“Finally, white friends were interested in our culture”: author Nikesh Shukla on the power of multicultural TV

"I think watching the first episode of Goodness Gracious Me in 1998 made me want to write comedy"

Radio Times/ FC

I think watching the first episode of Goodness Gracious Me in 1998 made me want to write comedy. It was everything to me and my family. We sat and we watched it, all together – me, Mum, Dad and my sister, all huddled together on a sofa older than me, in our house in Harrow in northwest London.

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We all laughed at the familiarity of the extreme situations it presented, whether it was the inability to pronounce our names properly, competitive aunties, wheeler-dealer uncles or that crew of boozed-up lads in the corner of the tandoori restaurant, over-ordering food and being generally foul to the poor waiter, while we all ate in silence, trying to get through the meal quickly, without incident.

Goodness Gracious Me skewered multiculturalism with its sharp, on-the-nose sketches and showed up the reality of the nonexistent “sarees, samosas and steel drums” utopia. Finally, people who looked like us were telling the joke. Finally, our white school friends were interested in our culture, in so much as wanting to know what “chuddies” were. Finally, as with all good satire, we had a way of speaking truth to power.

Twenty years later, comedy is at the heart of my third novel. The One Who Wrote Destiny follows the fortunes of the Jani family as they navigate grief, cancer, immigration, racism and their own personalities. Among them, Rakesh is a stand-up comedian whose career is in its ascendancy. As he performs an Edinburgh show, appears on his first TV panel show and tours the world, he wrestles with the idea of what his comedy should be about. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to be known as a British Asian comedian, only making jokes about his cultural background. At the same time, maybe telling those jokes is important because they are real to him, and having a cultural bent doesn’t make them any less significant.

It’s something I think about a lot, the question: what is considered a default narrative? This is a central theme of the novel. And it’s one that Goodness Gracious Me shifted, the idea of what constitutes the default narrative of the country. The way Raks wrestles with it is over the jokes he tells and the ones he doesn’t, as he questions what is true to his own experience, whether what he grew up with was the default British Asian narrative.

Goodness Gracious Me helped me to write things that were true to me. It also illustrated how universal the anxiety that came with being British Asian was. But the revolutionary thing it did was show that comedy didn’t need white people at its centre to be funny. There was a wealth of material to be mined by listening to voices from different backgrounds. And that first episode is a piece of comedy perfection: “Going for an English” is still one of the greatest sketches ever made.

Goodness Gracious Me was unapologetic and it was never scared of showing the breadth of racism in the UK, from the casual to the institutional. Twenty years later, it still feels relevant.

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Book at Bedtime: The One Who Wrote Destiny airs Monday 23rd April—Friday 27th April at 10.45pm on Radio 4