So yes, my father was an orphan. Again at a very young age he came to the UK, he must have been in his early 20’s. He didn’t speak any English, and because my grandfather was struggling and we were very very poor, the only way we could escape the misery of poverty was for my father to leave Pakistan in search of a better life and to better the rest of the family who were dependent upon him. So my grandfather sold some of the land that he had in order to get my father the money to pay the agent for him to get the documents made so that he could come to the UK. And when he came here, like many migrants of his generation who came here, it’s the same old stories, all the men came to this country, lived in particular areas that were close by the factories in slum houses. And he tells me that in the house there was probably fifteen to sixteen odd men, all sharing the same house.
So yeah, like many migrants at the time he lived in a house in Havelock street, a street in Sheffield. He worked in a foundry and he was sharing the house with many other men, and they took it in turns to share the beds and to share the cooking. And so in here you have gentleman who can’t speak the language, there’s no amenities like groceries and halal meat like we have today. He tells me that the working conditions were very bad. White workers got better wages and pay, and better working conditions than he. And the struggles of his generation was for dignity and for pride, and for equal rights in terms of on the factory floor. For those young men, as he was then, it was quite a sad life because they left their beloved, my mother, his wife, they had left their families to come here. And they worked in these incredible industrial cities and Sheffield, a steel city which manufactured steel. It looked like Gotham city with massive foundries and stuff like that. He tells me that when the factory whistle used to blow, all these men used to, like swarming bee’s, head towards the foundries and the factories. And he says that when they used to come out, even with his white colleagues, you couldn’t tell who was black or white, because by the end of the shift they all looked the same. The coal, the smouldering iron and all the rest of the stuff, and all the sweat that used to pour off them.
So he lived a very hard life, and my father also lost one or two of his fingers as a result of some of the injuries that they experienced. And as I say, the conditions in those days was very very bad on the factory floors. And even the unions didn’t look out for the interests of black workers. And he’s shared those stories, and so I very much appreciate what my father has been able to do to uplift his family out of that poverty. And through his sheer hard work, working night shifts around the clock 24/7. Particularly saving money so that he could pay for the family back in Pakistan, the extended family that was dependent on his wages.
One of my early memories is being in the school ground, and in order to be accepted, I was asked by the school bully to have a fight with somebody. And I didn’t want to fight nobody, but they were all bullying and laughing and joking calling me all sorts of names. And I was asked to fight this young lad and I went and got involved in a scrap with him, and after beating him up I then realised that actually, he himself was actually a migrant, he was a Greek Cypriot. So that was my first experience of racism in the UK. So I think what I’ve been involved in politically is a struggle against racism a struggle for social justice. And that is something that I became very committed to. I was having to take my parents, my father in particular, I was his eyes and ears because I went to school as a young kid like many other asian kids we had to take our parents to social services, to fill in documents and seeing the way my father was being spoken at. My father wasn’t deaf. He is now because of the foundries and the factories that he worked in, but at that time he wasn’t deaf. But the way people used to speak to him was very loud, as if he was dumb, as if he was thick, and as a child, it really hurts you when you see your parents treated in that way.
And so I really detested how abhorrent racism was and the way it made me and my parents feel and the way we were treated like second class citizens. Having grown up in a village where you believe that the sky above your head as a human being belongs to you and the Earth beneath your feet belongs to you; coming to a country where you are invisible, you’re seen as transient, you’re treated as though you don’t have a right to be here. I didn’t want to be here, I didn’t like the fact that my parents brought me to this country. I didn’t experience the love that I had in an extended family in the village.
And so, you begin that journey of asking yourself why are we here? And you begin to ask questions, and when a society outcasts you, denies you, then you put two fingers up at that society and you begin to try to put the jigsaw together. So I started a journey to put that world view together and that jigsaw together, and that then led me to understand that we were here because the Europeans had been there, and our countries had been colonised and our resources had been looted for the betterment of England, of the UK. And then our parents had been forced to come here as a result of poverty that had been created, manufactured through colonialism to where the capital now existed. And that racism was an ideology that had been created to justify that plunder and that colonisation. So I became very committed to the struggle against racism. And I realised that what I was going through and what my parents were going through, was nothing unique to myself but was something my people, my community was going through. If I was to fight this, then I was to fight with the support of my communities. And so I was involved in many campaigns in Sheffield as a student, so while I was an artist and an art student, what I painted and the films I made were films about struggles and about campaigns to create a better world which all humanity lived as equal.
I don’t think that there is a such thing as the monolithic South Asian man. We are all unique individuals, and as many South Asian men there are, there is as many ways of existing as Asian men there is. But I hope that as South Asian men, as we move forward into the future, that our trajectory still roots us in our history, that we carry our roots with us. We remember that all the rights we have today, and the standard of living that we require has been on the backs of the hardship that our parents went through, and previous to them, that our grandparents went through. And that we keep strong to those roots, but also that we change and we create something quite unique and different. New identities that are forged in the current climate that are exciting, that are innovative, and embrace the amalgamation of the diversity that we have in the city. And the key thing is that as South Asian men, we are respectful to our women and that we are also tolerant of other religions and faiths and we are not bigoted and separatist and all those kind of nasty businesses.