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A baniya in my backyard

Published May 15, 2012 06:15pm

-Photo Illustration by Eefa Khalid.

I have for a long time carried an image, that over time became a sort of a daydream, in which I see myself standing in a row on a roadside waving two small flags while a jubilant procession of people passes by. The procession is from India but it doesn’t have Manmohans or Zardaris neither does it have Khans or Kapurs. They are instead common faces – very colorful and cheery though, the dancing and singing types waving in return to the crowd that for some reason values a glimpse of this troupe with no claim to fame. A psychologist might diagnose me with some condition with a difficult to pronounce (but impressive) name. But since I am an India-Pakistan dove, that is probably how I visualise, in contrast to verbalising, an event that would one day herald peace between India and Pakistan.

It flashes whenever I engage with this subject and every time there is a little improvisation. Once I saw that the more enthusiastic and youthful participants have jostled me backwards but there was really nothing to scuffle over and an exchange of smiles settled the score. At another occasion, I found my young daughter riding on my shoulders and relaying a running commentary from two feet above my eye level and seeing it through her innocence makes the event more delightful. I once had my 75 year old mother with me as she insisted to not miss the occasion and it was taxing to say the least, as it took quite an effort to ensure that nobody bumps into her.

I have always believed it would happen one day. And believe me it has not been easy. I have struggled. It is not easy to imagine something that refuses to follow text book narratives being forced upon us since past half century, something that belittles heroics of missile and nuclear programs and does not help politicking with your local constituents. Odds have been stocked with billions in money and millions of tones in arms and ammo. That shaky image, however, persisted. I have drawn confidence from my study of history. There was Berlin Wall and then there was no Berlin Wall.

The dream again visited me recently and this time with some stranger improvisations. That air of jubilation, that queer sparkle – went missing and instead I found a weirdly solemn expression writ large on the face of the crowd. And my God, the procession was not the same either. Buses were replaced by trucks and those cheery dancing, singing faces by grim looking baniyas.

Baniyas do not evoke any thing positive in me. They represent the unforgiving meanness of self-interest. Their way of seeing things is so very different from mine. They speak a language that I cannot comprehend. They count people in amounts and see societies as markets and are always intent on cashing in on every opportunity. They have learnt by heart all the mantras that convert a labour of love into sellable commodities and their Midas touch can change human relations into value-added services. They are the antidote to romanticism that I find so vital to breathe through while being buried nose deep into the absurdities of life.

I did not borrow this image of a baniya from texts. It is not bookish at all. The image, in fact, was painted over centuries with each stroke of it representing my own painful experiences. It only got worse when the Raj decided to side with him and made agricultural land an exchangeable, or foreclosable, commodity. The ruthless market economy had already jolted my average villager whose economy was rooted deep into the subsistence slumber. As he frantically struggled to cope, the baniya pulled the land from under him. The simmering hate boiled over into rage and fury.

My later day text books some how managed to transform this deep-etched image of a baniya into a relief of a Hindu which then went on to be hung as a picture title ‘an Indian’. Have you ever watched the Independence Day play in your neighborhood school? Please do, the next time you get an opportunity. A boy dressed in a dhotee, with no top or maybe a vest and a shiny bald head but with a small head of hair dangling funnily on one side of the skull represents India. He has a shrewd smile on his face and his character personifies callousness and insensitivity. He is a traitor who ditches poor Muslims to side with an oppressive white man. It is a theatrical rendering of the narrative: all Indians are Hindus and all Hindus are baniyas. No need to add that baniyas are abhorring creatures.

Persons like me had to make efforts to de-educate themselves and unlearn the most important of their political lessons. I wrote in my homework copy a million times – all Indians are not Hindus and all Hindus are not baniyas. I waited for years standing on the road side to welcome Indians or Hindus and what I now see is a procession of baniyas riding triumphantly a train of trucks crackling under the load of sacks of don’t know what as Haji sahebs and Mian jees frantically push their way through the crowd of daily wagers to have the maiden glimpse of – the merchandise, they have received from across the border.

I won’t oppose the new procession. But when I go home this evening I will tell my mom that she really should not risk going out to welcome the procession. I will also ask my young daughter to forget the carnival that we talked about and instead take out her colored pastels and pencils set and help me draw a new colorful daydream.


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.