Reflections on Multi Culturalism

In the Madras Courier yesterday 26/11/20 Anurag Mishra and Paras Ratna posed the question,  ‘To what extent can a society accommodate multiculturalism?’ They highlighted some disturbing incidents.

As someone who risked my own future and that of my future children by marrying someone of a different colour, country and religion, I would like to offer a few reflections on the subject. They may give rise to more questions than answers but these dilemmas are not new.

When I married Indian born Atam Vetta mixed marriages in the UK were rare and often met with hostility. In contrast, in  2075 it is predicted that families like mine and my brother  Michael’s to Fopin Li ,a lady of Chinese ancestry from Mauritius, will be the  majority in the UK and not the exception  they were when I married.  My brother has recently written a memoir titled ‘Around the World by Land,Sea and Air  -something he has achieved  in his long life . Michael and I were curious minded and open to other cultures.  The more people travel the more that happens. My good friend Nancy Mudenyo Hunt  with whom I have written Not so Black and White  grew up in rural West Kenya .  As a girl not owning her own destiny, the idea of marrying a white Englishman would not have been conceivable.

Mixed marriages like mine and Nancy’s are a weather vane. Although they happen a little in Japan, racism and prejudice against such relationships  especially with South Koreans  is palpable. Marriages crossing religion and caste in India face many obstacles and dangers.

Cultural differences are not negligible.  I enjoyed  exploring cultural tensions  mostly with humour in Sculpting The Elephant. Harry King and Ramma Gupta defy stereotypes. In their anticipated futures they would never have met.  Accidental encounters like theirs happen all the time with international travel. That may be on hold for the moment but Covid has shown us how much more we have in common than separates us. It can be argued that unless we find ways of connecting  the future of the planet is at risk.

I took a complimentary copy of the just published Sculpting the Elephant to Caroline Henney in Oxford’s Antiques on High because she inspired a character in the book. Another trader called Amanda Fore flipped through it and read the dedication to anyone with a partner from a different country, religion, colour. Amanda reacted emotionally and said, ‘Glenn, my late husband, was African/American.’ And stories poured out of her. They feared threats of violence in his native Alabama so he chose to settle in the UK. They faced prejudice not just from some white people but from some black people too but  they enjoyed a  happy marriage.

Following your heart entails risk. My friend Thomas’s parents grew up in Germany .  His father was Jewish and his mother Christian.  They were lucky to escape Nazi  Germany to the UK to  live fulfilled  lives,  unlike most  fellow German Jews.   The kind of polarisation we have seen in recent years thanks to the rise of  nationalistic  politics of the likes of Donald Trump is a threat to a tolerant society where marriages like mine, Amanda’s, Nancy’s and Fopin’s can thrive.

My Indian born husband Atam Vetta’s PhD was in quantitative genetics. I learned from him that each of us is unique. Sadly the world is not organised to cope with that scientific truth.  The question posed concerned assimilation.  In tolerant societies that happens naturally over time. But the idea of assimilation, in the view of nationalists is always one way .The truth is that ideas travel from East to West and West to East.  The more we learn from each other the more creative and dynamic is our society.

South Asian immigrants in the UK have not only adapted they have changed our culture.  Growing up my diet was meat and two (boiled) veg. The cuisine of the UK in 2020 is unrecognisable compared to the fifties .It is vibrant with flavour thanks mostly to immigrants coming here and sharing their tastes.  Music, dance, literature, comedy and colour in our lives have been influenced by Afro -Caribbean and South Asian immigrants.

The proportion of young people aged 20-30 living at home has risen sharply. The main reason is the difficulty getting affordable housing  but the interesting aspect is that these households are not full of tension as they might have been. The example of South Asian multi -generational  families has shown  that it is possible for generations to live together in harmony.  The fact that South Asians have adopted British politics is evident in Rishi Sunak.  There is still tension regarding the role of women in some minority communities but for the most part Chinese, Indian and African ancestry girls have seized the opportunity offered by a good education and are outshining the boys.  There will continue to be patriarchal men from other cultures who will hang on to their outdated attitudes but I want the world to benefit from the intelligence of these young women.

Recent research into prehistoric men has indicated that we maligned them thinking they were violent an unwelcoming of strangers. The evidence is pointing to the opposite. Tribalism and hostility to strangers arose with farming and settled communities owning land and property.  Making enemies of the ‘other’  comes with a  desire to protect property rights and accumulate power .

The other threat to us living together in peace sharing our ideas  is dogmatism. People who believe they are right and everyone else is wrong so they label people who don’t share their views and dehumanise them . Once you dehumanise people   as Hitler did the Jews, the good in mankind can be perverted .

I had more than one motive in writing Sculpting the Elephant . Most of the world does not know about Ashoka and indeed knowledge of him was destroyed in India by narrow caste interests followed by fundamentalist book burning  Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar.

It wasn’t Indians who resurrected Ashoka but a few Englishmen who  dedicated their lives to uncovering ancient Indian history . Why should they want to do that? Because we need positive ideas of good governance from every corner of the world  .That is multi-culturalism at its best . Pic below Oxford Castaways from 5 CONTINENTS  who have made Oxford richer for coming here.