An ode to Riz Ahmed and the UK's resurgent Asian Underground

An ode to Riz Ahmed and the UK's resurgent Asian Underground
7 min read
31 May, 2022

No sooner than the crooked line of Partition had been drawn, a prophetic band of writers, poets and musicians emerged from the embers of a newly formed Subcontinent.

Recounting untold courage, they wrote of stain-covered daybreaks, of night-bitten dawns. They spoke of crimson-coloured horizons, and a million mothers mourning.

This was a time of postcolonial melancholia, where the goose-step of nationalism trampled over any withering resolve for a communal future.

"British Asians have been able to construct a simultaneous awareness of ourselves within the dominant history, whilst dedicating ourselves to thinking about resistive forms used to counter it"

Meanwhile, slumped in a bar in Karachi drinking his favourite locally distilled whiskey, Saadat Hasan Manto scoffs to himself, wondering how we were deceived with such violent ease.

For Pakistan’s greatest writer of short stories, Partition was what it said on the tin: a perfect allegory for the futility of loss, the madness of division, and the hypocrisy of class.

In Manto’s Tetwal ka Kutta, a dog is mercilessly murdered along the India-Pakistan border as neither country bothered to claim it. In Thanda Gosht, the communal violence of 1947 is likened to the sexual perversion of necrophilia. In Letter to Uncle Sam, the US is teased for its blindness to tragedy.

But it is the fable of Toba Tek Singh for which Manto is best remembered.

Saadat Hasan Manto [courtesy of Rekhta]
Saadat's proposed epitaph reads "Here Lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie all the arts and mysteries of short story writing. Under tonnes of earth he lies, wondering if he is a greater short story writer than God" [credit: Rekhta]

Set in a Lahori mental asylum, the frenzied exchange of partition causes the lunatics to debate where they’d be sent. Where and what was Pakistan? Where and what was India?

For Bishan Singh, a stubborn Sikh inmate who spoke only gibberish, he didn’t care. He would only be sent to his birthplace, Toba Tek Singh. And upon hearing that his town was in Pakistan, he buries his feet in no man’s land, leading to the tale’s foretelling climax:

“There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”

I wonder what Manto would have thought then, 67 years later, of the blurred sea of brown bodies swaying to the rhythm of the dhol, transfixed upon the dupatta-donned Riz Ahmed as he called out “What’s my F***ing name, Toba Tek Singh in the heart of West London.

No doubt he would have chuckled with delight had he seen the crowd, a colourful assortment of Desi and diaspora crying out in English, Hindu, Urdu and Punjabi for the Oscar-winning MC.  

This was a celebration not of vacant tribalism, but for the British Asian community as a whole. This wasn’t just a homecoming performance, but a rare chance to bask in our collective achievement – the victorious children of the empire fighting back with a smile on our faces.

But wasn’t this always Riz’s aim? Since muscling into the UK’s battle rap scene and the notoriously homogenous British film industry in Shifty, Riz has always engaged in a “doubling” process: to break down the societal boundaries between the master and the subject, to help elucidate the oppressed experience of the Southern Hemisphere with the Northern Hemisphere’s experience of diaspora and migration.

Whether the UK’s recent political events like it or not, Britain is now a nation of mongrels. And thanks to Riz and his British Asian comrades, we mongrels are now beginning to forge an identity mindful of our past in order to accept our mixed-up future in which ideas of flexibility are lauded as desirable.  

As a litany of British Asian artists, musicians, poets, and writers have shown, we’ve been able to construct a simultaneous awareness of ourselves within the dominant history, whilst dedicating ourselves to thinking about resistive forms used to counter it.

Take the Asian Dub Foundation. Born through a 1990s community project designed to teach Bengali children music technology in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, ADF (Asian Dub Foundation) has since used an array of musical influences from ragga and jungle to bhangra and punk as contingent of a broader political programme that calls for the imagination of new identities and alliances, redrawing Asian public culture along political lines. 

Their involvement in campaigns such as Free Satpal Ram, Operation Eagle Eye, and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act are but crude examples of their musical politics in effect.

What has since emerged is an unruly, untidy convivial mode of British Asian underground culture where our ethnic differences appear boring, banal, and even ordinary. Indian? Pakistani? Bengali? Sri Lankan? Cool, nice to meet you.

But such achievements have only been made possible through generations of oral education reminding us who we really were, and how far we’ve come to regain our agency both at home and abroad.   

For 200 years the British Raj was conditioned upon the idea that the natives were morally subversive, with our cacophony of languages and lifestyles denigrated to a hyper localised status.

Lord Macaulay’s infamous attack on the Indian education system in 1835 and the English language’s subsequent occupation of the Subcontinent’s bureaucratic institutions continue to plague the region today.

We were then told, in continuance of the civilising mission, that our ‘privative’ interests in the imagination were worthless and deserved to be undermined.

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Inspired by Kant’s Critique of Judgement where the sense of “taste” and “reflection” was distinguished, the British enforced realism over the spiritual, allowing them to forcefully govern through obedience.

Yet, whilst authority over the material world would allow the British to dominate the Indians, reformist anti-colonial movements embraced the spiritual as a means to resist cultural homogenisation.

Consequently, an underground hybrid aesthetic was able to thrive. Artists such as Ravi Varma’s quasi avant-garde movement helped reconfigured Indian aesthetics through the medium of mythology and crucially mobilise the community.

Ravi Varma's 'Chaurasi Devtaon-wali Gai' or 'The Holy Cow with 84 deities' [Getty Images]
Ravi Varma's 'Chaurasi Devtaon-wali Gai' or 'The Holy Cow with 84 deities' [Getty Images]

So, for Riz, Ravi and others, the cultural object is not only the work of the artist themselves but the fruits of the collective, the social network.

We should therefore view Riz’s music and filmmaking not as a static noun, but as a verb – an activity. In doing so, we’re able to see the Asian Underground as a participatory means to reinforce collective memory as a form of knowledge.

This cultural knowledge is fluid, unpredictable and demands us as the participant to constantly ask ourselves how it motivates us to hear it.

Rhythm, style, form and genre all communicate the experience of political engagement and allow us to understand how the characteristics of British Asian culture, and minority culture more generally, contain ever-changing socio-political undertones.

Take British Sri-Lankan artist M.I.A. Her debut album Arular – named after M.I.A’s father’s code name in the Tamil Tigers – is littered with sonic signifiers of the third world, contrasted with hi-tech MPCs in a kaleidoscopic formulation of syncretism.

Samples of Caribbean steel drums, Balinese gamelan, Sri Lankan horanawa are interspersed with the static bleeps of the Roland MC-505.

The use of artificial screeches, achieved through octave jumps on synthesisers, is essential in creating a soundscape where M.I.A embodies the role of the 'oriental native' and is a wonderfully effective sonic strategy in presenting herself as “them” in the “us versus them” dichotomy perpetuated in colonial discourse.

Aesthetically aggressive in nature, these tactics have been instrumental in countering the perceived passivity of British Asians. In particular, the three D’s of British Dance Music: dub, drum ‘n’ bass and deejaying have helped create a sonic impurity embraced by British Asians; these seemingly contradictory styles have allowed us to express our identity in relation to cultural invisibility.

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From Tablatabilist Talvin Singh’s fabled club night Anokha in the 90s to the Daytimers crew’s stunning recent successes, the British Asian Underground has been a critical cog in the country's current cultural ubiquity, a historically significant marker of how diasporas around the world can help us investigate race in a more energetic way, and proof as to how conscious and subconscious forces can constantly and joyfully compete with one another to create something new.

So as the crowd begins to disperse under London’s Westway, drunk from euphoria and inspired to collaborate further, I am left wondering, in an increasingly connected world, is it possible to imagine a racial future no longer constrained by ideas, but sensations?

And should this be the case, surely we must continue to demand a culture in which unity trumps difference? Then, and then only, can we truly foster equal friendships beyond borders. 

Benjamin Ashraf is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. He is also part of The New Arab’s Editorial Team.

Follow him on Twitter: @ashrafzeneca