South Asians and the Shaping of Britain

Sarfraz Manzoor in The Telegraph:

INDIANSWEB_2566044bMahinder Singh Pujji, a 22-year-old Indian man, was queuing to see a film at his local cinema. The man in front of him saw his turban and uniform – Pujji was a member of the RAF – and said: “Sir, you don’t have to stand in the queue.” He ushered him to the front of the line. No one grumbled and the woman working in the ticket office, again seeing his turban and wings, refused to accept money for the ticket. This incident would be surprising and heart-warming if it occurred today; in fact, the film that Pujji was queuing to see was Gone with the Wind, and the year was 1940. What makes this story so powerful is that it challenges established narratives about south Asian migration to Britain: it shows us that years before Commonwealth immigration there had been migrants from the subcontinent; it questions the assumption that migrants were always treated poorly, and it reminds us of the contribution many made.

South Asians and the Shaping of Britain excavates the archives for letters, diaries, books and articles relating to this subject. Taking the year 1870 – the zenith of empire – as the starting point and traversing 80 years to 1950 – a period that witnessed two world wars, the decline of empire, the fight for Indian independence and Partition – the book demonstrates that Britain has a more complex multicultural heritage than is usually acknowledged.

I knew about the role Indians played during the two world wars, for example, but I had no idea that in the period covered here, 80 different south Asian authors published 180-plus books in Britain. This one builds on Rozina Visram’s landmark histories Ayahs, Lascars and Princes and Asians in Britain. But what makes reading it a more visceral experience is the first-hand accounts and documents: a book review by Oscar Wilde from 1890 of the Indian poet Manmohan Ghose, an extraordinary photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh – the mixed-race daughter of the deposed Maharajah of the Punjab – standing outside Hampton Court Palace in 1913 in a long dark coat and hat selling a copy of The Suffragette. Two years later Ludder Singh, an Indian soldier fighting in the trenches during the First World War, writes to his brother back home: “Bodies were lying on bodies like stones in heaps”; “When a man dies in the world I and you think it is a great event, but here in this war corpses are piled one upon another so that they cannot be counted.”

More here.