My parents’ marriage was unusual because it was based on love. They met in India. At the time, my father was a 27-year-old lecturer in biochemistry and my mum was an 18-year-old university student. They fell in love, but they were from different castes: my mum is Brahmin, which is the highest caste, and my father is Kshatriya. They were the first of their respective families to marry out of caste for thousands of years.
I was the first person in my family to be born in the UK and the only Asian in my class at school. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s when skinheads were quite prevalent on the streets and Kent was quite a threatening place. I went to a grammar school in Rochester and the National Front would leaflet outside my school gates. At the age of 11, I used to get followed home by a white van driver who shouted racist abuse at me through a loudspeaker. I got attacked quite a few times between 11 and 14.
Playing music helped me to socialise and to feel less vulnerable, because it was something I could control. I always felt like an outsider when I was growing up. My dad had a huge, eclectic record collection: brilliant flamenco records, Indian classical music, Miles Davies, Cuban music. My mother had a great musicality to her. She’d learned classical Indian dances to a professional level when she was young. And I was also convinced, until I was 11, that my father had been a great virtuoso sitar player in India, because there was a picture of my dad playing the sitar. Then one day, he brought a sitar home from India and I said, Dad, show us how to play it. And he laughed and said he didn’t know how to play. I was so disappointed.
Each of my parents was the eldest of nine siblings. I remember going to a family wedding in India when I was eight and being overwhelmed by all the love. My uncle, the groom, made me a mascot of the wedding, which is a great privilege. I went through the village on a horse in front of him, flanked by this brass band. But the band was so out of tune that I was actually in tears. Everyone was worried. Then I explained I was crying because the band was playing off key and they said, what the hell is wrong with this kid? I was so precocious and obsessed with music – it really did bug me.
My cousin, Lara Dutta, won Miss Universe the same year I got nominated for the Mercury prize. She had to trump me. I’ve known her since she was a toddler and to suddenly be told by my mother that she’d just become Miss Universe … I couldn’t believe it. I said to my mum: did you actually just say what I thought you said?
I got offered an OBE by Tony Blair, which I turned down. It was a flattering thing to be offered and my dad was keen that I should accept it. He even asked me to accept it as a birthday present for him. But I couldn’t. I didn’t condone the war in Iraq and I couldn’t have the word empire after my name. It’s a loaded word for me. It reminds me of Darth Vader.
My mother, who is in her 80s, is the kind of person who will always look after everyone else before herself. I see so much selfishness around me, particularly in the world of politics, and then I think about my parents and how they would have gladly sacrificed anything for the good of other people.
I watched my dad take his last breath. I was holding his hand. I saw his breaths get weaker and weaker, and I kept just saying, “I love you, I love you.” He woke up for the last 30 seconds. And he really struggled. I could see he was in pain. It was very hard to watch and those images stayed with me for quite a while. I went through a difficult period of my life afterwards. He was such a very knowledgeable person, particularly about Indian culture and heritage, and I’ve found it hard to believe all of that has gone. There are conversations I never had with him.