Among the hills, among the pits, A boorish frill-necked birdie sits. It lays eggs—a gift from God. What is it? [Russian Riddle, quoted in Nancy Ries' "Potato Ontology"]
Sometime in mid-October 2011, as I was busy anticipating little G’s fifth birthday and packing for a third return to Houston, three young men in Lahore (the capital of the Pakistani state of Punjab and the one major city closest to the Indo-Pak border) were uploading a 3-minute music video to YouTube that was about to go globally viral.
By the time we heard of “Aalu Anday” and of the three-man 6-month-old Beygairat Brigade band that dared to produce it, we were in Houston and the story of the band’s success was going as viral as the video just had. Reports on the song were everywhere: Dawn, Indian Express, The New York Times, The Economist, The Tribune, the BBC; the three performers (lead Ali Aftab Saeed, 27; percussionist Daniyal Malik, 23; and guitarist Hamza Malik, 15) were being spoken about and interviewed on TV and Radio shows the world over. I can’t recall the show, but we heard them first on Houston KPFT 90.1 one afternoon, sitting in traffic on the 59.
“Aalu Anday” is three minutes of lightly delivered but tightly packed political satire. In it, the Beygairat Brigade thumbs its nose at prevailing notions of qaumi ghairat [national honour] enforced by Pakistan’s ruling religio-political class, the self-apponted ghairat brigades [honour brigades], by claiming its own dishonourable status: bey-ghairat. And it makes its argument with the aid of food: “Ay hey, ay hey,” it begins, with three schoolboys opening packed lunch boxes only to find, to their great disappointment, a salan (a nutty-spicy-saucy preparation, characteristic of Persian-Punjabi infused Indian cookery) of potatoes and eggs. “My mother has prepared aalu anday,” the singer complains; “I don’t want it, I find it bad/ I’d rather have chicken with naan, even if chicken becomes cheaper than lentils.”
Presumably the song’s authors are commenting here on the scourge that is the potato: common, cheap, too easy to prepare, and too-often a Pakistani lunchbox staple, in combination with the equally common, cheap, and easy boiled egg. I’ll get to what this says about Pakistani politics in a moment, but this use of edible things to think about politics in the first place deserves some attention. In her elegant essay of the same name, Nancy Ries (2010) has spoken of “potato ontology“: “As an element of concentrated and widespread practice, [..] potato figures in and lends shape to particular forms of action, interaction, and intentionality. Potato does not merely help to conceptualize the [..] world in an interpretive register; it also plays a role in structuring, maintaining, and regenerating that world” (2009: 183). Of course, Ries is describing a postsocialist world in which potato “legitimizes and celebrates the population’s ability to feed itself autonomously, ‘no matter what'” (183)–whereas the Beygairat Brigade’s boredom with potato stems precisely from the fact of its ubiquity, its monotonous availability “no matter what.” Nonetheless, I take from Ries the insight that potato [or, in our case, the potato-egg combination in a salan] tells us something “about ways in which a material thing can be an integral and integrating vehicle of social consciousness as well as consciousness of society” (184). I read the dish, as it’s placed in the song, as it’s placed in turn into the much wider dish of Pakistani political hypocrisies, much as Ries reads potato, placed in Russian post-socialist cosmology.
Did the Beygairat Brigade think of aalu anday in these terms? Probably not. But that’s precisely why it’s interesting, to consider something quite as mundane as aalu anday salan as a way of making a dynamic, daring statement on politics, voicing both the utter boredom and the deep frustration that everyone feels and almost nobody articulates. Potato is, as Ries suggests, and aalu anday is, to varying degrees, a “touchstone referent” that “unites various realities and registers, different points of historical memory, and diverse populations” even as it “indexes social divisions and disagreements every bit as powerfully” (2009: 187).
“Aalu Anday” was apparently inspired by the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer by a member of his own police guard–Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the “royal Qadri” of the song’s lyrics–for challenging the country’s blasphemy laws. Composed in the local Punjabi dialect, the song makes a few other provocative political references that would be obscure to all those not closely following Pakistani politics [or researching to write blog posts], so I offer the following annotations:
l4, The line: “the Kojaks [baldies] are hanging on to kites” refers to the Sharif brothers [Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif and Mian Mohammad Shahbaz Sharif] whose corruption and failure to provide good governance in Punjab leaves them hanging on threads;
l5, “In Khan’s darkness, the CJ is the last light” takes something of a dig at former Pakistani cricketer and founder of the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan, suggesting that he depends on Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to dismiss President Zardari so that fresh elections can be called (and the army can appoint Khan president instead?);
l6-7, “With such hullabaloo about the extension, the chief has gone into hibernation”: suggests that army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, having secured a tenure extension, has thus gone into hibernation;
l9, The “hero” Ajmal Qasab is the only surviving gunman of those who carried out the brutal 26/11 2008 Mumbai terror attacks;
l10, The mullah who escaped in the veil refers to Maulana Abdul Aziz, who lead prayers in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid until security forces laid siege to the mosque in July 2007 and he was arrested trying to escape disguised in a burkha;
l11, and Abdus Salam is theoretical Physicist and Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate, forgotten because he belonged to the long-persecuted minority Muslim Ahmadiyya community–declared by a parliamentary bill in the 1970s to be non-Muslim;
l14, The Blackwater allusion is of course to the controversial private security company and its role in perpetrating military excesses. Why the tension over Blackwater when all the excesses are committed from within? croons Saeed.
Aalu Anday’s lyrics are supplemented by placards (hilariously) displayed on screen:
“Tehrik-e-Insaaf = Good-looking Jamaat-e-Islami“: digs again at Imran Khan’s PTI;
“Nawaz Sharif bye-bye, Papa Kayani no likey you“: refers to Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff’s dislike of former PM Nawaz Sharif;
“Free Judiciary = PPP hanged”: PPP is the Pakistan People’s Party, lead once by Benazir Bhutto;
“The mullahs plus military = Zia-ul Yukee”: clearly a distortion of Zia ul Haq, the religiously conservative military general who overthrew Zulfikar Bhutto and instituted himself President;
“Your money + my pocket = we are still enemies“: an allusion to tense US-Pak relations in spite of US aid;
“This video is sponsored by Zionists” preempts an obvious criticism;
and finally: “Like this video if you want a bullet through my head” ends the video with a challenge.
Juxtapose “bullet through my head” with the monotony of daily lunchbox aalu anday–or read the latter as the driving force that makes one want to risk such actions as lead to the former. Then add resignation to insufficiency in the face of excess: “However much you roll out the dough, it’s going to remain smaller than the stove”; and “when all the thieves are killed, then who, after all, is going to check police mischief?”
Our singers are comedians in a slapstick Bollywood fashion throughout their performance. All the talk of aalu anday, interspersed with witty placard messages, combined with visuals of eggs unceremoniously cracked, potatoes submitted to overlarge cleavers, and a couple of sad chickens held out as objects of desire–each of these ingredients mingle to make the humor of the video truly tasty. But the message, incongruously delivered on deliberately too-small rotis for comedic effect, is dead serious.
Writes Ries: “[P]otato is a symbolically, historically, and politically charged phenomenon, immensely overburdenedwith significance for all of its (or because of all of its) lumpen banality. Potato represents the investments of labor and devotion that carry persons and nations across historical eras. It sits on the cusp between desperate hope and the terror of insecurity; the same moment, in the same breath, potato shouts both “we can survive” and “God help us now” (202, emphasis added).
Quite a world apart from the Islamist and military overdeterminations of Pakistani politics though Ries’ essay is, that last line could well have been written with “Aalu Anday” in mind. Except perhaps with one little doubtful question added between Ries’ two statements of conviction and prayer: Will things ever change?
Goodness knows, then, I’d wish for chicken, too. But here, instead, is a recipe for aalu anday — which belongs in the family of salans, as I’ve mentioned, along with the famous Hyderabadi Mirchi ka salan [a salan of spicy peppers], Machli ka salan [of fish], Murgh ka salan [of chicken] and others. For all its lumpen banality, even in the company of other dishes of its kind, or perhaps because of it, aalu anday salan is still a comfort food of a most essential sort. Perfect for Sunday brunch. At least when its divorced from politics.
Tell me now, knowing as you do about the dish and what it dishes out, do you dare to try it?
My thanks to Aalok Khandekar for pointing me to the Ries essay that gave this post its framework.
Annotations were drawn from all the media sources linked above, as well from Alaiwah!;
Ries, Nancy. 2009. “Potato Ontology: Surviving Post-Socialism in Russia.” Cultural Anthropology 24/2, 181–212.