Who Udta Punjab is really about

Like the movie, let me offer a disclaimer.

I grew up in Chandigarh in the Nineties and the first decade of the Noughties. Punjab was just recovering from a decade-long militant crisis that had made ‘martyrs’ of young rural Punjabis, in many cases the sole bread-earners of the farm-rich, zamindar families. Khalistan and Bhindranwale were two words, the state and the national governments were hoping the people would forget. News media began to distract with boastful reports of success post the Green Revolution, fall in the number of farmer suicides owing to financial support offered by NABARD, the occasional shootout of a terrorist courtesy the Ramsay-Boltonesque, gore fan police chief KPS Gill.

The rich got richer and the urban middle class began a post-liberalisation rise. The Universities and colleges in Chandigarh started to overflow with big cars fuelled with the dreams and hopes of the rich rural Punjabi. The high, tax-free, disposable income afforded him the luxuries to splurge in designer wear/designer gear/designer cars and a designer attitude. Fact: you can smell a gabru from a mile away (his Miller Harris cologne will make sure of that). His sole purpose of holding on to the student status over cumulative MA and law degrees is to delay his return to the farm that much longer, because of course he doesn’t want to be a farmer.

Where then does a 20-something year old with cash to burn find the opportunities to splurge: Gabru does it on the geri (Chandigarh even has a route for it), gym and totta. A chink in this holy trinity will lead to violence against the world or even self. So whether it’s dope shope (weed), daaru shaaru (Old Monk), snow blow (cocaine), afeem de paranthe (opium laced paranthas are freely available in dhabas) or even chitta/smackiyan (both street terms for Heroin) — gabru doesn’t have to look far for an escape.

I chose to see Udta Punjab in Chandigarh — in a PVR screen. Besides the disclaimer the rest of the country sees, we got two bonus ones. Do keep in mind, 2017 brings state elections in Punjab. The ruling party, SAD, is not running an anti-drug campaign to win their ticket a third time in a row (they’ve held two back to back terms for the first time in their political history) but also a what-drug campaign.

Two ads played on screen before we saw Udta Punjab. One a pittance tale about a farmer whose produce was thriving owing to the efforts of Badal sarkaar. The second featured former Indian hockey team captain Rajpal Singh giving an impassioned speech about how the govt helped him channelise his energy into sport because “Punjab youth don’t have a drug problem. Do I look like I have a drug problem?” I paraphrase, but you get the point.

The 200-plus audience smirks and giggles. On the street, we know better. Drugs are not just passing through “the pious borders of Punjab” as claimed in the actual disclaimer. Drugs are grown freely, sold cheaply and consumed openly. I can’t recount the number of times I have sat in my University canteen and had so many of my friends (at the time) offer me intoxicants as casually as they’d take class notes from me. “Scoring is never an issue,” they’d say. “This is from my khet kudiye. It’s 100 % natural,” smirked another. “This is the best one,” was one offer, “this high you won’t even get after snow.” I said no every time, but because it was even offered to me the assumption was I was a junkie too. Patriarchy FTW!

Student election season in Panjab University is an observation room where big political parties shop for charismatic or idiotic (depends how to look at it) dummies to strengthen their hold on the “youth.” Walk through the campus and between raging debates and entourage geris (drives), you’ll find a party peddler enticing you with ‘goliyan’ — pills and pellets of all kinds — anyway they can buy your vote.

Lots of people buy in.

Personally, I have known two people whose lives have been ravaged by drug addiction. A maternal uncle who ironically always wore a ghost-like garb and now has disappeared into ghastly, ghostly oblivion. I’m not sure if he is alive or well anymore. His daughter once out of curiosity swallowed a pill that took her nearly a week to recover from. That high dosage dependency could have been fatal. This chemical cocktail has been his fodder for as long as I can remember.

Another was a friend in school who harboured a secret addiction that enabled her to stay awake and study longer. She was a medical student. Her hollowed, red-rimmed eyes still haunt me. She always brushed away concern with a I-can-handle-it shrug. I don’t know what she took, but her nervous ticks and sudden stomach cramps offered a guess. She never joined social media and I moved on from her in 2001. I never heard from her or kept in touch, I can only hope she is well and hopefully free of the addiction.

We never talk about people in Punjab who may be addicted to drugs, like we don’t celebrate every time a girl is born or feign bravery with overt displays of violence and noise. The Bruah, aha, oye hoye you hear us utter is actually us showing our dominance in this human jungle.

Secretly though, many of us are a hunted species. Many of my kind have fallen prey to vices and violence. But that will always remain a closely-guarded secret because Punjabis don’t waste away and show. They dunk, drown and overdose. Statistics will remain faceless numbers. They don’t matter to common Punjabi folk too busy having fun, ignoring signs of abuse or trouble.

You do not show and tell, you keep a secret and you just get high.

This is whom Udta Punjab is about!