All I'd seen of Punjab, until a week ago, was the city of Chandigarh (and then, all I had seen of it was the rock garden, and a dharamshaala, where I tried taking a bath after 8 'no bath' days of trekking, but the water ran dry in the taps....)
My ideas about Punjab were mostly gleaned from media of some sort - news about big farmers and low sex ratios, books about the green revolution, Daler Mehndi's pop-bhangra on television and Bollywood with her images of romance in mustard fields, with a 'Mehndi lagaa ke rakhna' kind of gusto.
The real Punjab came as a mild shock. Where were the lungis and the paranda-swinging kudiyaa.n? Where were the arrogant sardars with big lathis and hearty guffaws? Where were the achingly beautiful mustard fields?
Here are some of the things I discovered:
It is NOT the most lush farm-land in the country.
Not by the looks of it, at least. I've seen more green meadows in Lonavla, more trees in Mussourie, more forest in Madhya Pradesh and more mustard in Bihar. And maybe I'm biased, but I think the prettiest farms belong to eastern UP (of all the states I've seen so far, it's my favourite... mustard fields, wheat fields, rice fields, haystacks, cottages, pumpkins, soothing green, and the rich, rich earth.)
There were stretches so dry and barren that they forced me to remember that this was once a harsh land. Harsh enough to give us Bulle Shah's harsh words, and the kind of desperation that would have led to mutiny, murder and mass migration, through it's long history. The kind of desperation that drove more than 300 debt-ridden farmers to suicide.
It doesn't have so much of the 'Harrrippaa!!' culture, after all.
I'd thought the people would be loud. Over-fond of their food and drink... But the average Punjabi was soft-spoken, even shy. Many people were thin. Many were vegetarian! The girls were not made up, nor strung about with jewellry, as I'd expected. All the flashiness, the loudness - it belongs to the Punjabi in Delhi, or Chandigarh, perhaps.
And many were into reading literature, including poetry. Incidentally, many a regional publisher and writer-in-the-making turns up a snub nose at Shobha De. "That! That is not literature; that's... that's...ahem! We don't care how popular that kind of work is; we don't publish those books over here."
Daler Mehndi is forgiven. Almost.
Because he has a 'classical base', the musically-inclined Punjabis find it in their hearts to forgive him. He was, however, described as a 'jiggling tandoor'. (I am not lying!)
Rabbi Shergill is not forgiven. He is accused of using Bulle Shah's words and killing them with his 'Oye, non-sense!' rhythm.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is revered. Someone described the lowest note struck by Nusratsaab thus:"That 'saaa' of his... that 'saa' weighs a quintal!"
There are many drug addicts in the Doab region.
Much narcotic-laden young blood. Even in the villages, where money flows but not as easily as one would imagine. Many, many chemical-dulled eyes look at nothing, because nothing makes sense anymore, or nothing brings hope or solace.
It is one of the most worrying trends for both the police and the state's activists. One of the latter tells me "What do you expect? There's no vision. There is no work. And there is a lot unearned NRI money flowing in. And a lot of narcotics too."
Again, the 'Bhaiya-Bihari' madness...
Everywhere I went, I heard "There are many UP-Bihar people here now... cheap labour". Always with a hint of resentment. Always with a blind eye to history.
Never 'desperate labour'. Never 'we need the labour'. Never a word about the fact the Punjabi contractor and landowner builds ugly, cramped, unhygeinic buildings for these poor labourers AND charges rent for it.
Always, 'These outsiders... cheap labour."
For there are no jobs for those Punjabis who will no longer become the cheap labour they need. So, many must live off money sent by brothers or uncles working abroad. And they resent it. Scary situation. Explosive situation.
Jalandhar has culture. And newspapers.
Not the capital, Amritsar, but Jalandhar. Here, they have dozens of newspapers (I'm told, the combined circulation of Punjabi newspapers is at least ten lakhs. There are about 15 literary magazines.... can you beat that? And dozens of publishing houses). Here they have big libraries; and sensitive poets, and writers from the villages.
Close by, in Ludhiyana, you have the Punjabi Sahitya Academy. And night-long theatre festivals (8 pm to 5 am!!) that not even Delhi or Bombay can boast of. And yes, people turn up to watch.
The IB has their Godmen
The Intelligence Bureau hires local 'saints' or 'holy men' or 'swamis'. The IB is known to offer cars, arms and bodyguards to holy men, cutting across all religious barriers, and use them as spies or informers. Those who have skeletons in their cupboards would to do well to guard their tongues.
Kabir, and not Guru Nanak, should be considered the real founder of Sikhism.
Some intellectuals say that Nanak had all his teaching from Kabir.
I was told "The same things Kabir says, but in a diluted version... and these Sikh Gurus were politicians; not real saints at all. Gobind Singh lived like a king - many women, feathered turban, hawking, hunting and fine horses - and he even tampered with the Adi Granth. He wanted to alienate the sikhs from the muslim mughals, but not from the Hindu kings, and so he got the critical anti-Hinduism parts of the holy book removed, and cut it down to what we now recognize as the 'Granth Sahib'."
Hmmm... (I didn't say that; I'm just quoting.)
The Turks brought us our charkha.
Gandhiji used the charkha (spindle) as a political symbol and a rallying force - as a tool and a weapon. And he got his point across. But the charkha, I now learn, is not Indian in origin.
The Turks brought the charkha to India, via Baghdad, through the Khyber pass and the old trade routes. The charkha revolutionized the economy of the Punjab (which then stretched from Rawalpindi in Pakistan, to what is now Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, right down to the borders of Delhi). It gave India new professionals (weavers, dyers, printers, tailors). It gave India a reputation for fine cloth and gave the women a little more independence.
Then, the British brought their machine-made cloth, looking for a dumping market. And there went all the charkhas and all the weavers. I never heard this while reading about Hastings in school history (WHAT are the texts' authors doing?!), but it seems (sir) Warren Hastings was dragged to court in Britain, for his policies, which led to an unforgiveable scale of destruction, amongst the weavers.
The case dragged on for ten long years, but the magistrate finally said something like "you have caused the earth of Sialkot to turn white with the bones of the weavers".
It is said that most weavers were beaten up. Some had their fingers cut off (especially the ones who wove fine muslin in Dhaka). Some simply, slowly, starved to death.
For when you take away a man's livelihood, his means of work and the right to work, you take away his breath. You might as well cut off his hands. You might as well hang him. It would be quicker, and kinder.