When I was in India in January, I ended up hanging out at Mumbai airport for about 4 hours while waiting for a domestic flight. In one corner of the terminal was a group of twenty-something year-olds – mostly boys and two girls or so — all dressed in jeans and tee-shirts, all with longish flippy hair. One of them was carrying a guitar and they were all sitting in a circle, close together, humming, strumming, and singing English songs that sounded like a cross between David Byrne and Bon Jovi. I tried to park myself near them and kept trying to figure out their story. I never did–it was the middle of the night and I was an unabashed victim of jetlag–but in my mind, I’d made up a story about them — they were college buddies traveling together (probably to Goa); maybe they were even a band, getting amped to sit on the beach around a campfire singing their songs after a full-moon rave at Anjuna Beach. …
I was reminded of this scene when I read Akshay Ahuja’s feature essay on the Indian subculture of heavy metal in the April issue of Guernica, a print and online magazine of art and politics. In “Death Metal and the Indian Identity”, writer Akshay Ahuja is asked to carry a guitar to India for his father’s colleague’s son. The guitar is to be delivered to Pradyam, who is part of “a semi-pro death metal band” called Cremated Souls (now defunct).
A simple guitar delivery leads Akshay Ahuja into the vibrant subculture of heavy metal in India, as he becomes friends with Pradyam and his band members, many of whom work at call centers.
There are several sections in the piece where the author makes small observations about the little differences and nuances between India and America, cultural and otherwise. These gave me pause, not only because some of them rang true, but also because I enjoyed the way they were being articulated in a very specific context.
A few days later Pradyum came to my parentsâ€™ house on a black Royal Enfield motorcycle, wearing a leather jacket. He was strong and well-built. I found out later that until a few years ago, he had been serious about track and field before a scooter accident had crushed his leg. Pradyum would drop me off several times after this, but this was the only time he came inside. He was always afraid that he smelled like cigarettes (he smoked constantly) and that this would offend my parents. Once in the house, he complimented my mother on her beautiful homeâ€”and such a nice garden! This immense politeness was strangely incongruous. Looking just like James Dean, he had all the American gestures of rebelliousness, but without the appropriate American attitude.
It was near midnight on the eve of Indiaâ€™s independence, and I was at a concert called Freedom Jam, held at a club on the outskirts of Bangalore called only The Club. Watching the band perform from beside the stage, I noticed a girl with a nose ring. My grandmotherâ€™s nose was pierced when she married at thirteen; her nose ring was a sign that she adhered to a certain traditional image of Indian womanhood. For this girl, however, the ring indicated that she was not just westernized (such girls simply chose not to get their noses pierced) but a member of an alternative community that existed outside the mainstream of westernized Indian youth. Essentially, the nose ring had traveled to the other side of the world, assumed a fringe rather than traditional meaning, and then come back to India, where it now has two different meanings. Such dual gestures exist in America, but they usually have one sincere and one ironic meaningâ€”trucker hats on truckers, for example, as opposed to everyone else. In India, however, both meanings are perfectly sincere, both carry conviction.
And, this one:
The rest of the band wasnâ€™t very talkative. Charlie was wearing a black shirt with something silver painted on it in jagged gothic letters. I looked at it: â€œCytosâ€¦â€ â€œCryptopsy,â€ he said. Then he explained that it was a band he liked. He couldnâ€™t find a t-shirt of theirs in India so he made it himself with red and silver puffy paint. Pradyum was wearing a History Channel t-shirt. I wondered if members of any American band would have worn these two items of clothingâ€”a homemade shirt, and one that advertised for a television channelâ€”without being enormously conscious of what they were doing, of aiming to produce some sort of effect. Things that have been weighted down in the west with ironic associationsâ€”Scooby Doo T-shirts, hair metal, huge striped V-shaped guitars like the one Ganesh hadâ€”had regained their innocence on the other side of the world. In India, they mean nothing more than what they are, and people either like them or donâ€™t, but they never â€œlikeâ€ them.
The piece was a fascinating commentary on an desi’s experience going back to India and discovering various subcultures that have sprouted up as a result of globalization – heavy metal and call center “vampires” are just a few:
Pradyum’s fiancee “managed a call center for Alamo car rental at night, and then slept during the day. She was basically living on American hours. A couple of my cousins in Bangalore did this too, and they told me that entire malls and restaurants had sprung up in certain areas of the city to cater to people who followed these vampire schedules. One cousin told me that he went to such places after work to â€œfreak out.â€ After much confusion, I discovered that this term has, like the nose ring, crossed the oceans to mean its exact oppositeâ€”in India, it means to relax or hang out.”
In “Death Metal and Identity,” Akshay Ahuja proposes that “generally, it seemed, it was no longer necessary to slowly build a career through extensive education and continuous professional diligence. A decent livelihood was available at any point, as long as one spoke English. This easy money allowed for a semi-bohemian lifestyle that hadnâ€™t been possible or acceptable in India before. Until keeping a serious job was absolutely necessary, you could do anything you wanted with your time. This withdrawal of obligations was perhaps the first step in creating an artistic class outside the mainstream of a culture.”
[As a sidenote, Amitabha Bagchi's IIT novel "Above Average" explores this subculture a bit -- his main character is a " middle-class Delhi boy with an aptitude for science and math but a yearning to be the drummer of a rock band .."]
Any metal musicians in the house? Past? Present? Wanna-bes? Is Akshay right? Has “easy money allowed for a semi-bohemian lifestyle that hadnâ€™t been possible or acceptable in India before”?