Title: Exotic England – The Making of A Curious Nation; Author: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown; Publisher: Portobello Books; Pages: 336; Price: Rs 599
Britain, by a slim majority, chose in July to leave the European Union – with some English more keen on Brexit rather than the Scots and the Irish. And it is some segments among the English, that expressing concern about influx of immigrants and refugees, want to turn their backs on not only Europe but multiculturalism and revel in their own singularity. But can they turn their backs on their own history?
There are quite a few people in England who want to be only “English” and reject immigrants and foreign culture, but is that possible at all, asks journalist, activist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in this book.
She contends that English embraced the exotic much more than any other European society across their history, and when they went on to rule a considerable amount of the world for a considerable time, the imperial experience not only left its mark on the colonised but on them too. While cuisine is the most known example, there are many other fields from clothing to architecture and drama.
And the effect goes right on to the top, she says, citing the examples of Sebastian Coe, Mo Farah, the wives of Conservative leader (and now Foreign Minister) Boris Johnson and Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, the two lovers of Princess Diana and many more stretching well into the past.
While researching this book, she came upon “a host of colourful characters, including Jack Philby, father of Kim (the notorious Soviet spy, and named after Rudyard Kipling’s immortal character), a polyglot Arabist and ardent convert to Wahabi Islam; Samson Rowlie, aka Hsaan Aga, a powerful eunuch in the Ottoman court; the artist William Hodges, who painted Indian landscapes infused with wonder, divine light and religious ecstasy; the high-born Jane Digby, who happily became a Bedouin wife”.
These were “exemplars not of English eccentricity but of England’s openness to the ‘Other’ – and incorrigible aspect of the Anglo-Saxon identity”.
And there are many more – the African who lived and worked on the land even in the era when the English, or the people who became the English eventually, had themselves not arrived on the island, and Warren Hastings and Lord Cornwallis, who will be most familiar to Indian readers (who remember their high school history that is) and traveller (and Kama Sutra translator) Richard Burton.
Alibhai-Brown offers her own example too.
Of Gujarati Ismaili descent, she was among the Asians of Uganda expelled by tyrannical despot Idi Amin in the 1970s and found new homes in Britain, surmounting the racial and other hostility to flourish. And she found her life partner there too. How her family viewed it is a story in itself too).
She notes it was not easy due to the “hostility to migrants, settlers and minorities” but this was offset by the “nation’s open spirit, its liberalism and cultural litheness”.
This openness was well at display in the Brookwood cemetery at Woking (Surrey), the heart of traditional England, where the author, having come to lay flowers at her parents’ graves, found that besides the last resting places of “true-born English men, women and children”, there were sections for “Zoroastrians, people of mixed faith, Latvians, members of the Turkish Air Force, Ahmadi Muslims”.
It was here only that she got the idea for this book – which is divided into two parts.
While the first focusses on England’s “response to the ‘Other’ at home and abroad” over the years, while the second deals with “particular topics to illustrate in more detail how the Orient affected and influenced England and vice versa”, with the latter encompassing visits to former colonies in the Middle East as well as India.
Packed with no end of fascinating tidbits, Alibhai-Brown’s book is however not only a compendium of England’s encounters with the exotic (a word she wants to retrieve from the opprobrium heaped on it by post-colonialists), but an engaging account of how cultures and society evolve, and the dangers to multicultural society from bigots, with a warped view, and these days, fundamentalists of all stripes, not only Islamists.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )