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Backstories 2020

Shamit Saggar

A migrant family in a new city, a mad dash from a group of bullies, and a conversation with a stranger on a plane. Shamit shows us three moments across time that come together to form a bigger picture.

Funded by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, HealthwayAct-Belong-Commit, the City of Mandurah and the City of BayswaterBackstories was a one day multi-sited storytelling festival located in the suburbs of Western Australia held on March 14 2020.

Shamit Saggar is a leading British academic with expertise in government and industry leadership. Having recently moved to Perth, WA with his family, Shamit has been appointed as the inaugural director of The University of Western Australia’s Public Policy Institute. In this story, he shows us three moments across time that come together to form a bigger picture.

Photo of Nedlands Backstories. Many people sit under a patio and on the lawn in the backyard of a house. Three people sit on chairs in front of the audience.

Copyright © 2020 Shamit Saggar.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Shamit Saggar. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

View Story Transcript

So, it goes like this. About a year ago, I and the family came to Australia. It is a lovely country. We came here to live. It reminds me of bits of the UK and it reminds me of some very different things.

I started noticing the guy and his lawnmower. It sort of buzzes up or whirls up early in the morning when you take the dog for a walk. He is obsessed with his lawn. I am all in favour of lawns. I love my lawn. But this guy… I should have invited him. Can someone just get him over? He’s two doors down actually.

He is mowing his lawn twice a day, three times a day. Sounds obsessive, but there you have it. But it reminded me of something. It reminded me of our neighbour in England when I was growing up in the 1970s. And I tell you why. It’s late winter, early spring. It is 1979 actually, no 1978, and our fence is blown down in a winter storm. My father who is by himself, he raised us by himself, my two cousin brothers and myself are having a go with putting up a fence panel. I think a couple of them were blown down. We come from East Africa. We have not put up fence panels before. We come from a background where you have people doing this for you. But coming to England, you have to learn this stuff. So we put this up.

And in that world, if you can kind of imagine it, there were some really good English families who we were neighbours with. It’s a bit like living here actually, Australian families. And there was a family opposite called the Pollocks who looked after us when we lost our mother. But the Andrews who were next door, the equivalent of the guy living here, seemed to have a problem. And the problem was suddenly unveiled when we went to replace the fence panel.

It is a really weird obscure story. But it’s striking that just by accidentally treading on a few flowers or bedding plants, the sort of tirade of anger of bitterness was unleashed upon us. It is absolutely true that all those families would have felt, to some extent, squeezed and threatened by the newcomers. We came to England with a strong work ethic, a very strong educational ethic, we were in the language, in the jargon of the world where I come from, we were “modern minorities”. We were determined to succeed, and actually we did. We did a good job, but people got squeezed. People felt threatened. And I was struck by how the Pollocks took it with grain and retained that warmth, but the Andrews, the neighbours, did not. And to see my father, for the first time, subject to a tirade of, frankly, racial abuse was the first time I had ever seen this. He was shocked. He didn’t think the country he had come to live in was the country that he was now being subject to in terms of denigrating who he was and what he represented. He was just a guy who came to England with his family to do well. And our greatest sin, of course, was to be different and to succeed in doing well, to play by the rules.

Anecdote one finished. I should move on. But there are some others, okay?

A second one is, I think, it’s a year later actually. It’s in 1980. It takes us back a bit. And I am a sixth former. In England, they are the last two years of your secondary school. So I am about sixteen or seventeen. And at that time teachers, like they do now, I suppose, tend to encourage what we call “civics” as an education theme. So, children who are on their way to university, discussing issues of the day to make ourselves responsible citizens. So, I think on Wednesday afternoon there would be a kind of civics lesson taking place. And at one point we sat around in a circle, not dissimilar to the sort of circle and scale we have got now, sixth form kids ready to conquer the world, and we were discussing the tricky issues of the day: gender equality, abortion, immigration, you name it. These are the kind of meaty issues. We got to the question of immigration. I remember sitting sort of almost opposite me, I am not gonna pick up on you, but there was sort of defacto class president or the school prefect. I am kind of conflicted bringing up her name, she is not here to defend herself, but Nicola was her name. And she said something, and what she said was: “Look, the immigration, the problem is you see… Look I am in favour. I am liberal.” And these were her words: “But aren’t there too many of you?” She said this a couple of times. Some people got cross. People who looked like me were getting cross but getting, you know, quite emotional. And then I sort of said, “Nicola, what I want to know is, if there is too many, then surely the right answer is to have a fewer. So, if we are one in five of the class at twenty percent, would it be better if we were one in ten, ten percent? And if we were one in ten, would you be in favour of us being one in twenty? So, what’s the right number? Is it zero? If there is too many, there will always be a sense of having few.” And she didn’t quite understand the irony of describing there being too many when, of course, we as kids, were surrounded by eighty or ninety percent of people who didn’t look like us. It never crossed our mind that that was too many. Why would we think that? But actually, if you think about it, we could have made the same complaint. We would not have dreamt of doing so.

And I kind of called it out. I think she stopped in her track, and I think others in a sense were inspired by it. But just to have something said like at that at that time made me think, “too many” implies, “Let’s have fewer.” Well, let’s have none. If anyone knows England, England is not a place that has zero people that look like me. It has a lot of people. And thank God, it has been transformed and changed in many, many ways. I was the guy who went against Nicola. No one went against her because hers was a conventional view. She carried a lot of people with that line of thinking.

So alright, let’s keep moving.

The third one is actually the one that I feel strongest about. It comes from the heart. It is 1977, so we are kicking around the 70s. And my friends and I, we must be 14 or something like that, 15. At lunchtime, you were allowed to leave the school premises and you sort of vaguely wandered the streets, eating chips or whatever. It was a pretty crappy school we went to. And something happened. I think it was sort of, May time, which is not unrepresentative. It sort of happened from time to time. But something happened which was really bad, which we – myself and four or five other guys who look a bit like me, fifteen-year-olds – were “jumped on”, as the English expression, we were attacked on the street. People saw us come around the corner and said, “There they are!” And they used the P-word. In England, the P-word is Paki. You may have seen it in movies and stuff. And we ran for our lives. Good move, very sensible! If you want to stay alive, keep moving.

But my best friend in this group of four or five of us stumbled and fell. He wore glasses, his glasses hit the ground. And I am the only one, these other guys were cowards, they ran for their lives, who sort of saw him, went back, and grabbed him. And then we were, the two of us out of the five, attacked. Not quite within an inch of our life, but it was pretty bad. And we gathered ourselves up, cuts, bruises, glasses gone, whatever, and we went back to our school. There was a guy in my year, and I will name him, his name was Hardy and he was outraged. So what he did was, he said, “We’ve got to fight back.”

And we didn’t fight back. These guys I was surrounded by, this is an Indian joke, were Gujaratis, Gujjus, skinny kids, with glasses, vegetarians. Not like us tough Punjabi guys who eat meat and drink alcohol. We are Punjabis. We are the loud people from India, always with a drink in our hand. But my classmates were from a different part of India known for being, in the stereotype of Indians, meek and milder, otherwise known as being cowards. They would run from the fight. But Hardy stood there and he said, “We are gonna fight back.”

And we did. We turned around and therein the fight began. And you can see movie depictions of this today, you know, the Bruce Springsteen movie. You could see all these things in literature, in stories, in all sorts of narratives. But it was actually a moment in which you fought back, and you had a responsibility of fight back. So kids often, sort of, bring these things up. But I think that was a pivotal moment. Now, you shouldn’t let the anger lead to further anger. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe violence begets violence. I don’t believe in that. But if you don’t stand up, what do you think is going to happen? It’s going to incentivise the bully. It’s going to incentivise more and more of that. And that’s what really went on. I should move on.

The third and last one, I think is a slightly hopeful one. We are riding on a plane back in April 2009. It is only ten or so, eleven years ago. We’ve had a sort of a Spring holiday in Cyprus, from England. It’s a charter flight, so you get to spread out. There is no reserved seating. So we managed to get the kids there. Rita, my aunt and my cousin are sitting somewhere else.  And I’m at the back of the plane, three or four hour flight back to England. And this guy sits next to me. We start chatting. He tells me how he loves Cyprus. He is from England, you know. And within, ten or so minutes we discover we have grown up together. In fact, we have been to the same school, the same school where some of these anecdotes are in fact set. And he described endlessly how he loved Cyprus, and how he loved people who were different from him. He liked the idea that Cyprus, which was a new member of the EU then, was getting rich fast. And he was, I think in building or something, I forget what he was in. But he was doing well for himself. He looked like a model citizen of the world. He looked great, we need people like him.

We go to the end of the plane. I kind of discover halfway through that plane ride that I knew him better than he knew himself. His name was Lee. And he beat me within an inch of my life when we were twelve years old in the playground. He had forgotten. Enough said.

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