London Calling -- For Congo, Columbo, Sri Lanka....

Robert Wheaton

M.I.A. speaks about the cultural politics of immigration, her role as an artist, and the global sound of London.

Maya Arulpragasam was born in London in 1976. Her father moved to London in 1971 after graduating in Moscow with a master's degree in engineering. His name is sometimes rendered A.R. Arudpragasam, sometimes Arul Pragasam; his nom de guerre is Arular. In January 1975, he was instrumental in founding the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) in Wandsworth. In June of that year, EROS staged demonstrations at the inaugural cricket World Cup, prompting clashes between Sri Lanka's Tamil and Sinhalese supporters, and bringing the conflict in Sri Lanka to international attention for the first time. In March 1976 he was one of three EROS members selected to train for six months in Lebanon with Palestinian militants associated with the Fatah wing of the PLO. He left after three months of training, returning to Sri Lanka with his family. Maya was six months old.

By 1976, Sri Lanka was well on its way to the internecine ethnic violence that would erupt in full a few years later. Following the withdrawal of the British in 1948, and the electoral triumph of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in 1956, the island's Tamil minority was gradually coerced into a position of second-class status; economic discrimination went hand-in-hand with a gradual displacement of Tamils from the education and administrative institutions. A handful of bloody incidents -- on both sides -- eventually tipped the balance in favor of militancy: land grabs, armed attacks, mob violence, and the destruction of symbolic and cultural treasures, sometimes with official connivance. By the early 1980s, more than thirty Tamil militant groups had emerged, of which EROS was one.

In Sri Lanka, Maya and her siblings rarely saw their father. He was introduced to them as an uncle. They temporarily relocated to the outskirts of Chennai (then Madras), where they lived in a derelict house. Her sister contracted typhoid. They returned to Sri Lanka, and remained constantly on the move. She remembers a childhood "inundated with violence": the convent at which she attended school was destroyed during one of the government's aerial bombing campaigns. She watched as some of her friends died. Family members were incarcerated.

In 1986, they fled. Her father remained in Sri Lanka; the rest of the family made it to London. Maya was 11.

They were allocated an apartment in Phipps Bridge Housing Estate, a development in the borough of Merton, which sits the middle of the vast band of conurban sprawl that constitutes outer London. At the time Phipps Bridge consisted of five high-rise tower blocks and ten low-rise buildings. Of the 4,000 residents, about 65 percent were on income support. It was built in 1976, when institutional inertia and hamstrung development budgets continued to license the building of high-rise estates, despite mounting evidence that they anchored social deprivation and institutional neglect.

By the mid-1980s, life on Phipps Bridge was an experience in misery. Sue Johns, a local resident, wrote in a poem of "the piss-filled lift" and "the shells of wrecked cars", of "Fifties design faults holding on / By the skin of their teeth in the eighties". She pictured residents waiting for a long-promised redevelopment "Behind Chubb locks and net curtains". Television cop shows used the estate to film scenes depicting the most run-down, graffiti-stained dead-end estates in the country. It was hardly the perfect environment for an refugee family; Donna Neblett, a longtime resident and now a manager in the community center, remembers: "Police would not come onto the estate; they'd never come by themselves. They'd always be in cars, they'd never get out and walk. It was a very notorious estate. Everything: drug dealers, needles on the floor. Worse things than you can imagine was Phipps Bridge twenty years ago." Maya was placed in special needs education to improve her English. Her mother worked from home as a seamstress. Maya remembers watching as their home was burgled. When her radio was stolen by crack-addicted neighbors, Maya listened to hip-hop from the teenage boy who lived next door.

Maya's family was one of only two Asian families on Phipps Bridge in 1986. The mid-1980s were hardly a golden period in British race relations. Steve Shanley, until recently a housing officer for the estate, insists that despite Phipps Bridge's reputation as a "a fairly tough estate", there were not "any racial tensions or any great problems." The local council records a relatively low number of reported racist incidents. By contrast, Donna Neblett remembers an estate rife with racist sentiment "There were people [living on the estate] that were the leaders of the National Front, so this is where they had their offices and their meetings, in the houses on the estate." The statistics may reflect the tiny proportion of black and ethnic minority residents at the time. "People knew not to come on Phipps if you were from the [black and ethnic minority] community".

Racial tensions -- conditions in general -- have eased considerably on Phipps Bridge over the last few years. But the obvious question is how an Asian family might have been placed -- in near-isolation -- in such an environment in the fist place. Local authorities are adamant that they are not in the business of social engineering. According to Steve Shanley, individual requests for location tend to be accommodated, but "one thing that councils make sure of is that they don't proactively put people together. It wouldn't be seen as 'equal opportunities' to find out people's nationalities and think, 'Right, well we'll put them there.'"

One resident guardedly confided a suspicion that "I think basically what they tend to do -- in my experience -- is that's where they'll put [black and ethnic minority residents] anyway. It's normally run-down, notorious, them sort of estates. That's how it used to be. I'm not going to say it's like that now, but I know back then it was. And that's when you... That's all I'm going to say on that."

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