Sidelong Glances At the PCU Characters: Meera Mangeshkar
I’ve never thought of India as anything but a matriarchy.
In New Delhi I felt I was surrounded by people who must have personally known my (very English) grandmother, for they had the exact same language and mannerisms. The cultural link between the two countries cannot be underestimated.
Fitting a feisty young third-generation Indian officer into the PCU was easy; she would admire her elderly bosses but would be frustrated by their actions. She would have little respect for weakness or indecision. She has slowly come to realise that her practicality and lack of imagination will hold her back from ever understanding them, even though it won’t stand in the way of her career path.
How such a messy, chaotic, class-ridden society manages to produce so many sharply focussed technical minds is once more down to class, but creates paradoxes everywhere. I once saw a smartly dressed woman cooking a chicken over a burning tyre outside a scientific institute. In a country where a wealthy man can allow a child on crutches to move between stalled vehicles selling pirated copies of Vogue, the compartmentalised nature of Indian society appears to be in the DNA of its individuals.
But while the British tut, they fail to examine their own caste system. If the hubristic English had recognised the complexity and sophistication of the mighty subcontinent instead of deluding themselves into thinking they were superior, the two nations could have formed a formidable partnership.
At least the UK took the new postwar arrivals to its heart with a certain amount of success. By the time a bastardised version of Chicken Tikka Marsala became the nation’s number one favourite dish Meera Mangeshkar was able to experience London on the inside track, but she still has to deal with her family’s deep-rooted conservative traditions. As a character assimilating on her own terms she doesn’t have to carry the weight of racial issues on her back.
Oddly, during the politically incorrect postwar period both Anglos and Indians seem to have delighted in mimicking each other, from Goodness Gracious Me and My Beautiful Laundrette to Carry On Up The Khyber. Indian performers defused tensions by parodying themselves better than the British ever could.
The All Anglo-Indian Association had been founded in 1926, representing the interests of an ethnic group which holds that Anglo-Indians are uniquely Christian, speak English as their mother tongue and have a historical link to both Europe and India. Now the term Anglo-Indian means something different, merely suggesting a comfortable back and forth between us all. It’s when you get to the police force that racism returns to rear its head.
In India, police recruits are trained in everything from assembling/dismantling weapons to firing, rock climbing, scuba diving, horse riding and gymnastic physical training. It’s depressing, then, that Parm Sandhu, serving as Temporary Chief Superintendent with the Met, was denied promotions and opportunities at work due to her race and gender.
My parents once went to a wedding reception, took a wrong turn in the hotel and ended up at the wrong bash, this one Indian, which they ended up staying at for the evening. My father swore he had not noticed the difference, to which my mother replied, ‘You must have realised they were celebrating Diwali.’ To which he said, ‘I thought the cakes were good.’
When I added two West Indian officers, Liberty and Fraternity DuCaine, to the PCU team I felt I had to make one of them gay to counterbalance the resentment I still had for the time I had lived in Brixton, when two men would be hissed at and spat at by Jamaican men for walking along a street together. With Meera there were no issues to confront. All I wanted was to create as much variety in personnel as possible. Keeping the books’ characters apolitical has not always worked; occasionally feedback has complained about liberal bias.
There are steps too far; I am entirely against cancel culture, and see it as another method of eroding free speech. Perhaps I can talk about that at Calcutta’s immense literary festival in January – if I get there.