Defying Indian stereotypes

By Jawed Naqvi

India it is clear does not live by Dr Singh’s vaunted miracles or anyone else’s. It manages somehow to keep its integrity in spite of their widely acknowledged counsel. – File Photo.

I am in Mustafabad for the weekend. It’s a small village at the halfway mark on a refurbished dual-carriage road which links Lucknow with Allahabad. Gandhi had sent Nehru here to bring his message of non-violence to agitating peasants. The young apprentice found himself equally if not more at ease with Muslim and Hindu landlords who governed the area, first for the Shia nawabs of Oudh and later for its British rulers.

On the way to Mustafabad from Lucknow, you have to cross Rae Bareli, currently Sonia Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency. The nondescript and dusty town was first cultivated for the Congress by Feroz Gandhi, her father-in-law. His wife Indira Gandhi too had adopted it as her political hub. Between Rae Bareli and Mustafabad lies the Sai river; these days though it looks more like a rivulet. It is said that a pacifist Nehru stood on one bank of the river helplessly watching the zamindars and police mowing down agitating peasants on the other side of Sai.

An ageing plaque marks the dark event near the old bridge. Travellers on the new bridge, including SUVs-borne supporters of powerful politicians, are mostly oblivious of its past. One of the leaders of the peasant ferment of the 1920s was Munshi Kalika Prasad who had links with young communist activists. The area around Sai is called Munshiganj, quite possibly after him.

Not all the zamindars were cruel or high-handed. Laddan Mian was one of the scions of the zamindar families of the region. He was an ardent Shia Muslim by faith but a bohemian in his worldview. He gave away hundreds of acres of his land to those that he felt needed it more. When his younger brother discovered that nothing was left for the family, Laddan Mian was questioned about his inexplicable profligacy. Laddan Mian replied famously: “Jab saltanat-i-Roma na rahi, to meri kya haqeeqat hai?” (When the mighty Roman empire could not last beyond its stipulated time, how would I?) Laddan Mian died a fugitive from law. He had borrowed 200 rupees from a bank ostensibly to raise a dairy farm. Instead he used up the money on hosting dinners for the local village poets. In the last days of his life he had no home of his own, except that of some old debtors. His only son became a gang-man in the railways whose work involved flagging trains to slow them down when new tracks were laid or old ones were realigned.

I always learn something new from an Indian village where stereotypes are as easily demolished as they are cultivated in cities far removed from the earthy rural reality. Vijay Mishra runs a small hole in the wall shop for old desert coolers. Urban residents of the Unchahar thermal power complex that Indira Gandhi built just off Mustafabad are his main clients. The current rainy season has spoilt everything for his business. On such occasions Mishra decides to watch movies on his six inches wide black-and-white TV set. In the absence of steady electricity (ironical for someone whose clients are in the business of generating power) he operates with a small battery.

Mishra’s name suggests he is a Brahmin, the caste that is seen as ruling India by dominating the bureaucracy and more often than not getting a lion’s share of Delhi’s political largesse. I need an adaptor for my laptop’s flat-pin plug. None is available in any of the shops in Unchahar. I think of an alternative contraption. It’s called jugaad. I approach Mishra who promptly ties an electric wire to each of the two flat pins of my computer plug. He attaches the other end of the wire to a regular round-pin type.

The gadget works like magic. But then I am in for a shock. My eyes I noticed were welling up. Asked how much I should pay him for his virtually life-saving help to me, Mishra hesitatingly asked for 10 rupees. I was bewildered and I cried. A brand new plug, two feet of wire and 30 minutes of focussed labour with an offer of a cup of tea — all for something less than 20 US cents! Images of big time swindle in sports, at the stock market, in parliament to win votes, celebrations of “India Shining” and deafening applause for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s watershed reforms have still left a green patch of humanity unaffected from the scorching heat of the bourgeois cash nexus.

In Delhi I would have shelled out anything like 100 to 200 rupees for similar help. I offered Mishra 50 rupees. He reluctantly accepted 40. In Delhi little street urchins on the roads near the Commonwealth Games complex look insulted if you give them anything less than 10 rupees. What I do know is that Vijay Mishra’s family is not registered as a BPL family, a popular term denoting those below the poverty line. BPLs are judged as earning less than a dollar a day.

India it is clear does not live by Dr Singh’s vaunted miracles or anyone else’s. It manages somehow to keep its integrity in spite of their widely acknowledged counsel.

Earlier that evening, at a Shia majlis in Mustafabad’s Mughal period deewaankhana, a black-robed cleric was addressing a small flock of the faithful. There was a hint in his speech of the bigoted days of Shia hegemony of Lucknow and its surrounding regions. After independence the notorious tabarra movement saw a rival Muslim sect being exposed to insults. Times have changed but sectarian tendencies are still perceptible among religious groups. Happily someone from the audience finds courage to corner the cleric. The maulvi is admonished for being unkind to those of his brethren who were fighting a grim battle in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. The cleric apologises and promises never to make a sectarian speech again. Was that the beginning of a big change or a small part of a growing pattern?

The flight from Delhi to Lucknow (en route to Mustafabad) was piloted by Pratibha Yadav, one of the several women pilots now transporting Indian planes safely to their many destinations at home and abroad. It was a rain-lashed take-off. Late arriving passengers from Mumbai had delayed the departure by 30 minutes. I have seldom seen a plane taxiing on the runway with such pervasive control and at such an unusually high speed. The take-off was extremely smooth and in spite of the turbulence, the landing was magical. We had covered almost all the lost time.

The name of Pratibha Yadav will remain etched in my mind for another reason. It suggests that she is of the Yadav community or married to someone who is a Yadav. This community has fought hard to get for itself benefits given to other backward communities in the Hindu caste heap. There is nothing backward about any community as the pilot of my plane illustrated. Moreover, as was evident from my experience with Vijay Mishra, there are first class people in all communities. Villages like Mustafabad are there to defy any contrary stereotypes.

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