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.
The town houses two Assembly constituencies. One of them, Ajmer South, includes Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s Dargah and the nearby substantial Muslim population. This constituency is a Sindhi stronghold. Whatever name this constituency may have been called by, ever since independence, it has always been represented by a Sindhi.
Sindhis were people who came to this part of the country to escape the Muslim majority of their native Sindh. Some prejudice against Muslims would be understood. In all my years, I have never seen any. In the throbbing market surrounding the Dargah are shops of Muslims, Sindhis and other communities. Welcome is accorded to the pilgrims by all. Chaadar, loban, flowers and other materials required for ‘ziarat’ are sold by shopkeepers of all communities. The pilgrims put up in hotels set up by all communities. There is stiff competition for this business, and that is that.
The nearby Pushkar houses perhaps one of the holiest of Hindu shrines, the Brahma Temple. In five out of the last six assembley elections, this temple town, where sale and consumption of onions, besides non-veg food is banned, has elected a Muslim MLA.
Come October-november, and the city goes into festive overdrive. While Ajmer city plays host to lakhs of Muslim pilgrims at the annual ‘Urs’, the ‘Pushkar Mela’ and the ‘Karthik Snan’ attract Hindu devotees and tourists in the same numbers. Any north Indian can testify that festive seasons at places of religious significance of even one community are ‘sensitive’ times. In Ajmer, two places, of paramount religious significance of two communities play host to huge festivals simultaneously. This has been happening for centuries. The word ‘sensitive’ till yet remains out of vocabulary of this season.
Of course, these religious places attract international tourists as well. And while pilgrims from the Arab countries are offering prayers to the Khwaja, boys and girls from their friendly neighbor Israel are running about, scantily clothed, up and down the streets and nearby hills and valleys of Pushkar.
Ajmer, like India itself, is not without its contradictions.
Previous posts in this series:
The Town that was – I http://wp.me/p1jJo-dL
The Town that was – II http://wp.me/p1jJo-ee
It was one of the Karate lessons during summer vacations, in between classes VI-VII. I was waiting outside the entrance to the ground, along with a few other boys. It was only around 8o’clock, but already sweltering hot.
“Kyon bhai, kaun si caste ke ho?” (So, brother, which caste are you?) Out of nowhere, this question came to me from a bigger boy.
“Brahman.” I mumbled, stupefied. This was the first time someone had asked me this question.
“Oh okok”, the guy said. “Aur tum”(And you?), he directed his question to another.
Feeling weak from all the hot sun, I came and sat beside the older boy on the low wall he was sitting on.
“Ok, aur tu?” The curiosity turned towards another, smaller boy standing nearby. No response came.
“Ye to saala kisi bhangi-chamaar ka lagta hai…”(Bastard looks like some Bhangi-Chamaar’s), the bigger boy said, and looked at the High Brahman sitting beside him for approval.
Sahir was the first friend I had. He was in my class, and his younger sister Farha was in Sunanda’s class. This coincidence further cemented our friendships. We were in class I-II at that time. Sahir always used to wet his lips with his tongue. Farha had bob-cut hair and her mom made a ponytail on top of her head like a fountain.
Some of my earliest memories are with Sahir. I remember us going to the park with our Leo machine guns and hiding in the undergrowth and shooting at imaginary Pakistanis. We would wrestle on my sisters’ double bed. More often than not, I would beat him hollow. Often, when I would pin him down, he would try to add extra force to his efforts to topple me by invoking ‘Ya Ali!’. On a rare occasion when he had me down, I remember trying to seek divine help by invoking ‘Jai Bhawani!’.
I think it was the time of the felling of the Babri Masjid. There was curfew in the entire town. The schools were closed. But being Government Quarters, our colony was immune to the curfew. Our children’s group took full advantage of the closed schools by playing night and day. There was strict curfew in the rest of the town. Dad once took us walking till the entrance of the colony, where police guards were posted. As he talked to the policemen, we had the occasion to inspect the area. The usually busy road beyond our colony boundary was totally deserted.
Once, probably during the same days, Sahir came to me and said something like, “Yaar Hinduon ne to Muslims ki Masjid tod di, ab Muslims ko bhi kuchh to karna chahiye.” (Dude, the Hindus have felled the Muslims’ mosque, even the Muslims should do something now).
I remember quite clearly that thinking on it with whatever logic I was capable of, I had replied, “Haan yaar, sahi hai, kuchh to karna chahiye”. (Yeah buddy, you’re right, they should do something.)
We had then carried on with whatever we were doing.
There was a boy, Satvik Reddy, who used to live near us. He was two years junior to me. I was in class IV and he in class II. While coming home from school in auto rickshaw, there were 3 boys who were usually picked upon by the rest. Satvik was one of them.
I still don’t know why the remaining two were picked upon, but I think Satvik was picked upon because he was, well, different from the rest of us. He had very hard, curly hair and he spoke Hindi with a different accent and came to the auto everyday smelling of some funny food item. (I was to later know that it was chutney). While the rest of us came clutching a rolled up paratha or a sandwich, Satvik usually had an idli stuffed in his mouth.
Nobody could make out his uncommon-ish name from the accent he spoke in, and so he was called ‘Saabje’ by the rest of us. As for his surname, it was taken to be ‘Grid’. He was what we took to be a ‘Bangali.’ His nickname was ‘Kabootar’.
There was a distance that we had to walk to our homes after getting down from the auto, and most of the times me and a friend of mine made sure we made it hell for Satvik. His last line of defense on us teasing him would be to spit on us, upon which we would thrash him.
There had been a few more South Indians, mostly Andhraites, in our neighborhood and in our class across the years. None of them was a particular target anywhere, which gives me consolation that it was not as much as Satvik being different ‘culturally’ but him being different as a ‘boy’ on the usual parameters of boyhood which made him a target. But the cultural difference, no doubt, played some role.
Perhaps the biggest brunt of the society, which differentiated between people on the basis of their birth, was borne by the Sindhis (of which there was a substantial number in Ajmer). They were always the target of derogatory jokes. They had no manners – if there were some people heard throwing abuses, they were taken to be Sindhis until proven otherwise. Sindhis were the biggest cheats of all people who one should never do business with, unless one wanted to get swindled. One should never befriend them unless one wanted to get stabbed in the back. Their boys were useless pricks who one should stay away from. Their homes were the dirtiest. Their kitchens smelled and their women who were loathe to do any housework did not cook proper meals for their kids who made do with some random snacks at mealtimes. The Sindhis were tasteless people who had no sense of dressing and propriety. Oh, and yeah, their girls were whores. And so on and so forth.
Suffice to say this, that calling someone ‘Sindhi’ was a big, sharp gaali. I cannot list down specific instances for the kind of prejudices I saw people holding against Sindhis. One blog would not be enough.
PS1: I am no longer in touch with Sahir. I have a bagful of memories with him, from which I have chosen those which hold some interest in the light of the political knowledge I have gained over the years.
PS2: Now as I see the kids, Telugu and Non-Telugu, in my building in Hyderabad, playing together and none being targeted, I feel glad that children today are intrinsically cosmopolitan. More that what perhaps, we, growing up in small-town North India, were in our time. The idea that my behavior towards Satvik could have been influenced by our cultural differences rankles me no end to this day. Especially in the light of the humbling behavior the amazing people of Andhra Pradesh have accorded to me over the past six years.
PS3: About Sindhis, I don’t know how things are now in Ajmer, but if you were growing up at my time in Ajmer, you could not stay immune from these prejudices. I could start getting rid of them only when I left Ajmer and went to Kota and saw the world with my own eyes. Later, as I built friendships with some other people of that community, such notions became a thing of the past. Today, I have nothing but respect for the Sindhi Hindu community, who despite migrating to India 6 decades ago with nothing on them save the shirts on their backs, till now without a homeland, have today made themselves to be what is perhaps the most prosperous community in the cutthroat competitive environment of India. I regard them as among the finest of ‘our’ people.
The Town that was – I http://wp.me/p1jJo-dL
The Town that was – III: http://wp.me/p1jJo-eR
The town was my home. And it will always remain home. In the sense that it will always the same for me. In the sense that it will always remain the same for everyone. In the sense that nothing will ever change there. It’s a town frozen in time.
It’s been 8 years since I left home. And whenever I go back, I never face any of the troubles that one usually has while driving on unfamiliar roads. The pattern of the potholes on the roads has been the same, ever since I’ve been seeing them. I could drive blindfolded on this road. The maneuvers, the twists and turns come naturally to me. They’re a part of me now.
It was all in the air. The classrooms where boys adjusted walks and strides and fidgeted with desks to get an optimum ‘view’ of the correct Geography (or Biology, whatever). Where ‘mast’ History (imagined and otherwise) of others’ lives was drooled and smacked over enough to make Akbar turn in his grave with jealousy. Where Life Processes – II was the most interesting chapter ever.
The temple atop a hill in the middle of the town, on the stairs of which every to-be couple could be found in the infancy of their relationships. The more ‘advanced’ couples could be found behind the curtains of the cubicles of the sleazy cyber cafes. The college where boys went (they still go, I’m told) to see and imagine. And where girls went to display their wares within permissible add-on limits and with ‘allowed’ decorations and other visual effects.
The gaolish girls’ hostels which restricted its girls to step out of for only six out of every hundred sixty hours. Out of the fear that they might have sex, if allowed out for longer hours. Ostensibly.
The mobile SIM card shop owners who sold girls’ cellphone numbers at face value of 1o bucks per number. The market rates depended on another kind of face value, though.
Every Nikita stepping out of her house was protected and seen over by 5-6 unpaid guards on a voluntary, area-divided basis. From her home to Gandhinagar – Bunty, from Gandhinagar to Gulab Bari – Veeru, from Gulab Bari to Mayo College – Yasin, and so on and so forth. There was perfect understanding of healthy competition between the Buntys and Veerus and Yasins. Any chikna who went to the same ‘tuition’ as Nikita and tried to ‘do’ ‘phrendsip’ was beaten black and blue and thus, effectively eliminated from causing any harm to Nikita’s ‘character’, thus saving her from being ‘set’, in the eyes of the unpaid guards and from being ‘corrupted’ in the eyes of the aunties of the colony.
And yeah, of course, Bunty, Veeru and Yasin, all could claim Nikita as ‘meri wali’. If anyone else was heard making such a claim, well, his claim was settled in a manner described previously. Blood eventually spilled in the lane where Nikita’s scooty turned.
All this could go on for years without Nikita getting a clue about it.
In my sixteenth year, I fell for her. Like Ali bhai in ‘Dhoom’ falls over Rimi Sen. I remained in this ‘fallen’ state for a year, after which I talked to her. Her tone and accent were such a turn-off that my crush evaporated. She called me up to ‘clear’ things at which point I told her that she wasn’t worth my attention. She got so pissed that she got her ‘brothers’ to beat me up.
A few years later, I see her at the ice cream shop. Pretend to ignore, but in reality examining her wares. To try to gauge how much is she worth in the market, on the few obvious parameters. She being a girl is of course one step ahead of me. I know she’s trying to gauge my market value. How, though? Maybe by gauging the subtlety of my gauge.
We both buy our ice cream bricks and go our separate ways. She has grown really, really sexy.
There’s a caterer, who has on display some 4 types of ‘sabjis’, 3 types of ‘poodi’ and ‘non’, salad, dahi bade, 2 types of rice, 3 types of ‘sveet’ etc etc. Then there’s the Tawa, which has another 4 types of bharwa-type sabjis. Then there’s the Kadahi, which has dal-fry, one with onion-garlic and one without.
Then there are the ‘stalls’. A Rajasthani with huge moustaches pouring milk in earthen kullads from a huge kadahi. There’re chow-mien, dosa, cheela, ice cream, coffee, paan and what not.
Someone would be excused for thinking that India was a powerhouse nation. Well, it is actually. In the field of digestion.
Under the milk-white lighting across the huge marriage-lawn, there are girls. Girls trying to impress potential suitors and their parents, and girls going red and green with jealousy of other, better endowed girls. There are uncles, the ‘modern’ ones, who prefer to greet such girls by hugging them. There are aunties cocking a snook at such uncles.
Introductions are done, and even relations built. Among the mature people. Like uncles, aunties and girls. Boys are too sloshed in the bevvy of lehengas and zari and sari and skin-hugging jeans and the occasional short skirt competing for their attention. They have attained Nirvana. They desire nothing more.
In a remote corner, the bride and bride groom are sitting on thrones. One of the gatecrashers from the nearby Medical College is slipping a gift-wrapped packet of condoms to the groom. ‘Happy marriage boss…’
The Town that was – II http://wp.me/p1jJo-ee
The Town that was – III: http://wp.me/p1jJo-eR