April 26, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Chicken Tikka Masala For The Soul

Meanwhile, back in the old country -- England -- I find out that Chicken Tikka Masala is, in some ways, a major cultural icon here. I don't mean this just in the sense that it is a popular dish here. Though given that you can find it in abundance on the shelves of the frozen section in the supermarket, it certainly does appear to be popular.

But no, this last week I found out that CTM is more than just another 2.99 frozen food entree. It was actually held up as a symbol of this nation's diversity and tolerance. Chicken Tikka Masala is "now Britain's true national dish." It is a "perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences."

Mad cows, foot and mouth disease, Chicken Tikka Masala and Englishmen. Oh to be in England! Yes indeed.

The assertion about national dishes came, no doubt you know, from Robin Cook, minister of something in Tony Blair's government. He made his pronouncement in the middle of a massive debate on racism and immigration that, as I've watched it unfold in the couple of weeks I've been here, has taken on all kinds of intriguing hues. That it reached out to enfold an item of food is just one of those hues, though quite likely the one that was least expected.

As I understand it, here's a flavour -- and I promise it's not CTM flavour -- of what's been happening. A body called the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE, chaired by a Gurbux Singh) has issued a "compact" for election candidates to sign. This is a sort of election pledge on racism, and includes such fine sounding clauses as:

[I will] Reject all forms of racial violence, racial harassment and unlawful racial discrimination.

[I will] Not publish ... any material ... likely to generate hostility or division between people of different racial, national or religious groups, or which might reasonably be expected to do so.

Many MPs have signed the pledge, some have not. The CRE made public the names of those who have not. As it happens, the ones who refuse to sign are from the Conservative Party. There are signs that this refusal is costing that party support, and from within its own voting ranks as well. In a front page report The Guardian tells us both that fewer people than the last time they polled will vote Tory if the election were to be held tomorrow and fewer Tory voters see the party's leader, William Hague, as the best prime minister for the country.

Mixed into all this are continuing flareups over immigration and racism. Some Tories have muttered darkly -- yes, I did intend that pun -- of the erosion of Britain's white Anglo-Saxon character. In Kent, the Conservatives issued an advertisement that works hard to monger up scares about "bogus" asylum seekers. "What matters MOST to you?", it asks. "Bogus Asylum Seekers? Conservatives reduced the number before. We will do so again." And as always seems to happen at such times, someone has popped up to call that particular bluff. A Romanian who got asylum last year says he spent a week gardening, illegally, for a Tory candidate from Gloucester called Paul Taylor. Taylor is a vocal critic of the government on asylum policy; The Guardian tells us that he said "asylum seekers were placing a burden on Gloucester and should be locked up while their applications were being processed."

I suppose it is hard to lock up somebody who is doing your gardening for you at minimal wages, who knows.

And it is with all this as a backdrop that Robin Cook found inspiration in Chicken Tikka Masala last week. Though in fairness to him, he said some eminently sensible things about immigration as well. A sampling from his speech:

"Legitimate immigration is the necessary and the unavoidable result of economic success."

"[Insinuating that immigration is undermining Britain] is a pitiful misreading of British history. ... The British are not a race but a gathering of countless different races, the vast majority of which are not indigenous to these islands."

What must I -- no immigrant or asylum seeker, but no Anglo-Saxon either -- make of all this? Let's see. I like CTM, or at least the CTM I've had in India, a lot. But even so, it seems just a trifle ludicrous that it should become a symbol of a nation's character. Then again, I have no more portentous barometers of such character to trot out, so what do I know?

More seriously. The CRE's compact is a fine document and I wish everybody would believe in, and practice, the principles it spells out. That's a forlorn wish, I know. I despise the men who go on about preserving some pristine form of race. I despise them most of all because they find that an easy way to turn people against outsiders. For it is an ancient truth that while it's hard to fix all that's wrong with a society, it's easy indeed to blame the immigrants for those wrongs.

So when our own hero of blather, Bal Thackeray, blames non- Maharashtrians for all that's noxious in Bombay, when he says these people encroach upon government land and steal electricity and water, the tax-paying public faces water scarcity and all sorts of other problems, Bombay's footpaths have disappeared and the entire city stinks like a toilet, he's in very good company indeed. He's slotted right in with Gloucester's Paul Taylor and his Tory colleagues who mourn the dilution of Anglo- Saxon character.

How ironic, then, that while they share the same ideological bed -- that is, if the feeble-minded practice of blaming others can be called an ideology -- Thackeray himself, were he to move to Britain, would be a target of Taylor and gang.

And yet, having said all that, there are two aspects of this whole debate in Britain that I find particularly worth thinking about.

First: yes, the CRE's compact on racism is a fine document. But must people be expected to sign it purely because it says good things? Must it become some kind of test, the passing of which makes you a fit candidate for office? Does putting your name to a piece of paper make you a good candidate, say you are a good human being? Or is it your words and actions, the way you conduct your life, that do so? Something about this pressure to sign the CRE's pledge makes me queasy; perhaps more important, it means nothing at all.

After all, if I was an intelligent racist, I would be first in line to sign that pledge. Then I could go right back to being my nasty racist self without a care in the world: I signed, didn't I?

Second: Cook's statements about race and immigration are really the heart of the matter. It is futile, besides wrong, to blame immigrants -- Romanians, non-Maharashtrians, Bangladeshis, whoever -- for our problems.

In India as in Britain, that exercise spits at everything our history tells us we are. It is also futile, besides wrong, to pretend that stopping immigration -- if that can be accomplished -- will fix our problems.

I know nothing about Robin Cook. But when the stinking, encroaching, thieving, tax-evading outsiders are the soft targets for insalubrious politicians around the globe, it takes courage to say what he does about them.

For that alone, I'll forgive the bit about Chicken Tikka Masala.

Dilip D'Souza

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