Last 7-8 months, living in UP has been a revealing experience for me. I had had my apprehensions about this sea of humanity before coming here. Not that IIM-L undergrads have much to do with what goes on ‘outside’, but I am a person who likes to explore at the grass root level, and I wasn’t without my concerns about what I was going to see over here.
Seven months past, almost all doubts have been dispelled. I do not know about the past, but the UP of present day is an amazing place, full of life, youth and optimism despite all odds. I suspect much of that could be attributed to the overall success story that India has been experiencing in the past decade. But if there was any doubt about whether UP has been untouched by those winds of welcome change, it was completely misplaced.
Nursing my fractured leg, I was served food in my room by a mess labour. Apprehensive about his quality of service and intent, I offered him a token amount as he brought food to me on the second day. To my amazement, he refused to accept the ten rupees I had offered him. I asked him if the amount was too less, to which he politely replied with a smile that none was required. A second guy came the next day, and another the next. Every one of them refused to take any money. Their enthusiasm and good naturedness continued till I got fully healed. This largehearted-ness was not only confined to the mess hands. The room housekeeping lady actually seemed offended when I offered her money for the service, saying that it was her job.
How could people who earned about 100 rupees a day keep refusing a 10-20 rupees’ tip day after day? I don’t know their stories. I can only take heart in my suspicion that it’s a newly found optimism, and the self-respect which comes with it.
Ayodhya is a run-down place. Not many care to visit this janmabhoomi of Lord Rama, ostensibly because of the obvious reasons. In the lanes and bylanes lined with temples associated with almost every conceivable scene from Ramayana, I could only see birds flying. Crowd was to be seen around Hanuman Garhi, and apart from that, the only ‘crowd’ was that of the paramilitary forces in that heavily fortified town. Unnecessary crowd control was in place for the darshan of the disputed temple, which, combined with the other security measures, resulted in a sort of queue for the same. Seeing the idols, housed inside a makeshift tent, through an iron mesh after walking almost a kilometer in the heavily monitored queue was a depressing experience.
Outside in the market, the video rental shops were selling videos of the demolition. The videos’ content was roughly designed to make heroes out of the kar-sevaks and the RSS.
“Bahut hinduon ne balidaan diya bhaiya, aur ant mein Sanatan ki jeet hui…” the shopkeeper tried to convince me into buying his CDs. I did oblige, out of curiosity, but there was hardly anyone like me. Hatemongering, as a profession, is not dead, but definitely not exactly booming.
In Lucknow, I stop by the roadside at a mobile fish joint in Saharaganj. Various north Indian avatars of fish – fish seekh kabab, fish shaami kabab, fish biryani, fish korma are running briskly. I settle for a simple plate of fried Rohu and hand over money to a sophisticated-looking lady in her early thirties manning the shop. Waiting for my order, I happened to glance at the banner of the shop. At the left bottom corner was inscribed,
Vibha Shukla, Proprieters”
A brahmin lady selling fish items at the Lucknow roadside. Hmm.
Across the road was the pan-wallah of Agrawal Pan Corner catering to an extremely drunk muslim gentleman.
“Khuda ke fazal se… blah blah blah” rambled the dyed-black haired gentleman.
“Ji, inshallah aisa hi hoga”, replied the nonchalant pan vendor.
“Oye! Allah ka naam na lo! Allah miyan Bhagwan nahi hote! Jinko tum maante ho, unka naam lo…”
And the (I suspect mixed) crowd of youngsters like me standing around, obersing the antics of this very traditionally dressed, and very drunk, Muslim gentleman burst into fits of laughter.
Nepal was beautiful, serene and sparsely populated, with earthen huts dotting the countryside. Almost everybody seemed to travel on cycle. Everyone seemed to be mathematically challenged, with calculations like 10+20+30, if done mentally would draw gasps of surprise. Our phones did not work there, cost of calling to India was astronomical and even calling from an STD booth within Nepal was an absolute pain in the ass due to the abysmal quality of transmission. You ask someone for directions, and nobody would know a thing. The food order in what had been cited ‘as one of the best’ restaurants of Nepalgunj had taken two hours to come.
You cross the border from Nepal into Rupaiheda, India, and the scene changes completely. Streets are jampacked, people are everywhere. The streets are dirty, a sewer is overflowing somewhere. But the houses are all pakka. Not just here, but in every village you come across. Almost all houses have cable antenna on their roofs, and impossibly tangled up wires reach out into them from their telephone poles. Internet cafe signboards are visible. At the side of the horrible, dusty road, we give order for our drivers’ food. Delicious-looking dal-chawal-roti and sabzi arrive within five minutes. I ask directions from a shopkeeper for a better road than the one we had arrived, and receive directions which are precise, give or take a kilometer.
The drivers have a hearty meal, and we start our stumble along the still dusty, still broken road, amidst honking of horns, shouting of people and garish underwear and condom advertisements.
And I feel glad that I belong to this land.