Saturday, 10 September 2011

Book of the Month: Becoming British, the Making of Mr Hai's Daughter (Yasmin Hai)

Becoming British, the Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter, is the memoir of Yasmin Hai, a journalist (and a television reporter in the past) of growing up in the Britain of the 1970s and 1980s.

Yasmin’s Hai’s father  went by the very impressive name of Syed Samsamul Hai. He was a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in Britain in the mid-1960s. Born in India before it was partitioned, Mr Hai went to the prestigious Aligarh University in Uttar Pradesh, India. While at Aligarh University Mr Hai, along with a few close friends, joined the Communist party of India and came to hold a view that only through Communism would the Indian people free themselves of the fetters of religion and poverty. When the British left and the country was partitioned, Mr Hai moved to the other side of the continent—Pakistan—which, you have to say, was probably not a very smart move, as he was vehemently opposed to the concept of a Muslim nation, the very basis of Pakistan. In Pakistan Mr Hai became a professor of English at a prestigious collage in Karachi. He also continued to dabble in politics and wrote polemics against religion. In the 1950s, the inevitable happened. The Communist party of which he was a member was banned and its leaders imprisoned. Mr. Hai went underground and lived in hiding for much of the 1950s before coming to England courtesy of the British immigration policy fuelled by labour shortage. He was well into his forties and a bachelor when he arrived in England. But he was well equipped with facts and figures which he thought would help him adjust to his adopted country: he knew all the words of the English national anthem, could reel off all the English national holidays, and—this was most important for him—knew inside out and back to front all the English sayings. He was in a progressive country (he thought) and wanted to be progressive himself. And to prove his progressiveness, he would go with a friend—an Indian Muslim who had married an Englishwoman (and not just any Englishwoman, but an educated woman with a Ph.D in English who taught at London University)—in the evenings to the local pub to have a drink. Nothing—not even the loud comments by White men in the pub who asked the ‘stupid Paki’ to give it a rest—would diminish Mr Hai’s enthusiasm for his adopted country. Then Mr Hai got married. His was an arranged marriage, to an educated woman (who had done MA in political science) from Pakistan, who, nevertheless, could not speak a word of English when she arrived in England. So Mr Hai began teaching her English. In due course Yasmin, their eldest child, was born, followed by two more children. Mr Hai was almost fifty when he became a father. He now turned his attention to his children and systematically went about making them model British citizens: operation English had begun.

The Hai family lived in a lower-middle class Asian ghetto in Wembley, London. Almost all of young Yasmin’s friends were Pakistani Muslims. But there was a difference. Mr Hai prohibited his children from going to Koran classes. He insisted that they speak in English all the time, even though it meant that their mother, who despite her husband’s efforts had not managed to become fully proficient in the language of her exile, had difficulty in communicating with her own children (he eventually decreed that the mother could speak in Urdu, a language the children understood, but they had to reply in English, a language, he reasoned, she understood). And they had to learn to use forks and knives while eating. He was also very keen that his children do well academically—here his job would appear to have been made easier, as his eldest daughter was a bright student. He did not believe in corporal punishment; instead he discussed issues with his children, hammering out at every opportunity his message: be like the English. In an incident, very touchingly narrated, teenage Yasmin truanted from her secondary school and went clubbing (during the day) with other Muslim girls from her lane to a Bahngra party, and while coming out of the club was spotted by one of the ‘aunties’ from her community, who promptly passed on the news to her parents. This is how Mr Hai chose to approach the issue when Yasmin returned home: ‘Asian party one day and next thing, you’ll be wanting to watch Bollywood filums and go to the mosque.’ When Yasmin protested that her friends were not like how he depicted them, that they were, like her, doing O levels, Mr Hai retorted, ‘What do you know? Underneath they are still steeped in religion. One day you will see.’ And finally, as his bolshy daughter began answering back, he concluded, smiling, ‘Our disagreement is what is commonly known as “generation gap”’.

Mr Hai’s prognostications about Yasmin’s friends would bear out. In the 1990s, one by one, almost all of her friends had had arranged marriages and embraced orthodox Islam, becoming devoutly religious. However, Mr Hai did not live to see his prophecies come true. In 1987, when his seventeen-year daughter was doing O levels, Mr Hai dropped dead of a heart attack. He was sixty-eight. In the second, much more sombre, part of the memoir Yasmin Hai describes how her mother and she (we do not get to know a lot about the younger siblings) came to terms with the sudden loss of the most important man in their lives. She also describes events, beginning with the Rushdie affair, that would come to have a profound effect on the way in which the West would come to view the community to which she belonged by birth, if not by practice. Yasmin enrolled to study politics at Manchester University, a decision her father, who was very interested in politics, would have wholeheartedly approved. For a while she moved back home with her family, but then, while her childhood friends were getting married, having babies, covering themselves in traditional Islamic scarves, and immersing themselves in the reading of Koran, she moved out and, over the next few years, worked on several programmes (including the Newsnight) and for many companies. In other words she lived the lifestyle of the modern, educated career woman in the twenty-first century many in the West would approve. Throughout this period she remained very close to her family and visited her mother—who had, after the sudden death of Mr Hai, rolled up her sleeves, pulled up her socks, and made all the necessary sartorial adjustments, to bring up her young children—who continued to live in Wembley. She was therefore a witness to the hardening stance and ultra-religious beliefs, which her childhood friends, with whom she had truanted from school to go to clubs, came to adopt. There were times when she was assailed by doubts about the path she had chosen, and envied her childhood friends for their certitudes; many a time she felt unaccountably angry at her dead father, and blamed him for her feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty, as she struggled to find her place in the multicultural, multiracial Britain. In the end, though, she continued on the path she had chosen for herself and persisted with her personal belief-system. As the memoir ends we learn that Yasmin Hai is happily married to a Jewish American man and, for the first time in the twenty years since he died, is planning to visit her father’s grave.

Becoming British, The Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter is a delightful, compassionate, humorous and utterly captivating portrait of the realities of modern day Britain from the eyes of a child of an immigrant. It is a family chronicle, a social history, and an oblique commentary on the politics of those times—all rolled into one, throwing into sharp relief the dilemmas and problems of identity young people of immigrant stock are faced with on a daily basis. Above all, it is a story of a man, who was in awe of what he clearly felt was a superior culture, was grateful for having been given the opportunity to live in this country, and who made strenuous efforts to assimilate. In this Mr. Hai was probably not very different from other immigrants who arrived in this country in the 1960s to fill the labour shortage in Britain. They were all aware that they had to make extra efforts to fit in; in their minds they were perennial outsiders who were expected to be eternally appreciative of and thankful (and many did feel that way) for the benefits of living in England. That perhaps was also the reason why the generation of Mr Hai was able to take the casual racism, to which it was routinely exposed, on the chin and move on. Where Mr Hai was probably different from many other Muslim men of his generation was that he was not a religious man; indeed he would appear to have formed a very clear view in his mind that religion was the source of all the strife in the world. Almost twenty years after his death, his daughter discovered a very old article Mr Hai had written in a Pakistani magazine in the 1950s. This is what he had written:

‘.  . . unless we remove the blinkers of ‘religion’ from our eyes, we cannot take an enlightened and correct view of our predicament. Religion may act as a channel between an individual and his creator, but it has no place in state ideology or politics. Religion always encourages dogma and it has always been an irrational force. It has always denied validity of human reason. It has tried to understand the world by intuition rather than experience. It has always stood for authority against the individual.’

Having always held these views, Mr Hai, an educated man, had little pangs of guilt about removing religion from the lives of his British family. It is interesting that he was a member of the Communist party in Pakistan; however, when he decided to leave the country, he chose to come to England, which, whatever you might say about her, was not a Communist—not even a Socialist—country. That Mr Hai chose to live there for the next twenty odd years, until his death, without any apparent regrets, is, one can say, a proof, if proof be needed, that it was the full bellies and not nuclear weapons that ultimately defeated Communism. Had he lived a bit longer, Mr Hai would have witnessed the collapse of Communism all over the world.

The difference, one guesses, between the men of Mr Hai’s generation and the men and women from the next generation was that the younger generation was not prepared to accept the pervading racism in the British society with the phlegmatism of the community elders. For them there were no reference points such as the less than salubrious conditions and the poverty and other iniquities of the countries of their parents’ origins in comparison with which the frequent racism to which they were subjected in Britain, while unpleasant, was bearable. They were born and bred in this country and had not known anything else. The feelings of anomie, one would imagine, were very acute for this generation, a crippling sense that they did not belong. It is perhaps not surprising that some or more of them sought refuge in the orthodox Islam, which probably served the dual purpose of providing an anchor in lives which were otherwise drifting and of being an up yours gesture to the mainstream community. I suspect that a significant proportion of the young Muslim women who have chosen to wear the head-scarf or even the black chador, is not necessarily repressed by a medieval religion as clamoured by the right-wing, crypto-racist, brigade; these women are making a socio-political statement. That Yasmin Hai did not choose to go down this route is primarily down to her strength of character and self-belief, but you can’t help feeling that the seeds were sown by her liberal, non-religious father. Operation English was a success after all.