I have just finished reading Shilpa: the Biography, by Julie Aspinall. It was only ever intended to be a cheap cash-in, with a large typeface and wide line-spacing, but it gets the job done… the “job” in this case being to summarise the arse-clenchingly awful events that occurred on Celebrity Big Brother, circa 2007, when three ignorant bullies set about making a misery of Shilpa Shetty’s life in the fake house. I’m not going to “speak ill of the dead”, but it did annoy me last year when certain eulogisers implied that the racism/classism hadn’t happened at all, and was simply something the media had made up to demonise Jade Goody. A lot of things in this world are subjective and open to interpretation, but you can’t tell me, or the millions of other people who saw what was said “live” on national television, that it was all in our imagination, or an illusion conjured up through clever editing. The book, like Shetty herself, is actually quite forgiving of those involved, and leans towards the opinion that the motivation behind the bullying wasn’t racial, even if the form it took involved racist/xenophobic language and attitudes. Is that simply a case of semantics and spin? Possibly. Both Goody and Jo O’Meara fell back on the old “I can’t be a racist, because some of my distant family are black/brown” defence, which doesn’t really wash. Muhammad Ali said some outrageously racist things about Joe Frazier, despite the fact they were both African-American. Clearly there was a lot of jealousy and resentment in the house… but were the other women jealous and resentful simply because Shetty was richer and posher than them, or because she was a foreigner who was richer and posher than them? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind… or maybe concealed within the master tapes that Channel Four refused to release to the police…
For better or worse, it was the first time that Big Brother had ever actually been culturally or socially relevant, and it was shoving a lot of very important and ugly issues into the faces of the British public. It was also forcing the presenters to tackle subjects way above their pay grade… Davina McCall in particular moaned on about the weight of responsibility she was feeling, and wondered when she could get back to chuckling over silly wigs and secret erections. In contrast, Russell Brand really rose to the occasion, drawing on an impressive array of philosophical and spiritual sources to call for peace, love and understanding between all peoples. Bless him. What was most heartening was that the viewers overwhelmingly voted Shetty the winner, which hopefully proved to be some compensation for the way she was treated. She’d weathered the storm with such dignity, poise and good grace, you couldn’t help but respect and adore her.
One of the recurring beats in the book is that, in the words of Sanjeev Bhaskar, Shetty “presented traits that most people outside of India consider to be traditional British values” (p. 259). The woman herself seemed genuinely surprised that the denizens of a country that gave the world Shakespeare could be so foul-mouthed, slovenly and aggressive. This, as a resident, strikes me as a tad naive. A while back there was a programme about wannabe traffic wardens, in which a recent Indian immigrant (also a fan of The Bard) voiced his belief that no crimes were ever committed in England… presumably because we’re all too busy reclining languidly on sun-dappled riverbanks, and composing whimsical sonnets, to ever think of “happy-slapping” our fellow countrymen! It’s ridiculous, really…. especially considering the history between our two countries. It’s not as if Britain sent a polite note in lieu of armed forces, asking if we could kindly occupy their territory and call them our “colony”. I’m fairly certain there was a high degree of pushing, shoving and swearing involved, somewhere along the line. What is empire building if not bullying on a global scale? Besides which, this sceptered isle has always had its fair share of drunken boors and thugs… many of whom happened to be wearing crowns at the time. Just because chaps like Shakespeare and Dickens were able to weave the activities of these despicable dicks into timeless masterpieces of lyrical literature, doesn’t mean it was any funner or classier for the victims involved. An elegant soliloquy hardly takes the sting out of being stabbed to death.
I’m equally guilty of idealising other cultures, of course. As the weather warms up, I start to day-dream about meditating on a sunny, breezy beach… tranquil, composed, and at one with the universe… saying “om”, and preparing for a rigorous yogic workout. But that isn’t all there is to Hinduism… it’s just the part I choose to focus on, while filtering out all the scary, nasty stuff that doesn’t fit my preferred paradigm. Ah, what a piece of work is man!