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The prospect of prosperity lures some to Britain. Others have found that its greatest riches are not material after all

The Observer

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I decided to leave India and come back to this country for good, Shiva Naipaul invited me to dinner at his flat in Maida Vale and mockingly admonished me, saying, ‘So you have come back for more of the old colonial lash.’

Now as I try and follow the frenzied debate about immigration I have often wondered about what Naipaul said: what is it that lures so many to this country?

The way the debate about immigration is presented it would seem this is just a question of material possessions. Britain is presented as a modern El Dorado and the many hundreds of thousands attracted to it are only seduced by the prospect of making undreamt of wealth.

Such a scenario makes it easy to present scare stories of immigration but in so doing the very patriots who propagate such views are selling this country short, indeed demeaning it.

There is so much more on offer than merely the chance of making money. In fact its greatest riches are not material. In my case the colonial lash Naipaul said I hungered for was not money but success and recognition in my chosen field of writing and journalism. Had I continued to live in India I would have had a lifestyle far richer than anything I enjoy here.

Indeed, leaving India impoverished me materially but it enriched me in various other ways: culturally, intellectually and it made me realise my dream of becoming a writer, something I doubt if I could have achieved in India, or at least not without a lot more hassle.

Like many members of my family, I had originally come to this country to go to university. I had then qualified as a chartered accountant and wanted to continue living here in an effort to become a writer. But under immense emotional blackmail — the Hindu mother’s capacity for such blackmail exceeds that of any other faith, even perhaps the Jewish Mamma — I was forced to return to India. My brother-in-law was then a leading chartered accountant in India and in the nepotistic way these things work there I was offered a partnership in a leading firm.

I was immediately sucked into what my brother-in-law called the good life: a very comfortable flat in the family home, servants who did my every bidding, chauffeur-driven cars and membership of clubs — indeed, there were few material wants. But when I tried to keep my dim hopes of journalism alive I found how limiting India was and how much more open and liberating England could be.

Before I had left England I had made some progress in becoming a journalist and was agreeably surprised that, despite the fact that I was an unknown, it was possible to open some very august doors.

I had become a broadcaster on the nascent London Broadcasting Corporation, persuaded the Sunday Times to allow me to string for them, got a publisher to commission me to write a biography of the Australian cricketer Keith Miller and even managed to interview one of my journalistic heroes: Anthony Howard, then editor of the New Statesman.

In India, by contrast, I had, as the Indians say, no ‘pull’ in the media. In business my family contacts made life easy, in the media I knew nobody and, unlike London, cold calling was not welcome. The editor of a Calcutta paper did finally see me but treated me with the sort of disdain that my grandmother inflicted on the untouchable woman who cleaned her toilets. And the head of a sports radio station made it clear to me that if I wanted to broadcast cricket commentaries I would have to keep giving him and his wife presents.

After three years of such an existence — material comfort in an intellectual desert — I decided to abandon India and take my chance at becoming a writer. When I arrived back at Heathrow I was almost the archetypal struggling writer: I had one completed book with a publisher, another incomplete manuscript in my case and £400 in the bank, but no job or even offer of one.

Three months after I had given up my comfortable partnership, the Sunday Times, which had begun to use me, closed down for a year and I confronted the hard realities of the world of freelance journalism.

Since then much has changed for me and the partners I left behind in India. They have grown immensely rich as the Indian service sector has boomed. They earn at a conservative estimate five times what I earn, live in houses that are virtual palaces, do not have to worry about doctors’ waiting lists, or traffic, as they are invariably driven everywhere. And when they travel abroad, which they do frequently, they always go first class while I rely on my wits to upgrade to premium plus.

But while I feel embarrassed that I cannot reciprocate the lavish hospitality they shower on me when I visit India, I have never had any regrets about abandoning accountancy there for journalism here.

For although I have not quite fulfilled my dreams, to be a cricket writer like Neville Cardus, a broadcaster like John Arlott, or a foreign correspondent like James Cameron — I did have the privilege of meeting all three — I like to think I have not done too badly and whatever I have done has been achieved without any nepotism or pull or toadying to unpleasant people.

I am well aware that there still remain immense barriers of colour and creed in this country and I have always felt there is a glass ceiling beyond which I cannot go, but within such boundaries it has provided me with opportunities which I would not have had in India.

It is an immensely open, intellectually alive and culturally curious country and it surprises me that in the endless debate about immigration these virtues are not talked of but the stress is only on filthy lucre.

True, the lure of money drives many immigrants to this country, but there are quite a few like us who live here not for the money but more for its values.

© Mihir Bose

      

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