Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Hum to aise hain bhaiyya

A piece published in Tehelka as 'The Bhaiyya, the Bandit and the Bak-bak artist'.

When the family first began to entertain itself with the notion of obscene amounts of ghee, red meat, zardozi et al, at my expense, the question arose: what kind of man? I wasn’t sure what kind of man I wanted, but I was sure I didn’t want a ‘bhaiyya’. Which is to say, I didn’t want a typical UP-ite. Which necessitates that awkward question: what is a ‘typical UPite’?

Most Indians carry around a sprinkling of prejudice in their DNA, particularly when it comes to other communities or regions. Geographical and linguistic affiliations are so strong that most of us find ourselves tucked into little pockets of imagination. Call it stereotype. Call it community culture. Call it what you will, but we cannot help identifying each other based on clothes, accents, moustaches and different grade of jollity. But what is one to make of the UPite? What does he look like? How is he to be picked out in a crowd?

Up comes traipsing (well, sauntering, considering it is UPites we are talking about) the first identity marker. But it is more a non-identity marker. You cannot pick out an Uttar Pradesh man in a crowd. He is virtually faceless. He has no lavish mop of curls, no twirly beard parted down the middle. He does not like to be seen in a lungi, if he owns a pair of trousers. And he does not set much store by turbans.

When I was growing up, there were three broad categories into which I cast the UP man: 1. White chikan kurta-clad sons of former zamindars who continue to rear pigeons and fly kites as a full-time occupation and sometimes carry guns (almost like a liability); 2. Lean, inscrutable rickshaw-pullers/stone-breakers/gardeners; 3. The westernised, English-speaking intellectual.

There was a time when, if a Hindi filmmaker wanted to create the character of a provincial intellectual, he would place the character in Allahabad, the city once known as the Oxford of the east. By the time I grew up, UP had cast off any intellectual pretensions it had, and settled firmly into a mould defined by politics, caste and religion.

If I zoom in closer into my mental picture, I can see a fuzzy image cobbled together from scraps like sherwanis and black band-galas, Urdu couplets, paan, dawdling at street corners, gentility, tall tales, long memories, and tongues that instantly betrayed their origin. But almost as soon as I begin to discuss stereotypes surrounding the UP man, alarm bells go off. I'm reminded of soft-bellied Bhojpuri-speakers from Azamgarh who ended up in poetic graves. And of English-speaking goons from Aligarh who routinely force you off reserved seats during train journeys. Or Urdu couplet-spouting men with dangerous mafia links.

The UP-wala is a slippery creature. He does not like being lumped within brackets. Yet, he doesn’t make any concerted efforts at knocking down the brackets encircling his tidy existence. He is the quintessential migrant who remembers to send money back home, which keeps the land watered and sown, so he can return home and help bring in the harvest. The typical UPite is bound to land like he bound to nothing else. For this, he will fight – with guns, with whatever little hegemony he can scrabble at, with endless court cases.

Resident UPites insist that they are pan-Indian: ‘the Hindustani man’. That they have little in common with each other except accidental geography. But they readily admit to one binding feature. As Avinash Pandey Samar, a research scholar at JNU, puts it, “The first and foremost characteristic is the huge sense of relief all UPites feel about not being Biharis.” It injures the UPite’s sense of self to find himself lumped with the Biharis by non-UPites, particularly the Sainiks and MNS-ites in Maharashtra. But to the rest of the nation, UP, Bihar, and parts of Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana, is all one big blob that goes by the name of ‘Bhaiyya’ – the guy who abandons the mofussil mitti, trundling into metros without even the assurance of a bed to dream in.

Like millions of other Mumbaikars, Mahesh Chowdhary, a sales and marketing professional, subscribes to this stereotype. “There are three kinds of UPites,” he says. “The lower class, one that leaves whenever there’s trouble at home. They leave with zero back-up and work in conditions you cannot imagine. Marathi people have a saying that means ‘I will break but I will not bend’. The UPite will bend. One of my clients owns a zari workshop. The men who work there come from UP. They are crammed into a room, ten feet by ten, twenty-five men to a room.” Chowdhary deals with the middle class and a few upper class entrepreneurs from UP. “UPites have a decent business mind but one successful man will bring in ten others from his backyard. There is a lot of cronyism, and that sometimes manifests in the form of gangs.”

There’s no getting away from that stereotype – gangster, goon, hired gun. There was always the bandit from Etawah lurking in the background. There was Rampur, famous for its switchblade knives, and the nascent crude revolver industry, caricatured recently in Ishqiya (a film set in Gorakhpur) where a young boy says, “In my village, we learn to load a gun before we learn to wash our behinds”.

Men such as Abu Salem, Dawood Ibrahim, Mukhtar Ansari, Babloo Shrivastav have only bolstered this image of the UPite as an aggressive, violent type. My own grandfather had laughingly told me that in the place we come from, only two things are famous – imarti (a fried sweet) and goondagardi.

Almost everyone I know has a scary UP story to tell: family feuds in Ghazipur, Lucknow University campus murders, child murders in Nithari. Parvez Imam, a mental health professional turned filmmaker tells me of the time he met a cabbie from western UP who coolly confided that he’d killed a man. “He seemed quite proud of the fact,” says Imam, a gentle, poetry-loving soul who grew up in Aligarh and is now one half of the band, 'Dr Chef'.

Imam believes that machismo is common to all patriarchal cultures, including most parts of UP, but that it has an almost militant quality in parts of west UP, although the Purabiya (eastern UPite) is no saint. After all, my grandfather was talking of goondagardi in the east, in districts like Azamgarh, Mau, Ghazipur. Dozens of people hired as contract killers in Mumbai and Delhi seem to have arrived from these dusty, fertile badlands. The usual arguments about lack of development and unemployment are made - that UPites have too much time on their hands, and so they waffle. That they resent the emptiness, therefore they begin to stray.

But why do they have so much time on their hands? Riding on the back of the jobless desperado, yet another UPite waddles in – the slow, lazy man who is uninterested in doing any real work and yet, he is hungry for power. I have to confess that I have never seen a UPite running for anything, barring his life (or an election). The rolling gait of a bearded professor; the straight-backed stroll of a pensive student; the lithe lolling of a field hand: yes. A mad dash? No.

On the other hand, why rush? What’s to be gained by scrambling? “The UPite’s slowness,” says Parvez Imam, “comes from having a different approach to time. The language itself, particularly in Awadh and eastern UP, is long drawn-out, languid. Whether it is the poor rickshaw-puller or the nawab, they all share this quality. The impression that they are slow buggers or dodos is a colonial legacy. The British brought with them an industrialised mindset, an emphasis on speed - the notion that time equals money. In UP, it didn’t and it still doesn’t.”

Lack of discipline is another common complaint. Ask any college professor or university dean in UP. Lawlessness is but a by-product. However, from the UPite point of view, violence has little to do with criminal tendencies or even ambition. It is something history and society has thrust upon you. I believe I still have an uncle or two riding around the ancestral farms with a gun. They say there’s no other way to survive up there. Have land, get gun, keep land. Don’t have land, well, get gun anyway. Because other people have 'em.

Nevertheless the UPite thinks of himself as a gentle person, by and large. The teenager who gets into a gang-war like situation on campus is probably recuperating by quoting Faiz to a pretty classmate. The grim, silent chauffer who barely seems to listen to instructions probably spends hours hunting for romantic couplets that invoke full moon nights and oceans of longing, which he might be SMSing to the cook.

According to Ashok Chakradhar, a poet and the vice-president of the Kendriya Hindi Sansthaan, UPites are some of the mildest guys around. “We might be reactionary, but not aggressive. In fact, the poet Dhoomil has said, ‘Bhaasha ke maamle mein behad bhades ho/iss kadar kaayar ho ke Uttar Pradesh ho.’ We are somewhat cowardly.”

Corroboration comes, swift and wounding, from the feminine quarter. An army officer’s daughter, Tanvi Saxena, who heads corporate communications for an IT firm, says that UPite men like to think of themselves as ‘dudes’, but only until push comes to shove. “Male cousins in UP will object if you wear jeans outdoors. By contrast, the Punjabi man will just get into a fight to protect you if necessary. Not UPites.”

It doesn’t help that UPite men have a reputation for ogling. And stalking. And claiming ‘girlfriends’ on the basis on who has stalked a girl most consistently. It is common for a man to refer to a woman as ‘my girl’ strictly on the basis that he has stared at her every day on the bus, or that he knows her address, her siblings’ names and the extent of her father’s influence with the local police and administration. The UPite man does not see longing as distinct from wooing. What he wants, he thinks he deserves.

“Interestingly, ogling cuts across class and caste. It is a great leveler,” says Samar. “Ogling in UP is a major community activity. The ogler does not ogle alone. He always elbows a close friend when he spots the object of his desire, saying ‘vo neeli wali mast hai yaar’ (the one in blue is something else).”

In the midst of this happy, communal ogling, the UP man also weaves a little romance. If a lady’s book happens to be placed atop his, it is enough to make him turn a mental cartwheel. He is likely to approach a girl’s heart with a book of poems but he is more likely to lend it than to gift it. Call it frugality, a fiscal preference or just plain cheapness, but many UP women agree that their men don’t exactly wear their wallets on their hearts. Not for them the hundred red roses, the designer shoes, the antique vase. Rich men are far more likely to build themselves a house and put the wife’s name on the name-plate, than they are inclined to take her out to a seven-star pub.

Tanvi has no qualms calling UPwalas ‘tuchha’ (petty). “UP doesn’t have lavish getaways, lavish family eating and drinking places. This is partly because the culture doesn’t allow it and partly because the men don’t want to spend so much. They want to hang out with others who will pay for them instead. Or else, they carry just enough money to cover their own share.”

She concedes that whatever else a UP man might be, he is rarely dull. If there is one thing the UPite man revels in, does well, loves above his material comforts, it is talk. ‘Bak’ is the highest form of entertainment. Talk is culture. Talk is social currency. Many a good UPite who will traverse long distances for no more incentive than the opportunity for a nightlong blather-fest. There is little grace or romance associated with a brooding, silent man. The ones who get attention are the talkers, the storytellers, the poets, the robbers of other people’s couplets. Even hardboiled Mumbaikars like Chowdhary agree that there is never a dull moment when a UPite is around. “Their talk is full of masala,” he says. “A roomful of people will be kept amused for hours on end.”

However, it is wise to remember that talk is often only just so much talk. The braggart UPite is a consistent stereotype. He boasts about political and bureaucratic connections, about how much land he or his ancestors owned, or how many hundreds of crores such-n-such business is worth.

But wait. When it came to the money bit, I was stumped. UPites? Surely, the UPite does not discuss money! He refers to it delicately, if he must, as ‘intezaam’. As a facility. All the UPite men I know tend to talk about money with a squirmy sort of disdain, as if one were talking about the morning ablutions.

I decided to check with the writer and Delhi University professor Alok Rai, who had left Allahabad as a young man. When I posed the question, there was a brief silence over the phone line. "Let me guess," said Rai. “You people must be Shias from Lucknow.”

I gasped, “How did you guess?”

The UPite, it appears, is a phenomenon split – as the state itself may be in the foreseeable future – into east, west and centre. Purab, Pachhim, and the glory that was Awadh, centred in Lucknow. Most Indians of the post-independence era know the Awadhi aristocrat as cast and frozen in the mould of films like Chaudvi Ka Chand. On either side of this frozen image lies... well, whatever is not Awadh.

“The Purabiya has historically looked down upon the Pachhain (western UPite) as a boor, rich but uncouth, while the Pachhain thinks of the Purabiya as uncivilized and poor,” says Alok Rai. The ones in the middle, of course, do not think much of either. Much of this pride stems from Lucknow’s fabled ‘tehzeeb’. Just like the average Bombay-ite does not see himself as merely Maratha, the average Lakhnawi thinks of himself as poetic, refined, special. Unlike the country bumpkins to the east and the domineering Jats and Rohilla Pathans of the west, which got its fair share of swordplay and looting since it lay en route to the seat of power: Delhi.

The UPite’s obsession with politics brooks no denying. This could be because the state accounts for the most members of parliament or because it has produced the most prime ministers (a fact tomtommed by several UPites as if it was a personal achievement). Whatever the reason, each dip in the power scale is tracked. Each election is watched closely. Powerful people are discussed with a rare passion and their acquaintance is assiduously cultivated. I have not been able to figure out why. Perhaps, because there are so very many people with so little power that each man is obsessed with the idea of it, the gaining of it. Perhaps, because each man does not count, and each vote does.


Varun said...


this was as good a read as they come...ya UP-waalon ki zubaan mein kahoon toh 'gajjab'!

Reminded me of my own countless encounters with the oglers, the 'humaari girlfriend ko chheda hai...aaj *%#@ ko tod denge' type student activists from Colvin Taluqdars', the 'khal-gayi' repeating sophisticated Awadhi boys, and katta-wielding leaders of tomorrow, among others.

But as you rightly pointed out, it still remains the only land where Faiz and Firaaq and Josh lie under the cement; waiting for the surface to be scratched every now and then.

Thanks for putting all this in words. And so beautifully.

P.S. - I am a punjabi by birth but always take it as a compliment when somebody calls me a UP-waala, or bhaiyya. :)

dipali said...

This was really close to home- it touched many chords.
An utterly brilliant post.

saba siddiqui said...

hi... an awesome read... the only things is that you've added to the stereotyping... ;-)... most of it is true and this is exactly how it is... a fun read!

scribe said...

Evocative, my girl. And I could hear your voice.

Anonymous said...

started with enthu but ran out of steam.. pretty long piece.

why does UP-ite only apply to the male of the species (bhaiyya)? what are the characteristics of the UP lady; is she the one they refer to as behenji?


Pareshaan said...

very nice - thanks for a good read.

the mad momma said...

hmm... i'm a UP wali. i dont know how typical of one I am, though...

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