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Nish Kumar talks British-Asian inspirations with the Big Issue: “I idolised Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal… rather have them be my role models than Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman and Priti Patel”

Nish Kumar

Nish Kumar. Image: Matt Stronge

Exclusive to this week’s Big Issue (Monday 1 April), comedian Nish Kumar looks back on his childhood and teenage years in his Letter To My Younger Self – a reader favourite column that has previously featured the likes of Noel Gallagher, Dolly Parton and Sir Paul McCartney.

As a big Goodness Gracious Me fan growing up, Kumar reflects on the impact its stars had on him and his future career. “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.”  

Speaking about his route to comedy versus the chances of young hopefuls today, Kumar speaks of “seismic factors at work” that that mean that careers in the arts are restricted to those from wealth and privilege. “If we allow the arts to become purely the playground of the privileged, that will leave us all poorer,” he writes.   

“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.”  

Kumar was just 16 when the 9/11 attacks “completely upended” the world. “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.”  

There’s a note of hope in how he views racism in 21st century society, though. “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.”  

Read Nish Kumar’s full ‘Letter To My Younger Self’ in this week’s Big Issue, out now. Find your local vendor to buy a copy, or subscribe online, at bigissue.com.  

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