by Diditi Mitra
“It is the most incongruous of sights. Amid the dusty fields and huts of rural Punjab are sprawling, palatial bungalows with names such as Orlando House, Vancouver Villa, White House and California Farm. These are dollar-dream homes built by wealthy NRIs with an architectural twist.” And, in my view, they are mansions. The photograph on the left is an example of many such properties.
These mansions often replicate the architectural designs of non resident Punjabi (NRP) homes abroad, typically in western parts of the world. Replicating the homes in particular is also a way to entice the generations born abroad to spend their holidays in rural Punjab and remain connected to their heritage. “It is a small price to pay to attract the children to their roots… I don’t want to lose them to western culture,” said 45 year old California resident Kamal Mann who spent Rs. 2 crore to build a house in Banga in the district of Jalandhar. The house has all the amenities of their 3.5 million dollar (Rs. 14 crore) home they own in San Francisco, Ramesh Vinayak writes in an article published in India Today. “The swanky, one acre house, named Piara Farm after Mann’s grandfather, boasts an indoor swimming pool, a 15-ft-high waterfall, home theatre, central air conditioning, sauna bath, a hi-tech gym, pool-side bar and a billiards room.”
So for those who are able to build such homes, it is concrete evidence of their success overseas.
In addition to using the wealth earned to maintain cultural continuity, struggling
villagers use it as a way “to re-establish themselves in their native villages and…set up village gates to satisfy their ego and relate their rise from rags to riches.” The photo on the right is of gates to the village of Talhan in the district of Jalandhar. It is also the village that holds the “hawaijahaj” gurdwara. Gates like this can be funded by NRPs. Click here to read about this gurdwara.
Besides improvement in social class, the “riches” allow the villagers to negotiate lower caste positions in their favor. Research by Archana Verma on early twentieth century Sikh immigrants shows the ways in which Mahtons, a caste group, negotiated their position in the caste ladder (which show the fluidity of the caste hierarchy too) in their native village of Paldi with status obtained as immigrants to Canada. Scholarship on contemporary immigrants from Punjab, like the that of Darshan Tatla, shows a similar pattern among various other Sikh caste groups, like Ravidasis, who were able to negotiate their lower caste status in their villages of birth and/or emigration with the resources earned through immigration. Informants included in my current work (in progress) on immigrant Sikh families reinforce the findings of such earlier works on immigration, earnings and social status in the villages of Punjab.
Material resources acquired through employment abroad is used to facilitate development in the villages of Punjab as well. Satnam Chana’s work show that immigrants invest in social welfare projects, like dispensaries, schools and basic infrastructure. In fact, immigrant funding has become very important to the Punjab government, and the Indian government broadly, in its development initiatives since the government itself has receded from those responsibilities with the start of economic liberalization. NRPs (and NRIs) are encouraged to remain connected to their “homelands” so that they continue to finance projects to advance their “home.”
In the end, the story of the huge mansions constructed by NRPs is certainly evidence of their movement up the social ladder in Punjab. It is perhaps also promising for the Punjab and the Indian government as it has now come to rely on the flow of cash coming into the state from the hands of its wealthy residents abroad. Immigration out of Punjab thus appears to be helpful at the level of the personal, socio-political as well as at the level of the state.
(Go here for the first post in the series)