We’re only here ‘cos you were there

D.C.S., ‘Rule Brittania’ (1989)

Autoimmune disorder

Eking out an existence in dreary rural Lincolnshire, I moan about the weather. A lot. My whiter than Dulux partner finds my moaning intolerable. I even keep a tally of how much sun we get. How much, you ask? About 2 out of 10 days there are glimpses. Inglan is a bitch.

Researching for his psychedelic Mogul Mowgli, Riz Ahmed discovered that ethnic minorities in the UK experience higher rates of autoimmune disorders than their Caucasian counterparts. These disorders are marked by the immune system mistaking parts of the body as foreign, thereby releasing autoantibodies that attack healthy cells. It’s a case of one’s organism not truly recognising oneself (get the not subtle hint).

Human beings are highly adaptive. Ever since our ancestors left the Great Rift Valley, we’ve gone on to colonise the planet, and morphed to survive, and thrive, in our environments (see, for example, Alice Roberts’ outstanding The Incredible Human Journey). That said, it takes time for an organism to become healthily accustomed to its new surroundings. Take a banal example of how discombobulating it can be when someone else is sitting in ‘your’ seat in the lounge!

All of this serves to say that, in the immortal words of the Asian Dub Foundation: ‘we’re only here ‘cos you were there. Here in England the global village, the consequences of your global pillage’ (Debris, Facts and Fiction, 1995). Believe it or not, my grandparents didn’t emigrate to these shores in the 70s for any supposed jolly welcome and warm weather! They migrated to these miserable climes, with, as children of the colonies, their British passports, for economic purposes; or, strictly business, as EPMD would have it. Many, like their Caribbean counterparts, figured they’d come, accumulate some wealth, then return home. Teresa May was ever so helpful in this regard!

Caucasians in Kerela

I’ve been fortunate to travel the globe, and experience different climates, from the Australian outback to the Swiss Alps. I’ve also lived abroad, too (most notably, The Bahamas). Now, I feel stuck. With partner, child, mortgage, steady and relatively satisfying employment, and a nearby support network, the sensible thing to do is to remain and make the most of those 16 / 240 hours of sunlight.

However, I really do struggle in this climate. Like, really. In 2018, during a prolonged period of sobriety, regular gym work and healthy eating, I suffered brutal headaches. The doctor diagnosed, correctly, a vitamin D deficiency: literally not made for this climate! It takes millennia for an organism to healthily adapt to its environment. My grandparents only arrived in ’72.

Owing to the imperialism of normative discourse, me moaning about the weather is met with, at best, derision, and at worst, the ol’ favourite: ‘why don’t you go back to where you came from’? Born in grim Perivale, West London (in a hospital that was knocked down soon after my birth!), going back to where I came from is not going to help matters. Let’s flip the script: how would a pale Caucasian fare in Kerela? I’ve seen white Brits abroad in sunny weather; it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. When they colonised India, the British ‘elites’ made Simla their HQ: it’s much cooler than the rest of the region.

During the two days of summer in July, 2021, I was heartbroken at having to spend two hours of peak sunshine indoors as part of my partner’s graduation celebration lunch; everyone in our group, barring misery guts here, found it intolerably ‘hot’ outdoors (I’m so selfish that even my partner’s graduation marks an occasion for me to moan about how I’m apparently getting the short end of the stick). ‘They’ get weather that’s made for them 360+ days a year. I literally couldn’t have my fucking day in the sun.

Accommodation over activism

Forget the natives, I also feel alienated from the vast majority of my cultural peers; i.e. second generation Punjabis. Neither I, nor my sister, have ever felt particularly drawn to dating people from our shared heritage, either. Owing to their hangover from many petty village minded mores brought over, and aggressively ‘protected’ against foreign invasion, my sister and I have often found our values at odds with those of our cultural peers.

Our ancestral homeland, Punjab, is a plaything of the ruling fascist BJP. In response to proposed neoliberal economic farming (fuckeries) reforms, 2020/21 saw the largest protest in human history. Here in Inglan, we’re insiders / outsiders. As beautifully portrayed in Goodness Gracious Me, we second generationers can’t return and make a home in Punjab; our families left there for material reasons — there’s nothing for us to return to (not to mention the fact that claims to citizenship are an administrative nightmare, at best). Here ‘cos they were there, we’ve accumulated material wealth, security and comfort. But, and with the comparative experience of living in warmer climes like The Bahamas as a case study, I know and painfully feel in my bones, that I’m not adapted to these shores. My appetites (food, drink, sex), physical (frozen shoulder, sciatica, sinuses) and mental (depression, Seasonal Affect Disorder) health all suffer immeasurably.

In spite of this maladaptive condition, I / we have thrived materially and socioeconomically. That said, we have also waned. In the heady days of the late 90s, when it was momentarily cool to be Asian (Goodness Gracious Me, Cornershop’s ‘Brimful of Asha’, Madonna’s mehndi and Talvin Singh’s Mercury Music Prize), through acculturation and pursuit of material comfort, we’ve increasingly eschewed political activism for accommodation.

Asian Dub Foundation still tour, but more so in France than in the UK, and there’s no ‘Free Satpal Ram’ doing the rounds any longer. At ‘Fifty Years of Bhangra Music, Culture and Style’, a 2007 exhibition on artwork of music from the Punjabi diaspora at SOAS (where else!), I reminisced with one of the curators, and former collaborators with Aki Nawaz’s Fun-Da-Mental. She remarked on how heartening it was that their socio-political messages hadn’t been forgotten, and still resonated with the ‘yout dem’ (I was 22 at the time). Fifteen years on from the exhibition, with Riz Ahmed a notable exception, assimilation has seemingly taken precedence over any activism.

Intellectual exile

So, feeling alienated from my ancestral homeland and cultural peers, and maladapted to ol’ Blighty (for as Jiddu Krishnamurti cuttingly asserts: ‘it is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society’), I am in what Edward Said (1993) insightfully articulated as ‘intellectual exile’. Don’t pull out the tissues just yet, though. It’s pretty shit here (most notably in terms of the god-awful fucking weather), but also enriching (yes, really). Short of just inserting Said’s whole essay (which you ought to, if you haven’t already, read in the immediate future), this passage goes some way to summarising the paradoxical privilege of intellectual exile:

Exile means that you are always going to be marginal, and that what you do as an intellectual has to be made up because you cannot follow a prescribed path. If you can experience that fate not as a deprivation and as something to be bewailed, but as a sort of freedom, a process of discovery in which you do things according to your own pattern, as various interests seize your attention, and as the particular goal you set yourself dictates: that is a unique pleasure (Said, 1993, p.123).

In two sentences, Said encaptures my entire vocation. I guess it’s not all so bad, eh? I recognise I’m privileged, and that my grandparents’ sacrifices mean I can write nonsense like this instead of having to undertake real, physical, labour in order to make ends meet. Still, feeling alienated, maladapted, and invariably freezing my nuts off, I guess I’ll go about raising my mixed heritage son (who I bloody well hope copes with the cold at least 50% better than me), playing Victor Meldrew to my climatically well-adjusted partner, and spewing shit like the above when I ought to be doing something more helpful with my time.

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