Black Socialist, White London
“When I started watching the movie with white guys, I realised – they’re laughing at me! When they’re shooting the Native Americans, suddenly I realised I am them!”
This interview took place on
The Iranian boys have refused the lunch we’ve cooked citing a late breakfast. That’s when Suriyan comes in. He is wearing his usual winter outfit, a dark jacket flung over a baggy shirt, a bright scarf wrapped a couple of times around his neck. A tall man, Suriyan towers over everyone else in the room, and his beanie, pulled down to his ears, bobs above all the other heads as he says hello and speaks happily. Normally he would be doing his rounds, helping asylum seekers with their bills, accommodation, food – anything he could do as a member of the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council. But as we’re all relaxing, Suriyan leaves business aside.
I invite him to share a story with us, ‘Maybe a folk tale,’ I say, hoping it’d encourage some Iranian folk tales out of the other boys – but Suriyan is nothing if not a pragmatist. ‘I can tell you my story,’ he says.
I’m from Colombo, and I must tell you, I’m middle-class. You know middle class?’
[Some of the boys nod, the others don’t seem to get it]
Arash, can you translate?
[From here on in, Arash translates all of Suriyan’s sentences into Farsi]
It means my parents are professionals.
My mother was a teacher. My father was a lawyer. So we were comfortable. Not rich but comfortable.
We had a four-roomed house. I went to a good school. I went to one of the leading schools called Royal College.
And where do you come from?
Sri Lanka, Colombo. And because Sri Lanka was a British colony before [independence], I studied in English. So I had good command of the language. And because it was a British influence I have read more English literature than Tamil literature. And I listened to BBC when I was in Sri Lanka. I read English papers. So I knew all about their politics also. I followed their cricket, rugby. I was middle class. So I went to London to study at the University.
Right. So for me, going to England was like going to my own country – that’s what I thought.
How long have you been there?
I was there for about ten years.
But, I’ll tell you what happened. So I go to England, right? To go to England, my sister’s husband buys me the most expensive suit. I wear a tie. I have a briefcase. And thinking that I’m a great guy, I go to the airport. I get on the plane.
But when I land at the Heathrow airport, they don’t even look at me. They say, ‘Strip!’ They asked me to strip! Completely! It was a shock to me. ‘Strip!’ They don’t even say why. They didn’t give a reason why I’m stripping…because I was waiting for the queue to get the visa. [Does the stamping motion on imaginary passport] They said, ‘You.’ Pointed at me and said, ‘Strip!’ So I went into a cubicle and had to remove everything, and you know, had to wear the hospital gown.
That was my first shock. What happened was, anyone who comes from Sri Lanka, at the time, this was must have been the seventies – they thought must have TB. You know what TB is?
The lung infection, it’s called TB, you know. It’s called tuberculosis. They assume everyone who comes from…I am middle class! Do you understand? But ‘Strip!’ So they were checking to see whether I had TB. They did a chest x-ray and ticked [a box]. So they said, ‘okay, dress up.’
Go back to Lanka.
No no, I was allowed to come in to England.
That was my initial shock, you see? I thought I was a nice Englishman. Because I knew to speak the language, I knew the literature, I was wearing a suit and I know their history. That was my first lesson.
Then when I came out, I was trying to get a room. Although I speak English, my accent was [different]. I thought I’d go live with an English family. So I rang all the houses – you know you get a list of addresses.
So now I was trying to get a room. Although I speak English I have a Sri Lankan accent – not the British accent. ‘No room, no room,’ [they said]. After sometime I realised, I got one of my students who was English – to call this number and see whether there is a room. When he calls, they say yes. When I call they say no.
[Amin steps in to relieve Arash with translation duties.]
Then I realise I can’t get a house…the reason I’m telling you this story is that it’s my political journey. I want to engage, spend time with the English people. But then I realise – I can’t go inside the space. So then I ring an Indian household. And they said yes! So I found a room.
Because they knew your accent.
Yes. Because they knew I was Indian – you know, Sri Lankan/Indian – and my name Suriyakumaran is Indian. So they welcome me, say, ‘Come, come, come.’ So my first room is in the Indian household.
And then, on the roads – even though I spoke English, knew about their history, I suddenly realise, I’m a black guy! You see before going to England you don’t know you’re black. You are what you are. You understand? You don’t think that you’re black. You’re normal human being. And I had what’s called, ‘middle class arrogance.’ But suddenly I realised, in the eyes of the English people on the street I’m another Paki. I stopped wearing a tie. After that I never wore a tie, except once or twice.
“Those days I loved to watch Peter Sellers acting as an Indian…”
So that was my experience…but I must tell you the good side. Then I joined the University, I was in the Student Union – not all of them are bad. I must say not all English people are bad. Then I met people who are very nice, who are politically on my side – I’m a left wing guy, a socialist. They embraced me. Then after two years, I had lots of English friends but they’re all on the left. Socialist friends. They looked after me because I was a student. I had to work and study. My English friends will come and give me money. So it was okay.
I’ll tell you another interesting experience. I was in the hostel, the student hostel. Those days I loved to watch Peter Sellers acting as an Indian…you know these movies – cowboy movies with John Wayne, and Tarzan? In Sri Lanka I enjoyed it. But when I started watching the movie with the white guys, I realised – they’re laughing at me! When they’re shooting the Native Americans, suddenly I realised I am them!
Yeah, yeah [laughter]
In Sri Lanka I enjoyed Peter Sellers. He plays a bumbling Indian with a funny accent.
There is a great movie – Mr Pink?
The Pink Panther.
Not only Pink Panther––
I really love that film.
He also played a doctor.
With an Indian accent –– oh!
And also the cowboy movies – when they shoot all the Mexicans – in Sri Lanka I was supporting John Wayne, but in London I realised…
[Chuckles all round]
And also Tarzan – bashing up the Africans. I enjoyed, Tarzan, when I was a child. We used to shout, ‘oohaaaooh.’ [Tarzan yell]
I mean, these are some of my experiences. But I then enjoyed London, I must say. There are lots of good people who do not see me as a black person. Initially I was very innocent. I didn’t think of these things when I was in Sri Lanka. So only when I went to England, I experienced these things.
Here in Australia, I must tell you, I was in the tax office. First time I stood for [union] election , I got zero votes. No-one voted for me [laughs].
But I persisted, I continued. I was helping staff to fight some issues. I had one victory – reclassification. After that they supported me. See, what I’m trying to say is, as a migrant, initially, it’s not easy to…they don’t accept you.
Tax office is a classic example. This is in Australia, right. So first time when I went to the tax office – zero votes. Then, what happened is we had what’s called a reclassification. The work we were doing became complex. So we said we want higher pay.
“Within 3-4 years, I was a vice-president of my Union. What I want to say is…I don’t want to be negative, as migrants we have to do double the work, or triple the work. But once you do it, they are with you.”
So I said I would do the reclassification. I did the work and I was successful. After that, I won the election. Because I worked hard. Worked very hard. And within 3-4 years, I was a vice-president of my Union. What I want to say is – I don’t want to be negative – as migrants we have to do double the work or triple the work. But once you do it they are with you. After that, for years they supported me. I went against the national leadership and my members were with me all the time.
We have to work harder but once you do it and prove that you are good union person…then when I say something they all support me and do it. When I say, ‘call a strike, they say, ‘Yes, Suriyan.’ But it’s hard. That’s all I’m sharing. In Sri Lanka I don’t have to work hard. Here, you have to work harder to get recognised, initially, but once it’s done…
Same but different
“So England racism is different from America, in the 60s and 70s. Now it’s different..but the racism I experienced was on the road...they have bashed me! ”
You have totally different experience…for example, when you moved from Sri Lanka to London and next, here…but we are all exactly same experience. Most of us had a good job in Iran and we are educated from University…but now we are not disappointed, actually. Because I believe that we can get us up, it takes time.
In Sri Lanka we had English at a very high level. But the racism, because I’m dark…you may not experience that because you have fairer skin.’
But we have hair black.
I tell you, the difference is because I’m seen as another Indian. That’s the reason I said I’m middle class. It depends on the migration.
In England, most of the Indians who went before, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, were factory workers. Low level, low-skilled. Or cleaners. Indians who went to America were professionals. Highly-skilled. So the people who went to England were bus drivers and factory workers.
Now, here is skilled. Skilled migrants who come into this country. You have to have skills, you have to be professional. So the Sri Lankans who are here, Indians who are here, except the Asylum seekers, are professional. You have to have 6 or 7 IELTS levels…you, know, in English?
And you must have University qualification and work experience, so the people who came. In America also the Indians are very rich and highly qualified.
Because American has the politics about…they looking for exchange students. They pick up the…certain people, the best. They are so smart about this. Even from Iran. Basically, I myself believe that. They are smart. They pick up from specific university.
They pick first class graduates.
In fact, from India and Sri Lanka, if you have first class degree, America gives them scholarships. I agree. In fact, Microsoft, Yahoo – hell of a lot of Indians.
But England is a different story. England, Indians and Pakistanis went in the 50s and 60s because there was a shortage of labour. So England racism is different from America, in the 60s and 70s. Now it’s different. Among the students there is no problem.
But the racism I experienced was on the road. When you walk on the road. They have bashed me! I have got hit, 2-3 times.
In this country?
No, in England.
London, London. I was bashed there. In this country, you know there’s a big difference. At least England is their country. Australia doesn’t belong to anyone. It belongs to the aboriginal people…see in England they tell me, ‘go home, Paki!’ That’s what they say. ‘Paki go home.’ But in Australia nobody can say that. In fact, I tell them! One guy tried to talk to me, I said, ‘You don’t like this country? Go back to England.’ You see this country does not belong to them. It’s a big difference.
I’m connected, [points to his arm, making an example of skin-colour] My DNA, aboriginal DNA is close to each other.
[The boys laugh]
I never had a bad experience here. Only thing sometimes when I speak English, they get surprised. I went to my doctor when I first came here. He’s like, ‘Oh you speak English well.’ I said, ‘I learnt it on the plane.’ He got embarrassed. No, in this country I have no problem.
They will be surprised when we, for example, talk to them, and they ask that, ‘How did you learn English.’ When I tell that I learnt it in Iran, you know it’s not easy to accept that. They think that it’s impossible that we learn English in Iran.’
Because they don’t know that history. I believe, that in Iran, very high class in English language and the teachers they teach English from first step until last step.
As suddenly as he appeared, Suriyan receives a call on his mobile phone and disappears. After the long chat, the boys are hungry. Everyone lines up and digs in. By the time Suriyan reappears the food’s almost finished. I apologise: ‘I should’ve made more.’
‘No, that’s fine,’ says Suriyan, ‘I just want a taste.’ He scrapes the last bit of rice onto a plate and I pour the remaining curry. He sits at the table and starts another conversation.
The melancholic carpenter
“I had the baddest and the crazy life ever. No one can see it.”
Let the truth be told
“They told me I have to change many parts. Because many, many parts have contradiction with Islam rules and something like that. I didn’t accept that. I said, ‘I translate the book from English to Persian and nothing else.'”