Fascists and Pianists
HASSAN KAMAL WATTOO
ILLUSTRATION BY NIKITA BISWAL
A few weeks into university in London, a man walked up to me in a park, looked me straight in the eyes, and said the words, “what the fuck are you looking at, Paki?” It was late and I’d been in the library since morning, so I was quite tired. I had an assignment due in a few days. There was music playing in my headphones. So, when I stopped in my tracks with a bit of confusion to ascertain what this old white man had to say to me, I did so with the instinctive respect that a 19-year-old Pakistani shows to an elder. Of course, I must have misheard. Surely, he was asking for a lighter, or maybe directions to the nearest tube station, which I would politely give to him and be on my way. “Sorry sir, what was that?” He was courteous enough to repeat himself in full, with a bit of extra content added for good measure.
“I said, what the fuck are you looking at, Paki? You lot need to get the fuck out of this country. Bloody terrorist".
Now, just to clarify, I don’t consider myself a victim of anything. I’ll get into the reasons for that later. But in the heat of the moment, when visceral hatred is staring right at you through its pale wrinkled face after having attacked the legitimacy of your presence in this new country, you don’t have much time to think about critical race theory. Instead, you think about more pressing concerns, like how the hell did he know I was Pakistani? Later that night when I recollected the incident with a group of friends, they insisted that this must have been the most observant racist on the planet. The Sherlock Holmes of racists, if you will. They pointed out that I’m somewhat ethnically ambiguous. My skin is a lighter shade of brown than the average Pakistani. I hadn’t yet revealed my thick accent. Even my distinctly Muslim beard hadn’t fully grown out yet. On top of that, my ancestors migrated from what is now India after partition. So, surely there can’t be a reliable method for a stranger, not to mention, a visibly ignorant one to specifically guess my nationality, and throw in tailor made ‘terrorist’ slur aimed at my faith on top of it, right? The answer is a bit messy.
After 200 years of good old colonialism in the Indian Subcontinent ended, Britain looked back at the brown bodies that built its empire with the self-serving remorse of a toxic ex that wanted to make amends. So, it picked up the phone and called her up. South Asian immigration to the UK was incentivised in the 1960s and, attracted as ever by smooth talk and the promise of the West, people flowed in. You can’t blame them for it, but the red flags revealed themselves quick. Dismayed by the presence of these new migrants, gangs of white men began the phenomenon of ‘Paki-bashing’, wherein they’d target and assault South Asians and their businesses. It didn’t matter who they were, or where they were from. To the skinheads anyone appearing vaguely South Asian was a Paki, and fair game to be brutally assaulted.
Paki-bashing was far more mainstream than what contemporary political discourse would have you believe, both in the frequency of physical assault and acceptability in public opinion. In their 1968 single, ‘Get Back’, the Beatles sang along to a chorus that goes: "Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs, Oh, get back, get back, get back, to where you once belonged!". As someone who loves the band, I wouldn’t want to believe they’d have hated me. But even if the song was satire, it was a rallying cry for the skinheads. Maybe even for this old man when he was on a Paki-bashing night out in his younger days. Maybe as he walked through that park and stumbled upon an unassuming brown boy with headphones on, John Lennon’s voice filled his ears, and his eyes lit up at the opportunity to relive the fondest memories of his youth. His glorious, triumphant, deeply British, past.
A significant element of the culture behind ‘Paki-bashing’ was the stereotyping of South Asians as being a passive minority. One that wouldn’t ever fight back. That stays true to many of the South Asian immigrants I’ve known, because they tend to view the occasional racist attack as a small price to pay for living in the Western world. And it stayed true to me, because by the time my mind fully registered what had been said to me by that man in the park, I froze. In 1951, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that it was part of the written excellence of the Quran that there was little to no mention of camels. There didn’t need to be, because in the time and location that it was revealed, camels were such a fundamental and ever-present aspect of human existence that to go out of one’s way to talk about them would be pointless. Inauthentic, even. Similarly, in the story of an 18-year-old born and raised as a local in a deeply collectivist society, explicit racial hatred doesn’t just come as a surprise. It’s unfathomable. Enough to knock you out of the Bollywood depiction of London’s flashing lights and into the uncomfortable realisation of your place in it- of an outsider.
Collectivist society wasn’t anywhere near perfect, though. It only occurred to me after moving out of Pakistan just how much of it seeps into every facet of daily life. Your achievements, your failures, your very identity, too often become more attached to your tribe than to yourself. That tribe could be your family, your high school, the village you grew up in, but never you. So, a few hours after I moved in and stumbled across an upright grand piano in the basement of my London accommodation, I decided to embrace a bit of Western individualism and give it a go. I started out terribly, but gradually got better. I read about how Freddie Mercury, a brown boy like me, born Farrokh Bulsara, became a star. Nobody handed anything to Freddie. Nobody cared where he was from, or whether he had a funny last name. For all this country was concerned, he was passing as white and doing a damn good job at it. So, in a few weeks’ time when I was playing Bohemian Rhapsody on a public piano at the St. Pancras train station and a group of tourists gathered around to sing along to the chorus, it occurred to me that just maybe, I could too.
To that crowd of (possibly drunk) strangers taking out the time to appreciate what I played, punctuating the end of each successive song with a generous round of applause, I was nobody. A stranger at the train station, undefined by anything other than the sound of my fingers on the keys. Back in Pakistan, most of the classical music had no less than 15 people sitting together on stage, harmonizing their voices into one. But here, in the hyper individualistic West, it seemed like if you worked hard and play by the rules, you could make it on your own. Where there is talent and perseverance, crowds will form. In the train stations and in the board rooms. This is the first world, after all. Here, you have tolerance, opportunities, enforced speed limits, a rule of law, and if a stranger verbally assaults you in a park- you better believe that the state will protect you. So, with that in mind, after the few seconds of denial about what had been said to me, I pulled out my phone, pointed it at the pale wrinkled face of hatred, and pressed record.
In the field of linguistics, code switching refers to the alternation between different languages over the course of an interaction. The subconscious effects of these alterations are wide ranging. As an international student comfortable with English but unused to speaking it for extended periods without casual interjections of my mother tongue, I caught myself picking up subtle language-based traits without noticing. Speaking exclusively English, I was more articulate and composed, yet less assertive than my usual Urdu self. I’d find myself nodding in agreement at times I’d typically interject. As somewhat of an immigrant myself, I was experiencing the possible side effects of assimilation. Morphing into the grateful, passive minority like a prehistoric fish that just crawled onto land and grew out deformed legs. Maybe that’s why the first thing I said to that man in the park after starting to record a video wasn’t a confrontation, or threat, but a question.
“What did you just say to me?”
As if I didn’t already know. As if he hadn’t repeated it once already. This time he just scoffed and started to walk away. And I could picture him walking directly towards his next target. The smirk on his face revealed a confirmation of all his prejudices. The passive minority did not fight back, so he was free to continue his Paki-bashing excursions. My friends walked through that park very day on their way to campus. And in the split second that that realisation settled in, everything changed. The veneer of undue politeness faded away. Toleration borne out of needless gratitude replaced itself with the audacity to demand equality without any ifs or buts. In the language of the coloniser, I shouted at that man. I let him know that I had him on video, and it would be going directly to the police. His body language shifted, and pace quickened, but with the notable absence of an apology. So of course, my words got harsher. I code switched between every language I knew, swearing at him in obscure dialects I’d thought I’d forgotten years ago. Above all, I made sure he knew that what he did was a disgusting racist hate crime, and that if he ever did it to anyone again, there would be consequences.
Instead of the police I sent the video to a friend, and within hours it was doing the rounds among Pakistani and Indian students all over the place. I got calls of congratulations from people I hadn’t spoken to since childhood. Friends gathered around to hear the story from me first-hand. The optics of it, I’d concede, were symbolic but far from ideal. The man could have had a knife. Things could have gone very differently. But then again, if I’d just stayed silent, would I have been able to forgive myself? I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t a victim, and I genuinely believe that to be true. Not just because of the reciprocation in language but because I gained from that interaction the audacity to demand what is mine- equality. A demand that is fair and deserves to be made with unapologetic tenacity. For you and for me. Because at the end of the day, we are all immigrants, shifting about in search of a better life, landing at public pianos in the train stations of foreign lands, hoping to attract a crowd that accepts us.
Hassan Kamal Wattoo is a writer from Okara, Pakistan currently studying at SOAS, University of London. He writes regularly on law, philosophy, literature, and politics.