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Intergenerational Trauma in the South Asian Diaspora, Part 1

The South Asian Community’s Unrecognised Intergenerational Traumas

As part of Mental Health Week, Dr Rima Lamba has written a series of guest articles for us on intergenerational trauma within the South Asian community in the U.K. We hope you find them insightful and thought-provoking.

On 23 January 2020, Meera Syal, a successful British Asian writer and actor tweeted, stating that, in 1997, she took her Hindu father back to Lahore, Pakistan, to his home which he had fled in 1947. There was a Muslim family living there and they were also refugees that had to flee India during the Partition of India. She described this experience as an “emotional healing” for both her father and the Muslim family. She went on to say “Not one TV company I approached was interested in filming it. History needs witnesses.”

This experience echoes one not too dissimilar to my own. I recently approached what would be regarded as a “forward thinking” and inclusive media publication about this article, with the hope that it could be a meaningful contribution. Like Syal’s experience in 1997, there was no interest. For me this echoes experiences of colonial denial, which silences history and thus awareness of the impact of intergenerational and colonial trauma, which still affects the South Asian community to this day.

Systemic denial of colonial trauma brings with it feelings of powerlessness and fragmentation where, just as society refuses to explore these important pieces of collective history, the South Asian person in their internal world may give little credence to ancestral trauma and its role in their psychological turmoil today. This combined with the dominant discourse, an apparently post-racial society, means South Asian people may struggle to hold the psychological tension associated with their ancestral heritage and its role in their difficulties as individuals, couples, families and communities.

So, it too becomes lost, adding to an already fragmented psyche, most likely caused by the original traumas in their family and social history. To heal, in the present-day, individually and collectively, we need to turn our heads and lean into history and explore, hear, and witness stories of the past. Mark Wolynn (2016) indicates this in his book, which he aptly named It Didn’t Start with You. Wolynn discusses that inherited family trauma shapes who we are and breaking the cycle requires tuning into, and giving space to those ancestral stories to heal.

The British Raj, The Partition, and the expulsion of Ugandan Asians still echoes through the quiet lives of the South Asian Diaspora. This is a rich and diverse community pierced with unrecognised and - albeit unacknowledged – complex intergenerational and colonial trauma.

In my own life, I have had to learn to hold two identities and continuously navigate questions on what it means to be a woman of British and South Asian Indian heritage. There is a unique psychological challenge attached to being born and raised in a country that has been instrumental in the ancestral trauma of people with whom you share ethnic roots.

On one hand, you feel a sense of honour and pride in being British and yet on the other hand, there is confusion about identity, belonging, loss, gain, privileges, oppression, power, powerlessness, colourism, lack of representation and more. From various conversations with other South Asians, and indeed South Asian mental health professionals, this appears to be a far more common journey than we realise.

The subject of colonial rule, The Partition, and the expulsion of Ugandan Asians are rarely spoken of openly by the British Asian community, and its psychological trauma, even less. This follows what Bessel Van Der Kolk coined as “speechless terror”, where trauma quite literally shuts down the speech centres, creating an experience of being lost for words. However, these neurological mechanics of trauma are also colliding with systemic neglects of history. This includes whitewashed teachings of history in school, power systems controlling how knowledge is opened and shared with the masses, as well as who shares it. And there’s also the general inability to hold the tension that comes with conversations about imperialism and colonial trauma in British community. This all serves to further silence our trauma, specifically ancestral trauma and its history.

These issues, ultimately, beg the question: How can British Asian people and the South Asian diaspora, connect with their ancestral trauma, fragmented stories and pain, when the social system around us struggles to hold attention on pieces of connected history?

Part 2 of this article will deep dive into our histories and what it had meant for us as a community.

Dr. Rima Lamba is a UK based, Chartered Counselling Psychologist. She has set up a private practice specialising in women and mother's mental health and well-being, called Blue River Psychology. She has a keen interest in how intergenerational, patriarchal and racial traumas or stories intersect and influence the diverse lives and identity of women, including those who embark on motherhood. Instagram: @blueriverpsychology

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