Punjab of the Popular Imagination

There is a stereotype for the people of Punjab that is known across the country; perhaps no other stereotype is as stereotypical as this one. And so that stereotype has played a major role in depicting the entire state of Punjab in the popular imagination, as we know today. Most people know Punjab through the veil of that stereotype, thanks to how it influenced the popular imagination.

That Punjabis are loud-mouthed. That they have a tendency to utter and blabber what they actually feel, that they wear their heart on their sleeves. That they may say things that might not sound great, but they have their hearts in the right place.

The most famous symbol for Punjab is the Golden Temple, which stands for peace and serenity such as you might have never known before; the beautiful temple made of gold which stands shining as much in the night as in the day.

Punjab is also known for its food; oh, the food. The dollops and dollops of butter that they use, the scrumptious choley they cook, the beautiful way in which they cook their chicken, the makki ki roti and the sarson ka saag of course. More than the food, they are known for the generosity they extend with the food, the langars, with the belief that food is meant for everyone, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs.

Punjab, oh, if anyone were to ask me, Punjab is a riot, full of colours, and bhangra, and generous, kind souls, and delicious food, green fields, lots of sunshine, big houses, giggly girls, outspoken men, but a good place, overall a good place.

So I liked Udta Punjab- it swooped in and destroyed the Punjab of the popular imagination and replaced it with a much grueling reality, which hasn’t really been done properly before. We have Amrish Puri romanticizing Punjab as ‘home’ which is, although ever so humble, irreplaceable and Shah Rukh Khan coming in and sweeping away the bride in the mustard fields of dear Punjab in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. Skip that, we have two of the actors in Udta Punjab, Shahid Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor Khan, who when last worked in a movie together glorified the very stereotype we just spoke about.

The overbearing, kind-hearted, all-knowing patriarch who gives the way for love, giggly, supportive relatives who like to stuff guests with food, colorful clothes and bhangra sequences, the beat of the dhol which sets everyone in action- Punjab for beginners.

But I loved it how Udta Punjab brought about a new Punjab in the popular imagination, the Punjab of drugs. Corrupt policemen, dirty politicians who’d do anything to win elections, youth wasting away in syringes lying in abandoned fields, girls being forced to go on drugs, families which coalesce and support the men in their family to keep a girl locked up rape her turn by turn.

The people of Punjab here were cunning and sly, not loudmouthed and outspoken.

The picture painted was the opposite of serene; in fact, the only way Alia Bhatt could figure having some peace in her life was through staring at the board of Goa through her window and imagine diving into the ocean.

And the food? Udta Punjab broke all notions about Punjab’s food when they showed Alia Bhatt hungrily gnawing at the leftover chicken bone her captor left lying around.

Although I did feel that Abhishek Chaubey could have depicted the drug problem as a more generalized phenomenon, affecting people of Balli’s age, as opposed to concentrating on individual stories, for the problem affects people at large. It is a sociological ill, not an individual one, and hence, would have been much more appealing.

And yet I am happy to see a new Punjab, away from the Punjab of the Popular imagination, for we must know, and all the four actors’ performances show it as well as it could.


Today I Cannot Write: The Legacy of our Colonizers

Writing about not being able to write is a common theme in literatures across the world. In modern terms, it is the writer’s block, ‘the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing’. I attempt to relate the Indian experience of writing in English, and how subtly yet profoundly it is affected by the legacy given to us by our former colonizers, in the form of the ‘universal’ language, brilliantly beautiful yet irreparably hurtful.

On a trip to China two months back, I was chatting with a few associates, and they complimented me, telling me how good my English was, that it sounded just like standard English, that it had very little accent. I looked at them quizzically- but obviously- we studied in English medium schools, I studied English literature, we talk in English more than half the time. If a language is in use so much, why wouldn’t we be good or fluent in it? We never went around complimenting each other in India on our English. And so they asked, do you also speak English at home, with your family? No, I said, not so much- a little bit, but not so much as outside home. Aah, they said, so it is your social language. You use it, they explained, in your social circles, and at your workplace.

Another time, another place. As school children, we went for an exchange to France, and again they had conceded, your English is very good. No, we French, we are the best in everything you know, we are the best country in the world, America comes second yes, but France is number one- but you guys oh, you guys definitely speak better English. Do you also speak it at home? No, I had said, not at home no, not English- our social language.

It can be stated safely, I am presuming, without reference to facts and stats, that for most Indians across the country, and by most I do mean more than ninety percent at the minimum, English is not their mothertongue, it is not their first language. Sure, we might have been conditioned to learn words like cat and bat, recite Johnny-Johnny to twenty smiling relatives, to say goodnight after dinner, but English was not our conversational language, at the beginning it was not. When I  got hurt, I never went to my mother saying look mommy, I got a boo-boo; no, I went to her saying mamma ek balti khoon nikla hai. I lost one bucket of blood- obviously an exaggeration there, but boo-boo, no it never came to my mind. English is not a language that our families gave us- it was a special gift by a special government, for its dutiful citizens, a passcode into the world. Our families gave us Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Assamese, Marathi, but English, our country gave us English.

English seeped into our lives like a language does- it came in the guise of how it became cooler to listen to English music when we were thirteen, how our teachers would say we’ll be punished if we talk in Hindi at school, how claiming you understood every line in an English movie without subtitles gained you impressed looks, how we were given the choice to drop Hindi after class eight and take up any other foreign language. It seeped into our lives, disguising itself as our compulsory subject, how you could pick maths or physics or history, you could choose to study economics or psychology or accounts, but English, everybody had to study- it was the compulsory subject, whether you chose science or commerce or arts.

And so, how could it not seep into our writings? I was thirteen and it was the first time I attempted to write a fictional story on such a grand scale. The story was quite thrilling honestly, and some days I still wish I had made something of it- a terrorist group took over a school, deploying a terrorist each in every classroom, as the children fought back using their pencils and compasses, chalkdust and water bottles, stationery stuff of a school life. But I struggled- I struggled and I struggled, not because I did not know the story or wasn’t able to write it; I struggled because I could not name my characters. The Indian names all around me, the names of my friends and teachers, my own name indeed, did not sound real enough for an English story. It just did not seem authentic.

Matt, I named a character, because Matt sounded English; Matt seemed like he belonged in an English story. And my terrorist group, they called themselves The Jungle, yes, and their head was called The Lion. And when I was faced with the eventuality of choosing Indian names, because an average classroom in India is not filled with Matts and Lizzies and Ashleys, I tried to pick Indian names that could sound as un-Indian as possible. It wasn’t due to any personal aversion that I harboured for Indian names; it was simply the sound of such names, sounds which never fit in English books, in all the stories that I had been made to read in school, all the books I had bought from the bookstore, all the TV shows that I watched, Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana- these stories never had an Akshita or a Shreya, an Aditya or an Anuj, names which were very popular at that time, names which were all around us in person, but never in the books we read.

Then there is the question of writing in English itself- any story in the world, to make itself legible and publishable, dictates that it is narrated in a single language, barring its interspersion with foreign words or phrases, it is essential that the narration must be in one language. And then again it happened: my story had a grandfather, and how do I justify that he spoke such perfect English?  I had never seen any grandfather to be so fluent in English. My story involved a squabble with the domestic help- how many women who swept your house everyday, did the dishes and cooked the food, raked the leaves and collected the garbage, how many of them spoke in English? It was a conundrum that I just could not, and still cannot, sometimes, resolve. If everybody in the story spoke in English, the story did not sound real, it did not hold true; my characters lost grit.

“Fiction must stick to the facts,” Virginia Woolf once said, “and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” So how do we deal with it? Something about it doesn’t sound real- a lot of Indian characters speaking in English, and a lot of names, did not sound real, did not sound genuine. Yet we have to deal with that fact. I try to think of what language do I think in, maybe that will give a clue- but as soon as I try to determine my thinking language, I immediate forget what I’m thinking. My thoughts escape me, forever elusive. I start counting in Hindi, and then stop after a point, realizing that I do not know the counting beyond a certain number.

With the advent of internet technology, however, and the increasing realization of our globalized times, and the past few years when Indian fiction has erupted, it is easier to make peace with these facts. It is easier to relate the Indian experience in English because the experiences are made more common, more popular, normalized to a huge extent in the books we read and the articles we keep scrolling through our social media websites.

And yet there is a split- a split which all writers writing in English must face, whose mothertongue is not English. The split in the self- personally, for me, the split in my Hindi self and my English self, in my home life and my public life, in my personal language and my social language. This split in myself in two languages is my hindrance- it is because of this split that today I cannot write.

A lot of Indian writers have dealt with this Split in incredibly creative ways. Anuja Chauhan frequently uses Hinglish words for an urban novel, which I feel is the strength of her style. Her style doesn’t pose, as terms like yaar, arre, bhai, and toh among others become as commonplace in her stories as they are in real life. Amitav Ghosh uses unique narrative styles to find his way around relating this Indian experience in English. Arundhati Roy placed The God of Small Things in small town Kerala, where English is definitely more prevalent than the rest of the country, and even she uses Malyalam phrases and words frequently in her novel. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions narrates theMahabharata from Drauapadi’s perspective, a retelling of the epic- the theme of the story is so poignant and powerful that it automatically posits itself as outside normalcy and we never need to connect it to contemporary reality. As for Tagore, I will never be able to understand how he does it- he places his stories and themes of suffering in such beauty that even his translations never seem to have undergone it.

However, the fact arises that one way or the other, we must deal with it, whether it may be by alienating our subjects or adapting contemporary usage of English as a language in a way that is relatable. The only other language that I know, Hindi, I am ashamed to admit I am not so good at anymore- I can speak it well, but read it much slower in comparison to English. As for writing, I’ve been out of practice for years- it is my fault and the fault of so many others around me, the fault in our system, and hilariously so, the fault in our stars. And it is a beautiful language lost to me.

A lot of post-colonial writers talk about this as well.  Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o renounced his usage of English as colonialist and began to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe talked about writing in English, but in a way that made it your own, away from the classical, traditional English. That is what we have happening in recent times- new words are added everyday, curated and abbreviated by their context, especially with information technology. All countries which underwent colonialism go through the same experience.

On the other hand, think of countries like England, America and Australia. English, there, is the mothertongue for the majority- people of all classes speak it. The dialects and the slangs vary, but primarily, it is easier to represent that community in writing, because the Split is not present. Then there are scholars who argue against homogeneity and for multilingualism-  Aijaz Ahmad makes a case for multilingualism, that we are all capable of learning multiple languages, fluently, and using them in our day to day lives, and it is only the system which teaches us that we need to have a primary language.

But today, I cannot write, not because I don’t know the story or I am unable to write- but because I face a split in myself, I am unable to understand how to represent this uniquely Indian experience in a language that seems inadequate for it. With the ghost of a language that refuses to go away, and another language that is always inside me but never truly feels mine, I must struggle to reconcile with this Split, finding new ways everyday to sound acceptable, in both worlds.

This post first appeared on mirrorfect.in

And ultimately, the subaltern could not speak

[Image courtesy: Tarique Anwar]

When they spoke about Gajendra Singh’s suicide, the ‘farmer’ from Rajasthan who hanged himself at Aam Aadmi’s anti-land bill rally, and the subsequent spectacle that followed, from the rally being carried on to one authority blaming the other for his death, something struck a chord somewhere; a hint of déjà-vu, a unique association, a repetition of events almost a hundred years later. I did not even need to rack my brain that much- the answer came to me in one long, sweeping thought, a breath of focus.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a professor at Columbia University, famously credited with being one of the three pillars of post-colonial theory- in short, a genius of sorts. Her seminal essay “Can the subaltern speak?” explores the line of thought whether people who have been historically oppressed would ever be able to express their ‘voice’. While I don’t claim to be a fan of her style of writing which consists of convoluted arguments needing endless breaking down of the sentences (it makes one inaccessible to most of the reading public) she raises some phenomenal points and deserves the exhaustion.

Subaltern in postcolonial-theory, to put it simply, would imply that particular social group which lies outside of the ruling power structure in a society- for example, women, Dalits, minority tribes, the oppressed working class. “Can the subaltern speak?” questions subjection of non-western-ers to representation by the so-called western society. This she does through multiple arguments, the foremost of which is her argument on the Hindu rite of Sati- it is white men saving brown women from brown men, she writes, in which the voice of the woman gets lost. While one side argues for the sanctity of this ritual of Sati, the other side declares it as nothing short of barbarity, and laws are made and negotiated in accordance with what these sides insist.

She maintains that at no point is she defending the ritualistic burning of the widow at her husband’s funeral pyre, but that the way Sati has been constructed and represented by the West is problematic- the existence of similar customs existing in western society is conveniently ignored, while positing Sati as an act of complete brutality, something which is completely alien to their own ‘civilized’ society. Additionally, while the brown and white men argue that this custom is right or wrong, it is forgotten that Sati can also be a site of agency for the woman, to choose and exercise her will to do as she wants with her life- may that be her will under hegemonic ideology.

And then she finally speaks of Bhubaneshwari Bhaduri, a far flung relative of Spivak’s, who committed suicide one sudden day in 1926. Involved with revolutionary activities, she was unable to go through with a political assassination assigned to her and decided to commit suicide, perhaps to free herself from the dilemma. However, even in the act of killing herself, she makes a point- she waits till the time she begins menstruating, so as to make sure that other people do not presume that she killed herself on account of an illicit pregnancy. Despite this conscious move on Bhaduri’s part, Spivak’s conversation with Bhaduri’s nieces revealed that they still believed the suicide to be the result of an illicit love affair, causing Spivak to theorize that the subaltern ultimately could not speak, and was given a contaminated voice and representation by the ‘other’.

Gajendra Singh’s suicide was theorized by multiple people, multiple times- what he did for a living, whether he was a farmer or not and subsequently whether it was right to look at him as a distressed farmer, whether he wrote the suicide note, whether it was a suicide in the first place or not. Maybe Ganjendra Singh was trying to tell us something, trying to make a point or maybe not- we can never know, under the deluge of political games, of each side appropriating his death for its own good, of his death being coloured by their own layers of ideologies, we can never know.

Vote for Kejriwal because…

He can take a joke: Arvind Kejriwal may be many things he ought not to be, and may not be many things he ought to be, but in the filth and sleaze of Indian politics, he is a man who can take a joke, and delightfully so. Seeing his quintessential muffler around his neck, the social media in Delhi began calling him MufflerMan, a term that no doubt excited BJP, probably revelling in the consolation that finally something came along that would cause people to dismiss him as a joke. Little did they know that Kejriwal would take it in good spirit, using #MufflerMan for himself, and selling MufflerMan hoodies on his Facebook page to raise funds for his political campaign.
His innovations in campaigning: Decades old political parties could take a leaf out of Kejriwal’s book about how to campaign with limited resources. As soon as he came in the political foray, Kejriwal launched aggressive political campaigning tactics that did not need expenditure of black money, incentives of liquor, and guns to the head. He raises money through selfies, and asks for donations transparently. He campaigns through flashmobs and nukkad nataks, phone calls and radio ads. Kejriwal’s autos were a huge success: they carried his messages across the city, without paying a single penny.
He is the only leader who has actually acknowledged his mistake in taking a misguided decision: His decision to quit as the CM of Delhi was widely criticized, as people called him the runaway minister. After a point of time, Kejriwal accepted as what was deemed a mistake, and has promised to not do the same thing again. In fact, a BJP sponsored ad on radio sounds a woman feeling betrayed by Kejriwal after volunteering for him, and hence now declares that she will vote for BJP, is repudiated by a clever ad from Kejriwal who assures the same woman that all he needs is another chance to come back with full majority. His slogan 5 Saal Kejriwal promises that despite what might have happened the last time, this time Kejriwal is here to stay.
How many leaders in Indian politics have accepted a mistake?
His resignation as CM does not warrant his complete dismissal: The very fact that people were disappointed about his resignation signifies that he held potential, and that people believed in him. Kejriwal resigning the first time does not discount his skills as a leader. Now if he is committing as strongly as he is to electoral politics, another chance for Kejriwal is due. Wins and losses are a part of politics, and Kejriwal must be considered once more, without the baggage of the last elections. It really is the time to sit back and think whether one wrong decision is really worse than ministers engaging in corruption for years.
He actually has a plan: Kejriwal and his party have laid out a clear, mandated plan for Delhi– chief actions needed to be taken for women’s security, point-wise plans for electricity generation in Delhi, separate plan of action for the youth. One can actually scroll down their Facebook page and get a good understanding of their policies for Delhi. BJP and the Congress, on the other hand, have remained more or less mute about their policies, which just implies that it’s going to be the same old, and nothing much will change, under Congress or BJP rule. While AAP jots down agendas, BJP is busy covering Modi’s entire pathway with saffron flowers.
His reaction to getting slapped: Rewind to April 2014, when an autorickshaw driver slapped Kejriwal, supposedly feeling betrayed by Kejriwal running away from his position as the chief minister. On the pretext of garlanding him, the autorickshaw driver got close to Kejriwal and slapped him hard, leaving him with a swollen eye. How did Kejriwal tackle the issue? By sending a bunch of goons to destroy his attacker’s house and beat up his family? By banning media houses from spreading that news? No. He visited the autorickshaw driver at his house, gifting him a bouquet of flowers, to make peace. One need only think of how a BJP or Congress minister would respond to such an incident. It doesn’t denote a loss of respect for the person being attacked, for a few thousand rupees are temptation enough for a lot of people to carry out such an attack. It is the person’s reaction to such an attack that is really reflective of his future reputation.
While it is easy to say that giving flowers to the person who slapped you is not exactly best way to deal with a situation, it is a move of calculated diplomacy, well worth a man of the stature of a minister.
He changed the face of Indian politics: One can talk about Modi becoming the Prime Minister from being a chaiwalla, but it must not be forgotten that Kejriwal, a complete newbie, in a stellar achievement, was able to beat Sheila Dixit who had had been the chief minister in Delhi for more than a decade, in merely six months, something which was almost unprecedented in Indian political history. If this is not hard work, I don’t know what is.
He is accessible: When the Aam Aadmi Party came into the picture, for the very first time, an opportunity was presented wherein the common student could ‘intern’ in the party, or volunteer for it easily. AAP presents multiple options and ways in which you can campaign and contribute to the party, and with ease. Anybody can go understand the workings of a political party, all thanks to the accessibility created by Kejriwal and AAP.
His politics is transparent, or atleast more so than the other contendors: AAP claims that it can give a record of every rupee used in campaigning. While one can never say how much of that claim holds, he introduced the concept of transparency in political funding at a time when gross misdemeanours in political campaigning were taken as completely normal. Here is an article that actually explains AAP’s funding: http://scroll.in/article/700261/AAP%27s-fund-raising:-Six-charts-about-how-much-they%27re-getting-and-where-it%27s-coming-from
His use of social media: In a world where everything is going digital, Kejriwal has been able to use social media to his great advantage, may it be Facebook or Twitter. Their pages are updated more than regularly, and contain relevant links and information, besides promoting their own agendas.
And let’s face it, there really is something about Arvind- he’s been the most talked about man in the past two years.