Everything is Bigger in Punjab
October 10, 2009, 3:37 pm
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Having limited my travels around India only to its quicksand metropolises and the wild mountains of the Northeast, I jumped at the offer of attending a Round Square Conference in Nabha, Punjab. Though I was slightly disappointed about missing the Golden Temple – the pride of Punjab – and strolling down the bustling streets of Chandigarh as I had dreamed of doing after watching the romantic Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (“there is an extraordinary love story in every ordinary jodi”), I was still glad that I would at least be adding another state to my “List of Indian States that I have Been To or Passed Through”. Besides, Punjab is said to harbour good-looking mundas and I was eager to have that belief-standing-on-shaky-grounds confirmed.

Alas, it was not to be, I suppose, for when I crossed Haryana and her fancy new government offices and got onto the national highway squashed between the succulent sugarcane fields of Punjab, I had not the chance to lay my eyes upon a single borderline attractive munda for there were none. I gave up the search then and there. I was mildly interested in the beginning to start with. Moreover, the men and women of Punjab were sword-wielding and religion-crazy warriors once upon a time. Not my crowd, thanks.

Sticking my face to the dusty window of the claustrophobic car, I watched as verdant fields passed me by, as men in salmon-pink and mustard-yellow turbans roared by in motorcycles, as fattened water buffaloes yawned as if to almost swallow the blinding sun, as children scurried surreptitiously out of school gates left ajar. And I felt something swelling inside me. Something different: it was not the sweat sticking to my shirt; neither was it the dry, static heat that made my hair stand on its end; and it certainly wasn’t Rupal the Driver’s covert glances at my thighs. It was an Eureka! feeling, more like, as I had just discovered what makes this colossal state so different from the rest of India: everything is bigger in Punjab!

Everything is bigger. From the designer billboards dotting the smooth roads to the freshly painted milestones; from the salivating mongrels spreading rabies to the technicoloured trucks, the kings of the road; from the rambunctious kudis with ample derrieres to the squealing pigs swathed in layers of grime and mud at the butcher’s. Hell, even their vegetables were fat and juicy!

Still gaping like a loonybin at the overwhelming size of everything in front of my eyes, I asked Rupal the Driver the question that was foremost in my mind, “Saabji, sab cheez itna bada kaise hain Punjab mein?” At this, Rupal the Driver bellowed with laughter – at my poor Hindi or the question, I know not which – and said, “Madamji, because everything is smaller in Assam!”

I instantly fell into a sullen slumber.

pure punjabi

pure punjabi


India and her Idiosyncrasies
October 7, 2009, 12:11 pm
Filed under: poignant strokes | Tags: , , ,

Erik, paying a ten-rupee note to a street vendor for an aamras, asked me between slurping the delicious juice from a pink-striped straw and wiping the sweat from his brow, “What is the real India?” My eyes rolled like a rollercoaster for Erik just had to ask me that inevitable question that every firangi imposes upon a native accomplice and that which every native accomplice struggles to answer.

I took a deep breath and launched into my favourite opening which I usually employed for any question about ‘Incredible India’, “India – it is the nation that is home to one-sixth of humanity, it is the abode of 300,000 gods and goddesses, it is the microphone of a billion shades of opinions, it is the…”

“Cut the Indian soap opera. What’s the real India?” Erik interrupted, with a lop-sided grin that is so stereotypically Scandinavian.

Au courant about the fact that my darling Indophile had devoured every emotion-laden page of Shantaram and just about any decently written book about India, I chose to give Erik a true blue Indian’s take about India. Slinging my shopping bags over my shoulder, I pointed at the scene that conjured itself before our eyes: a billboard of a stratospheric supermodel posing for Levi’s Jeans and a young village woman, veiling her face from the sun and the stares, waiting for the city bus under the minimal shade of the same. “That is the real India – a plethora of paradoxes, an overkill of oxymora, and a congregation of contrasts,” I said, barely being able to disguise the hint of incredulity at the working anarchy that is India.

Meandering through claustrophobic alleys in the cycle rickshaw, yet another question was posited to me, “They say that “the real India lives in the villages. How much of it is true?” Smirking at the cliché, I asked an earnest Erik to look around and see “the real India” for himself because it was right there under his nose: she breathes the smell of kerosene and the scent of ylang ylang; she works in the skyscrapers of Silicon Valley and ploughs the verdant fields of Punjab; she prays to Allah five times a day and dresses up as the Goddess Kali for fashion shows; she grooves in the neon-lit underground discos of Bengaluru and keeps beat with the shehnai in Sindhi weddings. “And as for the cliché, it’s merely a marketing ploy to promote tourism in the villages and an NRI’s cynicism about his return to his roots. The real India is everywhere around you – it’s not hiding in some mud hut in the Thar desert.”

Crossing the road to stand underneath the imposing Sensex Tower, I watched as the Armani-suited stock brokers squinted at the tower – their eyes almost blinded by the brightness of the sun – and I watched as the numbers fell and their lives crashed around them. Tantamount to this, another image permeated my mind: a lone farmer squinting at the sun, hoping for the heavens to burst into tears and make his barren field fertile. “In Mumbai, the fate of people’s lives lies with numbers and in Meerut, the fate of people’s lives lies with the clouds,” I grimaced, not just at the power bestowed upon numbers and clouds but also at the vagaries of fate, the vicissitudes of life.

Getting onto a black and yellow taxi which was incorrectly spelled as ‘taksi’ (coincidentally, it means just that in Norwegian but I doubt the beefy driver bedecked in nakli gold jewelery knew that), we swerved through the congested lanes, past street contortionists and one-eyed beggars, and onto the road leading to the Gateway of India. On our way there, while stuck in the traffic jam, we spied a twenty-something woman in the flashy car beside us haggling for ten rupees from the poor man who was trying to sell her a copy of the Italian Vogue magazine. We knew she got her money’s worth because we saw her buying a red Moschino bag – one that must have cost the same as the GDP of a small European principality – at the Taj Hotel. “Haggling is in an Indian’s blood. The rich do it, the poor do it, I do it. Heck, even you firangis do it when in India!” I said, shrugging nonchalantly. As we walked to the cinema to catch a Hindi flick, we saw the Vogue magazine-seller haggling with the golgappawallah for two rupees. And what a wonderful sight it was.

Two hours and thirty minutes of sobbing, joie de vivre, and King Khan’s dance moves later, Erik asked me the clincher of a question. “This is the fourth Hindi movie that I have watched. The fourth happy ending. Do all Indians have happy endings?” To think that this nation pulsating with a billion people, controversies and surging hope could lead lives akin to fairytales is a joke.

But does the story of India have a happy ending?

“Well, most of them do. And this joy may not always come from making your first million. It can come from something as simple as being able to find a network signal in a godforsaken part of the country that lies forgotten behind some backwater. Sometimes the happy endings may not even be within the grasp of your mortal existence. But that’s the greatness of this country. The hope is never completely lost. The Indian still looks forward to a happy ending even when he dies in deprivation: to a happy ending in the after life… that since he has already atoned for his sins in this life, he will be reborn at least as a lesser prince!” I exclaimed, with excitement and a frisson of national pride in my voice.

“The heart is king in India, na?” smiled Erik, reciting his favourite line from Shantaram.

Haan, and what to do? We are like this only!” I laughed.

taksi no. 9211

taksi no. 9211