The outsider


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‘Yaar Allah Bakhsh, I long to visit Lahore again. We will make it one of these days,’ my father had said to his class fellow from across the border. The year was 1959. They were at the border for an Indo-Pak meeting of engineers (the wives, some of them carrying their own sense of nostalgia, had gone along) to discuss the construction of border posts that would demarcate boundaries. They had carried mithai with them since they knew that sweetmeat preparations on the Indian side of Punjab were quite different from what was available in Pakistani Punjab. And Allah Bakhsh had said, ‘You want to come to Lahore. Let us go now.’ He had rung up the Commissioner Lahore, got permission for two of his class fellows and their wives to visit Lahore and they had driven along the Lahore branch of the Upper Bari Doab canal to reach the city.

It was a ‘no meat’ day in Lahore, a practise that was customary to curtail excesses in meat eating. Having set aside all potential disagreements on halal or jhatka meat, lunch was a very warm vegetarian fare at Hotel Shazeen. Allah Bakhsh then took them to Anarkali where he insisted that they buy something. They bought bangles (the shopkeeper had refused to take money), noticed a burkha clad woman who had just finished explaining to her wondering child that these were Sikhs, responded to the emotions of another who said they really missed Sikhs in Pakistan, had a lavish tea at the house of Allah Bakhsh and were back in Amritsar by the evening.

The story, not unusual, is yet apocryphal. And not just as a pointer to open borders which are subject to political negotiations, but for the more covert suggestion of a psyche that has a cross-border existence. My contention, therefore, is that the migrant, ‘refugee’ in more realistic terms, has an expansive identity that has fed into the larger Punjabi identity, creating a syncretic culture. And perhaps the observation is not new either except as a practical demonstration of its validity for the lives I have known and the world that I grew up in.

In fact, one of the volumes of People of India, a compilation of observations on the ground, says, ‘Punjab probably presents one of the finest examples of syncretism that emerged in the medieval period and shaped policies of liberalism, particularly followed by the local rulers, including Sikhs.’ It goes on to say that Punjabi emerged as a language that became the most important identity marker; Hindu and Islamic traditions mingled and the Sufi and Bhakti traditions blended. And as a further instance of syncretism across caste, it makes the observation that the Granth Sahib was a compilation of not only the writings of the Gurus but also subalterns belonging to different castes – tailor (Namdev), butcher (Sadhan), vaisya (Trilochan), barber (Sain), jats (Dhanna), weaver (Kabir) and cobbler (Ravidas).


The migrant’s identity is forged out of the reality of having two homes. He lives with two homes in his mind – nostalgia marks one, and endeavour the other. And the mind expands to accommodate both. And so, whilst my father had seen the fires of arsonists burning in Lahore from his rooftop where Hindus and Sikhs were being stabbed, he had also seen a young Muslim boy being slaughtered on the Jalandhar railway station. My father had just stepped off the train that had brought him safely to this side of the border. ‘I can still see that handsome young boy holding his hands up to ward off the blow and the swords that sliced off his hands before killing him. I can never forget,’ says he as his eyes fill with tears even at the age of 82. The two experiences, back to back, leave no space for a communal point of view but in fact, form the bedrock of an ongoing secularity. These perceptions come not from a well ensconced existence, but from the uncertainties of strife and, therefore, take deep root.

And though the idea is not to romanticize the threat of violence and death, the experience of displacement and the effort at relocation, yet the process does perhaps necessitate leaving behind baggage, not only of the physical kind but also mental accretions. All givens in terms of hearth and home having fallen away, it becomes an untying of the leash that binds the mind to a stake. There is then an emerging unconventionality that makes it possible for the migrant to set the rules as he goes along, having left behind the familiar societal pressures that would dictate norms of activity and behaviour.

When my parents got married, my father had refused to allow the clothes my mother had brought along to be put on display, as was the custom. ‘They are her clothes and nobody has any business with them,’ he had said. ‘What will people say’, was never an issue in our household irrespective of what I did or did not do. This free-floating state of the mind had to combine with a hands-on engagement with life, when a fresh start had to be made.

A well-established parallel might explain it better – the Punjabi is choosy about the kind of work he is willing to do here, but is entirely uninhibited about what he does in the country of his adoption.


These migrants then flowed into the larger Punjabi identity. The blend was not easy. My mother recounts the sympathy that gave way to resentment and even an ascription of criminality when they first moved to East Punjab. They were variously seen as clever, go-getters who cared nothing for decent society, as the dirty refugees who would stop at nothing, or as leeches feeding off society.

In fact, the Ludhiana Gazetteer records the official position on these camps by about 1950. ‘The issue of free ration to the refugees indefinitely in the camps was likely to produce demoralizing results. It affected the determination of refugees to be able to stand on their own legs. It was also felt that their dispersal would expedite rehabilitation as their presence in the camps was not by itself a solution to the problem. The first step taken in this direction was the gradual reduction in the ration of such families that had an adult member (16 to 60 years) otherwise physically fit, who was self-employed or had work through a government agency. Those adults who refused to be employed in this manner were de-rationed along with their family members.’ It was a struggle for survival and, therefore, sometimes compromises had to be made, which the genteel, settled middle class could not swallow.


A friend from a migrant family recounts the murder of an aunt by a neighbourhood gang because she had donned men’s clothing, sporting a lungi and kurta to run a transport business. This same friend remembers being a ‘refugee’s’ daughter even as recently as the 1980s. She recalls her schooling where it was often announced: ‘All the refugee children stand up.’ The perception in the child’s mind was that a ‘refugee’ was a criminal of sorts. The term itself carried a moral judgment. ‘We just grew up differently from the others,’ she says. ‘Unlike the other girls around I could, in fact had to, go out alone and run all those male errands for the household. I would take wheat to the flour-mill or run to the market for groceries or vegetables, play with the boys on the street and escort my girl friends home when they were scared to go alone. I had instinctively learnt to live with fear.’

However, in many villages, ‘refugee’ as a defining nomenclature still exists. In village Fatehpur for instance, where Punjab Meats, a hundred per cent mechanized factory with its supply of halal meat to the Middle East raised local hackles, the partition ‘refugees’ still live in a clearly demarcated area, separated from the ‘natives’ by a gate. In fact, the protest against the meat factory had come from the native settlers. And it is this habitat of the ‘locals’ that seems to be poorer than the settlement of their refugee counterparts. The meat eaters were in the refugee section and they too had an ambivalent attitude to the meat plant coming up in their midst, being a little hesitant to offer outright support to an issue that seemed to clash with the morals of others. All the young boys that gathered around in the refugee section of the village had been educated up to the ten-plus-two level. They had all gone to schools in the vicinity of their village, though each of these young lads knew the names of the villages in Pakistan from where their families migrated during the Partition.


But the urban Punjabi face no longer shows the divide. The elements that dictate acceptance or rejection in an urban setting are quite different from those that work in a rural environment. Acceptance came with the economic status that the migrant achieved. And if that sounds crass, it is only because money is a non-issue for those who have it. There are innumerable stories already told, many times over, of a man who wove and hawked socks, sold them and went on to become a giant in the hosiery industry; or a man who vended ‘gazak’ and finally built himself a palace.

The economy and industry inherent in these street vendor to tycoon stories are perhaps qualities that continued to shape at least a part of the Punjabi psyche and went on to feed the larger Punjabi image of a spirit of enterprise against all odds. ‘Much before the green revolution, the Punjabi migrant had brought about a green revolution on the agricultural land given to him in lieu of his holding in Pakistan.’ This was historian J.S. Grewal’s tribute to the displaced generation. Hence too, a whole repertoire of jokes that lampooned this indomitable spirit and yet felicitated it – of the first man on the moon discovering that a ‘Singh’ with his ubiquitous ‘dhaba’ had already preceded him.

This preoccupation with making money did result in a conspicuous display of wealth but also gave rise to some radicalism, possibly as a by-product, particularly amongst the displaced generation who had learnt the hard way about survival and the lack of means. My mother tells me of the time she got married. She had asked her father about the budget for her wedding, and she did not exceed the amount by a single paisa. In later years when I had grown up, my grandmother would often grumble to me about the trouble my mother put her through because she refused to buy anything but khadi, and the purchase of her trousseau, well within the given budget, was yet another tussle between the two. These strands are as much a part of the social fabric of the state as the vulgar show of money.


The Punjabi who migrated from cities in Pakistan to those on this side of the international border also grew up with a very vital relationship with education. It was a lifeline that ensured a future. I remember that when I was growing up, my parents regarded study hours as being sacrosanct both for my brother and me. It was not just a privilege extended to the boy in the family but held just as good for me. No one disturbed me when I was at my books. ‘Let her study,’ they both said. There were many who advised my mother on the necessity of teaching a girl to cook as a prerequisite to her well-defined role in life, but I can still remember my mother patiently explaining things to them: ‘Chapattis she will learn to make any time. When the need arises, she will manage. She has to study now.’ And when I was studying for my post-graduation at the Panjab University in Chandigarh, there were formal marriage proposals which my father told me of, but the assertion that I had yet to complete my studies and find myself a profession was inviolable, both for my parents and me. Marriage proposals, like chapattis, had to wait their turn!


Psychologists say that the psyche of the Indian migrant is largely an unexplored terrain and there is no clear picture of their motivational levels, though some passing observations can be made in terms of the surging adrenaline when ones back is against the wall. Of course, for the many who made it to the victory stand there must have been others who sank. But this success or failure would have to be traced back to various other factors like social support, personality of the individual, earning capacity and age.

Punjab, as a consequence of this constant historical give and take of cultures and religions, seems to reveal itself like a hologram. While the skewed sex ratios in the state give the impression of a medieval society where the girl child is strangled at birth and out-of-caste, love marriages often invoke the wrath of, not society as a whole but sometimes of the parents, and at other times of the limited circle of that particular community. However, when the angle is shifted a little, there is the other perspective that highlights the resilient Punjabi woman whose modernity cannot be in dispute, who often seems to reveal an ambivalent relationship with the confines of tradition, perhaps as a historical consequence of the constant churning of cultures in the state. Statistics are, therefore, never the entire picture. But the changing contours of the state’s demographic profile gave it a certain dynamism. Those who survived the Quetta earthquake of 1935 must have had to start again. Those who were displaced during the Partition of 1947 had to begin life afresh. There are those who had to migrate out of Punjab for fear of the Khalistani Kalashnikov. Others who sought the security of their home state during the November riots of 1984 too had to start from scratch. There are those who seek greener pastures and emigrate and those others from different states of the country who come looking for those very greener pastures here. There is a huge inflow of labour from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to the industries of Ludhiana and the seasonal arrival of workers on agricultural land in Punjab.

Resettlement is possibly more difficult today than it was in the past. The world is more competitive and there is less space for the migrant, making the process of assimilation harder. In fact, there is an increasing tendency, evidenced by the ethnic movements all over the world, to regurgitate the alien. Punjab too lived through a long, ten year phase of separatist violence and an attempt at evicting the ‘outsider’, but then came back whole to become the only known example of a complete turnaround. And while that was achieved through strategic, and often times ruthless, police action, it also underlined the strength of a civil society that had seen worse and knew how to change and absorb. The migrant is perhaps a symbol of the hostilities that life throws up, a reflection of the world and its vicissitudes. And in the same measure the assimilation of this migrant reflects a pulsating society.


* Author of The Patiala Quartet. Penguin Books, 2006.