We cannot save because we don’t want to. This is especially true of us, Muslim Punjabis, living this side of the Punjab. We take pride in spending driven by an urge not only to be at par with our “sharik” but also to be one up.

“Sharik” is a sharer, partner or stakeholder in the matters of land and property held or owned by a clan/ tribe. All “Sharik” being kinsmen are deeply connected through a web of blood ties. They are members of the same clan/ tribe or caste and form a Biradari [brotherhood].

The fraternity thus formed to protect the common interests of its members in an apparent spirit of co-operation is simultaneously underpinned by an intense sense of competitiveness. The urge to be not only first among equals but to be dominant leads to nasty rivalries among the members who pumped up by the shared visceral hatred stretch themselves to the limit to solely hold on to the so-called fraternity crest.

The intensity and depth of such a feeling is best captured in the folklore with innumerable adages. “jay sharik da munh laal hovay, apna chpairaan naal laal kar lao” which means that if your sharik’s face is red, slap your face till it turns red. In our cultural context red face is a sign of being well-fed, prosperity and opulence which gets translated in community life as veritable power. So in order to keep up appearances in a game of power one feels compelled to even undergo self-torture.

It’s an attempt to create an impression of resourcefulness and self-indulgence involving spending. Here is another adage; “ghar bhavin daal khaao, bahr niklo taa khalal karday jaao”. The translation is: even if you eat daal at home, start using toothpick when you come out. Now daal, a common subcontinental dish made from lentils or other pulses, is an ordinary food the people have to be content with. It’s a sign of being poor if not being indigent. Meat on the other hand stands for the choicest dish showing its consumer’s enviable economic and social status in the power hierarchy.

Meat consumption is in fact considered a culinary delight which testifies to the presence of high table and provides a social proof of high status of those who savour it. It involves expenditure and celebrates consumption which tells of availability of resources. Being a “Sharik” if you cannot afford meat on the table, you will have to at least make a show of having it. Otherwise you are not considered to be in the race. Consequently you could be down the ladder and thus you would not be taken seriously in the matters of Sharika/ fraternity or community. So you have to “prepare the face to meet the faces that you meet” in a social world riven by competition and rivalries. This fascination with meat also tells the story of carnivorous diet of Punjabis who have been meat eaters since the time of Harappa at least. They in a way share some of their food habits with Bengalis and South Indians who in the words of poet Brecht also like “to eat of meat joyously”. All three unlike the caste Hindus from cow belt in India aren’t given to vegetarianism. So “Sharika” practices would urge you to spend, not to save. The idea of saving for the rainy day or accumulation never takes roots in a social soil rendered barren by brackish water of one-upmanship.

Another reason for an ostentatious display of what Punjabi Muslims have lies buried in history. From the 8th century onward the Arab invaders began penetrating Punjab from the South. The process came full circle with conquest of Lahore by a Turk invader known as Mahmud of Ghazna in the early 11th century. Arab and Turk invaders brought a new religion with them called Islam to the Punjab.

One can assert with the help of historical evidence that majority of the Punjabis who embraced this new faith came from what were considered lower castes. The so-called low castes considered inferior in religious terms were economically disadvantaged. They accepted new faith in the hope of getting rid of social indignity and economic deprivation.

Jat, Gujar and Arian tribes for example which form the bulk of Punjabi Muslims, were down-trodden till the 14the century. Jats were poor nomads, Gujars little esteemed pastoralists and Arians petty cultivators. The poor Rajputs were hardly different. People from such a background after their conversion desperately wanted to jettison their apparently unenviable baggage in an odiously caste-ridden society. Conversion gave them a new religious identity but the crucial question was how to create a new social and economic identity reflecting the rejection of their previous menial existence bounded by social worthlessness caused by caste status.

One important way was spending and ostentatious display of whatever they had to socially prove that their life had changed for better. Majority of new converts were peasants and artisans who generally lived in the country side dominated by landholders comprising local tribal chiefs and so-called notables of foreign origins endowed with lease of large tracts of lands by royal court(s) of the time. These local and alien overlords loved conspicuous consumption and never cared to save or accumulate. Under the influence of such an ethos the commoners on the one hand had to impress the affluent Hindus beholden to caste and on the other powerful landlords who took immense pride in being high rollers. Neither ordinary Muslims nor Muslim landlords cared to check their books to reconcile their income and expenditure. So spending especially of ostentatious variety became a socio-cultural habit to buy social prestige.

Punjabi Muslims including the poor segment traditionally held the rich Hindu Bania [traders and businessmen] class in low esteem because of its frugality and simplicity. Ironically it was the same Bania class the Muslim poor and rich would approach in the pre-Partition Punjab with frequent requests for loans. In the first four decades of the 20th century, Muslim peasants, small holders and landlords had to mortgage large tracts of their fertile lands to pay off their loans. This debilitating practice of overspending continues as the fight against the force of habit demands social consciousness, firm resolve and mental strength. Social prestige bought with spending is indeed an unaffordable luxury. People’s craving for social subterfuge will always keep them from self-fulfillment. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2020