On a Friday night in Chennai in September 2015, we go with friends to drink gin and eat Jack Daniels chicken at 10 Downing Street. Styled as a British pub, 10 Downing Street is actually #50 B.N. Road-but you can see why they would change the name. It is retro night. Retro here means Michael Jackson and a medley from the musical Grease. It means disco and music videos featuring Afro-ed quartets. It also means the second coming of Boney M., a 1970s pop group that I always assumed was British, but was apparently based in Germany and made up of singers from Aruba, Jamaica, and Montserrat.
“Sunny.” “Daddy Cool.” “Rivers of Babylon.” “Brown Girl in the Ring.” My Michigan-born husband is looking at me like I’m crazy, because I know all these songs. Given the curious way that sonic artifacts travel-first, on radio waves; then in the Scotch-soaked nostalgia of reveling immigrants-these German hits from the mid-1970s actually comprised the soundtrack to my late-1980s/early-1990s, suburban American childhood.
On Friday nights in the Bay Area, before the first dot com boom and before the bust, we would gather: a group of Indian parents in their thirties (they seemed older to us kids), and us American-born kids, second and third generation Indians with California accents, whose ancestors’ roots and routes variously extended through India, England, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, the United States.
Improbably, “Rasputin,” Boney M.’s 1978 disco masterpiece, which borrows heavily from a Turkish folk song, was our collective anthem. “There lived a certain man in Russia long ago / He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow / Most people looked at him with terror and with fear / But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear.”
“Rasputin” narrates the rise and fall of Grigory Rasputin, the peasant lover of the Russian Tsarina, Alexandra Fyodorovna. Rasputin, born the same year as M.K. Gandhi, was purportedly a “holy healer” and “Russia’s greatest love machine” (Boney M.’s words), but his “drinking and lusting and hunger for power” (still Boney M.) eventually earned him enough enemies that he was shot to death in 1916.
Even as children, we knew all the words to the song, but it would be years before we pieced together the full story of the real-life Rasputin’s drinking and lusting, years before we understood the implications of the “ecstasy and fire,” poisoned drinks, illicit affair, rumors, entrapment, and assassination that we’d been singing about since grade school. We must have been quite a sight, the dozen of us four-foot Indian Americans, dropping our voices two octaves and narrowing our eyes to end our spirited dance with a menacing: “Oh, those Russians!” (Perhaps, for our parents, it was something like the cognitive dissonance I experience listening to my two year old singing Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.” “I’m keeping my baaa-by!” she announced recently, to her grandfather’s considerable surprise.)
Of course, my own childhood love affair with “Rasputin” was not singular. Rather, it seems to reflect a broader civilizational preoccupation. In 1994, Bollywood film composers Jatin-Lalit lifted whole musical phrases from “Rasputin” for the song “Sachi Yeh Kahani Hai” in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. Then, in 2012, Pritam explicitly borrowed from “Rasputin” in writing “Steal the Night (I’ll Do the Talking)” for Agent Vinod. So I’m not surprised when “Rasputin” begins to play in T. Nagar. It’s simply another notch in globalization’s belt, a confirmation of the interconnections we have been living all our lives, of the curious tastes that transcend generations, and of the marginal histories we each carry unawares.
Here I am in 2015: a California-born Indian American in a British pub in Chennai dancing to German pop music based on a Turkish folk song sung by a quartet from the Caribbean islands in 1978.
Later I will discover that the German record producer and songwriter, Frank Farian, who started Boney M. was also responsible for the mid-1990s hits “Be my lover” (by La Bouche), “Tonight is the night” (by Le Click), and “Where do you go” (by No Mercy). If you weren’t between the ages of 10 and 20 in the mid-1990s, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about. But if you were, you’ll remember the infectious beats of those ridiculous songs, how they played at the roller palace when you debuted your first pair of roller blades, how alive you felt, how young.
The dance floor at 10 Downing Street is empty until I enter it. I am old enough now not to care how I look, so I begin to jump wildly, hands overhead, and sing the familiar lyrics of “Rasputin.” Other pub-goers get comfortable and move to join me-groups of men in their thirties who dance by bumping chests and linking fingers, in a distinctly Indian brand of unashamed homosociality. I drift into a corner near the DJ booth. It is not long before Boney M. fades into “Subha Hone Na De” from Desi Boyz, and retro night is officially the stuff of the past.
“This is what I like,” my Chennai-born friend, who has thus far avoided the dance floor, shouts gleefully, as he pumps his fists in the air. “This is my music. At the end of the day, I’m a desi boy only.”
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.