Let me tell you the story
of my name. It's convoluted, and at its centre lies an odd compromise. My
father, Krishna Mohan Nath Kunzru, graduated from Agra Medical College and
emigrated to Britain in the 1960's, to work as an orthopaedic surgeon in
the National Health Service. A few years later he met my mother, Hilary
Ann David, a nurse. They fell in love, and despite considerable opposition
(mostly from the Indian side, who had lined up a good Kashmiri Pandit girl
for the eldest boy and future head of the family) they were married in London
in 1968. There were two ceremonies, one Church of England, one Hindu.
all three — 'ari, Haah-ri and Hari
A trophy. A badge of honour. Or just a play with
vowel sounds? Acclaimed writer HARI KUNZRU explores
name and British racism
When my mother fell pregnant, my parents decided that their first son should
bear an Indian name.
At the time, mum was reading Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. I like to imagine
her, the South London girl newly-married to an exotic man, (although not
particularly tall, my father was satisfactorily dark and handsome) rapidly
swotting up on India, a place she had yet to visit, but to which she was
now irrevocably linked.
Interracial sex is at the centre of the Raj Quartet. An Englishwoman is
raped by a gang of men. Her Indian lover is accused and wrongly imprisoned
for the crime. Though he is British-educated and serves in the ICS, the
forces which conspire to separate the couple are too great. The story of
Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners (who dies in childbirth) is a tragic one,
and might be thought an inauspicious sign to hang over your own attempt
to bridge the Anglo-Indian divide, which, though narrower than in Scott's
colonial India, was still a reality in sixties London. Never-theless, my
parents saw two advantages in 'Hari'. Firstly it was similar to a common
English name; at public school, the Scott character is known as 'Harry Coomer'.
Secondly, my great uncle, the politician Pandit Hridaynath Kunzru, had always
been known in the family as 'Haribaba'. Though rather old-fashioned ("why
do you want to call him that?" asked one of my father's sisters), Hari
was a Kunzru name.
So, because of a book
written by a dead white sahib, I became Hari Mohan Nath Kunzru and embarked
on a life of variable vowel sounds. I started off with a dropped 'h' and
an 'a' to rhyme with the 'a' in 'cat'. Alright 'arry? This was the sound
of Essex, where the eastward suburban sprawl of London fades out into
forest and intensive farmland. Essex has a particular reputation in Britain.
It's the county of flash and trash and too much cash, where the boys drive
fast cars, the girls wear short skirts, and everyone believes Eng-er-land
is the greatest place on earth. In the 1980's the stereotype had some
substance. There weren't many Asian kids at my school, and in the hostile
racial climate of the time, we were often reminded that our dark skin
made us less good, less valuable, less desirable than our white classmates.
No matter where our parents had come from, all of us, the Ben-gali Muslim
boy, the two Sikh brothers, the Tamil, the Guj-arati girl and even half-white
me, were pakis. Think about that for a moment. Spit it out, like it's
the worst insult you can think of. Greasy paki. Smelly paki. And there
you have it! A little lesson for all the proud patriots rattling their
sab-res at each other over the Line of Control, with love from the white
racists of Essex. At a distance, we all look the same to them. Orange
or green, we're all pakis, regardless of our oh-so-important differences
of religion, caste or language.
At 18 I went to Oxford University and along with an earring, some retrospectively-embarrassing
fashions and a smoker's cough, I acquired a long drawled 'a', the 'a'
of 'car' or 'guitar'. Haah-ri. Pretend your name is Arabella or Emily,
and you've just been let out after seven years' incarceration in a girls'
boarding school. Flutter your eyelashes a little while you say it, and
then tell me how you've always been attracted to India's spirituality.
Yes Emily, we are rather spiritual, aren't we. Shall we go outside?
British people don't really hear anything between the 'a' of 'bat' and
that of 'bar'. The intermediate vowel-sound made by Indian speakers, similar
to the 'u' in 'hurry' (or indeed 'curry') doesn't register on their ears.
My long new Oxbridge vowel indicated, among other things, a switch in
social class. Haah-ri was a name to emphasise difference, to bring out
the cosmopolitan and exotic, rather than repressing it. Though being a
paki was now interesting, even sexy, it brought a train of weirdness in
its wake. On one of my first evenings at Oxford, I found myself sitting
in a room with a group of Old Etonian hippies, immensely tall (you might
say vice-regal) young men with cut-glass accents, dreadlocks and Rajasthani
mirror-work waistcoats. On the walls were posters of Hindu gods. Incense
was burning. Jimi Hendrix was on the stereo. They were passing round a
chillum, each touching it to his forehead as he took a hit. "Boom
Shankar", said one, handing it to me. "That means," he
explained, "'may the seed of your loin grow in the belly of your
These days some of my friends say my name with a short 'a' and some with
a long one. A few even make a stab at the 'Indian' pronounciation. I couldn't
tell you who says what, because I don't hear the difference. I'm all three,
'ari, Haah-ri and Hari. As a member of the South Asian diaspora, the people
whose parents came from somewhere else, I've even got my own label. In
Britain, the 'second generation' is now a defined target market, and lifestyle
magazines, TV shows and clubs have sprung up to sell things to us and,
crucially, to sell us to the rest of the world. There are many successful
and visible young British Asians: newsreaders and DJ's and actors and
sports people. There's an established middle class of lawyers and doctors
and pharmacists and engineers. We are invited to endless public debates
to discuss who 'we' are, debates in which we usually fail to come up with
any concrete answers. All we can agree on is that suddenly we look good,
especially to politicians. Our parents are admired by the right for having
clawed their way up through the social order and by the left for their
sense of 'community'. We, their children, are held up as an example to
the citizenry that the bad old days are over, that Britain isn't racist
any more. We are becoming a kind of goodnight story, told to newer immigrants
to persuade them that if they follow the rules they will be rewarded,
and to nervous Middle Englanders to persuade them that things aren't as
bad as the news pages of their morning papers might claim.
There are many things
wrong with this picture. British racism is alive and well, although increasingly
disreputable, at least in metropolitan circles. The brunt of it is being
borne by newer immigrants - the Somalis and Bosnians and Afghans and Romanians
who have recently washed up in Britain looking for a better life away
from the wars of the last decade. They are not fashionable. They are just
a social problem. Even the gilded Asian second generation is partly composed
of young people living in 'ethnically concentrated areas', the curent
media euphemism for ghettos. The riots in northern industrial towns in
2001 were a reminder that, despite backslapping about Bend It Like Beckham
and Bombay Dreams, the story of a fashionably-assimilated and prosperous
Asian immigrant community isn't the only one we could be telling.
Do I feel 'second generation'? I don't know. I walk through Banglatown
in London past the skinny streetcorner kids with the gelled hair and the
Armani jeans and the slang that is one-third Jamaican, one-third Bangladeshi
and one-third Cockney. I get a wedding invitation from a wealthy British
Asian couple that includes a flyer for a bhangra class; they are worried
that their guests won't know what to do when the dhol drummers start to
play. I watch an old Raj Kapoor movie, reading the subtitles because
I don't understand the Hindi. I go to a restaurant and eat food that is
nothing like the food in my aunt's house. These experiences constellate
around me, but don't seem
to settle into any one pattern. There are always various ways they could
be interpreted, various ways they could be pronounced. In the end, I think,
it all comes down to vowel sounds.