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Posts from the ‘Essays’ Category

The Cab Driver and I

I am not allowed to drive for six months. This presents challenges on many fronts for our family of four: work, school, and all the ferrying required for soccer, volleyball, and piano. Once the vertigo from my head injury has subsided, I’ll be able to take the Route 9 bus straight from my home in West Fresno, California, to the university campus where I teach. But until then, I’m getting to know Fresno’s cab-driving community.

I know the names of both dispatchers of the cab company I call. Desiree, the afternoon dispatcher, will end every sentence with “hon” and wait patiently for you to recall the name of the campus side street on which your department is located. By contrast, the woman who answers the phone in the mornings will be rude, but she will cry if you sound disapproving. I know the names and cab numbers of the drivers, how many children they have, how long they’ve been in Fresno. The tall gentleman who has a forehead overcrowded with lines is Nader. He was an air force pilot in Iran under the Shah, then spent two years in prison awaiting his execution during the Islamic Revolution before being released. A Fresno cabbie for twenty-four years, he tells me proudly that he’s among the few left who can find any street in the city without the crutch of a GPS. The youngest of the drivers, Marwan, may enroll in my composition class next fall. He’s the one whose father-in-law was shot dead by robbers in his grocery store a year after he had moved his family to Fresno. It happened twenty years ago, when Marwan’s wife was three years old.

So many cab rides, but it’s the very first one I keep thinking about. I called for it just a week after my head injury. The cab arrives promptly at twelve thirty to drive me to my one o’clock class. The driver gets out of his seat, walks to my side, and opens the back door for me with old-fashioned chivalry. I’m a bit wobbly after the head trauma but manage to mount my bags and myself onto the high perch of the van—albeit with more heroism than grace.

The driver is a slim, small-framed man, and short by American standards. The silver in his hair stands out against his dark skin. I’m not adept at telling people’s ages, but I estimate that he’s in his sixties. I try to place him ethnically. Though he looks like a fellow South Asian, his accent throws me off.

As the driver negotiates a three-point turn on my street, an exchange begins. “Fresno State—are you a student there or a professor?”

“I’m a professor,” I reply. “I teach English.”

“Ah . . . Where are you from?”

“Pakistan,” I tell him.

The driver freezes in the middle of his three-point turn. He gazes up into his rearview mirror for a better look at me. “You’re from Pakistan, and you teach Americans?” His frown is so concentrated that he looks angry.

“That’s right,” I say, and wonder how long we’ll remain suspended in our three-point turn.

The driver’s face breaks into a beaming smile, the splendor of fireworks—the way my favorite uncle used to smile. It speaks at once of an unabashed paternal pride and of a child’s transparent pleasure in absurdities.

“Where are you from?” I ask him.

“I’m from Yemen,” he says. His eyes are on the road again as we navigate the lunch traffic on Shaw Avenue. He tells me that his son graduated from Fresno State recently and that another one of his children goes there. “Do you have women students who cover their heads in hijab?” he asks.

I nod.

“Well, one of them is my daughter,” he proclaims triumphantly.

The man’s candor disarms me, melting our specificities away in an immigrant-to-immigrant moment. It’s a moment that compresses the mutual stories of our lives—of what we gave up to be here, in America, in Fresno, doing what we do now. In the untold telling, we acknowledge that the road has been a long one, with potholes, dead ends, and detours we could not have foreseen. That while we sometimes look back longingly on the terrain we left behind, we stay put in our new home. And in the mirror of each other’s accomplishments, we are assured that the Dream has not beguiled us.

Then it comes. “You’re Muslim?” he asks.

“I’m from a Muslim family, yes.”

“So you’re Muslim.”

“Well, I’m not religious.”

“What do you mean, you’re not religious? You’re from Pakistan.”

A voice in my head tells me to take the path of least resistance, to forgo the taboo self-revelation in favor of courtesy and deference to an elder. But I live in America. I live in America precisely because I can live here authentically. “I mean that some Pakistanis are believing and practicing Muslims, and others aren’t. I’m not,” I declare.

“What do you mean?” the driver asks again in disbelief. “Islam is important in every aspect of your life! What good is this”—with a sweep of the hand taking in all of America—“if you don’t thank Allah for it?”

Then, “Think about your afterlife!” he pleads in the face of my complacency. This time, his frown is unmistakable. The strain of keeping my head from tipping into a vertigo-friendly angle suddenly becomes too much. Eternity is a dizzying concept.

“The reason I have to take a cab,” I say, stretching each syllable to impress my point upon him, “is that I have a head injury and can’t drive. If you don’t mind, I need quiet.”

He glances at me in the rearview mirror again but doesn’t say anything. I close my eyes and keep them closed the rest of the way.

When we arrive on campus, the cab driver walks over to my side and opens the door for me again. I say thank you and overtip him to compensate for my lack of Islam. He doesn’t crack a smile. I walk toward my classroom as steadily as I can. Next time, I tell myself, I’m holding out for a Sikh cabbie. He’ll know better than to concern himself with a Pakistani’s prospects in the hereafter.

There have been so many cabs since that one, but I’ve never encountered the Yemeni driver again.

Just as well. Who the hell needs a cab ride that binds you with wisps of wistfulness for days afterward?


Samina NajmiSamina Najmi is associate professor of English at California State University, Fresno. She has published widely on race, gender, and war in American literature. In 2011, she discovered the rewards of more personal kinds of writing when she stumbled into a CSU Summer Arts course that taught her to see. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Pilgrimage, The Progressive, Map Literary, Asian American Literary Review, bioStories, and Chautauqua. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Samina was raised in Pakistan and England, and lives with her family in California’s San Joaquin Valley.


Race, Class, and Gender at the Margins: Exploring My Name Is Khan

© 2010 Dharma Productions | Film stills from My Name Is Khan | Dir. Karan Johar

This essay anchors its analysis in the experience of marginalized Americans following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on New York City (9/11) as explored in Karan Johar’s 2010 film, My Name Is Khan (MNIK). Amidst extreme politicization over the events of 9/11 and the subsequent global war on terror, popular culture offers multiple readings of post–9/11 America from the standpoint of colored, Othered bodies caught between the crosshairs of the national security apparatus. Though Hollywood has produced a dizzying array of films taking up the issue of 9/11 and the war on terror from both critical and mainstream points of view,[1] non-Western films that subvert, contort, or re-position the point of view away from the dominant cultural group have garnered critical acclaim (Soliman 183).

I explore the meeting points of race, class, and gender in Johar’s film, arguing that MNIK opens crucial spaces for solidarity building amongst racialized “Others” at the margins of American society. Class and race are shown to affect the degree to which the South Asian body is discursively produced as a “threat” to national interest, and also to emphasize how this nation’s interest ultimately excludes the interests of lower-class black America. While opening this important entry point for building solidarity, the film nevertheless repeats stereotypes about “good/bad” Muslims, and defines South Asian women through the trope of “real-life heroines,” whose subjectivities are subsumed by their duty/honor and whose choices are contoured and constrained by the men in their lives.

mnik 1My Name Is Khan tells the life story of Rizwan Khan, a Muslim man with Asperger disorder who embarks on a mission to meet the president of the United States (Johar 2010). As a young boy growing up in India during the 1970s, Rizwan is different and no one knows why. After their mother dies, Rizwan’s younger brother Zakir brings him to the United States, where he has been living since leaving India at the age of eighteen. Zakir’s psychologist wife Hasina observes Rizwan’s behavioral patterns and quickly realizes Rizwan suffers from Asperger disorder. She then works with him to develop strategies to ease his integration into American society. While selling beauty products for his brother’s company, Rizwan meets a divorced Hindu hairstylist named Mandira and her son Sam. The two begin an awkward and charming courtship and are soon married, much to Zakir’s chagrin, who rejects Mandira on the basis that she is not a Muslim. Rizwan, Mandira, and Sam enjoy a middle-class suburban lifestyle until the Twin Towers are destroyed. Over the course of the next five to six years, they begin to feel the effects of racism and Islamaphobia in their personal and professional lives. One day, a schoolyard confrontation results in a racialized assault that ultimately kills Sam. Mandira, heartbroken, blames the surname Khan for the death of her child and tells Rizwan she is leaving him; she cannot bear the sight of him because he reminds her of Sam’s death. Rizwan tells her he will leave, as their house belongs to her. He asks when he should come back, and in a fit of rage she sarcastically tells him to return after he can tell the president that he is not a terrorist, despite his Muslim name:

Tell everyone in America, “I’m not a terrorist” . . . Can you do that? Can you? No, you can’t. Why don’t you tell the president of the United States? Mr. President, my name is Khan, and I’m not a terrorist. Then he can tell all those people that my Sam was not the terrorist son of a terrorist father. He was just a baby. My baby. When you do that, come back. (Johar 2010, translation from subtitles)

Due to his Asperger disorder, Khan takes this instruction literally and embarks upon a journey to convey his message to the president. During his quest, he encounters a variety of ethnic Others including brown-skinned Muslims, Hindus, and African Americans who experience the consequences of the war on terror within American society in different ways.

Rizwan is mistaken for a terrorist at a rally and is falsely arrested; this story makes headlines thanks to a team of journalists who seek to call attention to the effects of rising Islamaphobia and racism within the United States. Upon release, he hears about a hurricane that struck the small town of Wilhelmina, Georgia, where his friends reside. Rizwan postpones his quest in order to travel to the stormy town to help rescue and rebuilding efforts. By the time Rizwan finally meets the president to deliver his message, the entire nation knows his story. When Mandira returns to him, he has brought down an Islamic terrorist cell, helped rebuild a destroyed town, and escaped death after being stabbed by an Islamic fanatic.

Building off Edward Said’s Orientalism framework, Mounira Soliman argues that Johar’s film resists the typical Orientalist trope of Muslims in Hollywood cinema. Soliman argues that Eastern films have received more critical acclaim in the post–9/11 environment because they tend to subvert the point of view of the center to focus on the perspective of the margin (177–8). Though MNIK receives relatively little attention in her paper, she identifies the importance of reversing the orientalist gaze in the film through describing the moment Rizwan is released from jail. The police officer stares at Rizwan, indicating with two fingers to his eyes that he will still be keeping Khan under surveillance. Soliman suggests that Rizwan’s reciprocation of this gesture indicates that he will also be keeping a watchful eye on the officer (175).

In light of the recurring song “We Shall Overcome” in MNIK, Soliman’s challenge to the power imbalance between margin and center is fitting. The film’s resolution shows that Rizwan succeeds in proving the inaccuracy of the dominant gaze, though the far-reaching consequences of this reversal are left open to interpretation. The dominant gaze is one that homogenizes the Other as Muslim in this film. Several brown-skinned characters representing a variety of religious denominations appear the same under the dominant cultural gaze and are treated as if they are Muslims; by extension, all brown-skinned people are seen as terrorists. The film opens the potential for moving beyond this somewhat obvious foreground to consider the importance of building solidarity among Others. A prime example is Jitesh, the Hindu motel owner Rizwan encounters midway through the film. Vandals smash a window in a racist attack as the two brown-skinned men are discussing a room, provoking Jitesh’s fierce anti-Muslim rant as he fires shotgun shells at the attackers. Rather than channeling anger toward the mainstream American society that demonizes the Muslim body, Jitesh instead internalizes this view and is outwardly angry at Muslims for bringing about racial violence against brown people.

In The Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad argues that Asians in America are used by the dominant culture to exemplify the ideal minority group based on their economic success. By ignoring the fundamental differences underscoring how African Americans and South Asian Americans came to America under radically different classes, white supremacy encoded into the American state is blurred by the manner in which South Asians allow themselves to be portrayed as the ideal immigrants. This supports the fiction that American society is free and fair to hardworking people (Prashad 160). Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s seminal 1903 text The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois argues that being black is seen as a problem in the United States, Prashad asks of South Asians, “How does it feel to be a solution?” (viii). In other words, Prashad is problematizing the way in which South Asian immigrants are used to legitimize the social status quo in America. Grounding his analysis in history, Prashad urges the building of solidarity among blacks and desis, recalling that the social construction of “blackness” and the terminology “nigger” was not particular to people of African descent. Its origins are in the Greek word anigros, which means “unclean” or “impure.” Under British rule, it was commonplace for Indians to be referred to as “nigs”; they were understood to be of the same essence as the African (Prashad 158–9). Today’s situation does not differ in nature, argues Prashad. South Asians continue to eschew solidarity-building with other marginalized groups because they are the “solution” rather than the problem in terms of minorities: “Attacking blacks by paying tribute to ‘Asian intelligence’ makes one immune from charges of racism, and the model minority thesis is thus a pillar of inferential racism” (Prashad 170).

mnik 2MNIK’s juxtaposition of Muslim/white relations and Muslim/black relations after 9/11 offers a benign view of what such solidarity could look like. Post–9/11 Islamaphobia, enveloping all brown-skinned people into one homogenizing dominant gaze, opens some room for mutual recognition of Otherness at the margins of American society in MNIK. When Rizwan first visits Wilhelmina, he meets “funny-haired Joel” and his Mama Jenny. He is invited into their home in a scene composed of stereotypical images and music of southern black America. Mama Jenny is an emotional, large, Aunt Jemima–esque stereotype, and the scene is scored with blues slide guitar. The overt pandering to existing stereotypes of the black Other exaggerates the marginality of the non-white Others in America for reasons that I will explore in greater depth below.

Mama Jenny and Rizwan bond over the similar experience of losing their children as a consequence of the war on terror; Mama Jenny’s son was killed as a US soldier fighting in Iraq, and Rizwan’s son was killed in an anti-Muslim beating in America. Set amidst the relative economic deprivation of Wilhelmina, Georgia, the film makes an artistic suggestion that young blacks in the community are coerced into choosing a career in the military. This is reinforced by the next scene, which shows the all-black community gathering at their church for a memorial service to honor those who died in Iraq. Rizwan narrates that the town has a population of exactly 204. The fact that a small black community of 204 dairy farmers could have enough sons and daughters killed in the Iraq war so as to necessitate a memorial service reflects the somewhat constricted choices available to poor black Americans.

Rather than harboring any contempt for Rizwan based on race or religious essentializing, Mama Jenny adds Sam’s picture to her own son’s picture in front of the congregation, layering these two martyrs of the war on terror over one another in a movingly visible performance of solidarity. Although she is a devoted Christian, there is no suggestion here that she may confuse Sam for the “terrorist son of a terrorist father.” Rizwan is invited to tell the congregation about Sam, and he does so in Hindi, English, and Arabic.

[In Hindi] Sam had one more bad habit: he only told us good news. He always hid the bad news from us. He would never tell us when my favorite team, Manchester United, lost. [In English, smiling] Never. [In Hindi] Unless we had a bet. Then he would tell me. Then I would have to give him his favorite mint chocolate ice cream. [In English] Two scoops, always. [Laughter and restrained tears] Two scoops. [In Hindi] 27 November 2007 he was killed. He was thirteen years, nine months, and four days old. Sameer was not only my son, he was my dearest friend. Actually, my only friend. [In English] My, my . . . only best friend. [In Arabic] Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. [In Hindi] I’m sure Allah is happy that Sam is in heaven with him . . . I . . . [In English] Mama Jenny, I don’t know what to say . . . I don’t want to say anymore.

Amid the uncomfortable silence as Khan struggles in front of the congregation, funny-haired Joel breaks into a verse of “We Shall Overcome.” As he sings, “We shall overcome one day!” Rizwan slowly recognizes the song and joins in his own language: “Hum honge kamyaab, ek din!” The congregation rises, singing and dancing together in a reference to the Bollywood[2] dance sequences that normally punctuate and accelerate plots. As the soundtrack splices the Hindi and English songs, we see Mandira’s parallel story. She is bravely walking onto the soccer field where Sam was killed, interrupting a game in silent protest with a sign picturing Sam and the text: “6 months without justice.”

The Wilhelmina memorial service is important because it mirrors a very different memorial service earlier in the film attended by Rizwan, Mandira, and Sam in their mostly white suburban town following 9/11. At the 2001 service, there was visible fear and discomfort associated with Rizwan’s ordinary Arabic prayer, “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim,” even though he personally donated his annual zakat[3] to the memorial fund for the victims of 9/11. Inside a Christian church in the black community of Wilhelmina, a Muslim prayer does not so much as raise an eyebrow, yet in an allegedly public, secular, and predominantly white American space, those same words elicit fear and distrust. Wilhelmina, at the margins of the American society, is a safe space for another marginalized person, even though religious stereotypes suggest fear and distrust should prevail. Ironically, it is within a church that solidarity among the Muslim and the black Others might begin in MNIK. Language is not an obstacle; rather, Hindi, English, and Arabic intermingle in the marginal space and ultimately result in an emancipatory song of great significance across language, race, class, and religion.

Although MNIK opens up space for South Asian and black solidarity in America along race lines, the film has been criticized for its complicity with the “good/bad” Muslim divide (Balraj 93–4). The concepts of orientalism and the Self/Other distinction have been widely applied in literature about representations of Muslims in Hindi-language cinema and popular cinema more generally (see Balraj 91; Chanda and Kavoori 131–145). Soliman’s adaptation of Said’s theory in her article “The (Un)Wanted American: A Visual Reading of Arab and Muslim Americans” is particularly insightful with respect to MNIK. There is no simple race solidarity associated with black/brown Americans in MNIK. One of the boys who participated in the killing of Sam was black, and a Christian ticket seller who refuses Rizwan entry to a Christian-only fundraiser for a drought in Africa is also black; neither of these characters is presented as Other. Soliman argues that certain Americans are “unwanted” by a mainstream society that nonetheless needs to address their presence in some shape or form. Looking at “wanted” or “unwanted” enables a more flexible application of Self and Other, one that is also amenable to the argument advanced by Prashad. Prashad published his book the year before 9/11, and thinking of his argument through the binary of wanted/unwanted, individuals like Rizwan and Mandira were clearly “wanted” by their suburban society in the beginning. The representation of 9/11 as a critical juncture in American society is very pronounced in Johar’s film, showing the dramatic transition of Prashad’s “solution” immigrants into the realm of Soliman’s “unwanted” Americans. In representing pre–9/11 society as a bastion of liberal warmth and opportunity, the film hearkens to Prashad’s warning that the South Asian gaze, lacking in class/race analysis, is complicit with the unfairness of American society as exhibited through the condition of Wilhelmina.

The solidarities at play are not just between poor black Americans and Muslims, however. After Rizwan is mistaken for a terrorist and arrested at a rally, two Indian Hindu student journalists investigate Rizwan’s life, putting together a compelling news story that mainstream stations refuse to air. They take their story to a Sikh reporter named Bobby Ahuja, who rejects them as well. One of the students, Raj, notices Ahuja is wearing a turban in a family picture resting on his desk, while he does not wear one in the scene:

Raj: If you don’t mind me asking, sir, was this photograph taken before 9/11?

Bobby Ahuja: Yes, why?

Raj: [Laughs while shaking his head]

Bobby Ahuja: What’s so funny?

Raj: No, it’s not funny at all, actually. They confused a Sikh for a Muslim, and you changed your entire life. And here they are not even treating a Muslim like a human being, and you can’t even change your schedule.

Ahuja ends up carrying the story and broadcasts an interview with Rizwan’s brother Zakir and sister-in-law Hasina. The message touches all the brown-skinned characters shown in the storyline, who had been enduring indignities under the racist dominant gaze. Ahuja’s interview with Zakir in particular strikes a chord with viewers:

I mean, we are told to report suspicious characters. Participate in protecting the country from extremists, and then when we do that, we’re just put into the jail, like my brother . . . The question over here is not why he wants to meet the president. The question is what’s wrong in an ordinary citizen wanting to meet the president of his country? Or is it wrong for a Muslim man to even try?

Zakir is referring specifically to the fact that Rizwan called the FBI to report a “bad” Muslim he encountered while at a mosque. It was this piece of evidence that led to his release from prison, not any acknowledgement that he should not have been imprisoned in the first place.

That Rizwan’s release was contingent on his reporting of suspicious behavior of another Muslim reinforces the good/bad Muslim distinction that is not only vital in post–9/11 popular culture, but in Indian popular culture as well. As Shahnaz Khan notes, Rizwan spends the entire film trying to show that he is in fact a “good” Muslim (135). Belinda Balraj highlights that it takes a great pilgrimage and Asperger disorder to be a “good” Muslim in MNIK (93). Balraj and Khan raise important points in the broader context of Muslim-Othering in the canon of Hindi-language cinema. Chadha and Kavoori show how Bollywood has portrayed Muslims along three main temporal periods: exoticized Other, shown as separate from the “real” India but nonetheless a part of the nation-building project (1950s–1960s), marginalized characters of little significance (1970s–1980s), and demonized terrorist-Others (1990s–2000s) (135).

mnik 4Clearly, Muslims have never been absent in Hindi-language cinema, though their roles in the modern period often play up the good/bad Muslim distinction. The most recent demonized Other time period overlaps with the war on terror but precedes 9/11, speaking to the currents of Indian politics rather than American politics. In the 1990s–2000s, Muslims have been portrayed as power-hungry politicians, Pakistani aggressors, corrupt police officers, and small-time crooks (Chadha and Kavoori 140; Khan 133–5). The 1990s was a tumultuous time in South Asian politics, with India electing the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party after the Congress Party introduced sweeping and socially disrupting neoliberal economic reforms in the early 1990s. Factional conflict fueled by a resurgent sense of Hindu nationalism resulted in a 150,000-person–strong riot and the destruction of the Babri-Masjid by Hindu nationalists in 1992. They claimed the mosque was built on the birthplace of Lord Rama (Tully n.p.). This conflict in particular brought to focus the simultaneity of Hindu and Muslim histories layered over one another in India, each struggling to assert contested histories in the postcolonial period (Deshpande 264–9). In the framework of religious dynamics of South Asian politics, coupled with the Al-Qaeda attack on New York and the subsequent global war on terror, Hindi movies have been accused of being complicit, even jumping on the Islamaphobia bandwagon rather than challenging it (Balraj 92).

With this context in mind, it is important that Rizwan’s salvation from prison ultimately rests on his decrying the “bad” Muslim, rather than the American security apparatus conceding there was little to no reason to believe he was a terrorist. This reinforces, rather than challenges, racist representations of Muslims in popular culture. The “bad” Muslim that Rizwan reports to the FBI clearly fits the role of the demonized terrorist-Other that Chadha and Kavoori describe. Taken in this political context, MNIK can be read as a problematic but important deviant case of Bollywood addressing the serious issue of Islamaphobia, though admittedly, doing so in the United States, far from having to weigh in on the currents of domestic politics in India.

By way of offering a view from the marginal spaces of American society, MNIK is sharply focused on race at the margins. Like a photograph, only the background or foreground can be focused, and in this case, focusing on the margin comes at the expense of a blurry view of the center. Consequently, the representation of whiteness is one-dimensional. There are no white American characters of much depth in the film, and most are essentialized as mere placeholders for racism. Although the film can be commended for emphasizing a viewpoint of marginalized, unwanted black and Muslim Americans, it also falls short in its representation of women in the “margins of the margins” in Hindi-language cinema (Mishra, cited in Jiwa, 129).

Women, whether gori[4] or desi, have been traditionally marginalized in Bollywood. As Fazeela Jiwa argues, South Asian female characters in Bollywood usually represent the stereotypes of vamp, heroine, or real-life heroine, the latter of which takes the form of the virtuous (Hindu) mother (129). The principal division between female characters is vamp/heroine, or “good girl” and “bad girl,” represented differently in plots that unfold in India and plots that unfold in the diaspora (Jiwa 132). Jiwa adds a fourth category to Bollywood stereotypes: the “free Western woman” characterized by her independence (132). At first reading, Mandira can be seen as a free diasporic Western woman. She is introduced as a successful hairstylist in high demand on the cusp of opening her own hair salon. She was a victim of an arranged marriage to a man who abandoned her soon after. Mandira learned to survive on her own in the diaspora:

I was twenty-two when I was divorced. I had nothing. No money. No parental support. I didn’t even have a house. I had only Sam with me . . . I walked a lot and stopped after reaching here. There was no way ahead . . . So I turned around, saw the entire city in front of me. And for a minute, I felt it was waiting for me. I decided then, [In English] No, I’m going to make this work. And I’m gonna win! [In Hindi] Hum honge kamyaab.

In this scene, as Mandira turns around to face the city of San Francisco, she pointedly switches to English to declare her intentions to realize the American dream of succeeding through hard work and determination. She must overcome the challenges of being a deserted, homeless, single Hindu mother and make a life for herself and her son. She seems to do this seamlessly in the film. Her story, pre–9/11, is one of triumph over adversity. She happily falls in love and marries Rizwan, who becomes a best friend and father to her son, Sam.

Mandira seems to fit the stereotype of the “free Western woman,” but a closer consideration shows she more closely aligns with the stereotype of the “real-life heroine” as a virtuous Hindu mother. She is shown performing puja for Sam regularly throughout the first half of the film and very much embodies the idealized male conception of the Hindu mother in Hindi-language cinema. MNIK breaks with Chadha and Kavoori’s 1990s–2000s tradition of demonizing the Muslim-Other and reclaims an aspect of post-independence nation-building cinema that seeks to show the compatibility of Hindu and Muslim. In one scene in the film, Mandira is shown performing puja for murtis in the foreground while Rizwan is in the background, prostrating to Allah. Several shots in the film show Hindu deities alongside the Muslim Quran.

After Sam is killed and Rizwan leaves at her bequest, Mandira is shown talking to her sister-in-law Hasina.

Hasina: Bhabhi, whatever you said then was said in anger. It was Sam’s grief that made you say it. We all know you love him [Rizwan] a lot. Then why don’t you—

Mandira: There is no space for love in my life right now. Love will weaken me. Hate will help me fight this battle. And I have to fight for Sam. I can’t be Khan’s wife right now. I’m just a mother whose son has been killed.

In this scene, Mandira and Hasina are talking in a kitchen as Mandira clears and washes dishes. The once happy and successful entrepreneur’s life has crumbled before her, not due to any actions of her own, but in direct relation to the two men in her life: husband and son. Her business slowly went under after 9/11 because her name was Khan. Her son was killed while engaging in a defiant anti-racist act against a gang of bullies at school who consistently hurled slurs connecting him to Islamic terrorism. Despite being presented as a free Western woman, Mandira articulates her options within the dichotomy of wife and mother roles, and she chooses the sacrificial mother, or real-life heroine, stereotype. Even with a view from the margins in a race-based reading of the film, Mandira illustrates another layer of marginalization.

Hasina’s character also may have been presented at surface level to fit the stereotype of the liberated Western woman. A university professor of psychology who specializes in identity studies, she is intelligent, well spoken, and acts against her husband Zakir’s wishes when they contradict her own. For example, though Zakir initially disowned Rizwan for marrying a Hindu, Hasina decided to attend Rizwan and Mandira’s wedding as the only person representing Rizwan’s family. Hasina is the moderating peacekeeper and diplomat—in the scene discussed above, she is in the kitchen trying to coax Mandira into reconciling with Rizwan. Hasina always selflessly puts the interests of her family ahead of her own. When she is violently attacked in the hallway of her university shortly after 9/11, her hijab is ripped from her head. The scene is shot from the point of view of the approaching attacker, and a white male hand reaches out to tear her hijab away. As she falls to the ground and inches away from her attacker, a man’s voice growls, “Get outta my country!” The next scene shows her in tears at home, retying her hijab. As Zakir approaches and tries to comfort her, he tells Hasina, “Don’t wear this now. Allah will understand. These people won’t. Never.” It is not Hasina who makes the decision to remove the hijab in this scene; it is Zakir who physically removes and tells her not to wear it.

Yet it is through her assault that the Khan family is actually reunited; in this way, Hasina too is a sacrificial character. That same evening, Mandira comes to visit Hasina, and when Zakir answers the door, the audience realizes that they have never met. It took an attack against Hasina for the crime of belonging to the wrong religion for Zakir to realize that he rejected Mandira on the same charge. He gestures her upstairs, welcoming her as “bhabhi” after she tells him Rizwan is waiting outside because he will not enter his brother’s home. Hasina and Mandira’s respective suffering reunite Zakir and Rizwan through their mutual experiences under different expressions of the male gaze. From this vantage point, it is clear that while on one level of analysis MNIK offers a view from the margin, that view is itself hegemonic in that it subsumes the agency of women into predictable tropes.

This reading has sought to illustrate the analytical tensions grounded in race, gender, and class represented in MNIK in the context of living under the dominant post–9/11 security gaze in America. As Rizwan’s relationship with the black community of Wilhelmina, Georgia demonstrates, at the margins of American society there exists the possibility for solidarity building between Christians and diasporic Muslims. It is the common experience of being unwanted that shrinks the significance of the linguistic, religious, and perhaps class-based distinctions between Rizwan and Mama Jenny. They are also united in the martyrdom of their respective children, and their bond is reinforced by Rizwan’s great sacrifice to ensure the community’s safety when even the American state would not come to their aid. It is perhaps the sociopolitical violence of 9/11 that jolts Rizwan out of what Prashad might see as the middle-class complacency associated with being the ethnic “solution” to American society in his rapid transition to unwanted Other. Yet taken in the historical context of Hindi-language cinema and Indian politics, the film remains wedded to the good/bad Muslim trope that has characterized the last two decades of Bollywood films.

As the reading of Hasina and Mandira illustrates, these two characters speak to Vijay Mishra’s observation that women in the diaspora tend to be the “margins within the margins” (Mishra 2007: 145). While a first reading of Mandira might see a “free Western woman” in control of her own life, this is violently taken away from her, and she ultimately sees the limits of her life choices as being one of mother or wife. Both Mandira and Hasina’s gendered suffering is used to advance the plot in MNIK, but otherwise the characters remain superficial. While the film opens space to imagine the construction of solidarity among Muslim and black Americans in the marginal space of Wilhelmina, it reinforces the popular cultural trend to essentialize the Islamic terrorist-Other in both Bollywood and Hollywood. Although MNIK represents a critical view from the margins of race and class, it falls short of challenging dominant patriarchal views on the role of women in Bollywood.

Works Cited

Baljraj, Belinda. “‘My Name is Khan and I’m Not a Terrorist’: Representation of Muslims in ‘My Name is Khan.’” Journal of Language and Culture 6.2 (2011): 91–95. Print.

Chadha, Kalyani and Kavoori, Anandam. “Exoticized, Marginalized, Demonized: The Muslim “Other” in Indian Cinema.” Global Bollywood. Eds. Anandam Kavoori and Aswin Punathambekar. New York: New York University Press. 2008. Print.

Deshpande, Satish. “Hegemonic Spatial Strategies: The Nation-Space and Hindu Communalism in Twentieth-Century India.” Public Culture 10.2 (1998): 249–283. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. 1903. Print.

Gehlawat, Ajay. “The Gori in the Story: The Shifting Dynamics of Whiteness in the Bollywood Film.” Topia 26 (2011): 105–126. Print.

Jiwa, Fazeela. “Vamps, Heroines, Otherwise: Diasporic Women Resisting Essentialism.” Topia 26 (2011): 127–144. Print.

Khan, Shahnaz. “Recovering the past in Jodhaa Akbar: masculinities, femininities, and cultural politics in Bombay Cinema.” Feminist Review 99 (2011): 131–146. Print.

Kumar, Shanti. “Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood: Redefining the Global in Indian Cinema.” Global Bollywood. Eds. Anandam Kavoori and Aswin Punathambekar. New York: New York University Press. 2008. Print.

Mishra, Vijay. “Towards a theoretical critique of Bombay cinema.” The Bollywood Reader. Eds. Jigna Desai and Rajinder Dudrah. New York: Open University Press. 2008. Print.

Mishra, Vijay. The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary. New York: Rutledge. 2007. Print.

My Name is Khan. Dir. Karan Johar. 2010. Dharma Productions, 2010. Film.

Prashad, Vijay. The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2000. Print.

Rajadhyaksha, Ashish. “The ‘Bollywoodization’ of Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena.” Global Bollywood. Eds. Anandam Kavoori and Aswin Punathambekar. New York: New York University Press. 2008. Print.

Soliman, Mounira. “The (Un)Wanted American: A Visual Reading of Arab and Muslim Americans.” American Studies 32/2 (2011): 175–196. Print.

Tully, Mark. “Tearing Down the Babri Mosque.” British Broadcasting Corporation. 5 Dec 2002. Electronic.


Notes

[1] See, for example, Live Free or Die Hard (2007), Team America: World Police (2004), Green Zone (2010), or Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008).

[2] Commonly referred to as “Bollywood,” this should not be considered representative of Indian cinema more generally. In this paper, I use “Hindi-language cinema” and “Bollywood” interchangeably. The highly global “Bollywood” is based in Mumbai and is performed in Hindi. Vibrant cinema exists in Malayalam, Tamil, and Punjabi elsewhere in India and often offers quite a different point of view. See Rajadhyaksha, Ashish (2008): “The ‘Bollywoodization’ of Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena” and Kumar, Shanti (2008): “Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood: Redefining the Global in Indian Cinema” in Global Bollywood edited by Anandam Kavoori and Aswin Punathambekar. (New York: New York University Press.)

[3] 2.5% of a Muslim’s annual earnings, intended for charity.

[4] Gori is the Hindi word for “white woman.” Representations of whiteness, in particular the juxtaposition of the (heterosexual) gori and desi woman, has shifted over the decades of Bollywood cinema with desi heroines increasingly being valued for their gori-ness. See Gehlawat, Ajay (2011). “The Gori in the Story: The Shifting Dynamics of Whiteness in the Bollywood Film” Topia 26, pp. 105–126.


Ajay ParasramAjay Parasram is a multigenerational by-product of British colonialism whose ancestors were displaced from somewhere in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh in the nineteenth century, migrating to Trinidad and Tobago. He now lives on unceded Algonquin territories (Ottawa, Canada) where he is an editorial collective member of the Leveller newspaper and a doctoral candidate in political science and political economy.


Flying Saucers

Image credit: © 2013 Aniruddha Mukherjee

The three cognates of a triangle on a ghostly black background. The obscure, dispersive prism, redolent of unearthly pyramids. The splitting white light, turning multi-hued. No words, just the image. Straitlaced yet radical: the iconic jacket of Pink Floyd’s 1973 epic album, The Dark Side of the Moon.

I pondered on this visual entryway to the world of glistening black discs for quite some time before I took the vinyl out of its sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and dropped the stylus on it. With a stately gait, the needle moved on the spiral grooves. As I listened to the sound retracting from the spinning plate, I was suddenly gripped by a wave of sepia. The long glide through time took me to those rare nights of surreal beauty when Nat King Cole formed the backdrop of my childhood home in the north of Delhi. Despite decades of technological evolution, these flying saucers are my way of going back to a softer world, like pressed rose petals between the yellowed pages of an old book or family portraits that hang on the walls for generations. As I roamed a distant clime, the jump of the needle provided a much-needed pause in the narrative, an inconspicuous punctuation in the unmitigated fandom of long-playing records.

You can’t help but feel a strange relationship with the creator of vinyl records, a relationship similar to that of a poet and a practitioner. It forms an inescapable part of the listening experience. Lost in the grooves of these records is the history of discography, which began in 1902 with the founding of the Gramophone Company of India in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Recordings of classical artists like Gauhar Jaan, Peare Saheb, Lal Chand Boral, and Kali Jaan formed the mainstay of the Gramophone Company. The first vinyl record was created in the 1920s in a factory in Sealdah, in the suburbs of Calcutta (1991). In 1932, three Indian recording companies were born there out of a nationalist urge to compete with the British-owned Gramophone Company of India. One of these was Hindustan Records, which requested Rabindranath Tagore to record some songs and recitations. And thus, Ekla Chalo Re was recorded live—the first-ever recording of a song by Tagore himself (Mukhopadhyay 2009).

Through spools of time, the turntables and the cache of records reached the middle-class drawing rooms of black-and-white television sets and Rexene sofas. Records are icons from a time that seems light-years away from today’s technology.

But there are still places for record enthusiasts, who are given closely guarded entrance to this hidden world of vinyl. The Radio and Gramophone House in Connaught Place in Delhi, the pantheon for music aficionados, has mapped the trajectory of vinyl’s evolution from its beginnings to its status in today’s popular consciousness. In the old quarters of Chandni Chowk, opposite Moti Cinema, is the blink-and-miss New Gramophone House. Opened by the late Bhagwandas Rajpal and his son in Lahore in 1930, the shop relocated to its present spot after Partition. As I wade through a shop selling shoes and chappals, I see Avinash Rajpal, its present owner, surrounded by his artifacts of sound. Not many rummage through the shelves, but he has adjusted to the ebb and flow of the business.

Can a collector of melodies be the seller as well? Syed Akbar Shah is one. The records for sale at Shah Music Centre in Old Delhi’s Meena Bazaar are only a fraction of his collection. In the dim confines of his godown in Daryaganj rest just a few thousand jewels. Shah never sells a record of which he only has a single copy.

Kolkata, now the mecca of vinyl lovers, is home to many record shops. With the quaint shops in the Baithakkhana Bazaar or the pavement mosaic at Free School Street, the magic of vinyl never leaves the true collector. Even if buying is not on the agenda, a collector can while away hours rifling through the racks. Days after days of digging in dirt, one may find an art-filled sleeve with a scratch-free recording.

Schools of thought vary among collectors: there are the 78 RPM collectors who revel in the brittleness of shellac records, and then there are the somewhat more modern collectors of 33 1/3 or 45 RPM vinyl. Though audiophiles are a rare species now, there still are collectors like the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, whose personal record stack stands at 10,000, or the Indian actor Victor Banerjee with a collection of 8,000 records.

Nostalgia is a sort of vanity. While musicians shine with the glory of performance, record collectors get their share of the limelight when they run their hands over a classic cover and remove a rare record to present before an audience (but not necessarily to give them access to it). A fellow collector is not a guru-bhai but a competitor, worthy only of condescension. Typically over thirty years old, record collectors come in all shapes, sizes, and generations. These antisocial creatures have their Sundays reserved only for records. For them, collecting is a journey to unearth the treasures hidden in dusty basements. Holding and hearing a record has a sensual quality that, like beauty, only the beholder can understand. Music is personal; it requires solace and privacy.

These fragile things are for the listener rather than the hearer. Picking up one from the shelf, putting it on, listening to it, flipping it over requires a delicate balance of attention and patience, an unyielding commitment. It is a ritual—like a Japanese tea ceremony that is rich in subtleties and takes years to perfect, or writing with a Parker 51, which requires you to hold the hooded nib snugly between your inky fingers as you witness the flow from the fountain pen onto parchment. It is for those who despise something produced by a boxy machine, requiring merely the writer’s signature. At the other end of the technological spectrum, the iPod generation, fixated on Twitter updates blinking on their phones, does not respond to these black beauties.

Spawning counterculture syndrome, records are said to be making a comeback—the arcane defying convention like everywhere else. With the price for a record ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,500, and for a turntable, Rs 17,000 to 2.5 lakh, it’s increasingly difficult to add to an existing collection. The musty old cupboards and shelves are not being reborn but replaced. A vintage delight, records are now for those who root for the retro. The authentic antique of a wind-up gramophone or turntable adds to the manjusha of the drawing room, even if it doesn’t play well.

The collector with the heart of an artist is left behind in the years of yore, a rasik hunting for reprieve from the new. For collectors, or as I like to call them, timekeepers, records produce a past that is paradisal but irretrievably lost. In the sodden soil of memories, they sow seeds of solitude. Amid frenzied lives, they look for the quietude of nostalgia, the quietude of sound.

Works Cited

The Record News: The Journal of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, 1, (1991): 15. The Digital South Asia Library. Web. 1 Oct 2013.

Mukhopadhyay, Suren. Rabindra Sangeet Kosh, 2nd ed. Kolkata: Sahitya Prakash, 2009. Print.


Mamta Nainy is a children’s writer and editor based in New Delhi, India. She is an avid reader with a keen interest in visual art and literature. Her other pursuits include collecting music, failed attempts at drawing, a strong fixation with rivers, and an uncanny relationship with pens.


Bitter Honey: Sexual Violence in Desi Hip Hop

Image credit: 2012 Soumyaroop Chatterjee via Flickr

I came across Honey Singh for the first time in Dubai while driving with friends. The rapper had just released a single called “Brown Rang” (Brown-Color[ed Skin]), which almost everyone I knew was whistling, humming, or singing. The track was so catchy that even my non–Punjabi-speaking cousins were singing the chorus at one another or to their romantic interests. “Brown Rang,” made famous in the city because the accompanying music video was shot in Dubai, holds in it several subtle misogynist and sexist phrases that, at the time, went by unnoticed; Singh raps at one point that he wants nothing more to do with “white chicks” after having met the brown-skinned girl. I noticed all this just months before Singh became embroiled in a large media controversy regarding other alleged songs of his that made it hard even for the mainstream to ignore sexism in desi hip-hop.

Honey Singh, also known as Yo! Yo! Honey Singh, is arguably the face of Punjabi hip-hop around the world, comparable to Jay-Z or the Notorious B.I.G. in global popularity. He has almost three million fans in India, 300,000 in Pakistan, and more than a quarter of a million in countries like the UK and the US. An artist much sought after by Bollywood film producers, his tracks have been featured in major blockbusters such as Cocktail. He even acted in the Punjabi film Mirza: The Untold Story.

Not all publicity, however, is good. Since late December, the rapper has been at the center of a media controversy linking two of his alleged tracks to the Delhi gang rape case (Biswas 2012). This high-profile case involved the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi in the winter of 2012 and brought massive public and media attention to the issue. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, the northern region of India, in which New Delhi is located, has the highest number of reported rapes in India (6,227 per 100,000 women in 2011).

Things began to go sour for Singh when two songs bearing his name surfaced on music-sharing sites and YouTube, titled “Main Hoon Balaatkari” (I Am a Rapist) and “Choot” (Prostitute). The latter track includes the shocking line, “You will scream and run, but where can you go . . . I will take your life.”

Youth Ki Awaaz blogger Sumedha Bharpilania called the second track “as disturbing as it could possibly be and . . . nothing but an insult to the XX chromosome” (2013).

The names of the two tracks, as well as their lyrics, made it very hard for anyone to ignore the content and messages of desi hip-hop, especially Punjabi rap. Desi hip-hop seems to have skipped the growing-pains years of politicization that signified 90s–era American hip-hop, and instead has gone straight to a flashy present, complete with expensive cars, macho lifestyles, and representations of women as objects to be used or talked down to.

Although tracks such as “Choot”—or even a generally approbatory attitude toward sexual violence in music—would not necessarily lead directly to rape, they create and reinforce a culture that, in turn, allows rape, facilitates woman-blaming, and disempowers women. In the context of the Delhi gang rape case and the protests that ensued, it is important to note that this culture attacks women just for being women.

With the Delhi gang rape fresh in the public mind (and with the case ongoing at the time), The songs attributed to Singh came under criticism in December and were publicly targeted in early 2013. At first, the rapper stayed silent and let detractors and defenders fight it out over Twitter and other social media (Johri 2012). Then a woman named Kalpana Misra set up a Change.org petition asking for the rapper’s New Year performance at the Bristol Hotel in Gurgaon, Haryana, India to be canceled. Misra claimed victory when the show was eventually called off, but Singh said that he himself had asked for the show to be discontinued for unrelated reasons.

Singh finally made a statement in January about the songs in question, saying that he did not actually produce them (Economic Times 2013). He also made the statement, “What I am going through is another form of rape” (Hindustan Times 2013). The attention was clearly worrying the rapper, though perhaps not as dramatically as he vocalized.

Eventually, the authorities got involved; local police lodged a case against Singh on the basis of his lyrics being vulgar and obscene (Hindu Business Line 2013). The Indian High Court then ordered the Punjabi government to take action against the rapper (BBC News 2013). Given the vagueness of this order, the police have a registered case against Singh but seem to be dragging it out (Daily Bhaskar 2013).

A fair amount of the momentum in the case is due to the pressure exerted by a regional non-governmental organization called the Human Empowerment League of Punjab (HELP), which has pushed regional police to register a case against Singh under Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code. This section addresses obscene acts and songs that annoy others in public space.

Instead of bringing attention to rape culture and resistance to it, the Singh case has led to a furor over censorship. Indian film and music personalities decried that Singh was being singled out, and bemoaned the repercussions for artists (India Today 2013). Tepid reactions called for the labeling of explicit lyrics on music CD covers (Hindustan Times 2013). Singh’s own reaction was to threaten legal action against any publication tying him to the two songs (DNA 2013). Instead of a conversation around the culture of misogyny in hip-hop, the discussion became a heated back and forth over the integrity of artists and the message of the songs.

Regardless of his involvement in these songs promoting rape culture, Singh cannot deny that his more mainstream tracks contain misogyny and sexism. His track “15 Saal” (15 Years) with bhangra artist Diljit Dosanjh blames underage women for getting into trouble by sneaking into clubs. Another track, “Yaar Bathere” (Lovers Galore), which features a collaboration with singer Alfaaz, blames a woman for being a frivolous heartbreaker.

Most of Singh’s tracks exude a sort of machismo that inevitably leads to the labeling of women as either sexy or slutty. In his tracks, women are decorative (as in “This Party Gettin’ Hot” in collaboration with Jazzy B), objects to be pursued (as in “High Heels” in collaboration with Jaz Dhami), or people who get called out for stepping out of the gender lines that he assigns them (as in “Catty Eyes” in collaboration with Diljit Dosanjh). The music videos that accompany Singh’s tracks and collaborations are a testimonial to this approach; they visually represent the power, wealth, and sexism that Singh invokes in his tracks.

Beyond the effort to censor and ban Singh as an individual performer, there is a need to examine sexual violence and other forms of violence in hip-hop culture in India (and worldwide, since the audience for Singh’s music is by no means localized, nor does the problem stop with him). Honey Singh does not exist in a vacuum; his brand of masochistic, sexist lyrical content is the norm rather than the exception. A group of young rappers he mentors, known as Mafia Mundeer, create similar content. Unrelated Punjabi rapper Baba Honey released an album in June of 2013 called Brown Legs, a lyrical catcall to women who wear shorts. These examples and more show how pervasive the culture of sexism is in desi hip-hop.

The fact that other artists emulate Singh’s style of music is due to its catchiness; however, blind acceptance of the lyrical content shows how normalized violence and sexism is in this kind of music. Audiences, for the most part, seem to accept this inundation of music with little question. It took something as blatant as the two aforementioned tracks to grab public attention. Then again, it took something as blatant as the Delhi gang rape case to raise public awareness of rape culture in general, particularly to the attention of authorities. What makes Singh’s style of music so popular are the beats: a mixture of contemporary electronic music, hip-hop, and occasionally traditional bhangra styles. The rapping and lyrics become a background for the beat. Very rarely does the person humming the tune consciously recognize or reflect on the sexist lyrics; the unconscious acceptance of these, however, leads to an acceptance of the world that they create. Only with explicit tracks such as “Choot” do people come face-to-face and mouth-to-ear with the violence that accompanies the lyrics of more subtle tracks.

In February, when the student body at Punjabi University banned music by Singh and others for promoting sexism and violence (including artists mentioned earlier in this article who often collaborate with Singh), they took a large step away from the pervasive culture promoting violence (Singh 2013). Bodies such as the National Students’ Union have also protested the rapper (IBN Live 2013).

Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the fact that major defenders of Singh on Twitter were his female fans, in a curious twist that echoed the reaction of Chris Brown fans after his assault on his then-girlfriend and fellow artist Rihanna. Fans took a spectrum of defensive positions, from denying that Singh could pen songs like “Balaatkari,” to saying that the tracks were not a big deal in terms of the music and media culture already existing around sexual violence in India. Upon closer examination, tracks like “Balaatkari” are more a hop, rather than a leap, away from ones like “15 Saal.” The latter are merely subtler and less shocking. Both songs point to the need for examination and healing of a culture that permits this kind of music.

Among women fans defending Singh, we see the effect of patriarchy and sexism embodied in many of the tracks mentioned in this article. As much as they normalize misogyny among men and foster attitudes that look down at women or see them as objects, they also foster internalized sexism in women. A number of female fans rushed to protect Singh on Twitter, tweeting that he was innocent of creating the two tracks. There was little analysis of the subtler ways in which sexism creeps into desi hip-hop tracks. Contemporary American hip-hop culture is little better; rapper Rick Ross was in the headlines in March and April 2013 for rapping about date rape as part of a track by Rocko.

Because of Honey Singh, desi hip-hop fans across the world now have an opportunity to re-examine the culture around misogyny and violence that permeates Punjabi/desi hip-hop music (while acknowledging that Punjabi hip-hop is by no means the sole genre that perpetuates this culture). As someone who loves this genre of music, I have had to really look at my collection, at what it means if I excuse a track because its content is subtly, rather than explicitly, sexist.

Such a re-examination would mean confronting the level of sexism and violence in music in general, but particularly in the relatively new genre that is Punjabi/desi hip-hop. Confronting Singh as well as similar performers is important, but at the same time, we need to find examples of this genre of music that do not fit the mold, and even directly confront sexism and violence.

The conversation that has emerged is just one part of a cultural shift away from sexism and misogyny in desi hip-hop. The Delhi rape case is the main reason why so much attention was directed at Singh, as well as sexism in desi rap in general. So far, the artists’ and industry’s reactions have been defensive. But the industry’s powerful record producers, labels, and artists could instead open up a conversation about musical content and actually start making music that breaks apart the very culture that has been discussed in this article. The desi rap scene very much needs a Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad.”

The situation is not entirely bleak. Sometimes referred to as the father of desi hip-hop, Bohemia is by no means a feminist but is far less sexist with his lyrics, dealing more with the art of rhyme. The Rap Engineers from Pakistan are an even better example, taking a spiritual Sufi approach to rap, mixing their rhymes with Urdu ghazals. North America–based beat poets/hip-hop artists such as Mandeep Sethi and Humble the Poet even bring a level of conscientiousness to the table. In addition to his other gigs, Sethi promotes a hip-hop project with impoverished youth in New Delhi and Mumbai called Slumgods.

The scene also needs female rappers. Though a few artists like Tasha Tah and Nindy Kaur exist, very rarely do they take on topics like sexism the way Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah did. However, with the spotlight on the desi hip-hop industry, this could be a moment in which female artists who take on these issues are pushed forward. Hip-hop has always been the music of the oppressed. From racism in New York to apartheid in the Palestinian territories, the genre is one that was built to take on heavy issues. Rape culture and sexism should not be exceptions.

Works Cited

Biswas, Tanima. “Delhi Gang-rape Case: What Happened That Night.” NDTV. 23 Dec 2012. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

Bharpilania, Sumeda. “Tell Me Honey Singh Ji, Why the Misogyny?” Youth Ki Awaaz. 12 Dec 2012. Web. 20 Apr 2013.

“Court Raps Rapper Honey Singh Over Vulgar Songs; Police Shielding Him?” Daily Bhaskar. 20 Jun 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

“Delhi Gang Rape: Rapper Honey Singh Denies Writing Offensive Lyrics and Public Backlash.” The Economic Times. 1 Jan 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

“Don’t Confuse Between Rappers and Rapers: Twitterati on Honey Singh Controversy.” India Today. 4 Jan 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

“Face Legal Action if Balaatkari Song Is Credited to Me: Honey Singh.” DNA. 1 Jun 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

“FIR Against Singer Honey Singh.” The Hindu Business Line. 1 Jan 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

“Gujarat Police Refuses to Permit Honey Singh’s Concert.” IBN Live. 29 May 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

“Honey Singh Moves Plea for Fair Inquiry.” Hindustan Times. 11 Jul 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

Johri, Kanika. “Facebook, Twitter Campaign Demands Honey Singh Ban for Lewd Lyrics.” Hindustan Times. 31 Dec 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

Lowder, J. Bryan. “Why Are Some Women Turned on by Chris Brown’s Beating of Rihanna?” Slate. 13 Feb 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

Pokharel, Krishna, et al. “New Delhi Attack: The Victim’s Story.” The Wall Street Journal. 9 Jan 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

Singh, Prabh. “Punjabi University Students Blacklist Jazzy B, Honey Singh, Diljit Dosanjh and Others for Vulgar Singing.” Sikh Siyasat. 20 Feb 2013. Web. 1 Jul 2013.

“Vishal Dadlani Takes on Honey Singh.” Hindustan Times. 18 Jun 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

Walia, Harsha. “Delhi: From Shame to Defiance.” The Feminist Wire. 8 Mar 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

“’What I’m Going Through Is Another Form of Rape.’” Hindustan Times. 4 Jan 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.

“Yo Yo Honey Singh: India Court Orders Action Against Rapper.” BBC News. 14 May 2013. Web 13 Jul 2013.

Zonyee, Dominique. “Rick Ross Date Rape Lyrics: Ross Raps about Date Rape, Says ‘Put Molly All in Her Champagne, She Didn’t Even Know It.’” Mstars News. 27 Mar 2013. Web. 13 Jul 2013.


Isaac Komalathukizhakkathil OommenIsaac Komalathukizhakkathil Oommen is Gulf Arab and South Indian, currently based in Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territories. He is a multidisciplinary media activist who writes and creates video and audio around struggles of indigenous and migrant rights. He has a time-consuming fascination with Punjabi, Palestinian, and Arab-German hip-hop. He can be reached and denounced at @isaacoommen.