Brit-Asians: Let’s Talk Secrets

This page is divided into Guest contributions, followed by a post about Secrets and the text of a World Service broadcast.



Secrets and Suicide in the Sikh Community by Kalwinder Singh Dhindsa

author of My Father and the Lost Legend of Pear Tree  

Part One – The Trough


In the Asian community the Man is seen as the head of the household. So much is expected of him from the instant he takes on the responsibility to provide for his family. My father was a proud and gentle man who always tried to do his best for those closest to him.

My father was a good man. He was not a criminal; he did not commit a crime. He did not commit suicide.

My father Mohinder Singh Dhindsa died by suicide on March 1st 2006, resulting from a mental illness that had corrupted his mind thus silencing him forever. It also silenced many more around him who were also deeply affected by his death.

Suicide stops people talking. Whether it is the person who has just taken their own life or the loved ones bereaved and left behind to pick up the pieces. Lack of engagement with the bereaved is a serious problem in our community due to the apparent fear of upsetting close family or just not being able to approach the subject or not knowing what to say. Another factor in this is the issue of shame and dishonour within cultural groups. All these factors further diminish the good memories of the loved one who has passed on, resulting in a paradox in which as they are no longer talked about – they could possibly be forgotten in time forever.

Suicide stops people in their tracks. On March 1st 2006 that was definitely the case for me. It took me a long while to finally get back on track. An uncertain journey that eventually saw me on the straight and narrow, almost nine years later which was developed upon hearing about what led to the death of Robin Williams. The man who set me free and provided me with a form of closure and an acceptance to understand. This then allowed me to try to do my utmost best to help others who have also travelled a similar path.

But before that life affirming revelation I chose to open up to myself first and foremost. Immediately after my father’s death, I knew that I could never allow my memories of him to be lost in time. Therefore I decided to write down all the feelings and memories I still had of him in my life, up to that point. The memories I still retained within my mind took me to places only I could find and recall within the deepest corners of my mind. They had to be written down for posterity. The memories needed to be kept safe from the fear of one day losing them altogether should my own mind also be corrupted in the same manner as my father’s.

It was difficult to talk to anyone at the time; a cloak of silence seemed to have masked all attempts to understand why my father’s death occurred. Religion mixed with custom soaked in culture. Suicide was taboo, a stigma to be avoided at all cost.

Eventually I began to seek some professional help. Thankfully, I was referred to a Mental Health Therapist who helped me set foot onto the road to happiness. A person who listened without prejudice, unblemished by society’s taboo.

Pain was the motivator for my change. An opportunity to question my life and move on. There had to be no time to stop and contemplate the darkness. I needed to be distracted. Thankfully writing came to my rescue.

But what of all those who cannot see a way out? Who are not able to communicate their thoughts or feelings? No energy to engage? No ability to seek help? How do we help them? Anxiety and depression saps their spirit. Suicide will amputate it.

If the answer to the suffering of our people does not lie in our own community then we need to show these people a different pathway. Secrets can destroy lives. Especially for those that try to convince the world and themselves that they are not suffering. These people need to know there is no need to hide and that there is a way out if they seek to destroy the stigma of mental illness. There are agencies out there  they can talk to who will understand what they are going through. They are not alone. It’s time that our community stopped ignoring the most vulnerable that are obviously in need of help. We need to accept that mental illness corrupts the mind. Let us all take the onus if we see someone in difficulty. We can not leave it in the hands of those that suffer. We need to show them the light. Help is out there if only we can help them to ask for it.

Keep talking. Keep moving on. Keep the faith.

Disown the stigma of suicide within our culture.



Kamila Zahno author of Chasing Ghosts

I was born a secret never to be told. The daughter of a liaison between a Swiss au pair and an Indian engineering student, I was adopted under a policy named the Clean Break. This was standard practice in the 50s when unmarried mothers were encouraged to give up their babies for adoption and start a fresh life. But the fact that I was ‘slightly coloured’ meant that my presence should remain a secret because I was ‘impossible to adopt’. I was lucky. I, together with my three unrelated siblings who were also mixed race, were discovered languishing in the nurseries of adoption agencies by my Indian/English adoptive parents.

Our mothers gave us up on the understanding they were not to be traced and we were not to be found. It was not until 1976 that adoption policy in the UK changed so adult adoptees could search for their birth parents – although birth parents could not search for us. My papers were still shrouded in secrecy when I began my search. I had to sit and hear the adoption worker tell me select bits of information but wasn’t allowed access to my own adoption papers. In the mid 90s adoption policy further opened up and we were allowed to access our papers.  Once these were in my hands I was able to search using a Swiss address my mother had given when she returned home after the Clean Break.

The whole secret is revealed in my memoir Chasing Ghosts: not just an adoption memoir (for sale in bookstores and online retailers).


 Rahila Gupta, author and activist. 

We live our lives in a time of new openness, exposing our private selves like never before – whether it is posting intimate pictures of our bodies or our darkest thoughts or the people we share our time with. Whilst some of this is teenage gushing, a naïve desire to share (and to exclude ‘friends’ who might reasonably expect to be part of their lives), held somewhat in check by horror stories of potential employers looking through their facebook outpourings in the future, the truth is that these are people who are secure in their status, they belong, they have the power of legitimacy.

The people I spoke to for my book Enslaved did not have this luxury. Loose talk can cost lives, the dictum of world war propaganda, was still their guiding principle. They were people who had been forced to migrate by war or state demonisation or trafficked into prostitution or forced into marriage. Secrecy was both imprisonment and protection. Knowing when to talk and when to remain quiet require fine judgments especially when you find yourself in a society and culture that you are not familiar with. Get it wrong and you could be brutalised by a trafficker or a pimp; get it right and you might be on the road to freedom.


About Secrets Page

Everyone has secrets. Serious or frivolous, damaging or altruistic, secrets show the hidden life of a society. The British-Asian community is no exception, and most British-Asians talk openly about the endemic culture of secrets.

The British-Asian community, varied and complex, now into its third or fourth generation, operates by the strongest of forces: convention, tradition, and religion. And packs a double whammy: being both patriarchal and matriarchal. Mothers rule the roost with an iron rod, exercising power over sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law. Fertile ground indeed for secrets.

Those who want lifestyles, which don’t conform to expected patterns find themselves conflicted and torn, feel disloyal and treacherous.

‘There’s no place to discuss or debate,’ said a young man I was talking to recently, ‘where you can talk honestly about the stuff that goes on and how secrecy is used.’

‘Emotions are never discussed,’ a woman pointed out, ‘which means that a person’s pain doesn’t get recognised or addressed.’

People often say that a systemic culture of secrecy means that problems which should be debated and dealt with are swept under the carpet, often causing heartache, suffering and tragedy.

Secrets act like baggage; once they start to be unpacked, they start to tell a story, paint in the background, the causes and reasons, the justice or injustice of them. They can be used like a torch, lighting the way forward.

Let’s talk secrets. Let’s talk about the whys and wherefores, the troubles and tempests. Let’s endeavour to discuss, debate, and share ideas.

Please write in with your experiences, thoughts and views, using the form below, and create a pen name if you don’t want to use your own name.

Note: Secrets will also be accepted and shown in their own section. If you want to send in a secret, please do it anonymously, and don’t mention anyone’s names.




Text of broadcast on The BBC World Service: Cultural Frontline

Secrets are everywhere, in every society, and in every heart. Most are private, some are held in common, the so-called ‘open secret’, and some become traps for others. Secrets and deceit often go together, as in the Mike Leigh film ‘<em>Secrets and Lies</em>,’ and as Sir Walter Scott wrote “<em>Oh! What a tangled web we weave, … When first we practice to deceive</em>.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer- and a British Asian writer- that one ‘tangled web’ in particular still fascinates me. In the tragic case of Anni Dewani, the young bride killed on her honeymoon in South Africa, secrets run deep. Her British Asian husband Shrien Dewani was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder, which he has always denied. He was eventually cleared, after the case collapsed due to lack of reliable evidence. But not before he revealed to the court that he was bisexual. The prosecution argued that this ‘double life’ was a motive in the murder but the judge rejected this view. Anni Dewani’s family have since told the press, that if she had known about his bisexuality, she would never have married him- and they would not have allowed it.

For me, the case illuminates British-Asian society’s obsession with presenting a respectable and conventional appearance- because homosexuality is largely a taboo. As a British-Asian woman, I’ve witnessed the impact of the secrecy required to maintain that respectable façade. And I’ve written about it, in novels such as <em>The Coral Strand</em>. Though the theme of secrecy also exists in books such as <em>Brick Lane</em>, <em>The Year of the Runaways</em> and the play <em>Calcutta Kosher</em>, I believe only the surface has been scratched in British Asian literature, with writers concentrating on themes of migration and racism.

The British-Asian community has existed for three or four generations now, but many of its traditions and customs have frozen in time; they’re still the same as when the first generation came. Despite this, the ambitions and dreams of younger generations have moved on. Whilst still wanting to be part of their communities, being loyal and respectful to their families, they often find themselves torn and conflicted. As a young man said to me, ‘now we have more secrets than ever.’ There are people who lead double lives, have secret boyfriends, girlfriends, marriages; secrets about their sexuality and beliefs. Secret children even, as a woman wrote in to the secrets project I began, ‘With my partner for seven years. Knew family would never accept him. When had my baby, heart broken in 2. I visit my family, pretend everything normal. Rush back to feed my child.’

When I talked to friends about secrets and British-Asians, this is what they said: ‘We’re taught to please others, which is why we have white lies and secrets.’ ‘We’re taught to fit in with family and society. Not to question it.’ ‘It’s a blame culture, there always has to be a scapegoat, so people protect themselves.’ ‘It’s a macho culture, and men keep each other’s secrets.’ ‘Women are taught not to speak their minds and feelings are never discussed.’ Could it be that honour killings happen when women have secretly followed their feelings and fallen in love? ‘<em>Murdered by My</em> <em>Father</em>,’ a drama written by Vinay Patel, aired on the BBC in March 2016, telling the story of just such an honour killing.

Secrets are a potent subject for writers and artists. Secrets make the impossible, possible, by subverting the rules, breaking taboos – as the women in my novel, <em>The Coral Strand</em> do – in the end the secrets have to come out, bringing resolution and redemption.

I was inspired to start the British-Asian Secrets project, by the PostSecret community art project created in the United States by Frank Warren, in which he invited people to decorate a card and write a secret. A decade on, the PostSecret project has produced books and exhibitions. The art and the secrets touch the heart: tender, painful and light-hearted they add to the sum of human experience; make a plea for acceptance of our darker and nobler sides, reveal conscience and guilt, sin and goodness. The priest, who draws a collar and writes across it that some days it feels more like a noose, is expressing far more than mere words, capturing our hearts and minds with his anguish and insight.

Secrets, shared anonymously, can connect us, show us our common humanity, and lead to discussion, awareness, evolution. The very processes which art aims to provoke, and which could create new understanding in British-Asian society.

First broadcast on the BBC World Service: The Cultural Frontline


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *