Entangled in the multicultural mesh

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Balti Britain
By Ziauddin Sardar
Granta Books (£20)

The “traditional” Punjabi cuisine known as Balti turns out to be an invention of Birmingham’s Asian communities. It is, like the author, a product of the UK’s long entanglement with the subcontinent. It shows how Asian immigrants have repackaged tradition and mixed it with modernity to create something new, and how the rest of the UK still insists on reducing them to an undifferentiated mass.

So the British tradition of “going out for a curry” might involve eating Indian, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or even Bihari – made by Bengalis who see themselves as Pakistanis, but live in Bangladesh. Sardar’s identity is similarly convoluted. He was born in disputed territory near the India-Pakistan border four years after partition. Migrating to England as a child simplified things; he became a “British Asian” or simply “Paki.”

He asks his father why the “To Let” signs read: “No Coloureds Need Apply”. By the time he gets to school in east London he has worked it out for himself. Black-shirted followers of Oswald Mosley’s fascists wait at the school gates, pummelling each black and Asian child and demanding that they “go back where they belong”. But the question of where Sardar belonged had no easy answer.

Sardar fights back. He sets fire to his books in the class of a teacher who teaches racially loaded lessons on the glories of the Raj. Sardar knows what he is hearing is wrong because he has heard another story in the tales recited by his relatives. Through the voices of the people he meets, Sardar presents an oral history from the arrival of the first Indians in the 1600s through waves of post-colonial immigration, to the era of multiculturalism and the often violent reaction it inspired. The great achievement of this book is to bring this remarkable history to life with a novelist’s sense of character.

Sardar travels to Bradford, scene of one of the race riots at the frontline of the millennial backlash. There he debates the ethics of arranged marriages at a gathering of Pakistani families. His subjects mount a convincing case to overturn the liberal assumption that a better way to find a partner is to choose one at random in a murky club while smashed, rather than leave it to those who know and love you.

Later, Sardar tells the story of a trip back to Pakistan in 1975 when he is shocked to discover that he is to be married off. “But what about love?” he asks. As the self-described “New Asian Man”, he frets about whether his young betrothed has truly given consent. It is not at all clear that she has. But he goes ahead with the marriage regardless. Why? In the contest between the multiple, jostling identities of the immigrant, the traditional Pakistani has overcome the thoroughly modern Englishman. Fair enough. But the episode is central to Sardar’s theme and we are left with more questions than answers. Has he concluded that the traditional way is best? Is he just pleasing his mother? Perhaps the author does not know himself.

It is the only misstep in an otherwise clear-headed examination of multicultural Britain. Sardar’s point is that while one of his identities is firmly rooted in the UK, another remains tied to the subcontinent. The histories of the two peoples are meshed but British Asian migrants were, and still are, treated as “new” to Britain.

This question of alienation also seems to have been important to the young British Asians behind the July 7 bombings of 2005. When Sardar asks the trustee of a Walthamstow mosque what radicalises young Muslims, he replies simply: “the three deranged mullahs”. He is referring to Omar Bakri Mohammad, Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada. But Sardar thinks there are two further prerequisites to being a terrorist. One is an inclination towards narrow doctrinal rigidity: the other, the acceptance of the contemporary philosophy of jihad. Here, it seems, a minority of Muslims have themselves been engaged in a kind of reductionism: radicals interpret the Islamic call to jihad, or struggle, to mean armed struggle.

But this has mostly been the product of a single, unforgiving strand of Islamic thought, propagated by a handful of biased preachers and scholars. It is, Sardar notes, foreign to the way most British Asians live their lives. It has been non-Muslims who have collapsed these distinctions and presented terrorism as a problem of the “Muslim community”. This book is an angry assault on that kind of distortion.

The writer is the FT’s deputy comment editor

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