Culture

Nish Kumar: 'My experience of being a brown man in Britain shifted after 9/11'

He wishes he could tell his teenage self to enjoy his youth, but also to prepare for public scrutiny

Nish Kumar

Nish Kumar. Image: Matt Stronge

Nish Kumar was born in August 1985 in Tooting, South London. He began performing stand-up while studying at Durham University, forming a double act with writer Tom Neenan called Gentlemen of Leisure. He’s gone on to become one of the biggest draws on the UK comedy circuit and a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe, with two of his shows nominated for best show of the festival.

He has become a familiar face on TV as the host of the satirical BBC news show The Mash Report from 2017 to 2021 and as a guest on Taskmaster, Have I Got News For You, QI, 8 Out Of 10 Cats and Mock The Week, among many others. Nish Kumar has also hosted his own show for BBC Radio 4, Spotlight Tonight, as well as being a regular host of the station’s The News Quiz and Newsjack. Kumar is also the co-host of the politics podcast Pod Save The UK and a regular on The Bugle.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Nish Kumar looked back at an adolescence consumed by culture, at the harsh realities of growing up as a Hindu in the UK and his pride in making a career out of comedy,

If you met me at 16, you’d be able to pretty quickly work out what I’d be like at 38. I had started being involved in the school debating society. James Acaster says I should always tell people that a lot of what I did back then was make funny debating speeches, which is the DNA coding of what I would go on to do as a comedian. I don’t think he means that as a compliment. He says it explains everything and then refuses to elaborate.

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I had just come through a period of constant detention. Just for answering back and being a piece of shit. I have nothing but sympathy for people that taught me in the first five years of secondary school. Once I started A levels, I loved it. I had a much better time. I always had a really good group of people around me and a good group of mates. I was lucky in that regard.

Nish Kumar onstage in Edinburgh in 2016
2016: Nish Kumar onstage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Image: Richard Dyson / Alamy Live News

I was deeply into music. I was a 16-year-old with the taste in music of someone three decades older than me – Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone. I was also obsessed with The Simpsons. I saw an interview with [show writer] Mike Scully who said that the message to the show, apart from the importance of family, is that your teachers, political leaders and religious leaders may not have your best interests at heart. That made a very strong impression on me. The spirit of the ’60s counterculture really ran through The Simpsons and delivered it to Generation X and old millennials like me second-hand. And if you’re listening to The Times They Are a-Changin’, if you’re fixated on the idea of Hendrix playing The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock, and you have all this paranoia and suspicion. Then, when a government who you feel positively towards goes and embarks on a war with very little evidence, all that is going to do is validate your suspicions about institutions, and power and powerful people.

At 16, I was consumed by shame, like a lot of teenagers are. I’d like to tell my younger self, relax, buddy, just relax. There’s no reason for you to be this embarrassed all the time. Just go out and live your life a little bit more; enjoy being young more. You don’t have to take all this that seriously.

I was a huge Goodness Gracious Me fan. Seeing them live brought about a seismic shift in my understanding of who was able to do comedy. But I still had no sense of what a career in comedy would have looked like and how I would have achieved that. As a British-Indian person, I am thrilled that the people that I idolised were Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir. I would much rather have them be my role models than Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman and Priti Patel, the most prominent British-Asians in the country right now.

If we allow the arts to become purely the playground of the privileged, that will leave us all poorer. A very enterprising teacher of mine who believed that culture should be for everybody discovered a scheme where students could get cheap theatre tickets. So at 16 I started to go and see West End shows for about five quid. I used to go to the National Theatre and the Barbican all the time. Now I think what an absolute privilege that was, to have access to that. It just blew my head wide open. If you put a bunch of 16-year-olds in front of something good, they’ll really get into it. I remember seeing Tim West do King Lear. We were bored by Shakespeare in class and I hadn’t read it. And it was amazing, We even understood all of it and I don’t know how that was possible. I’m one of the bursers of Arts Emergency and it’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about it. There are systemic factors at work that mean that careers in the arts are becoming the preserve of the independently wealthy.

Aisling Bea, Iain Stirling and Nish Kumar onstage in London, 2023
Nish Kumar.

I turned 16 in August [2001], and then, two weeks later, 9/11 happens and everything is completely upended. I remember that was a politicising event. Me and lots of my friends were very against the war happening. And also I felt that my experience of being a brown man in Britain shifted. My dad sold fabrics and went on a business trip to New York three weeks after, though we all begged him not to go. He had a terrible time at JFK, he was pulled into an interrogation room and they were chucking out fabric samples all over the table. It definitely changed something in the culture for people who look like me, and we were a Hindu family, we’re not even a Muslim family. So, what it must have been like for Muslim families is unfathomable to me.

When Jean Charles de Menezes was killed a few years later [in 2005], it was shocking, because we were told that he was armed and had been on a watch list, which all turned out to be nonsense. So suddenly, for a guy who looks like me walking around London, it scared the shit out of me. I understand that might sound paranoid to people, but the shadow of that shifted something in my understanding of where I fit in British society.

I’d tell my younger self not to be surprised when it turns out there are people who don’t think your opinion on this country is legitimate. Don’t be surprised that there are people who don’t consider you British enough to criticise the country and its establishment and institutions. Don’t be surprised at the hypocrisy of people who will say, “How dare you assume a British-Indian identity, you are British.” But then, when you start speaking out, say you’re ungrateful because you’re not really British. Just don’t be surprised by that hypocrisy.

In a lot of ways we’re in a much more evolved place than when I was 16. I’d say that there are certainly things that my younger self will be taken aback by. Like the unwillingness of the country to engage with Boris Johnson’s racism. You will definitely see that as a regression, but things trend towards the more positive in the long term and you’ll certainly see conversations evolve around race in a way that you couldn’t have conceived of at the time. People didn’t even really talk about the legacy of the British Empire back then, but nearly 20 years later a bunch of kids will get together and dump a statue of Colston in the water and somehow in that moment you’ll see progress.

James Acaster and Nish Kumar
2023: Nish Kumar with fellow comedian, friend and occasional collaborator James Acaster. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I would love to tell my granddad that I went into comedy. He died when I was 20. I think he would have got a big kick out of it. He and I used to watch a lot of like a lot of old British sitcoms together. He absolutely loved Only Fools and Horses, Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army. And I don’t know why it is, but that generation of Asian men really liked The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; I can’t make sense of it. Priya Hall talked about it in her last show too. I’d also tell him that I did well financially out of it, because the two main things we would talk about were comedy and his worries that I was completely useless with money.

The main piece of advice I would give my 16-year-old self is go and fucking see Nina Simone. Sod your goddamn A level, sack that off and go and see Nina Simone because she will never tour the United Kingdom again. And you will think about that every day for the next 22 years.

Nish Kumar co-hosts the weekly political podcast, Pod Save The UK. He will tour the UK with his new stand-up show Nish, Don’t Kill My Vibe from September to November. For dates visit nishkumar.co.uk.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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