The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The Shilpa scandal cannot be broken into simple binaries

The thing about the Shilpa Shetty business is that you can sort of understand why she got the joint ire of Jade Goody, Jo O’Meara and Danielle Lloyd. Maybe Shetty’s undercooked chicken played the trigger but it was a race thing, for sure, and a class thing, for certain, but it was also something else: a clash of two great contemporary parochialisms, British and Indian. And, in the context of the host parochialism — no surprise — Shilpa and her own bag of narrow-mindedness were just too irritating to let pass.

A short digression into history might be useful here: In the post-war Anglo-American world, African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans were centrally part of the underclass. But across the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, white people’s growing intoxication with black music meant they became ‘in’ and ‘cool’, in fact, often more ‘in’ and much cooler than whites themselves, at least in mainstream entertainment and popular culture.

As cross-over icons, people of African origin could offer Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley; during the same period we had Lata, Asha, Rafi and Kishore, musical gold to our ears but lost on most of the world. In the Seventies and Eighties, besides following a great West Indian cricket team, black people in England threw up serious footballers and athletes, whereas we only had Gavaskar, Zaheer Abbas, Imran and Ravi Shastri. If you insulted them, blacks would mess you up good and proper, whereas South Asian youth was way behind in that learning curve, yet to learn the respect-earning skills of the knee to groin or the short, sharp head-butt. Fact was, white and black made up the mainstream culture of Britain in equal parts, disproportionate to the actual demographics, and South Asians were, despite their money, for the most part, culturally isolated — the invisible sandwich stuffing between two thick slices of bread.

From the mid-Eighties onward, backed increasingly by legislation and by muscle on the roughest of streets, by size and sass, by style and trend, Afro-Caribbeans have been unassailable in certain areas of life. For example, no way would British equivalents of what, in America, would be racistically called ‘white trash’ — people like Goody, O’Meara and Lloyd — dare insult a black woman about her colour and culture on a zoo show like Big Brother. If they did, they would do so in the full knowledge that they were commiting media harakiri. It’s only of late that the same meta-social protection has begun to apply to British Asians as well.

Britain has changed massively over the last twenty years. In the late Eighties, Indian Indians, (i.e people like me), walking in to get work done in, say, a film laboratory in Soho could still get a working-class, white receptionist speaking to us verrry slowly, enun-cia-ting each word, as if we didn’t speak their language. In one sense, we didn’t, and, in another, neither did the Brit-Asians, not the way they do now.

For working-class desis, the way into the UK mainstream had to be via the only route available: by becoming a bit black, by piggy-backing the medium brown on to the dark brown, by adding a lot of ‘bro’ to the ‘bhai’. Therefore, the early Nineties saw the advent of acts like the rapper, Apache Indian, with his mix of Punjabi vocabulary and West Indian accents, and like the host of Bhangra acts that followed Apache, featuring black rap artists, and so on. The dress code changed too, to the point where today you get white and Asian middle-class kids dressing like working-class Afro-Caribbean kids who dress like American inner-city gansta homeys, with hoods, oversize pants hanging around the knees, and all the stiff hand moves as attached as the shiny chains and baseball caps.

But, as often happens, cultural mixing becomes a two-way street, albeit unevenly divided. Asians slowly began to assimilate, but so did everybody else. Which meant ‘Hindi films’ became ‘Bollywood’ and made it to the non-ethnic multiplexes. Asian babes started to flaunt their ghaghras, ghararas, saris and salwars, but having sexy-ized them according to the matrix of Western culture. Madonna took on Bhangra and so did TV ads for French cars. South Asian argot started to fleck Britain’s street patois and gangs of nasty, desi boys, fed on proper working-class Genetically Mutilated foods, started growing as big and muscular as the black, white and Turkish kids, giving as good as they got in fights. To top it all, a young British man of Jewish descent developed a hilarious and wildly offensive take on an Asian rude-boy in the shape of Ali G and became one of the biggest comedy stars of recent years.

It’s into this bubbling khichri of culture that a faux-sexy, Shilpa goody-two-shoes Shetty jumps. Now, if she’d been a Southall or Hayes girl made good in UK media, or a woman rapper with a name like, say, Hard Kaur (an actual artist), what would she have done to a Jade Goody calling her a ‘f***ing c**t’' “First of all, mate, it would’n’ave ’appened. And, if it did, one ultey haath di lappad would ’ave sorted out that gutter-gori, innit' Go back to my slums' Why don’t you piss off back to yours' They’s much closer!’

For a lot of us, this would have made for far more satisfying TV than the stomach-turning, psuedo-Gandhian, turn-the-other-cheek triumphalism we saw from La Shilpa post her Big Brother win. But it would have given the Downing Street Gang of Tony, Cherie and Gordy-boy nothing to jump into, no vote-bank pandering, no diplomatic jalebi-points, no proud flag of a ‘tolerant’, multi-ethnic Britain to wave.

It has been rightly pointed out that, today, large swathes of British society are fairly open and non-racist, and, equally, that we Indians and sub-continental desis can be as racist as they come. But, even if British culture is a broad church, it rules over a very narrow parish. Over the last fifteen years, the open borders with Western Europe and the entry of people from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe has made London possibly the most multicultural city in the world, usurping the title previously held by New York. It has led to a cosmopolitanization of Britain in general — but the effect isn’t felt everywhere. In a lot of places, including in London itself, this recent intake of citizens and visitors has just led to a new brand of Little Englanderism, a kind of squinting of the eyes, where any culture difficult to decipher is regarded not only with contempt but also under the delusion that the contempt is being beamed from a sophisticated, international perch. Unlike the old times of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, this sneering and squinting is no longer restricted only to whites, it’s become the default mode for British blacks and desis as well. To exaggerate only slightly, add or drop an extra glottal stop in your speech and you’ve had it from Brits of every colour.

In this context, there has been a total misreading of the whole Shilpa scandal in India. Entrenched in our own narrow world-view, the whole thing was broken down into simple binaries such as ‘Britain is racist/not racist’, ‘English people love Indians/don’t love Indians’, ‘We have their respect because of our booming economy/we don’t have their respect’, ‘Shilpa was a victim/ not a victim’ and so on. All these equations make the mistake of gross simplification, where Britain and the British are regarded as a homogenized white mass, with the brave Asians rooting for Shilpa, their dialling fingers falling off in the thousands, perceived in this mass as a sub-set of ‘our’ people.

But. At the end of the day, as Brits still like to say, I’m willing to bet at least one person’s understanding of British culture has undergone a crash-course. The allegedly under-cooked Shettynad Chicken notwithstanding, our Shilpa has rapidly, visibly, come up to speed. Already, Shilps’s enunciation and choice of phrase is becoming a bit Brit, as seen in the post-Brother House press chats, (when was the last time you heard a Bollywood babe say: “I’d like to draw a line under this.”') and, if as people predict, staying with uncle Max Clifford and making it big in Britain is the way forward for her, then expect Shilps’s accent and the attitude to mutate even further in the direction of the white-black-brown working-class from which her attackers came: Even if yer beat ’em, yer ’ave to join ’em, innit'

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