Nobody owns a nation's culture
8 Feb 2009, 0122 hrs IST, Jon Sen
There is only one real question that any immigrant must answer: what do i hold onto of the culture into which i was born? Or in other words, what do i jettison?
My father arrived from Kolkata in 1961 clutching a medical degree and desperate to make it in a country that hid a well of hostility beneath its welcoming façade. He jettisoned more than most in an attempt to integrate. Casting aside his Indian clothes, he chose instead tailored suits. His faith dwindled and he abandoned his native tongue, save for those rare occasions his path crossed with a fellow Bengali. He went as far as he could to turn himself into an English gentleman and almost succeeded. For many back home it was the ultimate betrayal: a betrayal of his roots and, by consequence, a betrayal of them. But then they hadn't suffered the violence of the colonial spirit in the way that he, as an immigrant, had. Yet, after almost half a century of immersion in British culture, he is still undeniably an Indian. His world-view, work ethic and his way with others are distinctly un-English. Despite his best attempts to become British, there exists, an invisible line that he cannot cross and one that i was always aware of growing up. Stretched to breaking point, it appears his culture and identity remain intact.
The idea that anyone can claim to defend a definitive 'Indian culture' has always seemed a truly remarkable fact in a modern world. After all, the one thing - perhaps the only thing - that can be said about Indian culture is that it has managed to evolve for centuries without ever losing itself.
As a filmmaker in England, i have made a living out of telling stories about the clash of East and West in contemporary Britain. The ways in which a first generation of Indian settlers navigated the cultural landscape, bringing their own values to a foreign land, moulding old traditions to new ways, has been the bedrock of British Asian narrative for decades. Hanif Kureishi's masterful storytelling in The Buddha of Suburbia showed just how complex this process can sometimes be with the father-figure, Haroon, exploiting his 'otherness' to impress suburban British ladies with a phoney mysticism.
Now, the focus has switched to the second and third generation who have their own tales of living with a foot in both cultures. Some of these young men and women thrive as they walk the tightrope of conflicting expectations of parents, community and country. When i directed Second Generation, we were clear that the story was a celebration of a new dawn for British Asians. The debate was no longer how to find a place in a foreign land, but how to celebrate the place we had now found. India and Indian culture had become fashionable in Britain. Everybody wanted a piece of it. The lead character, Sam, was a DJ who revelled in a musical and cultural fusion of his eastern roots and western experience.
At the other end of the scale, others find the pressure to live in two cultural camps too much. Like Omar in Stephen Frears' film My Beautiful Launderette (also scripted by Kureishi) or Om Puri's children in East is East, they resort to living double lives to avoid disappointing an older generation who place cultural subservience over personal happiness. As each generation is born and fresh conflicts are resolved, new definitions of British Asian identity are borne.
As i sit in London, i hear of the resurgent India, second-hand, as if by echo. I watch the changes that the country is undergoing and observe the challenges to old ways provoked by an unquenchable thirst for, dare i say it, western freedoms. As in England, those whose power is threatened bray at the pace of change. They claim to defend the culture of nation by preserving it in aspic. But they only claim this because they think they can own it. But nobody can. No one person. Not a hundred or a hundred million.
The culture of a nation is more spirited than the lot of us. The best we can do is observe the beauty of its transformation. The writer is a London-based director. His 2003 drama 'Second Generation' was the first time that prime-time British TV featured 'reverse immigration' of the diaspora from West to East. Homeward Bound-Opinion-The Times of India Kolkata's hot for Florian's shots -Calcutta Times-Cities-The Times ... Recently it was director John Sen from UK shooting Second Generation, an adaptation from King Lear, here. But German film-maker Florian Gallenberger Westside Story-Opinion-The Times of India The film is going to be directed by John Sen, a Bengali settled in Britain. It's written by Neil Biswas. Neither the director nor the writer has ever come.