Diary III- Day 1
Of Nomadic Odhs
By Yoginder Sikand
18 October, 2006
My host in Lahore is Saeeda Diep,
a social activist and a truly remarkable woman. Diep and I have met
only once before, and that too very briefly, but we have been in regular
touch by email. I think it looks odd staying with someone one hardly
knows, and I have said this to her. But Diep is not one to take 'no'
for an answer. I have to stay with her and that's that, she insisted
when I informed her that my visa had come finally through.
Driving down from the Tourist
Centre to Diep's house in Jauhar Town, I jostle between trying to answer
Diep's litany of questions about friends in India and trying to spot
every small detail that passes by. What strikes me particularly is how
identical people look to folks back home. I am quickly disabused of
the notion that Pakistanis are physically somehow distinct from Indians,
somewhat more 'Aryan'-like. I see all shades of skin on the streets.
Few faces stand out as distinctly Central Asian, which is how many Indians
imagine most Pakistanis look. Almost every person I see can well be
a Hindu of some caste or the other. The fact that few sport visible
signs of Muslim-ness, such as beards and burkhas, makes this resemblance
even more striking. Many people are dark-complexioned, almost Dravidian,
undoubtedly of 'low' caste background. I feel I have not left Delhi
Didi, Diep's sister, has
prepared a sumptuous Punjabi meal of parathas, maa ki daal and dahi
bhallas. There are probably just a few dozen vegetarians in all of Pakistan
and Diep has the proud (or dubious, depending on which side of the culinary
divide you are on) distinction of numbering among that rare species.
I have been told that it is next to impossible to get decent vegetarian
food in Pakistan. 'Even if you ask for daal, it is likely that you'll
find bits of meat in it', a friend who has traveled in Pakistan had
warned me before I left. I am a committed vegetarian, and I must admit
the prospect of spending a month in Pakistan surviving on bread, cheese
and the like had been deeply troubling. So, quite naturally, I am ecstatic
about Didi's revelations about Diep's eating habits, which most Pakistanis
would find utterly eccentric and perhaps somewhat un-'Islamic'.
We chat about this and that,
but mostly it is about my utter amazement at how everything I've seen
so far, from the border onwards, seems so comfortably familiar. We rue
the Partition, curse British and American imperialists, berate Hindu
and Muslim chauvinists and religious fundamentalists, denounce politicians,
landlords and industrialists and discuss dreams of a South Asian Federation.
All these points are to be repeated in innumerable conversations with
friends I meet throughout my stay in Pakistan, in every town I visit.
If Diep had her way, we could
have gone on with our haranguing session all night, but I am exhausted
after the long journey and the thrill of making it across the border.
I am led up to a room that Diep has done up for me. I curl into a ball
under a mountain of razais, stunned at the reality of being in Pakistan,
and not quite sure if I'm dreaming.
I am woken the next morning
at the crack of dawn by the muezzin's mellifluous cry emanating from
a nearby mosque. Which is just as well, as I tell myself I must try
to sleep as little as humanly possible in the next one month so that
I can see as much as I can of this country. Who knows if and when I'll
be able to come back?
Diep is up and about already
at this early hour. Like me, she never gives up giving up smoking, and
so although last night we promised ourselves that we have had the last
cigarettes of our lives, we have now, quite predictably, firmly changed
our minds. We warm our toes before the room-heater and, over hot and
sugary cardamom tea, puff away at our cigarettes, desperately seeking
to stave off the biting cold. Cigarettes, I am to discover to my relief,
are considerably cheaper here than in India, and so are mobile phone
cards. Almost everything else, however, I am told, is somewhat dearer.
I go out for a walk and intently
survey the surroundings. This could be any lower-middle class locality
in New Delhi. Children in their uniforms trudging to school, bearing
bags almost half their size. Pot-bellied Punjabi housewives sunk in
cane chairs, drinking in the sun in their verandahs. Old men leaning
on canes, carrying home metal flasks of milk. A large neglected patch
of dried-up grass that serves as a public park, boasting a couple of
ugly cement benches and a swing that is no longer functional.
I peer in at what appears
to be the main store in the neighbourhood, a modest, somewhat bare structure.
I chat up Naved, the friendly owner, who has never seen an Indian before
and is, consequently, as intrigued meeting me as I am meeting him, the
first Pakistani shopkeeper I have met. Much of what he is selling, he
says, is imported from China. Pakistan makes a limited range of quality
consumer goods, he explains with patriotic pride, most of these being
produced by multinational corporations based in the country. But now,
he rues, local industries are facing stiff competition from China, whose
cheap goods have flooded the country. 'The British and the Banias have
gone, but we are still a colony', Naved laments.
I am famished and Naved guides
me to an eatery a short distance away, which seems to be the only one
in the locality. Outside, a huge, soot- stained cauldron squats on a
pile of burning logs, sending up spirals of acrid smoke. Open drains
laden with filth and refuse encircle the building like a quadrangular
decoration. Inside, bearded, heavily turbaned old men sit on broken
chairs, puffing away at clay hukkahs, coughing and burping loudly. Vast
armies of flies angrily hover around plastic plates containing bones
and bits of meat.
I ask the owner of the eatery,
who has just grabbed hold of a squawking hen by the feet, probably taking
it to meet its end, if he has anything vegetarian to eat. He looks at
me as if I have asked for the impossible. The eatery leaves a lasting
impression on me. Little do I realize then that since I am going to
rough it out and consciously stay away from 'fancy' eating joints throughout
my trip, I will be forced to eat in scores of places almost as depressing
and filthy as this one, with which Pakistan seems to abound. Clean and
cheap restaurants are an absolute rarity in the country, even in Lahore,
which boasts of a supposedly sophisticated culinary tradition.
I settle for a local cold
drink, which seems the only safe thing on sale in the eatery. Walking
ahead I come to a vast, dusty square that has been converted into a
temporary slum, consisting of dozens of tents made of pieces of cloth
and plastic stitched together. Desperately poor people live here, daily
wage labourers from impoverished southern Punjab. Yellow- haired babies
suffering from malnutrition play in the sand with broken dolls. Elderly
women sit ladling little tin pots and feeding leaves to bearded goats.
Young men joke with each other over a game of cards. From their facial
appearance and complexion these people strike me as being of 'low' caste
'We are from the nomadic
Odh caste', says an elderly man who calls me to his tent and tells me
to sit down. 'We converted to Islam four generations ago. Before that
we were Hindus but we were treated as untouchables by the Brahmins.
In Islam there is no such thing. Islam teaches equality of all Muslims'.
I ask him if caste and caste-based
discrimination are still a reality in Pakistan. I know it cannot be
half as bad as in India, where it receives theological sanction through
the Hindu religion.
'Yes, you see, most Pakistanis
were some sort of Hindus at one time and many of them still retain their
caste identities and caste prejudices', the man explains. 'So, even
though we are Muslims and can pray in the same mosque, we are still
sometimes treated as an inferior caste ( kammi). Most marriages in Pakistan
take place within the biraderi and that is how the system continues.
Few Syeds or Rajputs would think of marrying an Odh girl'. 'And', he
adds, 'there are so many other such Muslim biraderis, who, like us,
were considered as untouchables by the Hindus and are still looked down
upon as low after converting to Islam. While we are recognized as fellow
Muslims, power and wealth is largely in the hands of the more powerful
biraderis and most of us are very poor'.
'Of course this is completely
un-Islamic', the man insists. 'But', he philosophically asks, 'how many
people in Pakistan can be said to be truly Islamic? If they really were
so, we would not be living in a slum like this, unsure of where we will
get our next meal from'.
Sweeping a wide semi-circle
with his arm, indicating with his finger the ostentatious mansions visible
beyond the slum, he adds somewhat mockingly, 'If Pakistan were truly
an Islamic country as it claims to be, do you think these rich people
would be living in these huge buildings and we in these hovels? Nothing
has happened for us ever since Pakistan was made, I tell you'.
Our conversation is interrupted
with Diep calling me on my cell and telling me that she's waiting for
breakfast. I trudge back through piles of garbage and concrete waste
from abandoned construction sites. I think of the 'Hindu' Odhs I've
met in Rajasthan, whose living conditions seem no less pathetic than
the 'Muslim' Odhs I have just met. They look the same to me and appear
to speak in the same sort of way. Barring their names and claims of
being associated with different religions and religious communities
they seem no different at all.
I ponder on what religion
actually means for such poor people, for the millions of 'low' caste
Dalits, 'Hindus' and 'Muslims', in India and in Pakistan. In my mind
I try to trace a complex web between power, religion, caste, class,
identity and the politics of numbers. Mind-boggling and distressing
I think of how 'upper' caste
prejudice, both Hindu and Muslim, must surely have at least something
to do with the fact that probably not a single of the literally hundreds
of books about the trauma of the Partition focuses on what the tragedy
meant for the millions of Dalits on both sides of the border. I wonder
why it is that Dalits, whether 'Hindu', 'Muslim' or other, have virtually
no place in official or 'mainstream' Indian and Pakistani historiography,
being, instead, carefully and calculatedly invisibilised. Perhaps, I
tell myself, cross-religion and cross-country Dalit solidarity is something
that urgently needs to be explored as a means to promote better relations
between India and Pakistan. But in my mind I can see numerous 'upper'
caste Hindu and Muslim 'luminaries' in the NGO circuit, who have made
a neat packet and a name for themselves by claiming to champion India-Pakistan
dialogue, cringe at the very suggestion.
These depressing thoughts
drive me to Diep's doorsteps, where she's impatiently waiting for me
with a column of parathas delicately balancing on a plate.
'Eat', she insists, 'or else
how will you get the energy you need to trundle around all the historical
monuments in Lahore that you plan to see?'.
I do as I am told and am
pleased. Diep's Lahori parathas, I must admit, put the fare available
at Delhi's Parathewali Gali to shame.
Pakistan Diary- Part I
Heading for the Border
Crossing The Border-
Pakistan Dairy: II
By Yoginder Sikand
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