Punjab in your rear-view mirror

Growing up in a far-flung, prosperity-starved Bengal of the seventies and eighties Punjab was something that I perceived either through the veil of history and mythology or through limited interactions with the Sikh community of transporters and traders. They were seen to be a bulwark of moral uprightness in a state where idealism had been strangled into a premature death. It was customary in those unreliable times, for families to seek out the Sardar taxi driver who seemed to assure a measure of safety while traversing the city or returning home late in the night. The bearded and turbaned Sikh was more than brawn, he occupied the representational space of a protector deity in common Bengali consciousness. Bengal and Punjab could not have been farther apart geographically or even culturally and that comfortable separation from Punjab — with a wide Indian torso in between, made it easy to consume the value seen intrinsic to the honourable Sardar, without the risk of ever having to confront Punjab’s reality.

The deserted street of Katkar Kalan, Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s village, with his house enshrined as a public memorial in the left foreground of the picture.

With rising affluence, Punjab has become an even greater source, a cultural chulha that has churned out consumables for the great Indian marketplace, to the extent that in parts of the country today we may find it difficult to imagine eating out, fashion or wedding celebrations without Punjabi razzmatazz stamped all over it. It seems as though India’s passage into modernity would have been unnoticed if not for the fervent chanting of ‘shava-shava’ to a Bollywood bhangra beat. But the more we consume Punjab through our popular imagination the more it seems to fuel our indifference to its real concerns. It might be said that the recently concluded Delhi municipal elections got more eyeballs than the Punjab state assembly election, at a national level. A recent report stated that Punjab has the highest suicide rates among farmer in India, a fact that seemed to shock a lot of people. The tragedy of farmer suicides in India was not new to them, however, the popular imagination of Punjab did not allow for such tragic turn of events in India’s ‘green revolution’ state. The Bollywood hit ‘Udtaa Punjab’ that brought to the fore a drug menace that threatens to destroy the future of Punjab’s youth, generated many voices of denial, surprisingly from within the state. That the protestations seem to point towards sensationalisation of deeper socio-economic problems plaguing the state and its people in itself is ironical. The same consumerist lens that celebrates Punjab (or what it purports Punjab to be) ends up sensationalising its tragedies, as if that is the only available mode of engagement with all things Punjab.

Visible from the highway, between Amritsar and Jalandhar

As people and places are turned into images, they seep into our consciousness and create a false sense of permanence. The endless array of images with fields lush with crops and people exulting in a culture of prosperity that we have now thoroughly internalised, pushes back at the deeper issues, that are invisible, making them seem like minor isolated occurrences. In distant Indian cities, we read about jail-breaks by gangsters in Punjab with utter incredulity. With a shake of our head we move on to the next incident and it only registers like a little blip in our popular construction of Punjab, the five rivered marvel of a place, the land of miracles and Honey Singh. These sensational news bytes from places distanced by political boundaries seem to have a peculiar effect on us, the receivers. We may feel for instance that gangsters are not unique to Punjab, neither are shoot-outs and end up taking a ‘these things happen’ kind of a stance. However, if we chose to take a closer look, the intensity of Punjab’s gangster culture, which is underscored by countless YouTube videos that profile, celebrate mourn and eulogise gangsters from different regions, would certainly point to a deeper issue. This rich minefield of cultural material spans prison conversations and relayed messages, phone conversations between rivals, dedications by fans, sharp-shooter profiles and an emotionally charged, hero worshipping comments section.

Images have a non-stick quality about them that has the power to repel or resist efforts to alter its basic character. Beyond that, images are also machines that modulate and alter our relationship with reality. A good example of this is the universal side-mirror pronouncement in automobiles that say ‘objects in the mirror are closer than they appear’. This is a constant warning to the driver of the vehicle, to be on alert and make adjustments that account for the distortion inherent in the image. The lack of such a warning would surely lead to more accidents. In the context of Punjab, it might feel as though the side-mirror warning has been turned on its head. In this case, the image seems to be saying, the Punjab that we encounter on the screen is only a distant fear, these are stray incidents that do not generate speed and burst upon your reality. Unfortunately for people who actually live in Punjab and do not merely consume it in its branded avatar, the unpleasant truths are already upon them and issues bubbling away unattended for long have already exploded into their lives.

Make a trip to the Doab region of Punjab and you are likely to encounter village streets lined with large modern homesteads that lie either vacant or under the care of a sole family-member caretaker. The high rate of migration and the explosion of gangster culture points to one significant failure and that is the failure of education. A compromised education system has stifled the aspirations of people and negated the prospect of a stable middle class value system that privileges steady growth over sudden transformations in fortune. The systemic devaluing of education has fueled the only other available channel to escape the limitations of one’s immediate reality — migration to a country with a favorable exchange rate. Migration in Punjab is as important as sitting for a competitive exam. People attempting illegal migration undertake great risks, which makes you wonder about the circumstances where a group of people are willing to risk a leaky boat to some promised land rather than giving it a go in their home country. This weak education system has found a perfect ally in the cultural impatience of Punjab that demands immediate results. A hollowed-out education system and steady migration out of Punjab together have resulted in some kind of a cognitive and spiritual vacuum in society, one that is being filled with guns, drugs and violence.

No system can truly fail unless it loses the faith of people who it seeks to serve. Education’s failure to inspire belief is only a microcosm of a larger sentiment that seems to run through Punjab. That while it has never shied away from its duties towards the larger nation in any way, Punjab when in need of a helping hand has only encountered apathy. For a people who have repeatedly exemplified the term ‘standing shoulder to shoulder’, it is possible that they have found the standards to be a little lacking. The wounds these occasions have inflicted on Punjab’s psyche have never been fully healed, only swept away into a mirror, where the images recede into the distance. On the other hand, the long-term effects of the golden years of the green revolution have begun to play out in unimaginable ways. The arms race between nature and food production enterprise has resulted in many casualties. People in villages discuss the emergence of clinics that treat pesticide and food allergy related symptoms. There are occasional reports that delve into the depletion of ground water. To many a green revolutionary this must have come as a rude shock, a sacrifice they never imagined they were being asked to make at the time.

The sensational stories of Punjab’s thug-life, drugs and high-risk migration all seem to point towards a common underlying need. To simply get away, to escape a condition that now seems irretrievable. But there isn’t really any getting away, the migrants often end up living really hard lives, as do addicts and gangsters with the added guarantee of tragic endings. Today once again, Punjab must dare to dream. Instead to looking at what the world across the seas have to offer, maybe to once again ask what they have to offer to the world. But this new dream can only be possible with much greater participation, interest and involvement on the ground. There is so much to do in Punjab — counselling and working with youth, revolutionising the education system, impact assessment of industrial agriculture practices and conservation, support that cuts across scientific and the spiritual. As always one finds strands of hope through chance encounters. Ram Singh, a migrant to Amritsar who drives a tourist car, narrated his journey to the city from being a village boy near the border. His journey was set in motion through the mere act of placing his dreams on a timeline. He believes that is the only way to ensure we get close to what we want from life. Somewhat predictably, he wants to eventually become a motivational speaker. Ram Singh believes he has reached this point by setting targets, asking himself questions and never doing something that would disagree with him spiritually. Tomorrow’s Punjab needs a new collective, one that comprises of people like Ram Singh, so that the rest of Punjab can believe in dreams again.

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