Zenga Longmore

Growing up in no man’s land

Zenga Longmore on Yasmin Hai's new book

People who say, ‘Why don’t Asians try to integrate?’ ought to have known Yasmin Hai’s father. A Marxist Anglophile from Pakistan, Mr Hai imposed ‘true Englishness’ on his bewildered English-born children. He forbade them to speak Urdu. Western clothes were favoured instead of the traditional salwar kameezes and his girls’ beautiful ebony locks were cropped into English bobs. The Muslim religion was only practised when it was Eid, Mr Hai’s reasoning being that ‘Eid could be enjoyed like Christians enjoyed Christmas.’

Attempting to become British must have been an increasingly painful project during the1970s. Practically every time a member of the Hai family switched on the telly they would have been faced with a browned-up man in a turban (usually Peter Sellers) waggling his head and chanting, ‘us bloody British’ to the accompaniment of raucous laughter. A British Asian? How achingly funny.

Mr Hai’s idea of Britishness was very different from the British version. Not once did he mention the importance of going down the boozer and watching the footy. Instead, he instructed his children to read Milton and Shakespeare and to behave with quiet decorum. This was probably looked upon by the locals as a strange Indian custom.

When Mr Hai arrived in England, he settled in Wembley and firmly instructed his arranged-bride and three children to assimilate. The children dutifully tried to follow their father’s instructions. Yasmin, his oldest daughter, ate fish and chips and won country dancing awards at her primary school. Unfortunately, the white Wembleyites had yet to hear of assimilation. They looked askance at the ‘Paki’ newcomers, considering them to be dragging down the neighbourhood.

Yasmin’s quest for Britishness led to a fight with another Asian girl, who taunted her for being a ‘curry lover’. Indian food became a source of shame, enjoyed only in secret.

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