For South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) 2022, Professor Anton Emmanuel, RCP medical director of publishing, talks about the importance of marking SAHM, and shares the story of his own Sri Lankan Tamil heritage.
Growing up African-Asian, I have eschewed the idea of particular traits being associated with race, and even ethnicity. All populations share values of being family oriented, hard-working, socially minded, having a sense of humour etc. If so, why should we celebrate events such as South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM)?
For me, that is easy to answer. This is a recent addition to the calendar, launched three years ago. SAHM is an event to commemorate, celebrate and educate people in the UK about South Asian history and culture. In doing so, it celebrates our present and looks forward to the potential of a more harmonious world.
The theme of this year’s event is ‘Journeys of Empire’. Understanding this origin story is key. There have been empires in South Asia way before the European colonisations. From the before common era (BCE) dynasties to the medieval-onwards conquering empires, to the journeys of indentured labourers, to the voluntary migrations of ‘commonwealth’ citizens – all of these blended into each other, with only historians allocating these to epochs.
The reality is that there was a gradual transition from one to another, and it is for that reason that understanding our history is key to making the best of our future. I feel at an intersection – I enjoy the spectacle of extraordinary religious buildings, Bollywood, sporting rivalries, astonishing geography, several hundred languages, and much else. But for me the joy of all those things is the way they reflect how human beings have expressed their connection with the world around them and with each other.
Celebrating SAHM in Britain is about continuing that connection, by giving insight to a wider population about what underlies the skin colour of their workmates, neighbours, friends. For us to understand where we are, we must understand our past and how we got here, including the events and people who shaped the way the UK functions today. History and heritage matter.
So, I will share a tiny part of my background. My South Asian heritage is as a Sri Lankan Tamil – there are approximately 75 million Tamils in the world. The vast majority are from India, and about 5% (3–4 million) are from Sri Lanka. In the UK there are about 300,000 Tamils, paradoxically, two-thirds of whom are Sri Lankan in origin. This relates to the civil conflict in the country which ran for over 50 years from 1956, during which period there were waves of migration and refugees to Europe and North America (especially UK and Canada, for reasons of language).
My parents fled to West Africa in 1958 during widespread murderous riots and I was born in Nigeria during the Biafran War. I came to the UK for secondary education and settled in South London. I found a Tamil expatriate community which was made up of passionately Tamil elders and my contemporaries who felt more disconnected from a country they had never lived in.
That enigma of second-generation individuals is one of the reasons why SAHM is an important commemoration – it helps many diaspora individuals connect with their parental homeland, as much as it informs wider populations about particular histories. I hope the month is a rewarding one for all; there are tens of thousands of stories to hear, reflecting the origin story of our colleagues, patients and fellow citizens, knowledge of which can only make for a better tomorrow.