Balti Britain: A Journey Through The British Asian Experience by Ziauddin Sardar

02/02/09, Time Magazine Asia

Ziauddin Sardar has written extensively, among other subjects, on Islam, science – he used to be Middle East correspondent for Nature and the New Scientist – postmodernism, postcolonialism, multiculturalism, Islamic presence in the West, and the complex reconciliation between Muslim beliefs and modernity. The catchy title of his latest book, Balti Britain: A Journey through the British Asian Experience, is slightly misleading: it starts off as an investigation into the origins of that uniquely British Asian, specifically Birmingham, curry-confection, the balti, but then moves into a more extensive, historicized and dizzyingly wide-ranging enquiry into the origins, settlement, assimilation and cultures of the Subcontinental diaspora in the United Kingdom. So not very much about curry at all really.

But like the endless reinvention of food that Sardar uses as a point of entry into how and why a term-defying group lazily called ‘South Asians’ ended up in the UK, his book too positions itself at the crossroads of a large array of genres. It is part autobiography, part family history, part history, part sociology, part journalism, part polemical essay. His favoured method is of using a particular and specific example to launch an archaeological excavation of the layers hidden under it. For example, the unorthodox orthography of the name of his friend, AbdoolKarim Vakil, or the particularly rigorous and enclosed strain of arranged marriage prevalent among the Mirpuri Pakistanis, who comprise the largest part of the Asian population of Bradford, sets Sardar off on investigations that always return him to the Subcontinent and mostly to two episodes that have defined the region: colonial rule and Partition. Time and again, Sardar deftly untangles incredibly complex knots, networks and relations to uncover how the enmeshment of Britain and the Subcontinent had a far longer, richer, denser history than the simplistic story of post-Independence economic migration would have us believe.

Throughout these larger histories that dismantle orthodoxies and received wisdom about British and Subcontinental entanglement, Sardar weaves in his personal stories. The fact of his new fatherhood becomes a path into an essay on the British rewriting of India’s past. The shocking discovery, after his father’s death, that his paternal grandfather served in the British Army in the Second Afghan War leads to a disinterment of the long chain of cause and effect that has led to Afghanistan and the North West Frontier of Pakistan becoming one of the world’s most unstable regions. Decentering Eurocentric history is not new and what Sardar’s account lacks in originality it makes up for in its relentless questioning of the presence and construction of Subcontinental migrants in the UK as new, foreign, baneful. There are genuinely illuminating sections, such as the one on the distinction between Deobandi and Barelvi Muslims and how an appreciation of those differences is vital to understanding the fractious debates about ‘Western-bred’ Islamic fanaticism. It is a shame, then, that the book is let down by its plethora of spelling errors and inconsistencies, its lack of endnotes and bibliography, its unappetizing prose style and the numerous mistakes in the English transcription of Urdu and Punjabi words.