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My life is a bondage video

There are things you can’t change, for the most part. Your height. The circumstances of your birth. The prepayment meter in your flat. Genes. A predisposition towards a degenerative disease. The ancestral tax that you are required to pay for being born white, wealthy, straight, or too fortunate. I’m okay with all of this. I’m also okay with change. Our collective birthright is one of change. So if a body changes, cool, and if attitudes change, cool, and if one day I no longer want to see a friend I’ve known for years, cool. That’s what I like about this city. I can disappear into a pub in Vauxhall and emerge as a futuristic drag queen. One day, as things continue to change, I’ll be able to modify my genes, select my height, choose to be born better, and that’d be great, but for now, it’s a gamble, and that’s fine too. But with things standing as they are, I try to maintain some order. Otherwise, I’d go mad. I’d try to change the world. How else would I cope with total inequality? With being born on this side. Do you think it’s fun to be an uncomfortably guilty, non-white European?

***

In Bloomsbury, there’s a 24-hour cafe. It’s the kind of spot you go to if you’re a tourist, lonely, or need somewhere to keep warm. Maybe you’re writing sheet music, have a late-night business meeting, or want to keep drinking.

I hadn’t seen Amelia and Kazim for years, and I was looking forward to the catch-up. A decade ago I’d never imagine we’d be here. I’m an NHS mental health worker, sometimes I also write on the side. Amelia’s a manager in a pet shop, and Kazim designs industrial machinery for sugar mills. I love this feeling, ten years down the line – what do they think of this year’s Love Island? What weird, unfathomable politics have they developed?

I order a green tea when my phone buzzes. Voice messages from Ismail. I first met Ismail in a writing workshop in Peckham, where he was writing copy for perfumes. He’d just moved to the U.K. from Dhaka. His father pushed him to expand the family perfume business, with London chosen as a prime target. Between visas, cautions by the Met, and run-ins with British-Bengali gangs in Tower Hamlets, he’d lost the plot. He sulked around like a family liability; lost and crumpled, unable to hustle for survival like his father had done. His guilt, as well as his father infantalising him by having him focus on the ostentatiously “delicate” side of the business, crushed Ismail. Rather than turning against his father, he turned against two other authoritarian ideologies he diagnosed: neo-liberalism and queerness. He was always listening to podcasts, it could be Zizek on the culture wars, or ContraPoints on masculinity, which he critiqued. Most of the time I was unaware of the references, only interested in the emotional value these ideas had for Ismail. Even outside a professional capacity, I made Ismail my responsibility. I felt if Ismail, a sensitive, intelligent man, failed, then men from the Global South would all fail. I projected a symbol for the future onto Ismail, and in doing so, Ismail processed his resentment through me. 

Before I can close the notifications, more voice messages. 16 voice messages, and then a single message, 

“Answer me motherfucker.”

I dislike voice messages. They demand so much. Headphones. A quiet space. Time to listen to the very end. I’m also scared of Ismail. I excuse myself and head to the toilet.

Voice Message 1 

Do you think you can post your body on Instagram and everything is good? That you can plug into the neo-liberal mindset that’s about converting your body into a product and selling online? Set up an OnlyFans. You’re not even hot. Stop kidding around, do some real work. Your stories, they’re like IKEA flatpack, I see stories like these everywhere. Anybody can assemble them with the right instructions. Self-aware neo-liberal stories, you’re talking about products, niche references, Smirnoff Ice or whatever, and you think you’re part of some empowered narrative? Who the fuck do you think you are? All you Pakis are the same. Privileged, writing in English, trying to confront your guilt. You think this city belongs to you. You can’t just steal the emotionality of middle-class white women. Stop playing. 

Voice Message 2 

Your problem is that you’re dishonest. You’re studying all of us. It’s research. Who are you even? It’s easy for you to forget about religion. I’m basically a nihilist now because of you. And your drawings? All that hair shit. Do you think that’s going to change anything? Listen to me, they’re cancelling Andrew Tate. Do you know why? I know he’s fucking knob-head, but that’s beside the point. He’s the collective unconscious of the disenfranchised male. Men building your houses, cleaning you toilets, making sure the irrigation, transport, everything works the way it’s meant to. And is there a narrative for these men? Is anyone telling them hey girl, you’re beautiful no matter what you do? You think patriarchy is the problem? You’re the fucking problem. You think I wanted to work in perfumes? You think anyone asked about my relationship with my father? You’re a fucking con. I can’t read your shit. You smell like vegetables. 

Voice Message 3 

And by drinking alcohol, you’re one of them. You’re a pathetic weak liberal. A mono-cosmopolitan talking about your shitty job and about you needing more support for your mental health. MONO – You all sound the same with your neo-liberal subjectivity. You’re neurotypical. Do you think I had support when I was tied up with a gun in my face? When I was in a psych ward? Do you think anyone was asking me how I was doing? That’s the thing with you soft, precious, self-aware neo-liberals, it’s all about your feelings, your experiences, you think you’re the most important thing that has ever happened. I couldn’t have a singular sense of myself. My ego was broken, dismantled, my brain probably lights up like a firework under an MRI. That’s PTSD. I’m multiple. You just want your shitty garden parties, your cocktail dates. You think you gang now? You’re poverty cruising with your talk about multi-packs and club cards. Fuck off with your niche subcultures and alternative sociologies. Disgusting cosmopolitan elite. 

Voice Message 4

France’s treatment of Muslims made me Muslim again. I re-identify as Mulsim now because it’s the only way to address this whitewashing neo-liberalism that erases Islam, other voices, etcetera, anything that isn’t organised under the ideology of queerness. All that shit is invisible. Queer is the new religion. There are dietary requirements. Sexual coding and gatekeeping. How is that any different from a temple or a mosque? The West is obsessed with sex, but the sexual revolution has already come and gone, you can do whatever you want, wherever you want, Christianity is a minority religion, sex has won, but do you think that’s going to help us? Assholes and dildos aren’t going to bring back my family? My village? You think leather and BDSM is going to guarantee your quality of life. If you want to be constrained, I’ll constrain you with my life story. I’m designing perfumes that are going to brighten up the London Underground. These people get off the plane in Calcutta or Peshawar, and the first thing they think, this smells a bit funny. Forget Yves Saint Laurent, I’m going to give the city Bahadur Palwan.  

Voice Message 5 

The inner-city Pakis can’t stand me and the cosmopolitan whites look at me like a sweaty barbarian. Do you know what this city is like? Do you know what it’s like to interview here? They interrogate your soul. You think you’re better than us, with your crochet and cooking videos. You’re a con. You still use your bitch name, the name they give to the softened, acclimatised ethnics. At work, you probably talk about fucking marmite and domestic tourism. And speaking of Tate, fuck him, but Greta, how can she just go on the world wide web and dick shame this guy? Is the only language of confronting disagreement through body-shaming and invalidation? Imagine if I went online and wrote that a woman shouldn’t talk because she’s had a nose job. I’d be lynched. You know what? There are different rules of permissibility for men and women and that’s how they maintain the status quo. That’s how they control us. 

Voice Message 6

Fuck you.  

Voice Message 7

I’m not a Men’s Rights activist. I hate men. Men like you, sellouts. You’re just there for the LEWKS. I don’t trust you. Trying to align yourself with the Second Coming, The Desi Enlightenment in London – suddenly it’s lit to be South Asian, speaking of your curries and dancehall fusions and your stupid perspectives on mangoes and nostalgic, millennial culture and low-riding vehicles. You’re not a desi. You’re not a Paki either. You’re a parasite. Don’t try to hack the identity politics game. There’s someone out there, who suffered more than you, they’ve won the trauma Olympics. They’re prophetic now. They can embody everyone else. They win the morality war, you’re just a male, a hairy, pathetic male. Buy one of my perfumes and you’ll smell like a proper man.

Voice Message 8

How could you just not respond  to me? I’m going to kill myself. I want to die before they cancel me. 

Voice Message 9

Do you remember Rana Plaza? Dhaka 2013. 1,134 people died. The factory collapsed on them. The very structure of the building revolted against a global desire for fast-fashion. And all of you are talking about whether Idris Elba will be the next Bond, or Maya Jama being Love Island’s next host. Love, your scents, the garments that express your individuality, are manufactured in foreign locations: unreachable villas and factories that make gig-economy jobs in the U.K. look like heaven on earth. All of you forget what’s happening on THAT SIDE. But my perfumes, I want you to smell our sweat and blood. I want you to experience what it’s like to be on the Channel, to be stuck in a Polish forest in the middle of winter, used as NATO fodder.

Voice Message 10

You’ve got a nice face, so what. You’re smart, so what. You’re not better than me.

Voice Message 11

You’re woke. I don’t give a fuck what ethnic war-zone you’re from, you’re on the side of the dominant ideology. Wokeism.

Voice Message 12

How do you justify yourself to yourself? 

Voice Message 13

It’s because of people like you, complicit, compromised, the world wont change. We need violence, necessary violence, to force radical change. Haven’t you read your Fanon yet, or do I need to send you an updated black radical reading list? Read my books, they’re better. I’ll tell you what is right, you can’t think for yourself, small man. You’re trapped in the olfactory haze of whiteness. 

Voice Message 14

You know what, fuck you. I’ll teach you a lesson. I’ll wash your mouth with my dick. You’re a waste of fucking space. I’ll erase you because whether you’re here or not it makes no difference. You keep threatening you’re going to disappear, block me or whatever, but I’m going to live in your head rent-free. 

Voice Message 15

And you’re going to like it when I’m giving you these lessons.

Voice Message 16

Fucking mono-liberal. You’ll see.

***

I turn off my phone and close my eyes. I listen as the toilets flush, someone coughs.

Finally I make my way back to Amelia and Kazim. I don’t know where I am or what I have done. I feel another depersonalised episode coming. Sometimes I want to go back to my old life, to apologise for everything. I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gradual punishment, inflicted over a lifetime. Within this need to apologise and within my guilt, I feel safe, and by allowing Ismail to exist, hammering into the phone, I begin to feel better. And Ismail will know how helpful it is for me to be sorry, to feel humiliated, so that he becomes the grotesque caricature of dissent that I don’t need to confront. 

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