‘Chasing Fireflies’ by Avtar Singh

Pervaiz Elahi, Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab, gave Capt. Amarinder Singh, his sarhad-paar counterpart, a horse. The good Captain reciprocated a few months later with a tractor. In the interim, a World Punjabi Conference was held, East and West Punjab games announced and a general atmosphere of cordiality and bonhomie prevailed. A reporter asked the Pakistani CM whether he felt he’d been one-upped by the Indian; if the eighty horses the tractor packed under its hood in effect trumped Pakistan’s solitary ghodi. Elahi laughed it off and said, ‘Muqabala mohabbat ka hai’, that the competition was one of love. The audience roared, the cameras clicked, the premises were awash in esprit de Kaur.

This happened almost a decade ago, in the mid-2000s. A scant few years previously, the Punjab countryside had been on the verge of being mobilised, with farmers hiding their vehicles for fear that the army, then moving en masse to the border, would commandeer them. A war had just been averted, neighbours with a history of bellicosity eyeing each other with disfavour across a mined and wired border. A sardar with deep roots in undivided Punjab had nominally taken charge in Delhi, but in Islamabad lurked a Mohajir general with no reason to love either Punjab or its products. So what, with respect, were these two chief ministers playing at?

A friend of mine, whose political acuity is aided by his interest in history, laughed at my question. The knickerwalas will never see an Akhand Bharat, he told me. But Punjab? That’s a different story.

The Pakistani Punjabis don’t care about the rest of their country. Neither, he pointed out, do you lot on this side. You feel besieged by no-hopers and laggards, just as your cousins across the border do. You share a language, cultural markers, even dream of the same things for your children. Cars, education, jobs abroad. You like sports and music and tikkas of all descriptions and you party like it’s still 1999.

Akhand Bharat? Never. But a united Punjab? Without testy Balochs and testing Biharis? Why not?

So it was a throwaway comment and events since haven’t panned out the way Messrs Singh and Elahi planned. The horse died, the games languished and the Punjabi conferences are now held in Canada, where the stated aim is to reflect on Unesco’s dire prediction that Punjabi as a language will die in this century. No, I haven’t seen the report. But I know that Punjabi literature is under threat on this side and I’ve seen the problems Punjabis across the border are facing from the onslaught of Urdu instruction. Gurmukhi and its Pakistani equivalent, Shahmukhi – apparently a Punjabi edition of the Nastaliq script more commonly available across the rest of the northern subcontinent – are at the mercy of texts that use the delivery systems of Devanagari, English and what have you and possibly you’ll see Punjabi degrade from a bhasha to a boli in our own lifetimes. It’s a sobering prospect.

But go to that other forum where the young Punjus conference. Youtube is its name. A new video, a new dance edit, a new take on ‘Jugni’: audit the responses among the comments underneath. Within the excoriations – ‘go back to Pindi, you f***in’ pendu’ – and the encomiums – ‘badasssss song, mate’ – lurks a pattern. A clear divide, to begin with, between nation. Then the creeping notion, first and foremost among the diasporic respondents, of a perceived commonality that transcends said nations. Then an impassioned plea from a resident Punjabi, writing in her mother tongue, albeit in a Romanized fashion, to rise above this petty state-ism and to recognise what binds ‘us all’ together. To enjoy the music, to listen to the words. In effect, to dig beneath the beats and the mastering and the bling. To remember.

What is a memory if not a dream?

What is a dream if not a template for the future?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the drunk vapourings of foreigners homesick for a place they’ve never known.

But youtube pulls me back, again and again. I like the various ‘Jugnis’ I see there. A firefly’s fitful, brilliant incandescence is a wonderful thing. To catch one in a jar on a summer night is to see light and dark in the blink of an eye. Epic poetry, a sufi tradition, a bhakti saint and his descendants: an attachment to the land, a Sikh kingdom, a syncretism that may or may not have ever existed; harmony and cataclysm, rivers and deserts, Ghazis and Akalis, peace and war.

A civilization without a deciphered script that is still being excavated. Alexander defeated by the marshlands and the many rivers he had to cross, a world-conqueror stopped in his tracks. A proto-university in Taxila. Gandharas and Hunas, Buddhists and fire-worshippers, soma in pancha-nada.

Faridkot on this side and Ganj-e-Shakar across.

Pakistan? India?

Fireflies in a jar. The blink of an eye.

My father was born across the border in Lahore. He and his brothers went to school there. His mother studied there, who along with her sisters was among the first women in the community to attend Kinnaird College. Naturally, she went there wearing a veil.

His Lahore is one I’m familiar with from other people’s memories. Fruit cream in canteens, horse-carriages in the old city and cars in the new one. Well-dressed men in suits in the colleges, new restaurants being planned and along the margins, as a young boy will remember it, a town in the grip of some intellectual ferment. In the distance is a world war, accounts of which are to be woken up to and tabulated and closer to home is a pressing demand for independence but in the interim there are cricket teams to be tried out for. He has close friends from distant places who bring their own servants to the dormitories and the stories they tell him of their faraway homes match those of his own grandparents for their foreignness from the urban milieu he knows. Tellingly, his clearest memory of a visit to his paternal grandmother in her village home is being up on the roof and hearing a man softly singing Heer. If he’s on the roof, then it’s the summer holidays.

There must have been fireflies.

The tumult to come would disrupt his lifestyle to the extent that he had to shift schools and form new friendships. His maternal grandfather, on the other hand: he didn’t want to leave Lahore. His lands were on that side and so were his friends and what difference did a new dispensation make anyway to a man born under a foreign flag?

His son-in-law, my grandfather, had to physically remove him. Like many other men of his generation, perhaps he never really recovered.

Decades later, as my father’s generation started to marry their own children off, I began to meet the friends from that faraway school they’d never lost touch with. They would come with their own children to the weddings on this side and my elder cousins would go to their celebrations and they’d return with tales of monstrous feudalism that would make my father and his brothers chuckle. But no matter how differently we’d turned out, individually and collectively as Indians and Pakistanis, there was much to connect us. From the music at our weddings to the arcs our education had followed, both here and abroad: it would seem fated that we would remain friends.

I’ll grant you that this is the commonality of elites the world over. Clearly there are other narratives. A writer friend from Pakistan who is also a landlord described to me in great detail how the peasantry in his part of southern Punjab has now been radicalised by outsiders. From Pathans unable to protect their Sikh neighbours in the NWFP, for the first time in living memory, to bombs in Sufi shrines in the Punjabi heartlands; there is a pattern there as well and better minds than I will use it to rebut the theorists of commonality above all.

But. Even as the invitations of the last few decades have degraded to warnings of strife at home and hints that perhaps this wedding or that jubilee might be worth avoiding; even as the Old Boys on this side have progressed into their twilight decades and the points of connection now seem fewer and fewer; there is still something there. A look in my father’s eye as he describes Lahore, an uncle’s tale of a dancer’s beauty at a mujra, the sheen of the menus another uncle had had printed for a restaurant that never saw the light of Independent day.

Memories. Templates. Dreams.

My maternal great-grandfather’s unwillingness to leave the new state of Pakistan wasn’t an aberration. A friend of mine once told me the story of his own grandfather, who was so loath to leave his land in the new state, he was quite happy to consider conversion and circumcision and a new name. Men of their generation had known the hukumat of the British. What difference who ran the sarkar, what price the sound of the prayer or the script it’s printed in, when all that matters, the land itself, is still yours?

That old man was dragged kicking and screaming from his home and deposited in a new one across an arbitrary border. There were others who stayed and they are now part of the soil of Pakistan. Partition had greater victims, of course. The suffering of women left without choice in a landscape of cruelty that was at once methodical and insane is only starting to be documented. But it is instructive to remember that even men with ostensible options chose in a way that seems completely counter-intuitive to us, now, saddled as we are with the baggage of history. Nationalism, whatever you may think of it, is a powerful lens. It refracts what is there, whether we like it or not. India and Pakistan just are, complete with their founding myths. End of story.

Except it isn’t.

Imagine that firefly from my father’s childhood, listening to a peasant sing from Heer. Now she’s in a garden in Central Delhi, where Arif Lohar and friends are referencing her in a production from Pakistan’s popular Coke Studio. Arif Lohar’s father, Alam, was of course a legendary folk singer himself, who along with Asa Singh Mastana and Surinder Kaur first brought ‘Jugni’ to the attention of the record-buying public. That firefly is in a well-dressed whirl, as togged-out Dilliwalis who’ve never known a day’s worth of hard labour on anyone’s land swing and sway to a rhythm that speaks, it seems, to something deep within. These words, these references, the insistent beat: like a reflection, a refraction, a missive from the past.

Do you think this firefly wastes any time thinking over the criticisms of people who ‘know’, who claim that it is naive to believe that ‘Jugni’ is just a firefly? Does she spare a thought for the peasants over whose worlds she’s flown; does she giggle at the suggestion that those ‘simple’ peasants don’t know a narrative device when it’s sung to them by the dhadhis they’ve grown up with, that metaphors are foreign countries to those fools from the Punjab plains? Does she remember Bulleh Shah entreating his lover to come out from behind a veil and Nanak likening creation to an aarti? Or does she just listen and glow, glow as one does when all was darkness and suddenly everything is lucid and clear? Even if it is only for that moment, that evening, the length of that song.

Fireflies don’t live very long. Certainly not in Central Delhi. But a digital recording is apparently forever.

I started writing this thinking I’d come up with a single alternative, if you will, to the current diorama. Imagine if the schism had never happened, I was instructed. Ignore Amrita Pritam calling Waris Shah out of his grave, ignore Ahmed Faraz’s query to the celebrants, asking them which dismembered state’s founding they were jumping up and down about. I’m a Punjabi Sikh. The way ahead was clear.

But it’s not.

The schism just is.

So what?

Punjab’s always been riven. By invasion, by geology. Between brothers, even. Even when land wasn’t so damned expensive.

Perhaps we don’t know how to get along. And all we have to look forward to is the occasional kindness of a taxi driver in a foreign city who recognises a word, an accent, a name, and comps you the fare because the village his senile grandfather cries about at night is the one you still call home.

Or perhaps you could, like I did, chase fireflies on youtube. From Mika’s thin tone to the full-throated hoarseness of a dhadhi from Patiala in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, there’s more than enough to keep you occupied. Peel back the layers and find Latif Mohammed’s versions. Yes, Kuldeep Manak. Jasbir Jassi and Madan Gopal Singh reference him in their very modern take. Gurdas Maan, Rabbi Shergill, Mukhtar Sahota: the list goes on. And the debate rages on below the videos themselves. There’s a lover for every hater.

Kind of like Punjab. And the only binary that’s new is the simple one of the computer code itself, that enables people from everywhere and nowhere, India and Pakistan, you and me, to imagine the world afresh with the tools we’ve always had.

I’d like to think that one day I’ll be able to get that firefly to sit down and have a drink with me. Well, four or five. She’s Punjabi too. And I’d like to think I know what she’d say, when she judged the moment right to unship the wisdom of her wandering about to me.

‘F*** India. F*** Pakistan. Punjab te Punjab hai.’

Presented in April 2012 at
A COUNTRY OF OUR OWN
a symposium on re-imagining South Asia
http://www.india-seminar.com/2012/632.htm

http://www.india-seminar.com/2012/632/632_avtar_singh.htm

Pointed to by Amarjit Chandan
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