A native place

Between Gandhi’s self-sufficient, harmonious idyll and Ambedkar’s den or ignorance and narrow-mindedness lies the village of reality.

Somewhere between Gandhi's self-sufficient, harmonious idyll and Ambedkar's den or ignorance and narrow-mindedness lies the village of reality.

I remember a story a young woman from Kenya told me two decades ago in New York. I can no longer recall her name but, like me, she was a Jat Sikh (or, rather, jutt, as the word is said in Punjab). Her grandfather had migrated from Punjab in the early part of the 20th century. She had never been to India, nor had her father, but she laughingly told me of the map her father carried in his head of the village her grandfather had left behind. From her grandfather's tales her father had recreated the geography of the lanes and the name of every household in the village. For him, she said, his native place existed vividly in his imagination, as real as any place on earth.

A native place, even one such as this that dwells only in the imagination, contrasts dramatically with the lack of rootedness, through migration or alienation, that has been the central theme of much of 20th-century writing in the West. From Albert Camus to Pico Iyer, whether we are talking of a man who is at home nowhere, or a woman who is equally at home everywhere (perhaps this is largely the same thing), we have come to understand this as the very definition of the modern condition.

The citizens of the US have been, by the very nature of their history, denied rootedness. In Europe, two wars of unprecedented ferocity and the religion of Marxism in the last century imposed the fate of exile on men through different means. There is of course a difference in these two conditions. Most Americans, unlike most Europeans, do not even understand the idea of a native place. It is a distinction of some importance.

For us in Southasia, the same events that undid Europe resulted in Independence, thus restoring out ability to speak for ourselves. And if we were to look around, we would find that we are now slowly seeing a return to a world where the vast majority of literate people are rooted in some sense – perhaps a little more firmly than Europeans, certainly far more vividly than those from the US. This was true of the world before the 20th century as well. The alienation that we were led to believe was a universal condition has turned out to be just one of the byways of history.

This rootedness is not the rootedness of centuries past. Earlier, each of us was ensconced in ties of time and place, where we knew not only where we fitted in the hierarchy of familial relationships and social relationships, but where birth largely decided the cast of our lives, our marriages and our professions. Though limited, today's is a Southasian rootedness that no American knows of – the rootedness of a native place, this place of our fathers (in most cases) and their fathers before them. And certainly, for the vast majority in this region even today, this native place is a village, or the memory of one.

Root of oppression
We have all grown up with the myth of the village, even those of us who cannot lay claim to one. Much of early Bombay cinema contrasted the village with the city. The village might occasionally be inhabited by an evil landlord but it was still a repository of values, home to an innocence no city allowed. It was in the main Mohandas K Gandhi's construct of a village, as a self-sustaining unit held together by benevolent social ties that had been handed down through generations: 'My idea of Village Swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbors for its wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity.' This was key to his vision of India, 'I would say that if the village perishes India will perish too. India will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost.'

This myth has no place for villages such as Latahedi, which I visited several times in 2002. Latahedi lies in the district of Rajgarh, in Madhya Pradesh. In August 2000, the state government made a proposal under which it reduced common grazing land for villages from five to two percent – such land belonged to the village but was legislated upon by the government – and decided the land so freed would be distributed among landless Dalits. In this village, inhabited mainly by Dalits and Yadavs (the latter outnumbering the former two to one), 29 parcels of land, around 80 bighas, were handed out. When some of the Dalits dared to farm the land given to them, the Yadavs claimed that their access to the cremation ground had been cut off – the traditional village paths had been obstructed and the cows had nowhere to graze. Suddenly, this traditional usage was no longer allowed.

Meanwhile, the programme was challenged in court, and the allotment of land across the state was quashed. In the week it took for the government to obtain a stay on the court order, in village after village cattle were deliberately herded in to graze on the first crop sown by the beneficiaries. In Latahedi matters did not end there. When I visited the village, all social interaction among the Dalits and Yadavs had broken down, and the village had become more or less segregated into two hostile communities.

Sitting among the Dalits, I was told by a man named Bapu Lal, 'One night soon after the court decision, a meeting was held in the village – the local MLA is said to have attended – where they decided to herd their cattle to our fields. This had already happened in several villages, so in the morning, we went to file a report at the thana and only the women went out to the fields … More than 150 armed men came herding the cattle. They started beating up the women, who fled, and then pulled out one man from his house and beat him to death. Fourteen of us were badly injured, some of the women still have their arms in plaster.' In the ensuing case, 26 Yadavs were sentenced to 20 years in jail.

In Latahedi, it was not a case of a few individuals who were oppressive; here, the Yadavs were pitted against the Dalits as a group. The story is hardly unique, and in fact is representative of what still transpires in the villages of India, from north to south. Under such circumstances it is easy to see why B R Ambedkar mocked Gandhi's romanticism, terming villages the very root of caste oppression in this country, 'The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic …What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?' It is difficult to find fault with his argument – the anonymity of the urban setting at least takes the edge off of untouchability, and caste survives in urban India but in a mitigated form. And caste is by no means the only problem; you can say much the same thing in the context of gender – or, as Ambedkar pointed out, religion.

In the face of such a reality, there should be very little left of the myth. But as we well know, myths never die: they linger in our lives, waiting for opportunities to resurface. Most of us residing in urban areas are at least a generation or two removed from the village. The actualities of a village, its claustrophobic confinement and inequities, are no longer lived realities in the way the anonymity of the urban setting is. So, even among those who lack the sense of a village, or can no longer go back to one, the desire to partake of the rural experience is being reborn.

This desire is manifest in two ways, related yet different. One is essentially a romantic desire to be in touch with the earth. The other is a search for natural community, for a native place. A village, for all its oppression, provides both those things. But they are very different things. I should know – in my life, two villages have played a substantial part, and each represents only one of these two strains.

The 'farmhouse'
For the first 15 years of my life, my siblings and I would spend at least part of the year in a village called Khankot, a few kilometres from Amritsar. Usually, given how school holidays are structured in India, this would be during May and June. This was not a village born out of an urban imagination. A brick wall enclosed a large courtyard outside my uncle's home. A tractor stood parked outside near the entrance. The buffaloes were tethered on one side, just outside the courtyard. Every morning, buckets of fresh milk were brought into the courtyard, where my aunt supervised the churning of butter. The buttermilk that we drank all day long in lieu of water was stored in large plastic jugs in the fridge. Once a week or so my aunt would be up very early, thickening the milk in a giant cauldron over a slow fire, and we would wake up to the smell of khoya wafting across the house.

For large parts of the day there would no electricity, and we would sit in the shade in the courtyard fanning ourselves with handheld cane fans, trying to keep the flies at bay. The giant gate at the entrance opened on to the village road, and just beyond lay our fields, usually fallow in the summer after the wheat harvest. A tubewell ran for part of the day, occasionally on electricity but far more often on diesel, to water the grove of pears that stood at the edge of the fallow fields. We would stand under the gushing water, cool to the touch, our feet slipping on the green slime accumulated on the concrete base. Some of our fields lay on the other side of a mud-lined canal. We would be afraid of the crossing. At its deepest the canal water would come up to our faces; and amidst the indolent buffaloes lazing in the water, fear of floundering would attach to our minds as we waded across.

If all this sounds idyllic, it is meant to. I could dip into this life and return; I was not confined to the constraints a village imposes on those who live there. It is precisely this ability to dip in and out of a rural setting that those who can afford to so in the cities are now hoping to recreate. In India, the name given to this quest is revealing – a 'farmhouse'. It could be a patch of land on the outskirts of a city, in the hills or near the sea, but it is emphatically an idea tied to land. What it does not encompass is a sense of community. That takes generations to come into being, as my own experience of Khankot reveals.

Khankot, in Punjab state, was one of the villages emptied by Partition, with the Muslims having departed for Pakistan. In the decades after Independence, it became home to large number of Jat Sikh farmers from different parts of Punjab. Education had ensured that my father and his brothers had moved to the cities. Land lying unprotected in Punjab is land likely soon to be lost, and they chose to exchange the land in their native village, Sathiala, for a consolidated block of land in Khankot, where an uncle of mine was still farming. Most farmers in Khankot had similar stories. In the wake of such farmers, Dalit labourers came to help out in the fields and settled in the village so a sense of a Punjab village with its Jats and Mazhabis (Dalit Sikhs) was recreated.

But such a village is not a native place for its new residents. Despite my childhood, despite my own memories, when people in Punjab ask me where I am from, I do not say Khankot. In 2000, for the first and only time I visited my native village of SathialaI followed the Grand Trunk Road from Jalandhar to Amritsar, past the River Beas, where the road dips into a small town by the same name, Beas. It was here that I realised that I too carried a map of my native place – perhaps not as detailed as the man in Kenya, but certainly a map of a place I had never seen.

On this dip, at the time of Partition, trains carrying Muslims to Pakistan would be brought to a halt. The military convoy supposedly guarding them would stand aside, as armed men from the surrounding villages (including Sathiala) would launch another of their brutal tiks – the English word attack syncopated into something far more terrifying. We have all chosen to forget that the history of Partition is not just a history of the victims; it is also the history of the perpetrators.

Past the dip in the road, a turn to the right led to Sathiala. I was wondering what I would do once I got to the village; there was no one I knew there. It did not matter, as everyone I spoke to placed me in an instant. I was taken to the part of the village inhabited by the bharian ki patti. A patti identifies all those who trace common descent from one of the original settlers of the village. This was my family's patti, and the name – bharian translates to heavyweight – reveals the persistence of folk memory. I stand just under six feet and weigh about 90 kg; of all my Bal cousins, I am the shortest and by far the lightest.

A lady, my aunt twice removed, showed me our ancestral house, half sunk in soil that had accumulated over years of neglect. She pointed to a large banyan tree, secure in the knowledge that we who had never met would share stories in common. 'This is where your grandfather would spend much of his days after he retired,' she said.

The story that came to my mind as I stood there starts with the image of my grandfather, who died before I was born, as a young boy out playing in the village in the company of his uncle. As he stands watching, his uncle is killed by a group of men avenging an earlier act of violence. The men debate whether they should kill the young boy, but decide against it. His tenuous survival, as the only son in the family ensures that my grandfather is sent away from the village (a Punjabi proverb states, unfortunate is the Jat who has only one son). He becomes the first person from the village to graduate from college. After retiring as a deputy superintendent in the British Police, he goes back to the village without fear of reprisal – and this banyan tree was, and now in my imagination will always be, his place in the sun.

Turning to the stairwell leading up from the sunken ground floor of the house, my aunt pointed, 'This is where Chaugata and Baru were killed by the police.' My grandfather's first cousins did not leave the village. They were five brothers, wrestlers and kabaddi players true to the name of their patti, more than willing to carry on the feud. A year or two before Independence, two of them were killed in a police 'encounter'. Fifty-five years later, the events of that day were still vividly alive for both of us. Standing there, the pattern of terrorism that subsequently overtook Punjab, where policemen and the insurgents often came from the same village and sometimes the same family, seemed only a continuation of the violent history of innumerable feuds.

The brothers who survived died their own violent deaths over time, ensuring in turn that they took their own toll on the family with which they were feuding. Now only a household or two remains to represent what was once a vast patti, a reminder that a community is as much ties that bind as ties that destroy.

Virtual reality
I spent that whole afternoon in the village, reinforcing the geography of memory with the physical shapes. I left thinking there would not be much reason to return: my native place now existed substantially in my imagination. But the world never loses the capacity to surprise us.

Two years ago, whiling away time while pretending to work in office, I searched the Internet for the name of the village. Surprisingly, the first site that showed up was www.sathiala.com. I contacted the man running the website. Tony, a Bal like every resident of Sathiala, had migrated in his teens along with his father. Now, he lives on the West Coast of the US, where he works as a long-distance trucker while completing the college degree he had long abandoned. My mail was enough for him to place me: his father had gone to school with my father. We have been in touch ever since.

My native place and his is now taking slow shape on the Internet. This is not what anyone meant by a 'global village' but the fact remains that, for the first time in our history, we have other ways of coping with being uprooted, other ways of maintaining a community. Facebook and a farmhouse are not quite the same thing as residing in a village, but they might well be all most of us will be allowed.

Ironically, at the very moment Sathiala is being re-imagined on the Web, Khankot is ebbing away in real life. The fields have given way to housing colonies, and a mall has come up nearby. Khankot is no longer much of a village, and it will perhaps exist as a native place only in the imagination of some people scattered across the border in Pakistan. Thanks to this strange twist, it is now the reality of my childhood that will have to survive in my imagination – while my imagined native place is becoming part of shared reality, if only a virtual one.

~ Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor of Open magazine. He lives in Delhi.

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