‘This is British history’: the radio series preserving the South Asian past of the country


The Three Pounds in My Pocket by Kavita Puri is a detailed oral history of the lives of migrants from India and Pakistan and their families, from Partition to Cornershop

Many survived Partition, living in harsh situations, working long shifts in factories.

It was so costly; they had to be so lonely.

But for themselves and their grandchildren, they have built these exceptional lives…’
Broadcaster and author Kavita Puri has spent most of the past six years interviewing individuals from India and Pakistan who migrated in the 1950s and 1960s to British migrant strongholds such as Bradford, Birmingham and Southall in West London.

Many spoke of a darker, grayer, and more hostile nation than the glorious golden streets and idyllic green landscapes that had been propagated to them as distant colonial subjects, and some took serious trauma from the horrors of partition with them. Puri was first influenced by her own father, Ravi, who she knew nothing about her own distant past until she interviewed him on his 70th birthday in 2014 – a product of the silence wall that still remains in many South Asian households.

He arrived at a cold and rainy Heathrow airport in November 1959 at the age of 24.

He took a robe out of his suitcase and wore it over his suit, missing a winter coat, to stay warm on the lonely train ride to Middlesbrough in northeast England, where he started working as a trainee engineer. Later, he moved to Kent with his wife, where Puri grew up, to start a family. Why have I never read or heard about these stories?”I remember thinking: Why have I never read or heard about these stories?”I remember thinking. “I was worried that they would be forgotten within families and the British South Asian narrative, but also within the broader British narrative.”

Puri’s interest in the topic led her to write a novel, Partition Voices, and to launch Three Pounds in My Pocket, a documentary series on Radio 4. The title of the first oral history of British South Asians is a reference to the amount of money men like her father were allowed to carry into the UK.

In it, with extracts from the BBC archives, Puri interweaves personal testimony. Every episode revolves around a time in history, offering a moving yet divided portrait of British multiculturalism’s achievements and failures. Puri compares Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech with the Race Relations Act, which shielded ethnic minorities from discrimination in housing and jobs, and contrasts the increasing presence of South Asians in Britain with events such as the 1989 publication of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, which triggered a split in the identity of the British Asian umbrella along religious lines.

Second-generation voices speak out in the second season, bouncing between dialogues with Puri and the elders, exposing a deepening texture of relationships between parent and child, civil rights movements, club nights, and hybrid identities.

The new fourth series starts with the “cricket test,” of Norman Tebbit in 1990, which suggested that the allegiance of a British Asian could be determined by who he supported in international cricket matches.

It was a gross oversimplification that reflected, and is still familiar today, an undercurrent of awkwardness and hostility towards cultural diversity which persisted through the end of the millennium. Puri also looks at the effects of Stephen Lawrence’s 1993 racial murder.

He was an 18-year-old black boy, but he was looked at by British South Asians and thought, “He was a black 18-year-old boy, but British South Asians looked at him and thought: That could have been us,” says Puri. The families began to have discussions. One interviewee said she first understood that when her father spoke to her about how to defend herself after the murder, she was a minority in this country.

She was already six years old.
But Puri also calls the 1990s a “golden era” in which in British pop culture the resilience of blackness and brownness was mirrored. Bombay Jungle, opened at London’s Wag Club in 1993, is the first weekly South Asian-themed club night.

A tribute to Indian singer Asha Bhosle, Cornershop’s 1997 hit “Brimful of Asha,” reached No. 1 on the charts.

And in popularity, movies such as East Is East and the TV show Goodness Gracious Me grew; the Queen reportedly even watched the latter. It has been described by people as a cool feeling to be Asian.

It was the


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