A grey London day. All hands are on deck in a middle-class Muslim household prepping for the dholki.
TV news plays in the background covering racially-charged protests. The family, desensitised to the rhetoric, continues with the wedding preparations.
Black vans swarm the neighbourhood. Armed white men, their faces hidden, emerge. They target and break into each brown household. They pull women by the hair, round up children and shove them into the vans. The men are tied, dragged out to the street, and lined up on their knees. White neighbours peek out of their homes, witnessing the horror. They do nothing. The police stand by and consult with white supremacists. The police nod. The brown men are shot in the head.
Riz Ahmed’s short film, The Long Goodbye, is a no-frills depiction of the reality we live in. This is bone-chillingly similar to what took place in Delhi just last month. It’s what happened in 2002 in Gujarat. It’s happening to the Uyghurs, the Rohingya. It is happening to immigrants in Europe and the US. This isn’t a near-future dystopia or a what-if scenario. This is present day reality.
The film serves as a prelude to Ahmed’s album by the same name – a mix of spoken word and rap and a mélange of influences from UK garage to Bollywood, from R&B to qawwalis. Ahmed brings Sufi irreverence to the album by cleverly using the trope of breaking up with an abusive lover to depict the pain of betrayal by your country.
Like Sufi poetry, the album is vague yet specific, resonating with global struggles while underlining the dissonance of being a Muslim man in the UK today. The album, like the film, is visceral, brutally honest and an ode to the history, strength and trauma of the Indian subcontinent.
The first track, ‘The Breakup (Shikwa)’ is a lament on our agonising relationship with the West ,starting with the plunder and indentured labour of the British Raj – which gifted us with a collective loss of worth and a continuing sense of inferiority. It documents our contributions to the World Wars, highlights the unending bloodbath in Kashmir thanks to the hastily drawn Radcliffe Line and utilises the popular pro-Brexit slogan ‘Take Back Control’ to contextualise the present-day onslaught of xenophobia.
‘Toba Tek Singh’ pays tribute to Saadat Hasan Manto who humanised the lunacy of partition while ‘Fast Lava’ is pure fury and divine – supported by temple bell and chimta percussion, Ahmed relays brown contributions and vows of our global resurgence.
They put their boots on our ground/ I put my roots in their ground
I put my truth in this sound/ I spit my truth and it’s brown
‘Any Day’ and ‘Can I Live’ shift the mood from searing pain to mellow heartache, starting the journey of recovery and self-acceptance. ‘Where You From’ is defiant and heart-wrenching in equal measure, forcing us to reflect on our history. Every diaspora kid has been asked this question and when asked, each one of us instinctively knows the answer will be used against us to box us for the interrogator’s convenience.
I was born in Kolkata and my parents are Bengali. One side of the family is Ghoti while the other Bangal, originating from present-day Bangladesh. I grew up in Assam and Gujarat and Bahrain and Malaysia and Hong Kong. I live in the UK.
Where am I from?
Ahmed uses the track to brilliantly resist the idea of a unitary label. As Tony Joseph’s book Early Indians demonstrates with genetic evidence – the people of the Indian subcontinent aren’t a genetic monolith. We have always been a plural people. Where am I from? Maybe I’m from no man’s land or from every land. Maybe it’s very complicated or very simple. Either way, it’s for me to make sense of my identity and nobody else’s business.
The last three tracks of the album, ‘Mogambo’, ‘Deal With It’ and ‘Karma’ are rallying anthems of resilience and promise of a better future. There’s too many of us and we are all rising to claim our space. They can’t kill us all.
The social commentary of Ahmed’s album is more relevant than ever to Indians of the Muslim faith. Since 1947, the Indian Muslim experience has been one of trial by fire – systemic oppression and disenfranchisement over seven decades has brought us to a point where we are creating mechanisms to strip their citizenship.
Faizan was forced to sing the national anthem and was beaten to death by the Delhi police. His mother voluntarily sang the anthem on Republic Day, a month before he was killed.
It is time we wake up to the abuse and toxicity we have subject them to and accept our complicity. Let’s not be the white neighbours who window-shop pogrom.
They are us. Let’s fight for us.
Amrita Roy grew up (feeling like she never quite fit in) across a bunch of different places in India and abroad, and is a media/entertainment professional aspiring to improve representation both in front and behind the camera.
Featured image credit: YouTube screengrab