Quite a few of my trips to London have been shadowed by death, or the portent of death. On September 11, 2001, I was about to board a non-stop flight to London from Singapore when my phone rang. My daughter in California said, “It looks like a bad accident in New York at the World Trade Center; an airplane has crashed into one of the buildings.” There was an uneasy murmur at the check-in counters. When I got to the departure lounge, hundreds of horrified passengers were staring, transfixed and silent, at TV screens that showed the second plane ploughing into the South Tower. That flight to London was one of the most surreal ones I have ever taken. For 13 hours, all of us were trapped in a metal tube, just in time to have heard wild rumours of hundreds of airplane bombs being flown into cities around the world, and knowing we were hurtling towards — what?
Four years later I reached London the day after the July 7 bombings on the Underground and the bus at Tavistock Square, and I remember the long queues at taxi ranks and the sense of silent dread among people taking the Tube to work. I walked the streets quite a bit on that trip and spoke to many people, and remember being impressed at the speed with which the city picked itself up and dusted itself off. What shocked many Britons was that the 7/7 suicide bombers were all “homegrown”, from among them. And after the failed July 21 bombings that year, you didn’t have to be an expert to understand that Britain was the first Western country after the United States to be targeted by suicide bombers, and could expect more.
This month I got to Heathrow the day after Kafeel Ahmed and Bilal Abdullah rammed the flaming Jeep Cherokee into Glasgow airport, and two days after two car bombs parked in London’s theatre district failed to explode. This time all my Briton friends were beginning to look distinctly upset. “To think that doctors who are meant to save lives are now taking lives,” said one bitterly. “They want to destroy us, they want to destroy our way of life.”
“Our way of life”. What a huge universe of attitude, upbringing, conditioning, stereotyping and acceptance is built into those four words! I began to think about belonging, about “ourness”, and about the face of terror. We have lived for a very long time in India with the loneliness of the disenchanted, the rebel who rises up to smite the Goliath of the state with his slingshot. We have had our mutinies in the Northeast, and Punjab, and Kashmir, and now a hundred bushfires crackling from Telengana to Chhattisgarh. We have watched suicide bombing blossom in Sri Lanka and then burst into savage flower on our own soil a long time before the rest of the world did. Violence, and rage, and death have been with us a long time.
<b1>Walking in a drizzle around The Haymarket, with the lights of Piccadilly blazing nearby, I was told by a companion that the neighbourhood was eerily quiet, with no crowds jostling near the TigerTiger nightclub outside which an ambulance crew fortuitously noticed a parked Mercedes with smoke trickling out. Standing in the silent rain, it was clear something had happened to still the noise and laughter spilling out of those fun-filled buildings.
“Britishness does not normally involve snitching or talking about someone,” Britain’s new security minister Sir Alan West told the Sunday Telegraph. “I’m afraid, in this situation, anyone who’s got any information should say something because the people we are talking about are trying to destroy our entire way of life.”
There’s that phrase again: “way of life”. When I arrived at Heathrow this month, a baggage handler called Haresh helped me. He was a Gujarati displaced from Uganda by Idi Amin, he said, and a gas-station and grocery business he and his family had painstakingly built up in the UK had to be dismantled because of looming bankruptcy. “All the corner mom-and-pop Indian shops are feeling the heat from the Tescos and the Sainsburys,” Haresh said. That sounded like the kind of thing you hear in India in the retail supermarket debate. But Haresh’s voice fell to a low, resentful whisper as I waited to get my passport stamped. “Have you noticed that these immigration officers treat all Asians like would-be terrorists?” he asked me later. “Not really,” I replied. I hadn’t felt particularly harassed. In fact, I have always felt that Indians who aspire to “Britishness” or similar treat me worse. At Sydney airport once, I was pulled out in the baggage reclaim area by an Indian-Australian immigration officer who asked me several rude questions — after her white colleague had politely waved me through.
So what makes people uproot themselves and travel thousands of miles to a strange land where they might never be treated as equals? I remember feeling discomfited the first time I went to Britain and saw Indian men and women — mostly Sikhs — wielding mops and cleaning the toilets at Heathrow. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the image of tens of thousands of Indians who had chosen to live in England for economic reasons. Were they really better off? If you want to read the ultimate tale about a poisoned chalice, look no further than the saga of the Komagata Maru and her cargo of Indians heading for paradise in Canada in 1914.
We are about three generations into independence, and it is easy to look back and wonder what motivates migration. It is not as if thousands of young Indians do not continue to head for foreign, gilded shores and get righteously upset if this year’s US immigration visa quota has run out in record time. But driving around Southall two weeks ago with another Indian friend, I remembered something Prime Minister Narasimha Rao said on a visit to Tokyo in 1992. “Every time you have two Indians in a foreign land, you have three associations,” he said. My friend told me that there had been a sharp tussle over domination of Broadway between the Sikhs and the Pakistanis. “The Pakistanis used to roar around the place on Moharram, very aggressive,” he said. “Now the Sikhs do it on Baisakhi and other festivals.”
So what way of life was my friend talking about? Going to matha teko at the huge and awesome new gurdwara, with its stunning dome and marble detail and beautiful stained-glass backdrop to the Granth Sahib and its warm hand-driers and readymade roomals for the faithful. My friend’s daughter drove her own car and had a good job at an insurance firm, but her parents were looking for a good Sikh boy for her. Births, deaths, weddings, funerals. But wait. There were ways of life and ways of life. My friend said the “original” Sikhs, from India, had slowly fallen back as the African Sikhs, from Kenya and Uganda, flooded in and set up shop. And more recently, he said, the Afghan Sikhs had turned out to be the most aggressive. Did they all mix? “Absolutely not,” my friend said. “They are all upstarts.”
A world away from Southall, I sat with my Scottish friends in a West End restaurant discussing the terror about. Why was Britain so obsessed with class and race? Why did you still have Asian ghettos in Bradbury and Birmingham? Why were Britons of all stripes and colours not more at ease with one another? Would it get even worse, with the first Indian suspects now among the bombers’ ranks?
Difficult to say, and the warm conviviality of our talk could not solve the race riddle. How else can you explain the fact that sales of the 1931 Hergé comic, Tintin In The Congo, leapt 3,800 per cent in Britain this month after the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) said it “contains imagery and words of hideous racial prejudice, where the ‘savage natives’ look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles”. You have got to feel sorry for the folks at the CRE. How many different battles will they have to wage?