After checking my emails, I came across an invitation to a play with the press release 'you’ve heard of the Essex Man and the Hackney Hipster it’s time to meet the Punjabi Boys of Hounslow'. My dad was in India, taking care of some family business, and even though I knew he'd love to attend, I had to think of someone else to take with me. I immediately text my mum 'what are you doing on July 7th?'. I left a bit of intrigue there, to try and entice her. She was usually busy having kitty parties, working hard or travelling to some exciting country I've never been to.
She seems worried. I usually text dad, he's always up for these kinds of things...'the arts' so to speak.
'There's a play in Hounslow called Punjabi Boy, want to go?'
Her reply was expected.
'Yes, and auntie Jasmeet & Gurpreet & Charan etc want to come'
How did she know they wanted to come? I assumed they shared calendars so they could always organise outings together.
'I only have two tickets'
I get on a train from Manor House to Hounslow Central - the trip takes about an hour, from one end of the Piccadilly line to the other. I take a new book with me: Ali Eteraz's 'Native Believer'. This story of an American Muslim, married to a white Southern woman and navigating racial profiling stayed with me as I entered Hounslow.
Walking down Hounslow High Street for the first time in years was very revealing. Nothing had changed (except for those two shops that changed weekly). The wind twirled the littered bags of McDonalds around my feet as I walked into the Treaty Centre. It was almost as if I'd never left. Mum was there, on her phone, texting her kitty friends.
We walk in and despite being in my 30s, as we reach the bar, I nervously order a J20. I don't think I've ever had one before. I watch Sardar's walk away from the bar with pints and lick my lips, staring at the condensed plastic cups. I suddenly felt like a teenager, living in Hounslow and the looking at mum, I realised she needed to be there for me to truly appreciate this play.
We walk into the small theatre, the set is already there: a few ladders and saw benches. As we sit down, a group of young Punjabi boys settle behind us, excitedly. A group of Sardar's a few seats down from them, laughing loudly and slurping their beer, wiping foam from their elaborate moustaches.
The play starts in a school locker room: a kid wearing a turban (patka) and rakhri is bullied mercilessly by two kids. They start swearing. Then they don't stop swearing. I look over at mum. She looks a bit angry.
People in the audience laugh at a bhenchod joke, as one kid emulates how the Sikh boy would fuck said sister. I look over at mum and she's laughing quietly. I breath a sigh of relief.
To me, this is what Hounslow boys were like. For my mum, Hounslow boys = my brother, who went to Oxford Uni and now works for a non-profit organisation.
The protagonist, Gary (Gurinder) is played by Diljohn Sidhu, who manages to capture the essence of a young Indian who has tried to cut off ties with his culture, yet can't escape it. As someone who has lived this quite vividly, I felt a strong connection with the character. The only lack of connection was in the very obvious male/female difference, but within Indian communities, it's a large difference.
Gary's friend Bob (Balvinder, played by Amit Dhut), was very much one of the two types of Hounslow boys I used to come across. You're either the boy who drives around in his car, smoking, playing music too loudly (from the extra bass speakers you've installed in your boot), yelling 'OI OI' at girls who pass by OR you were a culturally proud boy who did some of that, but happily helped with the langar at the Gurdwara on Saturday morning.
Bob was the latter, it seemed. Respected his family and his culture, but liked to fool around.
Gary goes to France, to escape Hounslow and meets a beautiful young French woman, Aurelie (played by Suzanne Kendall) who exudes sexual confidence and freedom. This is the first time Gary falls in love, or in fact, has an infatuation with the concept of his love for Paris/the different. I enjoy a moment when she pours more and more wine into Gary's glass and the Sardar behind me murmurs, somewhat loudly, 'mere jasi hai' and laughs whole-heartedly in the quiet theatre.
Gary's conflicting love for indians and mistreatment in the hands of the British is loud and evident in his rant to Aurelie. He complains about the Royal Family, about colonialism across countries and continents and laughs at the confusing contradictions they strive on. I see smiles, I see heads nodding and I feel a strong community feeling of pride and anger.
Gary has an arranged marriage, with Kulli (played by Avita Jay), but as his obsession with the love he had for Aurelie twists in his mind, he destroys that also. A moment hits me, where Gary's downward spiral is consumed with his adoration with a woman, who evidently didn't feel the same for him. Gary becomes self-pitiful and blames Aurelie for the deep seeded issues he faces, instilled by himself, from a young age. I lack sympathy for him as he spirals further, spitting harmful words at his lost love.
It ends with Gary telling Bob about his theory on the literal take of bhenchod, about the rakhri he wears and a man's unsatisfied urges with women. Bob gives the old 'you gonna dress like a prostitute, I'll treat you like one!', as if sex workers deserve all the verbal and physical abuse he is alluding to. Bob suddenly reminds me of a thousand Hounslow boys.
This story, written by Amman Paul Singh Brar, of an Indian guy speaking French: a concept no one ever sees, is beautifully refreshing viewing. It examines the ability to write about a person of colour, giving them a personality and discussing their culture as well as showing them being (for want of a better term) 'normal'.
For me, as a British Asian, these kind of plays and stories are important. Whether you are Punjabi, from Hounslow, or not - you should go watch and support this, because representation matters.