Retrieving Lost Pride

Salvinder Dhillon searches for answers to the cause of poverty in his motherland from the perspective of a first generation youth raised in the UK.

Salvinder Dhillon searches for answers to the cause of poverty in his motherland from the perspective of a first generation youth raised in the UK.

It was during the Bihar famine of 1966 that I received my first shock about the reality of my homeland. Daily we witnessed unbearable scenes showing people dying from mass starvation. Images of dead skeleton-like bodies, impoverished children with bloated stomachs and people begging for scraps of food tormented my mind. I was fourteen years of age and understood very little of the real India. For me, my motherland was a great country with a proud history spanning thousands of years. We had thrown out the colonialists and the country had embarked on the path of eliminating poverty and bringing prosperity. These scenes raised many questions in my mind and naturally the first person I asked was my father.

My father was always keen in keeping up with news. He had no formal education but would sit me down to watch the news daily and I would translate it to him. I asked him why in our country of origin, almost twenty years after ending British rule, millions still starved. My father could not answer any of my questions but from his own experience he did shed light on the fate of Indians abroad.

He belonged to a middle class Punjabi family deriving its livelihood from the land, situated in Dhilwan, on the bank of the famous Beas River. Flooding had devastated many villages along the Beas and forced people to seek a better livelihood abroad. Faced with an uncertain future, my father migrated to Britain in 1954 in search of a better life. I was barely three years old. My mother and I joined my father five years later. However, my two elder sisters joined us five years later. His first job in Birmingham was working long hours in a steel producing foundry. He worked near the red hot furnaces producing steel ingots. Like many other fellow countrymen, he often had to work shifts stretching from 8 to 24 hours in extremely difficult conditions. He had no choice for he had to provide financial support to his extended family back home. Like my father, millions of people had left India after formal independence for a better livelihood abroad and suffered from the pangs of separation from their loved ones. As they bitter by realised money did not fall from the trees but had to be earned through sweat and blood. This explained the fate of Indians abroad but what about the millions starving back home?

I decided that perhaps I should ask Mr. Sharma, a teacher of Indian origin in my high school in Southall, to provide answers to some of my questions…

The following day, instead of engaging in our usual play at lunch time, I spoke to a close friend and asked him how he felt about the daily news on India. He was also seething with frustration and a sense of hopelessness. We both went looking for Mr. Sharma. Mr. Sharma showed concern and compassion. We conveyed to him how we felt, our sense of anger and frustration at watching the daily news about the Bihar famine. Mr. Sharma tried to revive our lost pride, but was unable to give satisfactory answers. He mentioned that country faced enormous problems, the government was doing its best and “kismet” had a big role to play. He proposed that we start raising funds for the starving millions and make our little contribution in reducing poverty. We could be amongst many others raising money to send back home to the needy. He provided us with a small plastic bucket and asked us to knock on houses in the vicinity of our school in Southall. There were hardly any Asian families in that particular area at that time. Most of the houses were owned by English families. However in our innocence we agreed to collect money and started knocking on doors and asking for donations from the local community. The response further shattered our pride.

We knocked on about ten doors and received racial abuse in its worst form. Racist remarks like,
“why don’t you WOGS go home? Why are you always on the begging bowl? Blacks are taking jobs from whites and threatening their livelihood”.

We were dumbfounded and our spirits were shattered. We could not counter the racial humiliation as we had not been armed with real answers. We both broke down, put our empty bucket on the roadside and started crying. Why do we have to be the unfortunate Indians?

We became ashamed of being Indian. A sense of inferiority complex began to take hold. We went to Mr Sharma the next day with an empty bucket and heavy hearts. The bucket could easily have been filled with our tears but the tears had evaporated, leaving behind shattered hearts and confused minds.

Why are millions still starving? We felt their plight and dignity was integrally connected to our plight and dignity but there were no answers. We asked other teachers, searched the school as well as the public library. No real answers were to be found except that we should accept the hand of fate, be grateful for what the British rule had done for us and that the present government was doing its best. Yes, there were well off Indians living a life of luxury but what about the millions of victims of perpetual poverty?

My mind remained in a state of unease. I felt an inferiority complex and faced an identity crisis.

Could I be a proud British? Was I an unfortunate Indian and could I keep my head high?

For four years my search continued. It was in 1970, my first year of university that I became exposed to the real answers. There was a meeting being held in London, organized by the Indian Progressive Study Group. The subject was ‘Colonialism and Imperialism, the Cause of Famines in India’. I was invited to the meeting by an organizer of IPSG in Southall. I sensed he was a communist. I had been told to keep away from communists. Despite prejudices sown against communists, could I keep away from a meeting that could provide me with the truth I had been seeking for so many years?……..(will be continued in next issue).

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