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I'm all three — 'ari, Haah-ri and Hari

An insult. A trophy. A badge of honour. Or just a play with
vowel sounds? Acclaimed writer HARI KUNZRU explores his
name and British racism

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.

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 woman'."

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.


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