By Siddy Shivdasani
Being a half Indian, half white journalist, it’s getting easier to be depressed about the latest rise of fascism globally.
But I had a thought to myself while sitting by the pool playing a board game with my Indo-German cousin, her two kids and her white boyfriend at the most exclusive club in Mumbai, if not India: I am lucky to be mixed race.
The best thing on our holiday before the pandemic fully hit earlier this year was that we didn’t feel at all out of place and no one even gave us a passing glance. I have quite a patchwork family.
I feel so lucky to be mixed race in those sort of situations, like I have an added dimension compared to most people, certainly my immediate, white family. But I grew up dirt poor on Brixton’s Frontline.
My English mum left my Indian dad — best known as “Peso” — in Holland when I was a baby. We went back to London and he went back to Mumbai, where he lived out the rest of his life before dying aged 72 in 2016.
I led a double life growing up in south London. In many ways, my home life was “white”. The food, middle class values, a complicated culture of manners (which I ignored) and academic expectations (which I fell well short of).
But when I stepped outside my front door to play in the streets, from the time I could walk, I was in a black, working class world. I did also have white friends but not there and that was another world again. And they were also mostly dirt poor.
I’m 48 years old and mixed race relationships were much more of a taboo when I was a kid. Fortunately, my manor had probably more diversity than anywhere else in the country. My racial problems really kicked in as I became a young adult.
I’ve never tried to be anything I’m not. For instance, I’ve never buried my “saarf” London accent. And I treasure watching my beloved Arsenal on the box (I used to go to matches when it was affordable) while downing a few beers. But I have always felt comfortable around people of all races, precisely because I am from a mixed race area. I have the knack of finding a connection.
Drug smuggler Peso was always portrayed as a pantomime villain by my white mum and white stepdad but he was so much more than that, horrific childhood traumas being at the root of his constant acting out.
But the understanding of my south Asian side started in my early teens and was mainly defined by my interactions with Peso. He was a larger than life character and some say I’ve got that it in me, not always in a good way. But there were times when we had fun and I certainly got to know him, which was important to my development.
Sadly, he never really got to know me, or anybody else, including himself, such was the enormity of his ego. But he was the key that opened the door to accessing that Indian side. I went on to be editor of two British-Asian newspapers and I don’t think staff members would have accepted that if they didn’t see the Indian in me.
I used to think my immediate, white-English family was with me on my journey as a mixed race person. I was wrong. Of us all, Brixton’s Frontline was only formative years for me. Another way I’m different.
But I see being mixed race — I also like to (controversially) say “Anglo-Indian” — largely was a wonderful thing. I’m like a chameleon, mixing with people of all colours and creeds, also living in both Israel (Jews) and Lebanon (Arabs) in the Nineties.
I have struggled with identity issues, for sure. At the same time, I’ve always known deep down who I am and I antagonise those who try to pigeonhole me. My mentor, who is second generation British-Pakistani, said: “When you are mixed race or mixed culture, there’s conflict. Out of conflict comes creativity.”
I’m proud that this untroubled genius chose me above anyone else to mentor. He has taught me so much about being south Asian and he says I’ve taught him a lot about white people, the latter more through observation of me rather than anything I was trying to impart.
Without doubt, accessing my Indian side has made me a much more spiritual being. I was halfway to being a full-on, white lager lout when I was around 20. I still like a drink, especially because I have been off cannabis for the last 12 years. I have bipolar disorder and using dope was like pouring petrol on an already raging fire in episodes.
My surname — “Shivdasani’ — translates into “servant of Shiva” in Hindi. Shiva is one of the most important Hindu gods and he is said to have created “ganja” to help us see other worlds. I can see that, have experienced that but not ideal, I’ve found, when you’re trying to hold down a job and pay the mortgage.
Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by the meeting point between science and spirituality. I’ve had many, many mystical experiences as I’ve looked Eastwards. But these days, I don’t try and persuade people “there’s more”, essentially because I have truly accepted it internally.
Before that, my mentor warned me: “You’ll go mad if you go looking for God.”
They turned out to be prophetic words and these days it’s enough for me to believe what I believe without frequently expressing such beliefs. If anyone is committed to finding “more”, they are gonna have to do the legwork themselves. The West would bottle and sell such a formula.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m happy — on the whole — to be a cultural interpreter. And by the way, my musical taste ranges from the Wu-Tang Klan to the Carpenters.
I’m always fascinated by the way I have this “Marmite” reaction from people: Love or hate. I’ve gone through the cycle of not caring what people think of me to being preoccupied with what people think of me and back to not caring. And I hate Marmite.
A lot of people recognise that I’m “different”, whether that is down to being mixed race or having bipolar disorder, I don’t know. It’s a million shades of grey. There have been times when I’ve hated white people but I realise that was wrong. Some of my best friends are white: That’s irony but it’s also true.
It’s a largely a cultural thing rather than a racial thing and, for me, it’s specifically about the English. I often ponder how this little Island once ruled the waves. I’m still on the journey of working it out but that’s a different story.
Maybe I’m seen as abrasive but I simply don’t play “the game”, life’s too short running around trying to reach others’ expectations, cultural or otherwise. My ex-partner is second generation British-Sikh and I have to admit I underestimated how her double life would make life difficult for us.
That, however, is not an accusation.
But I was part of her traditional Punjabi family for over 15 years and I learned a lot. I think if you want an objective view of culture clash then you could do worse than ask mixed race people. We tend to get the best and worst of both worlds. And I’d say there is love both ways between me and some of my Sikh in-laws.
Bringing it back to the positives, being mixed race has helped me develop a depth of character. I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin and I make the most of the cards I’m dealt, whether to help people or just make someone laugh. It’s good to have multiple sources of humour.
I’m very fond of the young, first generation Pakistani who runs my local late night off licence and we speak like white, middle class people to each other until one of us cracks. Same with Indian accents. I respond to being met halfway on frequency. And it seems like he does as well.