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Asian stars crowd UK firmament

London, Nov. 24: Just how much Britain has changed as a multiracial country ' and how different it is from France, for example ' is apparent with the publication today of the latest edition of the Who’s Who of Asians in this country, 30 years after the first edition came out in 1975.

“Then I had to work really hard to find 250 names,” said Jasbir Singh Sachar, a schoolteacher-turned-publisher who began the project in the early 1970s.

In the foreword in 1975, he wrote: “This first edition is in the nature of an experiment.”

Tonight at a banquet at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London’s Park Lane to launch the 18th edition, the great and the good from the community turned out, with Lord Goldsmith, QC, Attorney General, as guest of honour.

There were many Asian members of the House of Lords (Paul, Dholakia, Parekh, Flather), MPs, tycoons and celebrities from the world of showbiz. Even Aishwarya Rai flew in from Bombay to add a touch of glamour.

“In this latest edition I have over 2,000 names,” said Sachar. “I try to be rigorous about entry but I could easily have 20,000 names.”

When the history of Asians in Britain comes to be written, copies of Sachar’s Asian Who’s Who International, as they are now called, will provide historians with valuable research material on a changing society.

Back in 1975, his entries were drawn from the ranks of councillors, community and race workers and small businessmen. Entries included Navnit Dholakia, 38, chairman of Brighton Young Liberals and an official with the Community Relations Commission; Shreela Flather, 51, a Justice of the Peace in Maidenhead; Mahendra Kaul, 47, a producer with the BBC “Immigrants’ Programme Unit”; Bhikhu Parekh, 40, lecturer, Hull University; and Mota Singh, 45, a barrister.

Lord Dholakia became president of the Liberal Democratic Party for two successive terms; Kaul became the doyen among Asian broadcasters in Britain ' his daughter, Kalyani Kaul, was one of the barristers who earned most from legal aid last year ('766,000); Lord Parekh is one of the leading academics in Britain; Lady Flather was crucial in the building of the Memorial Gates at Hyde Park Corner; and Mota Singh retired as Britain’s first Asian judge.

Lakshmi Mittal, who arrived in Britain in 1995, is in the book now, and though he is the biggest steelmaker in the world and apparently the richest man in Europe, he gets only a brief entry. There are many other wealthy businessmen who also merit inclusion.

The number of people who have gone into the arts is growing year by year in Sachar’s books. According to the veteran actor, Saeed Jaffrey, Asians have been successful partly because of their hard work and talent and partly because Britain has evolved into a much more open and hospitable society.

“What’s changed is that Britain has accepted Asians as being an important part of this society,” he said.

More second generation Asians, who can scarcely remember what happened in Britain in 1975, are finding their way into the Who’s Who.

That was the year when Margaret Thatcher defeated Edward Heath for the Tory party leadership (Asian small businessmen still remember her with nostalgia); the British voted to remain in the EEC in a referendum; 43 were killed when a tube train crashed at Moorgate, an IRA bomb exploded outside Green Park station in London, killing one person and injuring 20 others, the Birmingham Six got life sentences (quashed many years later), and Salman Rushdie published his first novel, Grimus.

It was also the year when David Beckham was born, as was the Muslim comedienne Shazia Mirza, who is of Pakistani origin but born in Birmingham and projected on tours abroad as an exponent of quintessential British humour (“my name’s Shazia Mirza ' at least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence”).

“When I was growing up, I felt I was on the outside looking in,” commented Mirza. “Now, I feel Britain is for anybody and everybody. I feel I am really a part of it.”

Since 1987, the Who’s Who has nominated one person to be “Asian of the Year”. This year, it is Surina Narula, a society hostess and charity worker, for her efforts on behalf on street children in India.

The first winner of the title, Lord Paul, said: “There has been a huge change in 30 years. Britain is the leading country in the world in recognising globalisation. That’s why the British recognise talent and merit. In another 30 years, I genuinely hope to see a prime minister of Asian origin.”

TV presenter Lisa Aziz, who won the title in 1989, commented: “As one of the first Asian faces on television, I was proud to be a role model. But the time is not far off when we will stop talking about black and Asian faces on television.”

A note of caution was entered, however, by Lord Parekh, who was named Asian of the Year in 1992.

“The good thing is that the British elite and the Indian elite in Britain have become much more plural but though there are more of us (Asians) in quantity, there is perhaps less quality,” he commented. “In the country, there is less moral and intellectual passion. We don’t debate the big issues enough.”

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