an international
peer-reviewed journal
ISSN 2041-3254

A Postcolonial People

by Katy Sian
30 Jul 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review

Postcolonial_People_Ali_Kalra_Sayyid.jpgA Review of: N. Ali, V. Kalra & S. Sayyid (eds) (2005) A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain. London: Hurst.

In Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, the last sentence of the book urges that we must seek “a reconciliation between reality and men [sic], between description and explanation, between object and knowledge”.[1] I feel this fitting of A Postcolonial People, a narrative which fulfils Barthes very objective; this volume of essays challenges the myths about South Asians which have prevailed and become internalised within a racialized discourse.

Myths of the ‘culture clash’ the ‘second generation’ and ‘patriarchy and oppression’ are contested in this eclectic, celebratory collection which gives BrAsians a voice, no longer simply represented as a primitive, backwards and troublesome diaspora.

A Postcolonial People interrogates concepts that have become embedded within literature in an attempt to locate ‘Asians’ as the ‘other’. Compiled of a varied range of chapters and articles, the collection examines life in the postcolonial condition across all social spheres discussing issues from migration and religion to bhangra and politics, to economics and crime, to arranged marriages and Bollywood. The book opens up unique avenues for exploration in which the reader is invited to identify the diversity of the BrAsian ‘experience’ by providing a shift away from typical, homogeneous constructs.

The Editors and Contributors are trying to tell a story about the journeys and encounters of South Asian postcolonial people through alternative approaches. Fundamental to A Postcolonial People is the composition of the book, the majority of the writers are South Asian which is both important and impressive. Moreover, the irregular narrative presents the reader with a construction that is deliberately disordered. This unique volume both ‘disrupts’ and ‘deflects’ the prospect of a ‘stabilised’ account of South Asianess. Rather than examining South Asians merely in terms of ‘religious groupings’, the collection dismisses such ‘markers’ which have come to both define and polarise the BrAsian.

The articles are not meant to carry encyclopaedic information that echoes the usual stereotypes populating the narratives of ethnically marked communities.[2]

A Postcolonial People challenges the typical assumptions which have come to dominate literature on South Asians, this can be illustrated by the fact that it doesn’t contain a specific chapter on women whose experiences cannot be reduced in such a manner. Nor does the book start the story of South Asian settlers in the period of mass migration. Rather than glossing over or dismissing their endeavours, A Postcolonial People identifies their experiences pre-1945, subsequently this volume moves away from reducing South Asians “to being another example of a people without a history”.[3]

The majority of the texts on South Asians tend to adopt a reductive framework when examining South Asians in Britain, for example Watson’s ‘Between Two Cultures’ (1977) account failed to illustrate the complexities and diversities of the BrAsian experience. Such accounts are embedded with stereotypes and remain Eurocentric, allowing racist discourses to manifest; and although such literatures are rather dated they still remain prominent within the field. A Postcolonial People problematises these assumptions, and rather than privileging such hegemonic discourse, the narrative resists polarisations between West and Non-West.


A Postcolonial People introduces a distinct concept of the ‘BrAsian’ which is integral to the book. Rather than referring to South Asians born or living in Britain as ‘Asians’ or ‘British Asians’, the collection challenges these terms on several grounds by adopting the notion of the BrAsian, which designates “members of settler communities which articulate a significant part of their identity in terms of South Asian heritage”.[4] The choice to inaugurate the term BrAsian identifies “a recognition of the need for a category that points one in a direction away from established accounts of national identities and ethnicised minorities”.[5] The term ‘Asian’ is the most common way in which BrAsians are depicted, however, such a term can not be translated adequately beyond the British Isles.

BrAsian has four key features; firstly, it “refuses the easy decomposition of the British Asian dyad into its Western and Non-Western constituents”.[6] Second, “BrAsian occupies an intermediate terrain on the cusp between West and Non-West”[7] – in this sense the term BrAsian illustrates both the unfeasibility and impracticability of the British-Asian ‘hyphenated identity’. Third, “the signifier of BrAsian needs to be conceptualised in the Derridean sense of being ‘under erasure”[8] , which refers to the notion of when a concept is ‘crossed out’ due to its inadequacy, however, the crossing still remains visible, thus:

The line that crosses out and puts the category of BrAsian under erasure can be described as the postcolonial line: crossing out and cancelling the colonial, without the crossing being able to erase the concept.[9]

Fourth, is the notion that

BrAsianness is defined by what can be described as a sense of ironic citizenship…BrAsians experience persistent and deep-seated scepticism about the dominant mythology of Britishness. They have recurring doubts that their inclusion within the conversation of the nation as interlocutors and peers. Their sense of irony arises from recognition of the distance between the narratives available to them and the entrenched sense of Britishness.[10]

However, the concept is also limited:

Without the possibility of a radical rupture towards a new order of things, the postcolonial condition condemns us to play with concepts and categories that are played within and against the colonial lineage, while awaiting the possibility of a new language game that has yet to begin.[11]

In light of this, the concept attempts to contest notions which separate the ‘others’ from the West, the ethnic minority from the national majority, and the Asian from the British. A Postcolonial People offers the reader an alternative in which the BrAsian is no longer overshadowed or divided by stereotypes, markers and labels. Rather the BrAsian is given a sense of agency and authority by challenging “polarisations which play upon the constitutive split between West and Non-West”.[12] Avtar Brah’s essay in the collection, The Asian in Britain, is important here as it examines the concept of ‘Asian’ and presents a convincing argument by illustrating the way in which the term has been challenged. Brah identifies “the historical trajectory that oversaw the transition from Asian, as a signifier of immigrants, to BrAsian, as a signifier of settlers”.[13]

The term ‘Postcolonial’ is equally as significant as it innovatively strives to encapsulate a “conceptual not just a chronological category”. [14] Within this narrative the postcolonial:

Describes the limitations and incompleteness of anterior decolonialisation, and indicates renewed circumstances in which the challenge to resist and overcome the residuum and excess of coloniality continues to disturb, question and unsettle Western practices of normalising, disavowing and depolitising the contemporary colonial architecture of the world order.[15]

Hesse and Sayyid in their essay, Narrating the Postcolonial Political and the Immigrant Imaginary, provide a critical analysis of the postcolonial context of BrAsian settlement, by politicising postcoloniality such an account attempts to ‘reframe’ the way in which ex-colonial British settlers have been racially ‘marked’.[16]

The book is arranged in three distinct parts: Part 1, ‘Frames’, examines the way in which epistemological and theoretical debates articulate the BrAsian experience, Part 2, ‘Portraits’ presents a critical survey of different aspects of BrAsian life, investigating topics such as diaspora, politics, patterns of settlement and socio-economics. Part 3, ‘Signatures’ looks at the impact and contribution of BrAsians by exploring features such as cultural representations, identity, conflict and unity.

The selected pieces which I have chosen to focus upon are Fauzia Ahmad, The Scandal of Arranged Marriages and the pathologisation of BrAsian families, and Nasreen Ali, Imperial Implosions. However, it is also worth mentioning that many of the essays which compose this narrative are as equally as important and diverse as each other; for example whilst John Hutnyk and Tariq Modood look at BrAsian participation within left political activity, rather than focusing on extreme ‘fundamentalism’, Sanjay Sharma offers a timely mapping of BrAsian popular music over the last thirty years. Other essays also examine BrAsian architecture and performing arts, to economic, healthcare and policing issues, to name just a few.

Deconstructing Arranged Marriages

‘Arranged marriages’ are among the main practices used to define the distinctiveness of the BrAsian in relation to other communities found in Britain. Indeed, ‘arranged marriages’ symbolise BrAsians and thus continue to be commonly abstracted as a metaphor for BrAsian life-styles[17]

The idea of the arranged marriage has come to hit the media headlines in the UK and continues to be under the spotlight with stories of coercion, oppression and tyranny. These accounts have come to dominate constructions of the BrAsian family which is typically perceived as ‘backwards’ or ‘tribal. BrAsian women in the majority of the cases are depicted as victims or subjects of injustice and exploitation. Ahmad presents an insightful essay examining the ways in which “the trope of ‘arranged marriages’ circulates as a sign of BrAsian ‘otherness’ and as a site for intervention and domestication of that otherness”.[18]

Early ethnographic accounts from the 1950s onwards studying BrAsian families have increasingly focused their attention upon the ‘insularity’ of the family unit whereby notions of ‘kinship systems’ and ‘household structures’ are emphasised. Despite the fact that these themes only provide a partial presentation they have progressively become firmly entrenched within the literature on South Asians, as Ahmad articulates they, “have remained remarkably persistent, constituting the grammar by which BrAsian experiences are mediated and disseminated throughout society”.[19]

Arranged marriages generally refer to the notion that children give their parents consent to take the lead role in choosing a partner, however, Ahmad notes how this ‘arrangement’ is “often presented as diametrically opposed to love marriages”.[20] The concept of the arranged marriage is extremely ambiguous as there are implications as to what actually constitutes the arranged marriage and furthermore the difference in perception of what the practice actually means, to elaborate, the arranged marriage holds different meanings across different social cleavages whereby factors such as class, caste, religion, generation and so on all play an influential role to the meaning attached to the term.

Ahmad notes the evident confusion or blurring between forced and arranged marriages within the ‘idealised European’ framework in which the arranged marriage is almost always affiliated with simplistic notions that portray the practice as ancient, oppressive and patriarchal. The press, the government and academic discourse collectively focus their attention upon the “negative outcomes and attitudes, or stressing inter-generational and inter-cultural conflicts”.[21] This ‘clash of cultures’ account remains embedded within the literature and is also examined in detail within the previous essay by Claire Alexander on BrAsian youth, which challenges this dominant paradigm that constructs BrAsians “as torn between the repressive traditional regimes of their parents and the more permissive freedoms of wider British society”.[22] Alexander argues that such generic accounts which have adopted this reductive framework, for example, Ballard and Ballard (1977) in their research on the Sikhs remain ‘intact’ within “the popular and sociological imagination”, such notions or ‘convenient explanations’ continue “to haunt accounts of Asian youth identities”.[23]

Ahmad is equally critical of these accounts, and makes the point that factors such as rebellion, independence and a sense of individuality are all ‘natural manifestations’ of adolescence, however in the context of the BrAsian, particularly young females, these are presented instead as a ‘cultural rebellion’ against the ‘traditional Asian’ values.[24] With this in mind, Ahmad brings our attention to the way in which the BrAsian family has been pathologised.

Whilst contemporary studies have started to identify that marriage practices and the ‘arranged marriage’ are both adapting and developing, there are also those which continue to adopt a simplistic and uncritical understanding and reproduce the polarisation between the modern West and the traditional Non-West, for example Talbani and Hasanali (2000) in their account, homogenise and strip BrAsians of any sense of agency within what Ahmad refers to as “a racist discourse of patriarchy”.[25]

Within this framework the family is constructed as a structure which is ‘repressive and constraining’, in addition to this with little attempt to counter the confusion that arises in the distinction between forced and arranged marriages, accounts have become shadowed with “the over-bearing and izzat obsessed nature of BrAsian families abound”.[26] Notions of izzat (honour) and sharam (shame) are essentialised and definitions of the terms remain weak contributing to a pathological and stereotyped discourse that has increasingly misrepresented BrAsian families.

These interpretive structures maintain a distinction between the traditional Asian woman and the modern Westernised woman in which the rejection of the arranged marriage is seen as a rejection of identity. Such pathological and stereotypical discourses are problematic for a number of reasons, as well as being reductive and essentialist, they instil ‘extreme binaries’, homogenise culture, and privilege “a hegemonic, colonialist-inspired discourse of Western cultural superiority”.[27]

Ahmad concludes her analysis by illustrating the implications of the dominant research which produce frameworks “to impute meaning to the lives of those studied and to limit the scope of discourse on BrAsian families”.[28] Rather than reproducing these ‘discursive formations’, Ahmad suggests that more attention needs to be given to the growth of divorce rates and the breakdown of marital relations and more importantly the “ways in which cultural and religious considerations are accommodated for, if at all, within the current judicial system is urgently needed”.[29] In addition to this she also argues that due to a number of reasons, such as the ambiguity surrounding ‘arranged marriages’, the changes in the ways in which marriages are both ‘conceptualised’ and ‘contracted’, alongside developments of ‘formations and negotiations’ within the structure of the BrAsian family, combined with the “shifting boundaries of continuity, change, acceptability and unacceptability”, it would seem appropriate then “to adopt newer terminologies such as ‘assisted marriages’, and fresher approaches to researching and writing about Asian families in general. Indeed, such may be overdue”.[30]


Moving our attention now to migration, Nareen Ali presents an important argument addressing the ways in which South Asian or BrAsian migration has both been conceptualised and explained in the chapter Imperial Implosions. Ali’s analysis attempts “to describe and account for the wave of migration into Britain that has crystallised to produce the BrAsian phenomenon”.[31] Ali explores BrAsian migration from the pre-colonial phase (1608-1757), the proto-colonial phase (1757-1857), the colonial phase 1857-1947), and the postcolonial phase (1947 onwards), this is significant because Ali identifies the fact that pre-1947, migration and trans-national links from South Asia to Britain have been in practice for a number of centuries, however, when BrAsian migration is examined in the dominant literature the journey is only explored from the postcolonial phase, which both reduces and neglects the BrAsian history and experience.

Ali then presents us with a critique of the main theories of migration which have continued be adopted in explaining the BrAsian experience of migration. ‘Push-pull’ model of migration has been widely utilised by various scholars to explain and understand South Asian migration, it is particularly central within the works of Catherine and Roger Ballard (1971- 1974) who focus their analysis of Sikh migration to Britain after the Second World War. Such theories in the context of South Asian post-war migration to the UK often explains the process of mobilisation in reference to structural factors whereby “the interplay between push and pull produces the movement of large groups of workers”.[32]

Ali notes that these earlier neo-classical accounts are useful as they demonstrate the impact of structural factors and the circumstances in which migration could operate, however, they are also extremely limited as Ali articulates, “they are less able to provide the level of analysis that accounts for the mechanism and specificity of actual migratory movements”.[33] As a result those examining South Asian mobilisation have turned their attention to theories of chain migration, these are more ‘agent centred approaches’.

The more recent explanations of South Asian migration have combined both the structural or push and pull theories, with the more agent centred or chain migration theories. The triangulation of these approaches has resulted with what is commonly referred to as the migration systems theory. However, as Ali notes such an approach still remains limited due to the fact that the relationship between structures and agents remains untouched:

The experience of South Asian settlers has been dominated by the immigrant imaginary, an imaginary that sought to restore the disruptive effects of postcolonality by re-inserting South Asians into the colonial framework despite their relocation and unravelling of the colonial world order[34]

This notion of the immigrant imaginary is elaborated within Hesse and Sayyid’s chapter, who demonstrate that “the establishment of immigrant communities in Britain has occurred in the context of an unsettling, ambivalent and interrupted postcolonial transformation of the West”[35] Their contribution is also critical of the dominant migratory discourse arguing that they:

[p]rovide an overwhelmingly inadequate way of narrating the migratory and settlement experiences of ethnically marked postcolonial subjects across Britain; nevertheless they sustain the fictions in British public culture of a termination between the imperial past and the nationalist present, as well as of a structural and political separation between a racially marked indigenous British society and racially marked migrants who become carriers of cultures for British consumption or proscription.[36]

Literatures examining South Asian migration to Britain are largely based upon the ‘American experience’ which has progressively instilled a number of assumptions about the way migrant identities would be ‘magically’ transformed once migrants settled in their host communities. There are tendencies to epitomize the process within a dualistic framework in which notions of rural-urban, tradition-modern, religious-secular and centre-periphery, “continue to haunt the way in which the relationship between South Asian migration and settlement is represented”.[37] Such literature, both popular and academic, has ‘decontextualised’ the BrAsian migratory experience, this has worked to undermine the migrants by imposing a shift from a primitive and backwards society to a modern society in which “the migrant moves not only across space but also from the past into the present”.[38]

Moreover, such discourses of South Asian migration are essentially centred upon economic activity, in which the periphery nations move to the core in order to seek a better life. Migration Systems theory, like its predecessor World Systems theory to explain the economic exploitation of the first world nations “rarely point to the weakening of the colonial world order except metaphorically”[39] and thus, both strips and denies these migrants of the historical experiences and modifications that enabled the process of South Asian migration. Ali concludes her critique by highlighting that these popular migratory accounts:

[d]isavow the postcolonial, and neglect what is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of South Asian migration to Britain: an almost poetic inversion of the imperial enterprise that continues to haunt the ethnoscapes of Britain and relocates the theatre in the postcolonial in the heart of the ex-empire.[40]

Overall, A Postcolonial People offers an ambitious analysis through its synthesis of scholarly debate. By introducing an original conceptual analysis, the Postcolonial BrAsian is no longer represented as the ‘other’, and it is this what makes the narrative so compelling. It’s an essential collection for anyone interested in understanding the BrAsian experience within a context that breaks away from the shackles of colonialism. By reconceptualising and rewriting the discourse on BrAsians, A Postcolonial People effectively activates a new language game.


1. Barthes R (1972) Mythologies, Vintage p.159 [↑]

2. Sayyid S (2006) ‘Introduction: BrAsians’, in N. Ali, V. Kalra & S. Sayyid (eds) A Postcolonial People. London: Hurst, p. 9 [↑]

3. ibid. p.3 [↑]

4. ibid. p.6 [↑]

5. ibid. p.6 [↑]

6. ibid. p.7 [↑]

7. ibid. p.7 [↑]

8. ibid. p.7 [↑]

9. ibid. p.8 [↑]

10. ibid. p.8 [↑]

11. ibid. p.10 [↑]

12. ibid. p.5 [↑]

13. Ali, Kalra & Sayyid (2006) ‘Part I Frames’, in A Postcolonial People, p.11 [↑]

14. Sayyid S (2006) ‘Introduction: BrAsians’, p.5 [↑]

15. Hesse & Sayyid (2006) ‘Narrating the Postcolonial Political and the Immigrant Imaginary’, in A Postcolonial People, p.17 [↑]

16. Ali, Kalra & Sayyid (2006) ‘Part I Frames’, in A Postcolonial People, p.11 [↑]

17. Ahmad (2006) ‘The Scandal of “Arranged Marriages” and the Pathologisation of BrAsian Families’, in A Postcolonial People, p.273 [↑]

18. ibid. p.273 [↑]

19. ibid. p.274 [↑]

20. ibid. p.274 [↑]

21. ibid. p.274 [↑]

22. Alexander (2006) ‘Imagining the Politics of BrAsian Youth’, in A Postcolonial People, p.259 [↑]

23. ibid. p.271 [↑]

24. Ahmad (2006) ‘The Scandal of “Arranged Marriages” and the Pathologisation of BrAsian Families’, in A Postcolonial People, p.277 [↑]

25. ibid. p.278 [↑]

26. ibid. p.278 [↑]

27. ibid. p.282 [↑]

28. ibid. p.288 [↑]

29. ibid. p.288 [↑]

30. ibid. p.288 [↑]

31. Ali (2006) ‘Imperial Implosions: Postcoloniality and the Orbits of Migration’, in A Postcolonial People, p.158 [↑]

32. ibid. p.161 [↑]

33. ibid. p.161 [↑]

34. ibid. p.166 [↑]

35. Hesse & Sayyid (2006) ‘Narrating the Postcolonial Political and the Immigrant Imaginary’, in A Postcolonial People, p.30 [↑]

36. ibid. p.21 [↑]

37. Ali (2006) ‘Imperial Implosions: Postcoloniality and the Orbits of Migration’, in A Postcolonial People, p.166 [↑]

38. ibid. p.167 [↑]

39. ibid. p.167 [↑]

40. ibid. p.167 [↑]

Tags: ,

I am currently at Leeds University doing a PHD alongside teaching. About my thesis: Investigating the persistence of Sikh and Muslim conflict in diasporic context from a Sikh perspective in the UK. This phenomenon has lacked much academic attention and when it is discussed, mainly within the local media, there is an emphasis upon ethnic, inter-ethnic or religious explanations to understand it, my research will thus attempt to conceptualise such antagonism within an original, theoretical context.
All posts by: Katy Sian | Email | Website

Share Post:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Technorati
  • StumbleUpon
  • MySpace
  • FriendFeed
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Netvibes
  • SphereIt
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Bookmarks
  • Live
  • RSS

Comments are closed.