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The global Indian

Two entirely separate events over the last few days have reminded me how much the world’s perception of India and Indians has changed.

Rishi Sunak, in line to become the next Prime Minister of UK, finally addressed the carping about the wealth that his wife possesses by virtue of owning some shares in Infosys, the great Indian company founded by her father NR Narayan Murthy.


During the Tory leadership debate Sunak looked straight into the camera and said how proud he was of his father-in-law. Murthy was a self-made man who started with nothing, who used a small sum of money saved by his wife to build one of India’s greatest companies. But there was the kicker as well. Infosys had created thousands of jobs, not just in India as we might reasonably assume, but in the UK as well.


   It was good to see that a) the next Prime Minister of the UK may well be a man of Indian origin and b) that he was so proud of his Indian father-in-law whose success, he pointed out, had even benefited the UK.


   The second, unconnected, event was the announcement that the rock band Queen’s Greatest Hits collection had become the first album to pass seven million chart sales in the UK.  The album has sold 1.26 billion (yes, billion) total UK streams to date. And the group’s best known song Bohemian Rhapsody has had 240 million streams.


   I was at school in the UK when Queen had their first super hit (Killer Queen) and I was an early fan, buying their albums and going off to see the band in concert. I always wondered about the lead singer (and the writer of such hits as Bohemian Rhapsody). He clearly wasn’t English but never admitted to being Indian. When asked where his family was from he would say ‘Zanzibar’ or claim that his father was a civil servant employed by the British Empire so he had enjoyed an international upbringing.


   Eventually it emerged that his real surname was Balsara so the jig was up. But he would still not come out and claim his Indian/Parsi origins. The British music press, who were as intrigued, took the line that perhaps he was ‘Persian’.


   Mercury/Balsara never really came clean till he died when pictures of sari-clad relatives mourning him appeared in the papers making it difficult to sustain the Zanzibarian origin story. Apparently, Balsara believed that to admit to being Indian would be uncool in rock circles and that he might lose his fan base.


   It pleases me now to see that his Indian origins have been widely discussed and shown in Bohemian Rhapsody, a sort of Disney-fantasy movie about the band. And it has made no difference at all to his fans that he was Indian. His songs live on as the award for selling seven million copies of the Greatest Hits collection demonstrates.


 "All of this is not just because the West became less racist. It is because Indians made themselves so indispensable that companies had to promote them."

   I used to be disapproving about Mercury/Balsara’s unwillingness to admit being Indian. But now, I am less judgmental. I also had a cheerful contempt for the Indians who joined the Conservative party, which took a hard line on immigration and was packed out with racists in the 1970s.


   I guess I was not the only one to resent Indians in the UK who tried too hard to pretend to be what they were not. Decades later, the TV show Goodness Gracious Me echoed my view with skits about an Indian family called the ‘Coopers’ (i.e. Kapoors), who performed songs with such titles as ‘We Are So British’.


   Looking back, I think that because I was an Indian who lived in India (where I went back during my vacations) I underestimated how tough it must have been for immigrants to fit into what was then a fairly racist society. Pretending to be English and denying their Indianness, may have been one way of getting along even if I found it contemptible.


   But listening to Sunak I realised how much things had changed. Some of it is because a new generation of Brits, brought up in a multi-cultural society are less racist than their parents used to be. Some of it is because many brave people have worked to break down racism in Britain. Last week, the former British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in The Times about being distressed to find that when he took over as PM in 2005, there were only two non-white members out of 198 Conservative MPs. By 2015, the party had six times as many ethnic minority MPs. This year, the ministry is packed out with Asians (many of whom are not yet as well-known as say, Priti Patel or Sajid Javid) and the next Prime Minister could well be a Punjabi.


   But there is one other factor we often discount when we talk about the new generation of global Indians. Yes, it is partly because they face less discrimination now than they used to. But it is also because Indians (or more properly, people of Indian origin) have demonstrated that, no matter how great the obstacles, it only takes a generation or so to overcome them.


   In the 1970s, the only corporate chieftain of Indian origin that anybody ever wrote about was Bhaskar Menon, the Chairman of EMI, then the world’s largest music company. Indians languished in middle level jobs in the finance departments of companies. They had yet to make a mark either in the City of London or on Wall Street. There was no question of Indians heading America or Britain’s largest companies.


   All that has changed. Indra Nooyi became a global icon when she headed Pepsi and there are now so many Indian Chief Executives at the world’s largest companies that it is hard to keep count. Indians are among the dominant ethnic groups in the financial services industry in the West. Even Hollywood and the entertainment world now have a substantial Indian presence.


   All of this is not just because the West became less racist. It is because Indians made themselves so indispensable that companies had to promote them. In nearly every field, with the notable exception of sports (if you exclude cricket), Indians have reached the top.


   So when I see Rishi Sunak praising Narayan Murthy in a TV debate and I see how Freddie Mercury’s songs are among the most successful in the history of UK pop, I can’t but help feel proud.


   The global Indian has made us all hold our heads a little higher.



Posted On: 22 Jul 2022 12:16 PM
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