Recently I received the sort of summons you dread when you live away from home. We are a typical expat family that has lived in rented apartments for all the years we’ve been working - home, therefore, is still the place I grew up in, the house my parents built, the four walls within which are ensconced the conspiracies of childhood, the place I have left behind so I can move ahead ...
My mother was abruptly hospitalized but due to the marvel of modern travel, I was by her hospital bedside within 12 hours. My mother is a force of nature, a person with tremendous will power, determination, capacity for hard work and that good ole Punjabi jigra. In my moments of deepest doubt, when I’ve needed to shore up my courage, I’ve closed my eyes and summoned her - and I know: with a mother like that, I’ve no business being a wuss.
And yet, parents, not even seemingly indomitable ones, are immune to the cycle of life. That day she was frail and I felt the baton pass as I realized that I had to, however inadequately, fill those shoes and mimic a courage I didn’t possess. I spent a week in the hospital arranging blood donors, tailing nurses, navigating hospital bureaucracy, procuring medicines, handling bedpans, feeding my mum - food, medicine, tonic, food - and as I zipped in-out of the hospital I encountered Salman Khan.
His brawny self draped in a tight-fitting suit, he was plastered against side walls, as the Bodyguard. The crumbling edifice of the Frances Newton Hospital, a venerable institution started by the American missionaries more than a century back, was in stark contrast to the glossy poster. FNH is the place where my siblings and I got our assorted childhood vaccinations, where my father convalesced after a heart attack, in whose chapel I prayed for his recovery, whose verdant lawns and brick walls were adjacent to my school, whose doctors saved my mother. And yet, the place is falling apart. Like the rest of Punjab.
It swarms with people - needy folks who travel from villages and the town itself because ‘Mishn Aspatal’ is a saviour. But their foreign aid has been cut, the government offers little assistance and, much like my mother, it echoes its former self. But, never mind, Salman Khan is there, the bouncer who is the new saviour of Punjab.
Lest anybody be in doubt, the aforesaid Bollywood film - in a general reflection on the state of us Indians - did exceedingly well at the BO and grossed gross revenues in the state of Punjab. While all Indians seem to be in need of escapist fare, the Punjabis seem to require it like oxygen.
Which is not surprising - the state is going down the drain. But since the deteriorating infrastructure means hardly any functioning drains, perhaps an accurate metaphor would be ‘getting polluted, filthy and stricken like the dying rivers which gave it its name’?
In my home town the pavements have disappeared. We have done the incredible - brought moon to Punjab as its residents navigate lunar surfaces to get from point A to B.
That Punjab isn’t the prosperous state it once was isn’t news any more. Mounting state debt (which has set the ruling SAD and the Opposition snarling at each other), falling agricultural incomes, mounting farmer suicides, rapidly poisoning water supply because of excessive use of pesticides, growing unemployment, degrading soil, and a declining sex ratio, are amongst its litany of woes.
No wonder the consumption of drugs has increased to a point where sociologists are labelling drug-addiction an epidemic in the state.
What do you do if you are a Punjabi youth, educated, with no job on hand? You escape reality - either through drugs or through Bollywood crap. And contend yourself with the tropes that Bollywood churns out for us: Singh is King! Really? Where?
- As the state with the most precipitous decline in prosperity? Yes.
- As the state that showed one of the largest fall in their economic freedom ratings? Yes.
- As the state with one of the worst gender ratios? Yes
Does Bollywood address the above issues? No. It is happy singing Singh is king and having the Singhs swallow it whole.
No wonder Bollywood heroine Kareena Kapoor has quipped: “My fans love me in a desi avatar, in a traditional salwar kameez look.” Does she know that in the state of the traditional salwar kameez, her fans also like to kill their girls? According to Census 2011, the Child sex ratio of Punjab is 846 females per 1000 males.
Since we, the Punjabis and the nation alike, are so besotted with Bollywood, let’s turn to Rockstar, the movie which released recently. Its music has been well received and a song, Sadda Haq, has got some enthusiastic nods.
‘Sadda Haq’ is a traditional rousing cry of the embattled Punjabi. I remember when my sister and her classmates in Medical College went on strike and ‘Sadda Haq’ was their constant refrain. It is time for Punjabis to raise that refrain again.
Our political leaders - be it SAD, congress or any other bad politico - are choking us with their self-serving greed and rampant corruption. They learnt from the British how to divide and rule and they haven’t stopped since. During Partition, they drove the Muslims out; during Khalistan movement, it was the Hindu-Sikh divide. The sad Akali Dal wants to to be the party of the Sikhs and yet, for all their flowing whiskers, they don’t understand the principal tenet of Sikhism - Ek Onkar, the oneness of God. The Congress only wants to oppose the sad Akalis and stay afloat by keeping a foot each in the Hindu and Sikh boat.
Gulzar saab says he cannot forget the sight of bloody corpses being scraped off the tarmac in the aftermath of Partition. I grew up during the Khalistan movement and, like others who witnessed those times, came away scarred. Which is why I wrote The Long Walk Home - lest we forget. And yet, in Shining India and Declining Punjab, we seem to have merrily shrugged off our history as we careen in a downward spiral.
The way I see it, we have a choice: we can choose to escape or we can complete the refrain.
Sadda Haq, Aithe Rakh.
It’s time we looked beyond the political play and demanded our right - the right to good governance.
One of the blood transfusions my mother received was from my husband - I sat by her bedside and watched his good South Indian Brahmin blood course drop by drop through her proud Punjabi Jat Sikh veins. When she recovered, my mother proclaimed that my husband had saved her. Very dramatic, but very Punjabi too.
The state of Punjab needs new blood too - its time we cast our prejudices aside and demand the same of our leaders. Whether we are Hindu or Sikh, we need good governance, political propaganda isn’t going to save us.