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Meera Syal in conversation at The V&A, The FT Magazine

“I desperately wanted to be blonde and to be called Tracey.”

On a cool Sunday afternoon, Holbein and Raphael look down from high frescoes on two empty blue armchairs at the front of the Victoria Albert Museum’s lecture hall. A fashionably scarfed and jacketed audience waits on red cushioned benches for Meera Syal, prize-winning author, star of The Kumars At No. 42 and co-scriptwriter of Bombay Dreams. At 40, she is one of the best-known – and most prolific – voices among young British Asians.

A screening of Anita And Me will follow, co-starring Meera Syal, screenplay by Meera Syal, from the Betty Trask Award-winning novel by Meera Syal.

She enters to applause through a grand side door, looking striking: black outfit topped with red embroidery at the neck and tailed by red stiletto boots, artfully tousled, henna-streaked hair and sparks of gold jewellery. With her is the curator of the V&A’s Asian Department, Amin Jaffer, Syal’s slight, gentle inquisitor for today’s discussion about encounters between Asia and Europe.

Anita And Me tells of a schoolgirl called Meena caught between her Punjabi home and her glamorous blonde friend, Anita. Set in a Black Country village in the 1970s, it is autobiographical, and the conversation becomes more Meera than Meena. But that is what we have come for. She begins slightly nervously.

“I had a lovely, warm family, but life inside the house was completely Indian, completely Punjabi. And then my life outside the house was completely the Midlands village. I would be with my parents and relatives and they’d say, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I’d say ‘Doctor’. And then I’d open the door and go out into the street and it was ‘Awlright, should we go down the pub?’”

Her voice undulates with the story, deftly hopping between her mild Midlands accent, Indian-English and thick Black Country.

“I remember going out with my parents, and if they were speaking Punjabi, or my Mum had her sari on, I’d walk that little bit quicker, in case anybody thought I was with them. Shaming to think of that now.”

Syal has relaxed: arms spread across the back of the armchair, she’s smiling at Jaffer, her legs crossed, red boot pointing.

“People in the village, once they got used to us, were fine, but if someone from the next village came, they would literally come up and touch my skin. You can’t imagine how exotic we were to them. I can remember cutting my finger once in the playground on one of those silver milk-bottle tops, and all the kids gathered round and said, ‘Look, her blood’s red!’”

It is said without bitterness and she rattles out observations on British-Asian life – Punjabi boys were allowed girlfriends, as “It’s only an English girl. That’s OK because he’s marrying an Indian”; on comedy – “The only way to make money from your mistakes”; on writing – “If you don’t belong anywhere, the safest place is in your mind.”

When Jaffer pursues this last point, Syal says: “Writing came to me very young. I used to write these amazingly fantastic short stories. But the problem was I believed the stories.” Like the one she told at school after returning from her first trip to India, about digging rubies from a volcano.

But home was the Midlands, where she wanted acceptance: “I desperately wanted to be blonde and to be called Tracy.” At every stage – A-levels, university, marriage – her generation had to find “whether you want to follow your parents’ path or whether you are going to take a different one”.

Her path took her through Buckingham Palace, to collect an MBE in 1997. Syal recently learned, in the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? series, that her grandfathers battled for Indian independence. When it’s time for questions, a man asks her if that affected how she sees her MBE.

“What an interesting question,” says Syal, and there follows the only pause of the afternoon. But no, she says, it didn’t change her attitude, although she has only used the award to try to get her daughter into the right school.

In fact, “the British Empire was kind of part of the reason for taking it. After 200 years of imperialism, for a fat Bhangra from Wolverhampton to go to Buckingham Palace and say ‘Thank you very much’ was symbolically quite interesting.”

It is time for the film, and for the first time Meera Syal seems vulnerable. “Don’t be startled by the broad Black Country accents,” she says. “That really is my fault. I do hope you enjoy it.” She stands, self-consciously smoothes her clothes, and leaves, head down.

25 March 2005

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