I haven’t been to a Diwali Festival since I was very young. I grew up in Leicester, the daughter of a goldsmith who plied his trade on what is still known as The Golden Mile and every year, the Diwali lights would be switched on along that mile. We would close up the shop once it was dark and weave through the crowds, eating street food and seeing familiar faces. It was a riot of colour with blue, red, yellow, orange light bulbs lining the road as far as the eye could see. For a moment, standing in Trafalgar Square this afternoon at the Diwali Festival, I closed my eyes and I could have been right there – with the same the music and the same dancing – with my family celebrating a festival that is fundamentally about the triumph of good over evil.
I will admit that one of the standing jokes about me whenever I mention my heritage is: “Are you Asian?” The joke stems from the fact that I have, over the years, become a not-very-Asian Asian. I haven’t set foot in a temple since my early childhood, I haven’t learned to write my home language, I haven’t kept up with developing my Gujarati language skills. I can’t really tell you the meaning of feast days or fast days. I struggle to remember the stories of my childhood and my heritage. I have made a life out of rejecting my own culture.
It is only now, at this age, that the real impact of this has hit home. My grandfather passed away two weeks ago and I didn’t go the funeral. While I know deep down there were many reasons for this, one reason stands out and points at me. I knew I would find it hard to communicate with people in the language they know and I don’t. I know today that one of the things that is most tragic about this wholesale movement away from my past is the growing gap between me and members of my family – particularly the older generation. I have chosen at some point along the line to deny myself the language that would connect us. In forgetting the words, I have forgotten them. This is something I can now never rectify.
But it is a choice, right? I chose to be this version of myself. Why did I choose to be someone who is so far removed from my family in language, dress and stories? What made me move to a more pronounceable version of my name? The question reminds me of a brilliant quote by the actress Uzoamaka Aduba who plays ‘Crazy Eyes’ in the Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black. She recounts a conversation with her mother about her name:
“So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
The word ‘integration’ has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My own family used it to describe what they did, arriving here in the 1970s, working, learning English, wearing western clothes. All things they thought differentiated them from other refugees. See, even we used the word to praise or punish, to segregate. That’s how ingrained it was – this idea that to fit in, you had to slough off the things that made you you. You had to wear borrowed robes.
This week, as part of BBC3’s series on racism in the UK and around the world, I heard the word used again and it stung. A spokesperson for Britain First said that he didn’t mind the Hindus and the Sikhs, because they had integrated into British society. He was, of course, referring to these groups in opposition to the Islamic community – one that he perceived to be a threat. I heard it again when on social media, people applauded Nadiya Begum for being a fabulous model of a Muslim woman in Britain. One that had integrated, despite wearing a headscarf. Her headscarf, in fact, has become a national debate. Can a Muslim woman truly ‘integrate’ while she is wearing one?
And it made me think about what it was that made me erase parts of my identity. I wanted to integrate. I wanted to be the person whom the rest of society considered to be ‘good’. I made the teaching of English my job – and the question is there to be asked: did I do this out of an unconscious desire to present myself as the most English I could be?
I teach in schools where you will meet the most diverse, most multicultural students. What messages are they getting about their identity? When English teachers were told to teach Wordsworth instead of Poetry from Different Cultures, what messages did that send to teenagers? I am responsible for instilling a sense of cultural capital. Whose culture? When we talk about Fundamental British Values, whose values? When I heard a colleague saying once that the Year 10 girls can’t do that dance at Open Evening because the music is Afrobeats and that sends the ‘wrong message’ to prospective parents and then a week later, they’ve been replaced with a violinist, what is that? When I was told that steel pans were being put away to be replaced by a string quartet, I knew what that meant. It was too black for a school who wanted to attract a middle class and implicitly white child.
And who can blame a school for trying, right? It’s a market place and the increased commercialisation of education means that schools fight to attract what they perceive to be the most successful students. That child who will drive up results in inner-city schools. But in those anecdotes, I hear that’s a very specific type of child.
In there somewhere is a seed of shame. It makes people of diverse backgrounds feel that their stories are somehow less valid. It makes young Asian girls, who want to fit in, give up something that is a vitally important part of their fabric. The colour and joy of Diwali lights in an October dusk.