clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Greetings from Chicago: This Indian American loves The Boss, too

I used to think my younger sister, brother and I were the most devoted, if not the only, Bruce Springsteen fans of South Asian descent. But after reading Sarfraz Manzoor’s “Greetings from Bury Park,” I realize we’re far from alone.

Actor Aaron Phagura, British writer Sarfraz Manzoor, guitarist Patti Scialfa with her husband singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, Director Gurinder Chadha and actor Viveik Kalra attend the premiere of “Blinded by the Light” at Paramount Theater on August
Actor Aaron Phagura, British writer Sarfraz Manzoor, guitarist Patti Scialfa with her husband singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, Director Gurinder Chadha and actor Viveik Kalra attend the premiere of “Blinded by the Light” at Paramount Theater on August 07, 2019 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
AFP/Getty

I used to think my younger sister, brother and I — especially my sister Almas — were the most devoted, if not the only, Bruce Springsteen fans of South Asian descent.

Almas trekked five hours to a Cincinnati bookstore with a friend to meet the prolific singer songwriter during his promotional tour for his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run.”

My brother, Kamran, quoted the New Jersey native’s lyrics in his AP U.S. history paper.

And I once decided a new but floundering friendship was worth salvaging solely because the other party also gave Springsteen a thumbs up.

But after reading British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, “Greetings from Bury Park,” I realized, Manzoor has got to be The Boss’ most enthusiastic brown deewana. [For those unfamiliar with Urdu, that’s an endearing term for an obsessed madman.]

Bruce Springsteen and the author’s younger sister Almas
Bruce Springsteen and the author’s younger sister Almas
Provided

Manzoor weaves his experience of growing up in a working-class Pakistani Muslim immigrant family in the 1970s and 1980s England with the eventual Springsteen obsession he shares with his Sikh friend, also an outsider at their mostly white high school where a teacher hurled the racial slur “Paki” as part of a lesson on abbreviations.

While the book — the basis of director Gurinder Chadha’s latest film “Blinded by the Light” — dotes on Springsteen and the lengths Manzoor takes to see his idol in concert over 150 times, ultimately, the coming of age tale is a love letter to another legendary man in Manzoor’s life: his father.

There are countless Springsteen songs that refer to cruising, hot rods, beer and protagonists named Sandy, Terry, Candy, Bobby, Wendy and Mary — quintessentially “American” to many but foreign to parents like mine and Manzoor’s.

But Springsteen’s catalog also centers on doomed romances, alienation, fractured familial relationships, war, and thwarted dreams — subjects relatable to all, even to those who had to dodge skinheads as a youth [Manzoor] and, less dangerous, guests at a post-Eid prayer gathering before sneaking off to a Springsteen show. [Me and Almas as full grown adults. My mom didn’t want anyone to know where we were going].

The author [center] with her younger sister Almas [right] and friend Deba Malik at Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 concert at Wrigley Field.
The author [center] with her younger sister Almas [right] and friend Deba Malik at Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 concert at Wrigley Field.
provided

Manzoor, who struggled with his identity in a time and place where chai and samosas weren’t yet commonplace, found a balm in Springsteen’s words that eased the lonely sting of being the “other” and unleashed an appreciation for the traditional patriarch whose values he ridiculed.

Manzoor initially brushed off Springsteen as “a millionaire who goes around dressed in lumberjack shirts pretending to care about the working class.”

I was just as skeptical.

Like many GenXers, especially those with parents with limited exposure to Western rock music, I had never heard of Springsteen until “Born in the USA” was released in 1984 when I was in junior high. My Apa [older sister] and I first laid eyes on him in all his bandanaed, spasmodic glory in the “Dancing in the Dark” video. My cousin Shama was hooked and bought the album with Springsteen’s butt, subsequently following his first marriage and eventual break up with Evanston-native Julianne Phillips. But Apa and I passed on what we erroneously saw as a cheesy flag-waving dork, opting to stick with the cooler New Wave bands.

Years later, when I saw Springsteen and The E Street Band on stage, I became a believer.

The author [extreme right] and younger sister Almas, niece Ayana Jamal, and friends Deba Malik and Afshan Shamim before a Bruce Springsteen show in Chicago in 2016.
The author [extreme right] and younger sister Almas, niece Ayana Jamal, and friends Deba Malik and Afshan Shamim before a Bruce Springsteen show in Chicago in 2016.
Provided

My tally for Springsteen shows — roughly at a dozen — is paltry compared to Manzoor’s. Except for that concert I reluctantly attended in 2005 with Almas at the request of my late father, who had just been diagnosed with cancer and didn’t want her to know quite yet, I have always been in awe of the artist’s electric energy and passion on stage.

Not all my fellow South Asian friends would necessarily be envious of Manzoor, who before his “Blinded by the Light” fame, had met The Boss several times, once ending up in a brief discussion with the singer on the merits of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Apa still wonders what we see in the “old man.” But even doubters can’t deny the magic of how the music of a Baby Boomer from the East Coast can floor both a poor Pakistani kid in Great Britain and children of Indian immigrants living a more comfortable life in north suburban Chicago.

The average Springsteen song is not often about those who look like us.

How wonderful it is that they are being used to tell our stories.

Rummana Hussain is an assistant metro editor at the Sun-Times.