Jagmeet Singh & the Rise of the Planet of the Punjabi

Social Commentary

Jagmeet Singh & the Rise of the Planet of the Punjabi

Illustration: Shruti Yatam / Arré

One of my friends (from Bhopal) signed off on a Facebook group chat with the words, “Yo n**gs, see you later”. The unusual sign-off was, to my mind, partly the outcome of one of the greatest music albums of all time: 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet by American hip-hop group, Public Enemy. Fear of a Black Planet signalled the influence hip-hop was to have over the world in the years to come. Today, it has outposts everywhere — homies in Hyderabad, mothaphuggaz in Mumbai, and brothas in Bhopal. Over the last couple of years though, homies are turning into “yaaras”, and a brotha is now a “veere”. The latest example of this is the election of Jagmeet Singh to Canada’s New Democratic Party.

There used to be this joke about Justin Trudeau’s Canadian cabinet. The American president and the Canadian PM are given a time machine that can see 50 years into the future. They both decide to test it by asking a question each. The American President asks, “What will the USA be like in 50 years?” The machine whirrs and beeps and gives him a printout: “The country is in good hands under the new president, Jose Fernandez… crime is non-existent, there is no conflict, and the economy is healthy. Vice-President Jin Tao has declared Chinese language mandatory in all schools. There are no worries.” Then the Canadian PM asks: “What will Canada be like in 50 years?” The machine whirrs and beeps and he gets a printout. But he just stares at it. “Come on,” says the American President, “tell us what it says?”. The Canadian PM replies, “I can’t. It’s all in Punjabi!”

The handsome Canadian Prime Minister might not have to wait that long. The media is already saying that Singh, Trudeau’s political rival, is going to “out-Trudeau” him. After all, if Trudeau has colourful socks on his side, Singh has stunning turbans; if Trudeau apologised for Komagata Maru, Singh took on the Indian government when he described the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom as genocide.

But Jagmeet is not the only Singh in the international arena. Last May, the Mohali-born Gurpreet Singh Sandhu became the first Indian to play top-division football in Europe. At 6 feet 4 inches, Gurpreet is an imposing presence and plays as goalkeeper for Norwegian side Stabaek FC. There’s Waris Ahluwalia, director Wes Anderson’s favourite Sardar. And no matter what side you were on in the Rupi Kaur debate, you’d find the Insta-poet impossible to ignore.

Barring the painfully obvious conflicts, cultures across the world are in a constant state of push and pull. They spread like competing oil slicks, dependent on the prevailing winds and undercurrents. Lately, an ever-growing pool of desi ghee has been dominating the oily mess. Peeps from the pind are on the cusp of world domination. The other day, I came across this video of Punjabi commentary from last year’s Stanley Cup. This is not the celebration of a mere ice hockey goal. It is, in true Punjabi fashion, the celebration of everything. Brrrrrrraaah!!!

The rise of Punjab should hardly come as a surprise. The doggedness and determination of all things Punjabi has long been known. This tenacity is visible on restaurant menus across India. Butter Chicken and Dal Makhni have held their own in the face of an onslaught of American burgers, Italian pizzas, and the rampaging Tibetan momo. Lassi has long defied the torrent of aerated drinks and packaged juices. Most local cuisines are in grave danger but Punjabi food is in expansion mode. Mr Attar Singh Chawla’s story is legend in my hometown. One evening in 1960, Chawla and his friends arrived in Nainital, prepared with their booze. Chawla was to cook kukkad for dinner. The recipe called for dahi, but unfortunately, only cream was available in Nainital. Thus, Chawla invented Cream Chicken. Today, powered largely by Cream Chicken, the Chawla’s Chic Inn restaurant chain has over a hundred outlets in India and is looking to open new outlets in USA, UK, Australia, Singapore and Middle-East. As the company website explains, “Chawla’s CREAM CHICKEN was BORN to live FOREVER.”

In 2015, Navv Inder and Badshah teamed up to give us “Wakhra Swag”. It’s the kind of song you dismiss on the first hearing only to find it playing in your head until you just have to put it on repeat.

Punjabis share many characteristics with the most dominant culture of our times. Punjabis and Americans both have great capacity for hard work and enterprise. They also share an obsession with hyper-masculinity and physical dominance. The region suffered the most during the Partition but Punjabis have travelled to all corners of the globe and have, more often than not, made a success of it. The BBC ran a story last year about the Punjabis working on cheese farms in Italy’s Po Valley. The story was titled: The Sikhs who saved Parmesan.

When I tried to raise funds for an indie music album a few years ago, a Delhi financier gave me a reality check. “Boss, there’s no market for anything except Bollywood music. You can be making great music but the only reliable revenue source is doing shows. And people only want Bollywood music in shows… or Punjabi music.”

Which brings me to my favourite Punjabi song in recent years. In 2015, Navv Inder and Badshah teamed up to give us “Wakhra Swag”. It’s the kind of song you dismiss on the first hearing only to find it playing in your head until you just have to put it on repeat. Wakhra translates loosely as unique, and swag, as that word everyone hates. But the song inexplicably remains popular. Just like Justin Bieber.

The song talks disapprovingly of a brand-obsessed woman, who needs a lesson in fashion by the singer. The singer has unique swag (black kurta-pyjama and a 350 Yamaha). The Yamaha is a conscious choice, despite the availability of Audi-shaudi’s in the village. He carries the Khalsa flag and his jootis are ready to show everyone their place. As an afterthought, the singer says, hey he doesn’t unnecessarily pick fights. There is much method to his machismo. The lyrical high point of the song is a casually dropped line in which the singer tells the woman that his attitude is too heavy for her Gucci bag to handle. “Tere yaar da ta wakhra swag ni (girl)”, or your friend’s got unique swag.

With a diaspora as wide as this, Punjabiyat will not be defied. It’s creating a parallel universe, where kaala chashma’s and peeli Lam-borg-nees are mandatory. Where even the kids ride Royal Enfield “Bullt’s”. The Punjabi Planet will probably show up on the Hubble space telescope’s photographs as a giant disco ball wrapped in an electric blue turban — a blinged-out Death Star ready to neutralise all threats with Cream Chicken. In 1979, Sinatra sang the iconic “New York, New York”. If Ol’ Blue Eyes had lived to 2017, he may have recorded a “Chandigarh, Chandigarh”.

C’mon, you know how it goes… sing along:

Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leaving today,

I want to be a part of it…”

This is an updated version of an article published previously.