Our guest writer Nick Virk explores the intricacies of community culture, friendship and chosen family in London's queer South Asian spaces.
"Hum Aapke Hain Koun?"
"Who am I to you?"
by Nick Virk
It's 2018. I am attending my first Hungama - a Bollywood hip-hop night in East London, founded by Ryan Lanji. I walk in, a nervous wreck, to the sounds of 90s Bollywood. My heart soars. It’s not just nostalgia for me. I am hearing what I listen to on the daily through the sanctuary of my headphones, blast out on speakers in a queer venue where my Brownness is placed front and centre. I see queer South Asian talent on the dancefloor and feel simultaneously inspired and intimidated. My imposter syndrome kicks in and I watch on as a wallflower, wondering if this community will embrace me. There are those I have seen on social media and in magazines, ambassadors of the queer Brown experience - the people I think I should aspire to be. I watch them, but they do not notice me.
There’s a Bollywood lip sync contest and supportive non-Brown friends push me to join. They know my capabilities, even if I do not. I dance to Le Gayi Le Gayi and Dola Re Dola. I am alive. I am no longer hidden; I am seen. I win. People come up and introduce themselves. The adrenalin subsides and is replaced by me feeling ashamed of my vulnerability. I have fifteen minutes in the spotlight where people ask who I am. Did I just prove my worth? Overwhelmed, I ran out of the club riddled with anxiety and cry.
Fast forward to the present and I am a regular at Hungama. I know Ryan and I know the people who, like me, are now part of the furniture. We are a family, one that is as dysfunctional as any other. We celebrate each other’s queerness - something I have not found is encouraged at alternative gay, and often femmephobic South Asian spaces in London. Looking back at who I was in 2018, when I felt like such an outsider, I wonder how I evolved to where I am now. I feel safe, I feel included, but in truth and with hindsight, it feels important to acknowledge and speak openly about the compromises I made in order to be accepted. As I reflect, I also know I am not always proud of who I had to become in the process. I could simplify my journey to finding a chosen family into a twee narrative about acceptance and representation, but I know in doing so I do not do justice to the people who, like me, are now coming into these spaces for the first time.
''Our experiences have formed psyches in which we are justifiably hesitant about what families are and what they could be.''
There are certain entry requirements to being accepted into the queer South Asian family. What I once thought were simply my own insecurities, are actually in part, grounded in reality. I speak to people entering the queer South Asian space and their worry resonates with me. The most illicit thing happening in the toilet cubicles at Hungama are in fact the panic attacks no one wants to admit. When I speak about my journey with others embedded in the community who are aware of the issues, they themselves have either decided to move away from queer South Asian spaces or to consciously play the game.
It is clear that commonality in our experiences is linked to our fear of judgment. Our understanding of family has been constructed by our own toxic experiences as children of South Asian culture. We recognise the tropes of the gossiping aunts and uncles and have all seen Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham to know how families let you down. As queer people, we experience the fear of being disowned and abused, which for many of us has become a lived reality. Our experiences have formed psyches in which we are justifiably hesitant about what families are and what they could be. But unfortunately, a great number of us have not done the work needed to be able to redefine our perceptions of family. And so too often, this learnt toxicity infects the spaces where our chosen family gather.
''While living authentically in our queerness liberates us and can enable us to find celebration in our heritage and melanin, our understanding of family culture seeps into spaces where we should be at most in solidarity with one another.''
Growing up, family events were gatherings where social capital was flaunted and our flaws dissected and debated by others wanting to prove themselves superior. We find this as the status quo, and something that is regularly mocked in comedy sketches and on-screen portrayals of the South Asian experience. It is rarely understood with sincerity, because it is trivialised. The establishing of worth and hierarchy goes far deeper than just gossip about whose children are thirty and still unmarried. It’s key that we ask why such competitiveness is normalised and that we openly explore its insidious consequences. It’s fine to laugh as a way of processing that trauma, but we must also consider with sincerity how the capitalist mindset of who was deemed worthy has been embedded in our upbringing. Pair that with internalised racism wanting to be aligned with whiteness and rampant casteism, and you have a culture - specifically Indian culture - that seriously needs challenging.
While living authentically in our queerness liberates us and can enable us to find celebration in our heritage and melanin, our understanding of family culture seeps into spaces where we should be at most in solidarity with one another. Instead of the car park of the wedding venue where barfi boxes and value judgments on others are exchanged, it is the smoking area of the club where fake how are you’s are spoken and we end up bitching behind people’s backs.
''In conflict with the freedom that our queerness provides, our need to be valued manifests in superficial ways.''
There are also prerequisites to being accepted. You must be able to offer something to someone in order to be welcomed. Regrettably, I remember mentioning my job and place of work each time I met someone - hoping it was enough to get the attention of the Instagram famous and those with clout in these spaces. It was enough for some, but seemed that once they had what they needed from me, they disappeared. I was guilty of measuring my success and worth through the metrics my parents used as migrants in the West. The dynamics of the relationships I was finding myself in were the same. I was speaking to the new generation of aunties who called our mums under the guise of inquiring after the children, only really wanting to know where she had got the good barfi she served last week.
Brown people are very good at creating hierarchies. We have thrived off anti-Blackness by establishing a status between white and Black communities to lessen our own burden of racism. The modern Indian government’s Hindu nationalism and Islamaphobia is indicative of a culture obsessed with superiority. The roots are clear. Colonialism has indoctrinated us to see ourselves as inferior, and in our independence we have tried to climb the hierarchy rather than abolish it all together. In conflict with the freedom that our queerness provides, our need to be valued manifests in superficial ways. Just look at the social media feeds that platform Brown talent. They are all too often elitist, creating inner circles that enjoy exclusive party invites and boast brand endorsements, publishing them on their channels to signify who is deemed worthy in South Asian culture today. The most publicly prized contributors to our culture are curated and chosen by the hosts of these spaces. Platforms are allocated to influencers, while the rest are thereby placed as an audience of fans.
''I do not want my chosen family to be like my biological one. Perhaps, the chosen family is a concept we should stay away from applying to Brown communities.
This structure means that each of our contributions as queer Brown individuals is all too easily ignored or disregarded simply because we do not offer a similar social status. I myself have been ignored by people because they do not see me as a worthwhile asset, but I too have ignored others because I have framed them as ‘basic’. I grew up hating the fake behaviour of my extended family and so while I shy away from being inauthentic with people, I struggle to give people the time of day unless I think they have depth. I find socialising to be anxiety inducing, and so have created a hierarchy in my head that directs who I want to make an effort with. It’s not behaviour I am proud of, but I understand how important it is to be conscious of it and to speak directly about it, because of how widespread the lack of solidarity is in our spaces.
As much as gatherings like Hungama are safe spaces, the reality of them being welcoming can only be dictated by the energy we as a community infuse into them. For myself, I know that I want to be kinder and more open to others in order to help break this perpetual hierarchy. I also know that I do not want my chosen family to be like my biological one. Perhaps, the chosen family is a concept we should stay away from applying to Brown communities. Who am I to you? What do we truly mean to each other? I think that we should work on being friends before we become a family.
About Nick Virk (they/them):
Nick is a filmmaker, producer and writer interested in platforming the queer South Asian experience.
Explore Nick's work: nickvirk.com
Connect with Nick: @harnick_virk