My father Rashmi was born and raised in Jinja – a Ugandan town on the shores of Lake Victoria. His parents were Gujaratis, from north west India, who had crossed the Indian Ocean to British East Africa before the Second World War, where my grandfather became the director of a large Asian-owned food company.
My family were subjects of the British Crown – though not British citizens – and my father grew up during the Empire’s long sunset years. India itself gained independence in 1947. And the Union Jack was lowered for the final time in Uganda in 1962.
My father has nothing but fond memories of his formative years, playing cricket and dodging hippos under equatorial skies. The weather was perfect every day, he tells us. So too the food, the beauty of nature, the strength of the community he was part of. Still is part of.
But he also grew up in a semi-segregated society. Children of different races attended different schools. There were white-only clubs and swimming pools. He recalls little hostility between the races, but separation there certainly was. This was the life he knew until moving to London as a student in 1964.
So at the time of Amin’s ultimatum, my father was no longer a resident of Uganda. But his parents were. So too many aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. They had no choice but to flee their homes, abandoning possessions, memories and a whole way of life.
Many came to the UK, as part of the 27,000 Ugandan Asians the British Government permitted to settle. They arrived at a time when immigration and ‘race relations’ had already become explosive issues. Enoch Powell had given his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech four years previously, and the National Front appeared to be growing into a serious force.
My father certainly encountered racism on these shores (as, very occasionally, have I). Sometimes coded and subtle. Sometimes blatant and unapologetic.
But that is by no means the defining theme of his nearly six decades in the UK, as a student, teacher, father of three and now retiree and grandfather of five.
Like the many others who joined him in 1972, he prospered – not just financially, but also in the new life he built, and the new communities he became part of, all while never losing touch with his roots.
This is his story.
An Immigrant’s Tale, by Rashmi Paun
It is strange how one accepts the unacceptable when it is the norm. Having come from a British colony – Uganda – I was used to what was then called the colour-bar. The only decent club in our town had signs under the mango tree by the entrance, which proclaimed unabashedly “Whites only” and “No dogs allowed”. There were three primary schools in the town – one for Europeans, one for Indians and one for Africans.
Consequently, in the mid-1960s, as a teenager studying A levels in England, I was not surprised or particularly offended when refused entry into a club, although my friend, also of Indian origin, who happened to be unusually light-skinned, was allowed in by the bouncer.
However, it had a much greater impact on our life when looking for accommodation. We were confronted with signs in tobacconists’ windows stipulating that the tenants had to be of European Origin. Some landlords did not spell out the condition but enforced it anyway. We would go to a public phone box with a fistful of three-penny coins. Occasionally the landlord, judging by our accent, said the room was no longer available. In other cases we would arrive at the door, and the landlord or the landlady took a look at us through the net curtain and refused to answer the door. At times the door was opened and the expression on the landlord’s face visibly changed upon perceiving a couple of non-white boys standing at the door.
“Sorry the room is let now,” was the usual brush-off.
“But we arranged the viewing only half an hour ago,” we protested at times, fully aware of the futility of the exercise.
More often than not we just shrugged our shoulders and continued our search. However, on a couple of occasions when the room was a long way away from our current lodgings, we even rang from a telephone booth near the house to confirm that the room was still available, only to be told two minutes later, ‘Sorry, it’s been let since you rang’. A black lie told to our brown faces.
When I was in the University, my landlady was a kind and gentle woman, and I was very fond of her. When I informed her that I am a vegetarian, she wanted to know, “So, will you have chicken?”
“No, no meat, red or white. I do not eat food that involves killing animals.”
“Do you like fish?”
“How can one not like fish? They swim so gracefully. Yes, I do like fish and that’s why I don’t eat them.”
“Where do you get your proteins from then?” she wanted to know.
“Pulses, beans, yogurt, etc.”
“You can get yogurt there?” She was impressed. Yogurts were still a novelty in the UK then. “Pretty advanced, I see.”
I did not have the heart to tell her that yogurt was a traditional dish amongst Indians, and that almost every household made it at home.
I mostly ate out in restaurants but had an occasional meal with my landlady. She had no idea what to serve me instead of meat. So, the first time I ate with the family, the rest of them had meat and two veg. On my plate she had left a gap where the meat was supposed to be. So, I used to say that I like a meal of a gap and two veg.
When I was a student, I was stopped a few times by the police. Once my girlfriend (wife-to-be), Maggie and I got into my mini and drove barely fifty metres from our place before we were stopped by a police car with sirens blaring. The police asked us rudely to get out of the car and stand with our hands on top of the car. The policeman body-searched me, and Maggie was also frisked by the female officer. The mini was registered in my name. We had just driven up the road and had broken no rules. We were not drug users and most men wore their hair long by then. The only thing that was unusual was that a white girl was with a brown man.
Later, I changed my car and got a sporty Triumph Spitfire. We went to Scotland in it, and were cruising at a low speed along a practically empty road, enjoying the landscape in the Highlands, when we were stopped by a police car. We were questioned about what we were doing there, and had to show proofs of our identity. When they were satisfied that everything was in order, the police told us we were now free to go. One of the officers was friendly and I asked him, “Can you tell me why you stopped us?”
He looked at his fellow officer, who was the one who presumably had made that decision. “We thought you looked suspicious because,” he hesitated, “because um… you were driving too slowly.”
We, including the friendly cop, couldn’t help laughing. Both policemen then gave us friendly handshakes before driving away. And we continued gently cruising around the picturesque countryside.
Towards the end of my studies I started to look for a job. During interviews, a few employers raised the same question. As a university graduate I would be employed in management roles: how would I deal with white workers, who would obviously object to being told what to do by a brown person? I had no satisfactory answer. ‘I get on well with most people and once they became more acquainted with me, they would accept me upon my merits’ was the best answer I could come up with. The modern approach that racism is not the victim’s problem was not available to me. Besides, really it was my problem because it stopped me from acquiring a good job.
I had just about finished my Ph.D. thesis, when President Amin threw out the Asians of Uganda. I was now not just a foreign student, but a refugee and an immigrant in the UK.
After University, I intended to go into teaching where you worked with educated, intelligent people, who could not possibly be bigots, now could they?
After just a few days into my first teaching job Mr. R, the science advisor of the borough, came to visit me. I was due to teach a group of fourteen-year-olds. They were not really of low ability but had special needs, because about half of them were Asian refugees like myself, from Amin’s Uganda. They had ended up in a low ability set because they had joined the British educational system late, were not fluent in English and even more importantly, they found it difficult to understand English accents.
Mr. R. walked in unannounced about five minutes before the children arrived. He introduced himself and then said, with his eyes on the folder he carried with him, “I have come to see you teach your next lesson.” And then after a pause, “I see you have a Ph.D. We don’t need you Ph.D.s here. We need good teachers.” That was his welcome speech. Just then the children arrived.
After the lesson, his main comments were mostly minor criticisms to start with. Then he cleared his throat and addressed the major fault in my lesson. “I looked at the children’s exercise books and I am concerned at the number of spelling mistakes they make.”
“I write all notes on the board for this group.”
He seemed not to have heard my comment. “Their spelling mistakes are due to your pronunciation. If you come to our country to teach our children, you should learn to speak like we do.” It was then I noticed that he had a thick Yorkshire accent. This was the first time anyone had criticised my accent after ten years in the country. Of course I have an accent. But I am told it is not that thick and rarely has anyone had difficulty in understanding me.
Just to show that he was not being unfair he decided to give me constructive advice.
“I suggest you should speak English at home and not Indian.” He quickly corrected himself, “Not one of them Indian languages.” He flicked his fingers as he said it, like he was trying to flick some dirt away from his fingers.
“I speak English at home,” I informed him. There seemed little point arguing with him. So I did not expand on it.
He was unconvinced. “Even with your family?”
“My wife is English.”
“I suppose you mean British. Your people tend to confuse British with English.”
“No, she is English. Sussex born. White and blonde. Often described as an English Rose.” I wanted to end the conversation. I had no desire to argue any further, feeling it made no difference. I threw in the last phrase out of pique. I married Maggie because I loved her and not as a trophy.
In fact, despite all her admirable qualities, Maggie was anything but a trophy as far as my family was concerned. My parents had made desperate attempts to persuade me to go through an arranged marriage or else find an Indian girl for myself. I had often overheard my mother say, “She is English but she is just like an Indian girl.” But they believed a mixed marriage does not last. It was doomed to failure. This was the flip side of racism. My English in-laws had no objection to having an Indian son-in-law, but my parents objected vehemently to having an English daughter-in-law. However, once my parents realised the strength of my feelings, they graciously accepted Maggie as a member of the family.
We were re-immigrants. My parents had emigrated from India to East Africa, where we were born. A generation later we emigrated to the UK. Many of us held this curious document described as A British Protected Person’s passport. It was no passport. It was more of an identity paper. After the colonies were granted independence, we needed visas to go to every country in the world, including Uganda, the UK and India.
We belonged nowhere. We were non-entities. Paradoxically, it gave us a much wider identity. Like a World Citizen. It made us feel that we belonged everywhere, felt at home wherever we happened to be. Identifying oneself as non-something became a frame of reference.
I taught in a Jewish school for four years. Non-Jewish staff did not have to attend the religious assembly. Later I went to teach in a Catholic school where the non-Catholic members of the staff did not have to attend the mass. I proudly proclaimed at dinner parties that I had undergone a religious conversion, from non-Judaism to non-Catholicism.
What do you have to do to belong to a particular group? Immerse in the prevalent culture? Appreciate Shakespeare, the Beatles and Bach? Impressionism and Hockney? Listen to Radio 4 and Top of the Pops? Quote Locke and Hume? Visit London theatres and concerts on the South Bank? Love Monty Python and Mozart? Support Arsenal and the British Lions? Does one have to pass the Tebbit Cricket test? The list could go on. But what about the psyche of the nation? How does one partake in it? Do I have to be proud of or a bit shame-faced about the colonial past and the slave trade? How many boxes have to be ticked before I am certified as a fully integrated member of the society?
New immigrants are now given tests on British Citizenship. With us the question would not have arisen. We were products of the colonial educational system. We studied for the Cambridge overseas Matriculation Exams. Our medium of education was English when we started in secondary schools at the age of twelve. We studied Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu only as a second language. We learnt to recite, “Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears.” We laughed at Malvolio donning yellow garters, though we did not know exactly what garters looked like. We memorised the dates of the reigns of the Tudor kings and Wordsworth’s Daffodils. Instead of saying “I remembered” something, I had images “flash upon my inward eye”. But I only saw my first daffodil years after I memorised the poem. I had heard of Alfriston in Sussex but not of Brighton, because our Geography textbook taught us that you find oxbow lakes near Alfriston. In East Africa, there was the magnificent Rift Valley, which we had seen many times, but it was not part of our syllabus.
Of course I knew all about the social life of England, having learnt it all from reading Dickens and Hardy. I did not much like the latter due to his gloomy outlook on life. Dickens was my man and it was his depiction of London and England that I carried in my heart when I came to the UK.
Attitudes have changed a lot here since my early days when racial discrimination was not just legal but rampant, even if one sometimes could only laugh at the sheer ignorance being displayed.
Just after there had been some race riots in Britain, I remember seeing an interview on the BBC, where a white Rhodesian appealed for more sympathy from the British for the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence. “You of all people should be more sympathetic to our plight. You have a black problem in England. We have a much bigger black problem in Rhodesia.”
The classic example, though perhaps apocryphal, was by an American governor of a southern state. She vetoed Spanish being introduced as a compulsory second language. Her argument was “If English was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for our children.”
Even now you occasionally hear views expressed which, despite being racist or xenophobic, could only be termed comical. Nigel Farage’s suggestion that his late arrival at a 2014 political rally was a result of immigrants causing traffic jams on the M4 is a good example.
Of course, I am aware of the bitter and often horrific experiences of other immigrants. When Enoch Powell made his “rivers of blood” speech, for a long time afterwards, when I met a new English person, I wondered if behind the exterior bonhomie, there lurked a racist who loathed me because of the colour of my skin.
Maybe I have been lucky because on the whole most people accepted me. Or maybe most immigrants have experiences similar to mine and it is not luck but the general decency of the British public. But by and large I have been treated well – as well as if not better than how a newcomer in any country would expect to be treated. Having spent most of my life here I rarely think of myself as an immigrant. I am at home.
Rashmi Paun is the author of: 90 Days: An escape from Uganda
Akash Paun can be found at www.twitter.com/akashpaun