Sunday, March 06, 2005

Notes On Country Life

I have just emerged from a whirlwind tour of the deepest recesses of south eastern Punjab, to a village so small it does not register on any known atlas. It does not even yield any results on Google. Amazingly, it does in its own way represent a very distinct microcosm of life: a social structure, a language, characters, eccentrics, morality, gossip and (ubiquituously) cattle! With the luxury of a seven hour drive there and back and with the most tedious landscape on God's earth to keep me occupied, I kept myself busy devising a kind of Social Register to understand the region. This is partly in jest - I do have a sense of humour. I also have a social conscience and I am aware of poverty, environmental degradation, social injustice etc. all of which abound in the area. I will leave these for discussion on another occasion.

Back to "Notes" :

1. I am not so sure if "feudalism" continues to exist in the region. This is not the view that is propounded by the espresso-sipping, Herald-reading, tree-hugging, liberals. Nor is it the popular view of feudalism fueled by half a century of eardrum-shattering Punjabi cinema. If feudalism is defined as the ability to control, legislate and determine at whim what will (or will not) happen to an underpriveleged peasantry devoid of any rights, then feudalism is dead in that particular region. People do not throw themselves at my feet, virgins are not ritually offerred to me and I have yet to preside over a jirga/panchayat to determine the fate of errant individuals. I am called upon to bring NGOs to the area, get people out of state jails, speak to the water and electricity authorities and to provide the local football team with their kit. Is this feudalism ? My jury is out on this one. There is a system at work - one that fits in capitalism rather than feudalism. Yes, capitalism is exploitative. The only person who seems to have understood the distinction is the brilliant economist Akbar Zaidi in his seminal work on Pakistan's economy. (See Chapter 2).

2. The "aristocracy" of the region has fallen upon hard times. Yes, they continue to have large houses but estates have dwindled over a series of land reforms coupled with inheritance laws and a large number of children. The local chieftain drives a tatty Kia. The adjacent upstart (who has discovered that snooker parlours mean big bucks) drives a fairly smart Civic (replete with Kenwood CD changer).

3. Housing styles have fallen as well. The aristos have no carpets on their floors, adorn their rooms with tacky brown "GT Road" velvet furniture and (despite the cold at night) there is only a one rod heater to keep a large room warm.

4. Mobile telephones have just hit the region. It is an ad-man's dream to see someone tending a flock of water buffaloes while connecting on a new Samsung telephone. Ofcourse, habits have yet to change. People will still drop in unexpectedly out of habit. The thought of calling on one mobile telephone to another, to see where people are, has yet to come about.

5. Long silences are OK. It is fine to run out of conversation. There is nothing remotely awkward about a long silence. Indeed a long silence coupled with a post luncheon belch is the apogee of satisfaction.

6. Sartorial stuff: The shalwar and the kameez must match. The Karachi "isstyle" Khaadi white shalwar with any colour of kurta are looked down upon. I guess there is an underlying implication that one is too poor to buy matching cloth in the same colour. This rule does not apply to the dhoti, which is always white.

7. Nobody reads an english language newspaper. Or a book.

8. Nobody shakes hands. The full frontal embrace is a work of art. It is especially difficult to accomplish with a pair of titanium sunglasses hanging around one's neck. These must be removed forthwith if visitors are to be welcomed.

9. The art of cooking chicken in any manner has been elevated to the level of a fine art. This is a pity as it ignores the wonderful vegetables growing in profusion all over the place. Again, I think there is a perception that vegetables are for the poor.

10. Urdu and English are rarely, if ever, spoken. Punjabi cuts across all classes, creeds and sexes.

11. The height of social interaction involves the local "killub". In this case it is a relic of the Raj with the mandatory "card room" and a fabulous wooden dance floor - which the locals cannot quite work out. ("What is this wood doing in the middle of the floor ?")

12. Everyone talks local politics. Local bodies are a big deal. Much bigger than in the cities.

13. Sadly, the biradari system is a big deal. The Awans talk only to the Arains, and the Arains only to God.

14. Apart from England, this is the only other place, where the weather is an obsession.

15. Nobody wears underwear. (This is based on speculation and not on empirical evidence.)

Phew. I am glad to be back in the city.


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