member of the Government which has overseen and overlooked the tragic waning of British manners and decency. Bad behaviour on the streets, in bars and pubs, and in the homes of Britain is glorified by television thus encouraging more young people to join in the culture of ignorant debauchery.
Indians are aware that their culture too is susceptible to this slide as globalisation brings prosperity and degenerate Western values. Instead of talking up an idealised Britishness in India, Brown should have had the humility to admit economic and social liberalisation had brought prosperity but also growing disorder to his country.
Laying aside diplomatic posturing, the Chancellor needed to admit that Jade and co are not a negligible but a growing band of feckless, greedy, envious British natives whose crude, loud, prejudiced moans increasingly dominate the public space. Moreover, regarded as authentic voices of the working class, they are encouraged, listened to, even respected by the media, and some politicians.
Middle-class anti-immigrants today use the many resentful Jades around the country to promote their cause. "If we don't listen to these people, they will go to the BNP," a refrain I hear all the time, burns into my ears. Politicians have turned pleasers to these perpetually complaining citizens who despise browns and blacks (especially if they are making something of their lives) and also education, enlightenment and internationalism.
The rise and rise of such vandals signal a sinking civilisation and hopelessness to many Indians. A professor of sociology in Mumbai saw in Jade not just a racist bully but a cowering victim of changing times: "How was she going to deal with a beautiful, competent, shining Indian woman who walks and talks as if the world that is coming is hers? Of course Miss Jade had to hit out. She has no idea who she is or where her own country is headed.
"Really, I am not being vain, and don't want to offend you, but the future is flying east and your people are angry and confused. This TV programme just showcases that confusion and fear. We must offer our sympathies and help to help the British adjust to new realities." Ouch.Reuse content