Celebrating south Asian heritage in the UK

by Shobhna Shah

South Asian Heritage Month is now in its third year, and this year’s theme is Journeys of Empire

Location: UK International
Published: Tuesday 2 August 2022
Shobhna Shah

London is my home. The United Kingdom is my country. My family arrived here in the late 20th century, and I am a proud Briton of South Asian heritage.

On the ‘journeys of empire’ theme, modern Britain is multicultural because it had a multicultural empire. There is a long history of migration to the UK since before the Huguenots in 1670. Migration from the Indian subcontinent began in the early 17th century during East India Company recruitment.

Over the years I have witnessed a change. The emergence of a vibrant, multicultural and diverse Britain that is aeons apart from early ’70s.

I recall having a conversation in my hospital; while at work I mentioned I was fasting, with only fruits in my diet, and that I would continue for nine days. My colleagues were curious to know about the annual nine-day festival of Navratri and the dance of Garba and Raas which I would perform to exhaustion, and get to theatre after early morning Puja.

We would talk about my being a Jain and about its philosophy of Ahimsa (non-violence). My non-South Asian colleagues and friends now pronounce my name, Shobhna, perfectly.

I learned about other cultures in our diverse group. One of my most cherished memories is attending my first midnight mass in Westminster Abbey.

The family-oriented South Asian heritage has a lot in common with some of the Mediterranean cultures, but not necessarily the ‘stiff upper lip’ side of British culture – or so I thought.

Perhaps the pandemic has brought us closer together, and made us realise the importance of support from friends and family. Change – for the better – is happening and long may it continue. Gen X will see to it.

I have been working with the International Rotary Fellowship of Healthcare Physicians during this crisis, as medical adviser and coordinator of medical aid to Ukraine.

I have done radio and TV interviews during the pandemic in Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu to impart accurate information, which sat well with those unable to follow information in English with reference to COVID-19.

Diverse cultures have brought that invisible curtain down, and perhaps we have become a bit more communicative. This is partly due to Asian influence, and social media helps too.

Communities have benefited from the network of volunteers from the South Asian diaspora, especially delivering meals, shopping and just giving a helping hand. We all have a part to play.

The Sikh Gurdwaras and Hare Krishna temples have fed thousands of people affected by income loss over the years, and more so during the pandemic.

In the UK, we celebrate all major religious festivals including Diwali, the festival of light. We celebrate our diversity and more importantly, we love world-class cuisine from all over the world here in London. My European friends envy the massive diversity of fresh foods available here, many of them locally sourced and produced by South Asian communities. 

Here vegetarianism and veganism are celebrated. Ethnic values are respected. Just a few decades ago this would have seemed impossible.

Atithi Devo Bhav is a Sanskrit phrase meaning treat the guest in your home, your city or your country as an Avatar (manifestation of a deity). It is for this reason that in Asian homes, we always cook for two extra people!

Perhaps we all would benefit from that mantra and its essence: be kind, be compassionate.

Shobhna Shah is co-chair of the BMA London FREE Network and a consultant anaesthetist 

Find out more about South Asian Heritage Month