LONDON CALLING: CITIZEN KHAN
SON OF A BUS DRIVER AND SEAMSTRESS, REGARDED AS SIGNIFICANT MUSLIM POLITICIAN IN WESTERN WORLD
A human rights lawyer and Labour MP, defeated a billionnnaire’s son Zac Goldsmith and received more votes than any British politician ever.
The Europe’s most imperialistic, multicultural metropolis elected its mayor on May 5 in an historic election, as Queen Elizabeth II was celebrating her 90th birthday. Normally the news would hardly cause a ripple, except that a Conservative mayor was replaced by a Labour man with a huge mandate. But this was breaking news – it broke many shibboleths of ethnic and conservative thinking. The mayor happens to be a Muslim with sub-continental connections. Mr Sadiq Khan, a human rights lawyer and Labour MP, defeated a billionnnaire’s son Zac Goldsmith and received more votes than any British politician ever. Mr Goldsmith had campaigned to capitalise on the fear of the Londoners with extremists and sectarian concerns. He emphasised division and differences; Mr Khan was for unity with the challenges of diversity. Sadiq Khan, born in a Council flat, the son of a bus driver and a seamstress, is now regarded as the most significant Muslim politician in the western world.
His parents, born in British India, came from Pakistan when the subcontinent was divided through tragic machinations – partition was the British way of solving problems in a hurry and the Indian partition was particularly brutal – it was nothing short of a civil war between cousins who had lived together for at least a millennium.
It’s universally acknowledged as imperialism’s worst crime. A couple of lines drawn through the map of India by a man who had hardly set foot on the sub-continent, without any serious concern to its catastrophic consequences: around two million butchered in fanatical frenzy; 12 million displaced from their homes, never to return where they had lived and loved for generations. And this two years after the Second World War, which had just given the world Hitler, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Within less than 25 years Bangladesh was brutally born, showing the imperial powers that religion alone cannot be the foundation of a modern postcolonial nation. Since then the battles continue around the subcontinent and, of course, in the Middle East. Hon Sadiq Khan’s election is a slap in the face of potentially dangerous and populist leaders like Donald Trump and several fascist faces in Europe. Mr Trump’s triumph in being the presumptive nominee, and possibly presumptuous president, should be Hillary Clinton’s victory - I hope, with the largest margin in any presidential election in US history. And it would be wonderful if this is achieved by a woman.
It’s also a telling blow to the right wing Conservatives in England who brought in fear, religion and race in this mayoral campaign. The Londoners rejected such regressive politics. Instead they gave the young Muslim leader a thumping majority. The mayoral election is not only the triumph of a very likeable leader—it’s really a tribute to the citizens of London, the world’s greatest and largest city, global in its reach and Commonwealth in its commitment. It test now is if it will remain European despite the myopic campaign of a very boring Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London.
Greater London’s population almost exceeds that of Australia. And there’s no better train system than the London Underground. Housing and transport were two major issues in the election.
But, of course, there’s more to London for some of us who are supposedly postcolonial : the literary London from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens to the war movies and fiction written about it remains in my mind and memory. I’d read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of
Two Cities when I was barely sixteen years old; the novel is set during the French Revolution and the human drama alternates between the two cities: Paris and London. Paris never had the same fascination for me despite some family connections: it was a city for artists and American exiles but London was the great exilic capitalist city, with a statue of Karl Marx; it has a statue of the great Mahatma too. But for me and one of my children, it was education and literature that took me to London.
In my teens I travelled to Delhi without knowing much about that sprawling, ancient city or India. It was a discovery and all in all I’ve spent seven most delightful years in Delhi. And have just completed my book on that first journey from Nadi to New Delhi.
In my twenties I travelled to London, all alone, via Delhi. I remember landing at Heathrow airport around midnight and taking a taxi to a hotel arranged by the British Council who administered the UK Commonwealth fellowships . Next day I saw on BBC the prime minister Mr Harold Wilson and his wife Mary Wilson who had published a book of poems. The image of a distinguished don PM and his poet wife is etched on my mind with a certain vividness. Next day I bought a copy of Mary Wilson’s book of poems. A few nights later, I saw an interview with V.S. Naipaul who had won the prestigious Booker Prize for his novel In a Free State. Vidia Naipaul became one of my most meaningful writers – and I’ve taught and written about his work and have had the pleasure of listening and meeting him. He’s now in his 80s married, after the death of his English wife, to a Pakistani journalist. A few days later we were driven to the House of Commons and other London landmarks about which one had read—so London was never an alien city. It was already, because of its language, history, literature, become part of one’s interior landscape. In the 1970s, I spent some time in London –it was the Paki-bashing season. I stayed in a hotel named Cambridge with my family: Jyoti and my three children. The owner of the hotel was a Pakistani Pathan. And he showed immense kindness to me and allowed us to cook whatever we wanted for our children in his kitchen. But we enjoyed KFC pieces and Indian cuisine in Southhall. We toured much of London in those red buses and on the Underground—on the Underground you just couldn’t miss your destination, they were so well-marked in different colours : blue, red, green. If the Underground was an engineering marvel, the huge Parks in the heart of London were the most imaginative I’d seen. The vision and planning that created these must have been extraordinary. One can argue that most of the streets and parks, bridges and buildings, were paved and built by the “dust of gold” of the empire but several imperial powers of yesterday don’t have much left to show. Possibly the British Empire is redeemed by its ideas and institutions despite its many atrocities. Its poetry and parliamentary democracy remain my particular passions. It’s while In London, I met one of my closet college companions from my Delhi college days. Saroj was from Kenya but we’d lost touch and by sheer chance we discovered ourselves in the streets of London. It sounds incredible but it’s true. We resumed our friendship and for the past forty plus years , every trip to London takes us to Saroj’s home where we spend our evenings, close to Heathrow airport. London also has a Fijian memory for me: while in London Jo Nacola from USP also joined me—he was ostensibly doing a course in Drama, I think, at the university of Warwick. During the summer vocation we were doing a course at the Institute of Education at London university. After lectures Jo and I used to visit the popular pubs, many named after famous writers. One evening we stayed too long in a pub and took the last train towards Hounslow. We were so engrossed in our conversation that we didn’t realize this was the last train and we didn’t get off at the last station. It was shunted into the parking area of the Victoria station, in the very deep and dark depths of the city. Suddenly there was no one in the train and the lights were switched off—and we were thousands of feet underground. Both Jo and I must have panicked—we pulled all the emergency stop chains, levers and handles. It was a truly terrifying experience— we looked out the windows, and the huge wires looked like writhing pythons and if you stepped out you could be electrocuted. And to remain inside, one could die of suffocation.
I’ve give this in some detail in an essay in my book FIJI: Paradise in
Pieces (2001). The consequence of our actions and shouts was that after a few intolerable minutes, we saw a man coming with what looked like an electric light. First he saw me—a sub-continental Pakistani! Ah, he was about to let go the choicest of English expletives, I suspect, when he suddenly caught sight of Jo’s South Pacific hair-do and size and said with deep sorrow: ‘You boys have buggered the whole brake system of the Victoria station !’
I doubt if even Shakespeare could have imagined such an encounter. Very politely he led us outside and from there we took the ubiquitous London taxi to our destinations. These memories came to me as I learnt that Sadiq Khan was elected the mayor of London, a few days ago.
And once more I feel I should re-visit this open and a most civilised , multicultural city: home of millions from many corners of the world. Cities become the corners of one’s living heart—my four corners are Delhi, Suva, London and Canberra. But Nadi will always be the centre of my imagination – it should become a city soon, from Nadi airport to Vivekananda college in Malolo.
Sadiq Khan received more votes than any British politician ever.
Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His books , Autumn Leaves and his travelogue, Loving You Eternally, will be published later this year.