What does it mean to be British today?
I always tick ‘British Asian’ or ‘British Indian’ on forms, but it’s only for ease. I can’t pen an essay in the small box about how the term actually makes me feel. I can’t express my distaste towards the political climate and how it has affected my loved ones. I especially can’t talk about the effects of colonisation and the generational trauma it has caused.
Britain is home to me, to my family and my friends. But at the same time it’s ruptured from the seams and pain pours out from them. When you think of your home, you imagine safety, comfort, rest and nostalgia. I think of alienation, indifference and separation.
I find the word ‘great’ repeated often, whether it’s about the outskirts of London or ‘Great Britain’ and I still don’t understand the meaning. I often think about what I find great and my use of the word becomes fractured. I can no longer relate greatness to distinction, but instead to greed and arrogance.
I was born in Hillingdon hospital, not India and I didn’t witness our history, but we’re not taught it, whether it’s from our education system or our family. The trauma is held heavily in their hearts - they talk about the ability to live freely in England, escaping the destruction of their motherland. But they don’t express the pain of moving in with the very people who hurt them. The infliction doesn’t leave, it’s a constant reminder.
We can’t talk about British Indians without discussing colonialism. Because we can’t forget our past when it’s present with us today. I’m regularly told to “get over it” or that it was “so long ago”. But it really wasn’t and like with any heartbreak, the residual effect it has on your loved ones never goes.
When the British Raj took over India, they did it for power, although their rhetoric was to help the Indian economy grow. They took control over the government, land ownership and military. Genocides, civil wars, partition, workers rights, racism — these are a few things that followed their rule.
Our school system teaches us about British history, sneakily glossing over their part in Black slavery and colonial actions. They invaded South Asia, Africa, the Americas (eradicating Indigenous communities) and many more places as the ‘British Empire’. It seems they did it so quietly that the impact was made but the echo was lost.
We know it’s from shame. It’s not discussed because you can’t be ‘Great’ if your history is stained with so much blood. You would imagine that the quiet reflection would mean that the displacement that Britain’s history has caused, would be eliminated. Yet we have Brexit, UKIP, BNP, Tommy Robinson, the right leaning media and the loud voices of people in power allowing the shame Britain once felt to dissolve back into the open seams.
There’s comfort in the regulatory of everyday life and seeing people from diaspora communities thrive in a no man’s land. Watching them plant flowers in burnt soil and celebrate their ability to exist freely is beautiful, but it’s a reminder that the privilege we have to thrive in Britain is built off the pain of our families.
I am British, but I’m not reassured by its greatness.
Sharan Dhaliwal is editor of Burnt Roti magazine. She is a video producer, designer and illustrator and contributes to panels, T. V. and radio.
Back to Top