Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Snare-e-Punjab

dunali (double-bore gun)... revaalver (revolver, of course)...panga (trouble-making)...daaru (booze)... kudiyan (chicks)... kukkad (chicken)...gwandiyan de munde (neighbourhood boys)...gabroo (strapping young lads)...laung da lashkara (glittering nose-pins)...sat rang de parande (colourful hair accessories)...chaati di lassi (most awesome buttermilk)...boys gona ral ke pao bhangra tonite (weird Pinglish on CD covers)...botalan de datt (poppable liquor bottle caps, as I imagine it)...zameenan (land; property), as well as the most wonderfully vague, all-encompassing and versatile one-word in all of history: laih! and all that jazz. Yes, those of you who are familiar with any or all of the above and the fact that they are all being listed together, alongside this very (in)appropriate picture, have guessed it right: I've just been to paradise and back.

Sadda Punjab. All ours. All mine. Even though all I mostly do is make short trips for various weddings every few years, it's where I feel so much at home -- despite my Anglicised, Bend it Like Beckhamish Punjabi (a friend's words, not mine), despite my turned-up nose at all types of chaat that is non-UP, and very much despite the fact that my non-asexual name cannot be confused for one belonging to a boy. This trip, unlike most previous ones, was a result of having some time off after many years and because I felt the overwhelming need to get in touch with my inner Jatt...and meet as many cousins and rishtedaars as possible.

Every time I make a trip to the land to which I truly belong, I am reminded of the absolute generosity of both the soil and its people. Going back to where my antecedent generations put down roots and where my grandfather first walked, and then cycled, to school everyday -- along dusty tracks cutting through fields swollen with the fruits of his ancestors' labour -- my heart swells with a strange kind of pride. I have never lived in Punjab, having been born and brought up, first, in Delhi and then in the badlands of Ulta Pradesh. But it squats in a special corner of my heart...and refuses to leave. I am reminded of its dynamic energy everytime I hear a dhol; feel its warmth everytime I squint up at the sky on a Sunday morning at an outdoor wedding; and, on a more regular basis than I'd be willing to admit, it screams for attention everytime I nostalgically hit the 'Punjabi' folder on my iPod, quite often when I'm feeling low or lethargic; it even traipses into my consciousness if I so much as chance upon an episode of Krishi Darshan on DD, which I feel compelled to watch for a few seconds if ever it flashes on my TataSky menu while I'm looking for another channel.

For me it will always be this exotic land that embraces me in a giant bear hug everytime I go there. A place where no patch of land is left fallow... A green so true that it would send The Hulk into a sulk...A place where enthusiastic direction-givers cross the road to your car and go about explaining roads and routes with as much gusto as cheerleaders at a home game...where you can find burly boys on Enfield mobikes clutching dainty pink shagan ka lifafas (bright gift envelopes with money inside them - given on weddings to newly married couples)...where Lohri is not just another declared public holiday but a veritable volcano of celebration, which, for those watching from outer space, must seem like the earth itself was going up in a huge puff of smoke fuelled by tonnes and tonnes of popcorn, peanuts and rewri (sugary nuggets)...where the sudden sighting of a Verka milk bar on a busy highway leads to much squealing of tyres and hasty U-turns...where “biba” means so much more than a well-known brand of traditional ladies wear...where you cannot go for more than half a kilometre without spotting a well-lit, well-stocked liquor vend, most of which come fully loaded with a chicken tikka joint, to boot -- the two often joined at the hip like Siamese twins...It's the land of creativity beyond compare, where pictures of fat, juicy murgas (roosters, in preference over that other word!) lure you with slogans such as "See me anywhere, but eat me here"...and where traditional sweetmeats tracing their origins to the pre-World War I-era come packaged in happy, shiny boxes that exhort you to "Forget to eat, but not Dhoda sweet"...where you are plied with more food and more calories per social visit than can be found in any self-respecting American diner...

If the Times of India is to be taken seriously, then India might well be a state of Punjab, rather than the other way around, but the sad truth is that even as I bask in the warmth of old memories, I am continuously reminded that the generous land where my Dad spent his early childhood drinking lassi from mammoth glasses is not the same anymore. Stories of proud hope clash miserably with tales of broken dreams in faraway lands; of a youth so hooked onto drugs that the government is hiring popular singers-songwriters to write paens to a land besieged by a curse of plenty, in a desperate bid to wean a generation away from choosing the easy way out. Then there are those older stories of pesticides leaching into the groundwater and of children being born with horrific congenital defects, which jostle for space amid the crowded cities with their BMWs and SUVs -- all this in a state that has more Mercedes showrooms than any other in India; a planned mall with a helipad, no less; and matter-of-fact tales of half-a-dozen Beemers being given away as wedding presents to the "Boy's" family!

Still, this past week I've felt more alive, more joshed-up and (more than ever before) in serious need of antacids-- thanks to a parade of relatives hugging and feeding the life out of me -- than I have in a long, long time. It is this flawed paradise that reminds me of who I am and who I will always be: a similarly flawed, but proud offspring of a rich and stubbornly resilient heritage, held together by the sheer goodwill and tenacity of a people with hearts richer than all the butter chicken in all the world.

That's my Punjab: chakking the phattas at a corner near you!   

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lost and Found

...also to Anne Taintor for her special brand of genius!
I had been desperately looking for a piece of paper over the last couple of years. You see, while I was studying for my Masters, someone I knew gave me a faded copy of an excerpt from some magazine. At that time -- and sans regular access to the Internet and the Googling skills I was to acquire a few years later -- I had no idea where it was from, or who had originally written it. All I knew was that it spoke to me. Of course, I also had no idea at that time that the person who gave it to me was also trying to whisper certain intentions my way, but that's another matter altogether. I try not to dwell on such things, except in moments of extreme introspection about some of the choices I made much later in life...especially the ones that came back to bite me in the whatsitcalled.

I found it today. Rummaging through years-old junk at my folks' place, determined to clear the cobwebs of transgressions past, I was busy tearing up papers, letters and bagging a whole lot of whatnot when, much to an almost teenage glee, I found that scrap of paper. And realised that though a whole lot had changed, those words still managed to get under my skin, albeit for different reasons altogether.

Now, at that time, all I knew was that some strange phenomenon, who signed off as ' Oriah Mountain Dreamer' had coaxed simple words into a seductive and spooky distillation of "The Great Search" that all of us embark on at some point or the other in our lives. As for me, I don't know why, but for the last few years, every other month I would start looking around for that scrap of paper -- compelled by an inexplicably overwhelming need to find it. Not that its discovery -- or even its continued elusiveness -- could have altered the course of my life in any earth-shattering way; still, I'm glad that at least one search is over. Now, on to other things. Also I can finally pay my due regard to the author who, I now know, surely doesn't need an endorsement from me.

A lot of things have  happened over the last couple of years. I have touched, in the words of Adlai Stevenson II, the "helm of heaven" and been down to the dark pit and back. But even as gravity makes it difficult for us mere mortals to stay up forever, I -- like one of them little skittle dolls -- find it fundamentally difficult to stay down. So, here's an old hope from a forgotten drawer...for new beginnings. Happy New Year and all that.

The Invitation by Oriah
It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon...
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.
It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”
It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.
I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

As for me, it is only when I turn away from the familiar and confront the demons inside, do I realise how much I owe my beseiged solitude.