Elegy for a Nuclear Diaspora

In the midst of the hot summer of 1999, I was crossing Mall Road in Lahore with a friend when out of the near-by cantonment came a storm of military vehicles. It was the height of the Kargil fiasco and for a few seconds, we could only stand and watch as dumb-founded spectators. My friend could only comment in a matter-of-fact way "Jang shuroo ho gayee," the war has started. It was on everyone's mind those days with the escalation of a mini-war on the Kashmir Line of Control. Popular street opinion was increasingly confident that this would mean nuclear war in the subcontinent. In Lahore, it became too commonplace to hear young and old claim that the time was ripe for an Islamic bomb. The heat was melting everyone's senses. It was as if the devastation and death this bomb would bring was besides the point. The lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were somehow lost, especially in the fiery editorials of the Urdu dailies that trumpeted the escalation of military involvement. All the while people were noticeably edgy. And it wasn't just the heat.

I had forgotten all about this incident, perhaps even repressed it. Until I heard Nitin Sawhney's new Album Beyond Skin (Outcaste records) in the summer of 2000. It is a rare album of emotional depth that can evoke so many different memories. It not only brought back those troubled postnuclear memories of Kargil, but placed them alongside my anxieties, growing up in Cold War-paranoid U.S.. This is the brilliance of this album. It not only critiques India's and Pakistan's grandiose nuclear dreams, but also places them in the context of the experience of the South Asian diaspora with racism. As the liner notes elaborate:

The BJP in India. The BNP in England. The first would define me by my religious heritage, the latter by the colour of my skin.

I believe in Hindu philosophy. I am not religious. I am a pacifist. I am a British Asian.

My identity and my history are defined only by myself - beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion and Beyond Skin.

This declaration recognizes the fascism and racism in our different "homes" while reclaiming a progressive sense of history and culture. The album links the history of migration from South Asia to the racism faced (and practiced) by the desi diaspora to the nuclear testosterone of India and Pakistan showing us how the fates of those in the subcontinent and those abroad are intertwined. It is full of the irony of Oppenheimer's words "Now I'm become death" sampled in the last track, "Beyond Skin."

I wonder what Sawhney means when he says he believes in Hindu philosophy, but is not religious, and whether it possible to have a completely self-fashioned identity. Is it a statement reclaiming the ideas of secularism in the name of peace and social justice? Is it a call to action to combat racism against our communities and the fascism that comes from within? Certainly we can still make history in the hope of a future that breaks through the complex oppressions that face desi culture.

Beyond Skin takes this step and argues for it through the sheer complexity of musical influence and simplicity in composition. This album is polyculturalism par excellence. It takes the beats from British Asian breakbeat/drum and bass culture and adding flamenco, soul, jazz, rap, qawwali, Kathak, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi. This is a real celebration of the mixture that is not just South Asian, but a work with international aspirations. We see Asia, Africa, Europe and even the shores that separate them in instrumentals like "Tides." Full of wonderful session performances that take us on the migrant's voyage, all of the tracks together are musically seamless. Added to this are samples from the bbc and nbc that tell us the story of nuclear politics. Superb vocals by Tina Grace in "Letting Go" and "Nostalgia," Swati Natekar in "Nadia," and Sanchita Farruque and Jayanta Bose in "Immigrant" remind us of our dreams and aspirations not only of a better life but a better world. And this is the point of the album: moving forward through reflection.

Go check out this album and dare to dream of history, politics and the hope of a better world.

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