Rock and Roti

The other day we watched the four part mini series production of Hanif Kureishi’s novel, the Buddha of Surburbia.  It is a wonderful screen adaptation of that novella about two generations of south Asians negotiating their pasts and futures, their possibilities which abound, and their limitations which are all over and around. There are familiar tropes:  of fathers and sons inhabiting different cultural orbits. Of arranged marriages and corner shops. But there is more. A good writer, Milan Kundera once said, is above all, an honest writer. And Kureishi writes  honestly, and about sex and sexuality famously.  And it is the honesty in Kureishi’s explorations of the tender dilemmas between a husband and wife, a father and a son, a daughter and her parents, a husband or a wife and their lovers or mistresses or prostitutes, an older woman and younger man, an older man and younger woman, that explodes the conscious surfaces of suburbia.  Its not just the now well worn genre of scandalising  suburbia along the lines of, say,  Louis Bunuels  taking his Marxist scalpel to the subject. I am thinking of his film,  The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This is suburbia yes. But with masala.

It was not so much this part of the novel that resonated with me when revisiting the story, albeit on the screen this time. I realised more clearly why I have always found Hanief Kureishi’s stories arresting, so poignant, and above all, so funny.  And I think it has something to do with being able to see a bit of ones own story in there, and having it told back to you in ways that of course take it far beyond  oneself.  There are many differences that might make one wonder why I might suggest a resonance with Kureishi’s  neighbourhood, Shepherds Bush (he is notoriously parochial for setting all his stories in or in proximity to Shepherds Bush). After all, as a fourth generation South African of Indian descent, born in the Cape, to parents born in the Cape, how much of this immigrant story has a life in “my” story? More so because, as the anthropologist Thomas Blum Hansen discovered when he came to South Africa in search of an Indian diaspora, most people of Indian descent in South Africa – barring the post ’94 migrants—would never use the word “diaspora” to identity ourselves. (Despite protestation he seems to have not listened to his interlocutors in the field as his book sadly shows).  And of course there are other key differences: while Kureishi’s London and childhood, melted into the composite elements of his characters negotiating cultural expectations of community and the consciousness elaborations of self, of “freedom” in the liberal sense, encounter racism and prejudice, it is not in the steely legal sense that apartheid circumscribed our lives.  

One of the characters, the Indian childhood friend and occasional lover of the main character, has to deal with the arrival of the husband to be from Pakistan. He has been imported to not only marry her, and have babies with her, but will also take over the running of her ailing fathers corner shop. The rub is that she considers herself a Marxist feminist, and ends up in a commune -- with the cuckolded Pakistani husband — and lesbian partner and a baby named after Alexandra Kollontai.  None of these bear any remote semblance to my life, except the reference to the Russian feminist and contemporary of Lenin, the dissident Bolshevik, Alexandra Kollontai.  There is a way in which a critical counter culture circulated across and between the strict boundaries of apartheid’s group areas that resulted in some Indian South African youth reading the Russian feminist Kollontai in their teenage years and declaring the death of the nuclear family and bourgeois sexuality. And there were these youth sitting in rooms of friends listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the entire library of classic rock, from the Doors through to Led Zeppelin. And friendships and politics broke and splintered over musical tastes that betrayed whether you were a true revolutionary or really a bourgeois poser. And there was the strident renunciation of any notion of having an Indian identity- since apartheid said we were so, we were  hell bent on saying, no it ain’t so!  In our minds we were Black, or non-racialists. And this all parallel to another set of  deliberations over who’s mother made the best curry, and whether a good Marxist could heed the fast during Ramadaan. Talk about negative dialectics!

It not just that this might now be considered “white” music, but that it was also banned under apartheid. It was just as subversive for white kids to be listening to this stuff, as Rian Malan so hilariously describes his own Rolling Stone moment growing up in Johannesburg’s white suburbs and finding a voice for revolt in this music. Apartheid ideologues like their American counterparts, feared that rock music was the devils work and banned much of it.  So,  at the height of the school boycotts in 1985 in Athlone, it was a subversive act we thought, that while the school was surrounded by the army, to broadcast Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” through the Public Address system.  We didn’t “need no thought control”. The older brother of my best friend, had an incredible vinyl collection before vinyl was retro cool.  He—the older brother—went on to start a small  live music club called – some of you will consider this blasphemous- Tagores, which now has a cultish following. And there were people with collections of books and art, and movies which all circulated through a network of borrowing and sharing because we couldn’t simply get it commercially. And we didn’t really know anyone who had been to university and who a formal knowledge of these high brow cultural matters. This was popular education in the best, and some might say, worse sense of it- Each One Teach One.

In retrospect of course it was a thoroughly European counter culture, a  subversive breyani of the British new left,  American folk and rock music traditions, the German aesthetics of Brechtian left wing theater,  existentialism and French new wave cinema.  It was like living Tariq Ali’s memoir of 1968,  Street Fight Years, but  sadly for us, without the cool of hanging out with John Lennon or getting a phone call from Marlon Brando. (I am sure if it wasn’t for the cultural boycott Lennon would have called to hang out).

It is these parts of Kureishi’s novels that sound like stories out of Rylands, when rock and politics and roti all seemed to co-exist in our lives, as it did in the lives of young Asian immigrants in London, and amongst a few of us anti-diasporics  living  on the southern most tip of Africa. 

About Author

<p>Suren Pillay (surenpillay1@gmail.com) is a writer, photographer and academic, based at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa.</p>
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