Saturday, January 24, 2009

Day 8: On Becoming British

My Saturday started as usual - late start, no breakfast, resolutions to complete but no progress and a purposeless visit to library - and at 5pm, looks like it will end as usual if I don't do something soon to change it. But, still, I shall pause for a moment to reflect on what's up next. I had a busy week, which ended somewhat satisfactorily. But I have been here before and took a break, only to see all the gains fritter away.

So, not again, and work starts now, etc. But the most nagging thing is that I have to travel soon [which is not that bad] and I have mountains of work to complete, not least turning in my tax returns. The Inland Revenue seemed to have gone crazy and mandated that anyone filing their tax returns after 31st October will have to do so online. While they told me this clearly in advance and I can somewhat understand their logic of driving people to online filing, they have kept the process as complicated as before. Now I have to go and apply for an activation code - don't even remember if I have done this earlier, so will have to do that again - and it will arrive some time on post. Clearly, some people don't understand the online concept and they don't need to understand perhaps, because they can still keep their fat pay cheques and privileges whether there is a recession out there or not.

In fact, while I kick myself in anger for not applying for the activation code earlier and hanging in a limbo at this time - looking out for post morning, day and evening [though it is delivered only once a day] and thinking about the good old days of afternoon delivery - I am thinking that a pay freeze for the government servants will not be a bad idea. They are supposed to keep this economy running and they have to shoulder as much blame, collectively, as we individuals do. Gordon Brown says that he did not see it coming - what an astonishing statement from a man who led one of World's largest economies for more than a decade. A lunchtime conversation with any of the many economists he met would have warned him of this, unless he decided to take an afternoon nap during lunch break. So, why not freeze his salary [poor Gordon] and all his aides' salaries too. [My private opinion is that Alistair Darling's salary should be cut, or he should be fired for creating public boredom even in the middle of a financial 9/11, but I shall keep that to me for a moment].

If taxes aren't irritating enough, the next thing on my agenda is the test for Britishness, a rather dumb online exercise called Life in the UK, which I have to write soon. This is necessary for my Permanent Residence, which will allow me to stay in Britain indefinitely without having to queue up for a visa from time to time and answering questions like common criminals in front of an UK border agency official. Therefore, I have to study and know rather enlightening bits of information like the Queen's birthday, the population of South East England and possibly the date England won the football world cup. This will prove that I have become sufficiently British to be permitted a Leave to Remain.

Of course, I am reminded that I am an economic immigrant, who have come to Britain in search of a livelihood, at least thrice a day on tele. All political parties are united that they need to control economic migration, only letting people come for shortage areas, where they can't find adequate people from the EU. They have a plan to boot out these people after a few years, lest they start thinking and eating British. That way, the wise men tells the rest of the population, they can keep the Britain, British.

Interestingly, of course, it will be an exercise to find out what is actually British. I should know - I should write the test in a few days. Knowing the queen's birthday may not be important for any one with republican sentiments, and Alex Salmond may actually fail the test of Britishness intentionally. Of course, there are many things which are uniquely British and should be preserved, but this colonial pomposity may not be one of them. Kate Fox's brilliant Watching The English of course talks about many strains of being English, though Britishness, like Indianness, but unlike Americanness, is a politically made up concept.

For me, being British is not about writing the exam, but being able to laugh at the vanity of it. Being British is more about beers and football - so that test could have been taken in a pub instead of the dreary online test counters as it happens now. Being British is also shopping for girls and friendship for men. Cloitaire Raphael reminds us that British men has this unique thing about being so close to fellow men ['mates'] and the girls actually feel a bit neglected and therefore dress most outrageously to attract attention. Being British is being a touch vain, don't we see in all American war movies how the British soldiers went along with bands and all. But, if the experience and academic results are any guide, being British has nothing about writing exams and passing it.

I learnt a lot living in Britain. For example, the respect and care shown to the less able is exemplary. So is the public politeness. The love for design. An ability to laugh at oneself. A language that allows one to laugh at oneself, most suitable for wry humour. Things like these - it was worth taking all the trouble of immigration to learn.

But the test of Britishness? To me, it is an unique Anglo-Saxon expectation that the world will behave in their terms and want to be British. A strange old-world baggage when the nation state is almost dead and the globalization has been baptized. As if Gordon Brown had a sudden recollection of things old and gone and brought them in the domain of public policy. Is being in a state of denial British? [Like he did not see the recession coming] The fondness of English language, yes that too, especially when this is a lost property and it is a matter of time when the language is called American.

I noted earlier, while living in London, I felt like the medieval British visitors to Mughal India. Here I saw a civilization at its peak, and a society in decline. With technology changing everything and new financial innovations being made, life has become so comfortable that one starts to forget how one got here. One forgets that the power in this world remains with the curious, not the contented. As those British travellers in the middle ages confronted a far superior, but content, civilization in India. I know they were not subjected to a test of Indianness to settle in India. But as well they could have been - as then India was a society in denial - just as I have to get up now and study useless facts to keep going.

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