The Punjab I Remember

Buried somewhere in my bloodline is the sublime earth of Punjab. DSCN3553

As a young girl staying in southern India for the better part of a decade, I would always conjure up visions of endless green fields, flawless blue sky, gaily dressed people and irresistible food whenever I would hear someone mention Punjab, or pick up strains of a conversation in Punjabi (a rarity in South, obviously). I had moved from the Punjabi capital to the Andhra Capital at a tender age of 8 and the cultural shock for me in the initial few months was a huge setback. The language-barrier was the most immediate problem, but there were so many facets of everyday life that would leave me confused and often apprehensive. Suddenly I had become the ‘North Indian’ who received shocked stares for not knowing what a half-saree was, for not wearing a bottu (bindi), for not knowing how to eat with my hands, for not knowing the language (obviously, though little did they know that my Punjabi was as bad as my Telugu!), for considering dosa a special dish, for not eating non-vegetarian food (this defect of mine haunts me wherever I go) and for doing this mad, loud, energetic jig with hands in the air and feet thumping (popularly known as Bhangra!). However, this is not to suggest that my stay in Hyderabad was a disaster. On the contrary, the time spent there were the best years of my life till date. Aur waise bhi, all these instances occurred when I was 8 or 9, hardly setting any precedent for the time I had once I grew older. Anyhow, coming back to the point, random events would trigger off waves of nostalgia. News bulletins, call from a relative, bollywood songs (!) and even the sight of a turbaned gentleman on the street! Sometimes, I would long to return to what I liked to call ‘my land’ and live with ‘my people’. Time, luckily, took care of all these stupid notions of ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ and I simply grew out of them. Life moved on.

Nearly 8 years after having moved to the South, I was informed that it was time to bid adieu to the city and move, lo and behold, back to Chandigarh! Sad as I was to be leaving behind people and the city I had come to love, I was simply ecstatic at the prospect of returning to ‘sadda Punjab’. All the images I had ever painted in my head came rushing back in all their glory and I couldn’t wait to start school, meet new people and just soak in the culture to which ‘I belonged’. The return of the prodigal daughter, it seemed to me.

However, eight years is a long time. Long enough for a lot of change to quietly creep in. The eight years that I had been nestled in a Southern city had seen India usher in the IT boom, the popularity-explosion of cell phones, the attack on the Indian Parliament, change of central government, urbanization and globalization at an unprecedented rate and many many other events. Needless to say, I hadn’t bothered to figure in all these factors as I dreamt away to glory. I have no memory of the initial days of my return to Chandigarh, but gradually all the illusions I had possessed of Punjab slipped away. The green fields remained, but many had paved the way for huge residential and industrial units, the folk music had undergone a ‘remix transition’ and was now nothing but loud noise, the musicians and artists coming forward as representatives of the state’s culture were fake and often obscene and about as Punjabi as Bill Clinton. The quiet, tree-lined roads of Chandigarh were still there, in fact the city more pristine and modern than ever, but now there were Audis, Mercs and what-nots everywhere, with loud music blaring, often with the ubiquitous lal battis, some with BKI stickers (though these people weren’t even around when militancy had torn the state apart), driven by chimps in expensive clothing and expensive shaded (some real, some fake), drawling in a fake Canadda-wala accent, believing in the might of the Gandhi-stamped paper, many ruined by unabashed abuse of alcohol and drugs, the remnants of what had once been a vibrant, resourceful and formidable generation. As is often the case with those young fools whose pedestals come crashing down, the love I had for this place and its people started turning sour. I didn’t want any of it! Not the accent-infested language, the remixed music, the obscene flaunting of wealth not earned but inherited, the gaudy lifestyles. And yet, I had to stay. Where else could I go? In my head I created a place where Punjab was how it used to be. I am not stereotyping anything, but the following lines are really how I remembered the first few years of my childhood in Punjab and the sights and sounds that came my way whenever I visited my relatives back in the pind of my forefathers. People who toiled hard and fed the whole country, the land of the five rivers and also the rivers of milk and ghee, the unforgettable taste of lassi and the mouth-watering sight of the traditional maaki di roti and sarson da saag with heaps of butter, people who were known the world-over for their resourcefulness, ability to withstand adversity, the home of the martial race, the villages where at least one son from each family was sent to the army to serve the nation, where the gurbaani rang out in the wee hours of the morning from the village Gurudwaras scenting everything with holy hues, and also where the people distrusted the government, public administration was often inefficient and tardy, liquor the soother of all wounds and raucous fights over the smallest of provocations. All these images would flash in my mind as I would sit in the balcony of my comfortable sarkaari makaan, staring at the distant light of Kasauli.

Today, I might have left those images and illusions far-behind, today I might have grown old and mature enough to understand the intricacies of one’s heritage, but I have come to accept that people simply change. And since people constitute a state and its culture, it is inevitable that the other two entities will also change. The move from Chandigarh to a town in the heart of Punjab taught me a lot. Yesterday was Baisakhi. It needs no description. The fields around me were abuzz with folk-music, the roar of tractors and threshers, the aroma of earth and freshly-cut ‘fasal’ ripe in the air. Today as I stood at the window staring at the sun setting gently over the golden fields, I realized that this part of Punjab will never fade away, come what may. The waist-high crops quietly camouflage the thin roads criss-crossing from one village to another, the machines of agriculture amble along as they have been for centuries, strapping men in brightly coloured turbans toil away under the sun, repeating the actions that countless before and after them undertake, a distant gurudwara sends out the same peaceful hymns…this is how Punjab will always stay within me. At this moment, I see the fields swaying gently in the breeze, the dark clouds gathering in the sky for yet another unseasonal shower, the sun off to rest.

I feel at home.



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