Punjab Journal: A Miracle in Ludhiana

by Shashwati Talukdar


Jass at his Kathi Roll stand in the Hualien night market

We heard a miraculous story in Ludhiana. And this is how it came about that we heard it.

I met Jass in the night market in Hualien, a small town on the east coast of Taiwan. In a country where there are very few Indians, and most of them seem to be post docs in Chemistry from Hyderabad, Jass stood out. He ran a kathi roll stand in the night market and also taught English, his wife is Taiwanese Canadian. They met while she was traveling through India, and Jass is an avid traveler, makes friends easily and is truly cosmopolitan. So much so, he taught himself English so that he could communicate with more people from all over the country and the world.

Jass is from Ludhiana, and since we were going there, we wanted to say hello to the family, which consists of his parents, grandfather, brother and a large extended family.


Jass’s father, Balbir Singh ji

Meeting Jass’s father, Balbir Singh-ji, it becomes clear why Jass is such a path breaker himself.

Balbir Singh-ji’s family was one of the dispossessed millions from West Punjab. When he was a child, he was sick very often. His mother took him to the Rara Sahib Gurdwara to be blessed. The Granthis at the Gurdwara told her that she should leave him there. With the Guru’s blessings, he would get better. She left him there after making them promise that they would not stop him from leading a householder’s life outside the Gurdwara, if that’s what he wanted. And miraculously the child became well and flourished.  I suppose as a child of partition, it was indeed a miracle that he had survived. But what was striking was the story that was chosen to relate the experience of that survival. A story of a miracle and a divine gift.

Balbir Singh-ji grew up in the Rara Sahib Gurdwara. He was educated there as well. Working for a pharmacist was his first occupation as a ‘grown up.’ Later, he opened a pharmacy of his own. Greatly respected for his knowledge of medicines and his kind manner, he was called Doctor Sahib by the villagers. Eventually, he retired from the pharmacy and moved to Ludhiana.

A soft spoken and devout man, he spends his time studying the scriptures. Being so highly literate, his speech is some of the most beautiful spoken Punjabi I have ever heard. It suddenly started to make sense that his son Jass would have the gift of teaching himself English, and have a yearning to connect with the world, the world beyond the town in which he grew up.

Next week, our visit to the Rara Sahib Gurdwara with Jass’s father.

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Punjab Journal: All Tanked Up


by Shashwati Talukdar

An airplane on top of a large house, a horse, a football, even a body builder — these are water tanks. The bigger and more fancy the house, the bigger were these amazing rooftop structures. When asked ‘why build a water tank of this kind?’ the answerIMG_4854 was ‘shauq.‘ That is, a gesture to the favorite hobby or aspiration of the owner of the house which could be body building, or soccer, or a gesture towards the airplane thaHousesTanks6t took them to the outbound journey which then took them out of the country to earn enough and eventually build a mansion ‘back home.’

Perhaps, it was also a sign that wealthier the owner, the bigger and showier the water tank, thereby demonstrating that the owner was wealthy enough to have access to unlimited water. A resource becoming increasingly scarce with each passing year.

HousesTanks8CUPhotographer Rajesh Vora has done a photodocumentation project about the tanks with some fancy examples.


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Punjab Journal: A Spell Over Birowal

by Shashwati Talukdar

NRI HousesBirowal2On the way to Chandigarh from Jalandhar is the village of Birowal. Like any Indian village, it had narrow streets and sleepy cows, but the streets were lined with palatial huge houses. And it was deathly quiet. It didn’t look like anyone lived in these houses. It was like a ghost town, except the houses looked well maintained. But, for whom? And, by whom? Were these absentee owners perhaps driving cabs in New York city, while their parents and grandparents flitted from room to room, keeping things going? Do the owners return? If so, when? And once they are back, what is their role in these homes and the community? Do they farm for the time they are back? Perhaps, they buy and sell land and they are in fact developers? Maybe those tilling the fields are tenant farmers?

HousesTanks9What little I could glean from census data of the village was this, that it had a higher literacy rate compared to the rest of the state, and there were approximately 5 people to a house. And at least 40% are from the Scheduled castes.

There was nobody to answer any more complex questions we might have, the place was like a ghost village. My partner in crime and co-writer of this series, Diditi Mitra thinks everyone was inside cooling off. It was the middle of summer after all. Maybe that’s true. And maybe there was a spell of enchantment over the village. Everyone was asleep till the HousesTanks5.2Princess woke up. And perhaps given Punjab’s problems, especially in the agricultural sector, would dissipate this mirage.

For the tip of the iceberg, or the thread that unravels the crises facing Punjab, read Amandeep Sandhu’s piece in Caravan on rural indebtedness.

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Punjab Journal: Signs of prosperity, maybe

Propertyby Diditi Mitra

We saw this advertisement for Best Way, presumably a real estate company, in the Doaba region of Punjab. Signs, just like this one, show that people have resources in the area or else why would one find advertisements for property sale/purchase?

So it might be important to consider how that wealth is distributed which, in turn, is used to invest in purchase of land or other kinds of property, most likely to demonstrate a higher, or a rising, social status.

Economic reports on Punjab, although reports have shown an overall decline in the state’s prosperity over the years, continue to suggest that the state is still located higher up on the wealth index. The same report shows that it ranks highest in percentage of households with durables, like computers, and has the lowest percentage of households with no durable asset at all, like cell phones and bicycles. However, high position in the wealth index is not accompanied by a lower gap in inequality between the advantaged and disadvantaged social groups. In fact, Punjab shows high social inequality.

It is important to note that a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor is a global phenomenon, including India as a whole. Punjab is not alone in this.

Nonetheless, Punjab continues to be one of the places that is doing “well.” The question thus arises, and afore mentioned: who is doing well and are the targets of “property advisors?” Clearly, there are people with sufficient wealth in the state who can purchase property. We saw the huge immigrant Punjabi mansions discussed in our previous post with our own eyes. So then are the immigrants the ones whose attention advertisements like the one above are trying to attract? Or, perhaps it’s those who have benefited from economic liberalization in India the aim of property advisors? I will leave the questions for you to ponder.

For now though, suffice it is to know that wealth is accumulated by Punjabis (and Indians) as well as immigrants from Punjab, people who are selected segments of the “Indian” population but, it is definitely not had evenly by all.

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Punjab Journal: Village Mansions


Home in Buta village in district Jalandhar

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

Entrance to Talhan in district Jalandhar. Photo Courtesy: www.alamy.com

Entrance to Talhan village in district Jalandhar. Photo Courtesy: www.alamy.com

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.


NRI home in Punjab. Photo Courtesy: www.jessicadhillon.com

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.


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Punjab Journal: Glory Lost?

by Diditi Mitra

Imported Car

On GT Road, near Jalandhar City

We spotted this ‘foreign-made’ (read: made in the West) convertible car on the side of the highway. It was a rather odd place for it – on the side of Grand Trunk Road, surrounded by villages. The car was quite old. As the photograph shows, it had not been driven in a very long time. The yellow and grey paint on the car had faded. Or, perhaps what appeared to be grey paint is actually not paint at all. The yellow paint may have just been stripped down, showing the metal underneath. From a distance, the wind shield seemed to be covered with a thick coat of dust. Yet, the owner felt a need to keep the vehicle. It was enclosed in a wooden shed. And, like the car, the shed itself was falling apart. So then, why keep the car along with the broken and lonely shed that stood around it? Was it an attempt to hold onto glories of the past? We wondered.

While we cannot offer the backstory to this once glorious vehicle that must have been the envy of all, there are glimpses into Punjab’s economy through the decades that can help us reflect on the overall economic condition of the state.

A cursory review suggests that Punjab’s economy has been in decline over the last several decades. Ajay Jakhar, Chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, in an article published in the Indian Express calls Punjab a change over from a “breadbasket” to a “basket case.” Per capita income (PCI) for the state, as one of the indicators of this decline, slid behind Maharashtra by 1997-98, Gujarat was added to that list by 2003-04 and Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh sped ahead of Punjab’s PCI by 2013-14. In light of this steady decline, it is not surprising that the unemployment rate of the state increased as well, as did the state’s gross fiscal deficit.


Armed Forces – important source of work in the state. A couple of trucks in a caravan of armed forces trucks on GT Road, going toward Jalandhar City.

Nirvikar Singh of University of California at Santa Cruz asserts that the instability in agriculture created by the Green Revolution and a lack of investment in industries, given the central government’s patterns of investment as well as fears of investment in a state that is strategically located along the frontier, impeded growth of industries in Punjab. Although Punjab did gain somewhat from economic liberalization, it was much after the process began in the early 1990s that the state felt its impact. Political turmoil, according to Singh, which stretched out into the mid-1990s was one of the obstacles in extending the benefits of economic liberalization to Punjab. More importantly, even when industry was attempted in Punjab, it was limited, Singh maintains. For Punjab, the armed services has always been a fall back position for employment, as has been immigration to various parts of the world. But, those sources of revenue have not been enough to improve Punjab’s overall economic health.


Image of a farmer in Punjab. Photo Courtesy: Hindustan Times, March 16, 2016

In such a context, it is interesting to consider that Punjab is one of the states with high rates of farmer suicide. The extent to which such patterns are connected to the deteriorating conditions of the state is beyond the scope of our analysis. But, it is certainly an aspect of social behavior that should be considered in explanations of downward spiraling of the state’s economy, especially the ways in which quality of investment in agriculture and the rising inequality gap in India itself has contributed to frustration among small farmers with meager landholdings.

The photograph of the broken down foreign vehicle is symbolic of the tough economic conditions that Punjab has to battle. It’s trajectory depends upon better plans for not just the economy, but also on the ways in which the entire package of social progress is envisioned for the nation by its leaders.

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Punjab Journal: Chik Chik House

by Shashwati Talukdar

Chik Chik meat shop

Chik Chik House in the village of Beggowal, Punjab

Most people we met in our travels were vegetarians, which surprised us, in Sikh majority Punjab. The final word on meat eating among Sikhs is not fixed, and we didn’t really know enough to parse these dietary preferences.

The ‘Chik Chik House’ was the only butcher shop we saw during our stay in Punjab. Maybe it was the novelty of seeing a butcher shop, or maybe it was the iconography of chicken portraits with the picture of a young woman, and a play on the words ‘chick’, spelt as ‘chik,’ the Hindi word for blinds, or the warm glow the place was emanating in the gathering inky darkness of the countryside. Whatever the reason, we were drawn to the Ghotra family meat shop – enough to take a picture.

Turns out that Punjab is largely vegetarian, being number three on the states with the highest percentage of vegetarians.

Mapping dietary preferences

Mapping dietary preferences

Dietary preferences in India have an ugly vigilante side to them.

Given the political baggage of meat eating, there is this interesting correlation with how vegetarian states vote to consider:


India has five states that could be considered vegetarian (defined as having at least half their population as vegetarian). These states are Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. Remarkably, four out of these five have BJP chief ministers and the fifth, Punjab, has the BJP ruling the state as a junior partner in coalition with the Akali Dal.


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Punjab Journal: GT Road, a University and McDonald’s


On Grand Trunk Road, near Jalandhar City

by Diditi Mitra

McDonald’s is everywhere!

Seeing this fast food restaurant with which I am all too familiar on the side of Grand Trunk Road, close to Jalandhar City, was a reminder of the extended arms of McDonald’s and by way of that, the United States of America. It was an odd sight, I must say. There was a University nearby. Lovely Professional. I suppose that was considered when the fast food joint was built in this area.

Mostly though, there were villages that surrounded this now mega enterprise originally started by Ray Kroc in 1955. Kroc was inspired by the efficiency of a restaurant run by Dick and Mac McDonald when he first saw it on his visit to California in 1954. The restaurant was a small enterprise, but a successful one, with a limited menu of hamburgers, fries and various kinds of drinks. As the story goes, the brothers, Dick and Mac, were looking for a new agent. Kroc jumped at the opportunity and created McDonald’s System, Inc and six years later bought the rights to the name McDonald’s. His objective was to offer “food of consistently high quality and uniform methods of preparation.”

Little did Kroc know that years later “McDonald’s” would be used by sociologist George Ritzer as a trope toMcDonalddization of Society reflect upon and critique the homogenization of cultures ushered in by a globalized modernity. It is a completely different meaning of uniformity than what was conceived by Ray Kroc, a meaning that is critical of the many diversities it is accused of erasing and the subsequent losses incurred by us all. Ritzer had offered this critique in his now well known book, at least among academics, called The McDonaldization of Society.

And, consistent with Ritzer’s suggestion, albeit on a much more broader level of globalization and also remember that his use of “McDonald’s” was metaphorical, the physical structure of the restaurant on G.T. Road looked no different than what I have seen anywhere in America. Thanks to globalization, as the photograph at the very top shows, even the cars in the parking lot looked the same. Without any caption, it would be difficult to tell that this fast food place was not anywhere in America, but surrounded by villages in Punjab, India.

McDonalds India

McDonalds menu in India

However, appearances can be very deceptive, as they say. The exterior might look the same as any McDonald’s in America, the menu though is anything but! From it, one can order McAloo Tikki with fries and coca cola, or perhaps a Masala Grill Chicken, or even Veg or Chicken Maharaja Mac burger with Corn and Cheese Patty! What is also different about McDonald’s in India is its clientele. It varies from college students, to IT professionals, to elder couples to families with children.

The company that entered India in 1996 with one restaurant in New Delhi now has 213 outlets. The plan, according to Amit Jatia who is the Vice Chairman of Westlife Enterprises which is a master franchisee for McDonald’s in India, is to add another 250 restaurants by 2020!

And, McDonald’s is part of a growing business of chain restaurants in India. In 2013, this market yielded $2.5 billion and is expected to grow to $8 billion by 2020.

Clearly, profit is being made through these giant corporate franchisees in India. Wealth is being accumulated. Supposedly “progress” is taking place too. But, I am not completely convinced that “all” are benefiting from this so-called progress, especially in light of the growing gap between the rich and poor in all parts of the world that includes India. I would thus go out on a limb and say that this injection of progress in India is helping only some to accumulate wealth, while others are providing the labor for them to do so.

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Punjab Journal: Tall Men in the Military

by Shashwati Talukdar

It is not surprising to see billboards advertising the services of a sexologist, bonafide or otherwise, all across North India. Years ago, on a research trip in U.P., I ended up speaking to several sexologists, and they said that most of their clientele were men, and what most people needed was basic sex education, and if not that, they usually came to get help from them to have male children– an obsession as we know that has resulted in a skewed sex ratio, with Punjab being one of the states with a high rate of disparity– its 27 on a list of 35. Though, Punjab seems to have improved its record in the last ten years.

'Sex Power' and 'Why be afraid of getting married?'

‘Sex Power’ and ‘Why be afraid of getting married?’

We didn’t visit any of these doctors on this trip, but I wonder if the situation has changed, and people simply abort female fetuses instead of going to a “doctor.” The technology of sex determination has become more accessible and I assume, therefore, cheaper, and despite its criminalization, people have enough money to grease palms to get around its prohibition.


Perhaps, despite all evidence, people still believe a “doctor” or a health guru can help them get that precious male child, exhibit A being television star and yoga guru, Baba Ramdev.


Increase your height

But it seemed that it isn’t enough to have male children. They need to be tall too, interestingly, in the picture we have, its a woman in this ad on the side of an autorickshaw. In most of the ads we saw it was often men who were targeted. Perhaps it’s a social necessity in a state that used to contribute to the armed forces in great numbers. Starting with the formation of the Khalsa, and the British promotion of Sikhs and Gurkhas as ‘martial races’ , who then became the preferred recruits for the British Indian army. For a quick primer, see Amardeep Singh’s blog post about this legacy.

With this history of recruitment over a period of more than a century and a half, significant number of young men in Punjab have historically set their sights on a career in the military. A dream that curdled during the violent 1980s in the Punjab. After Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 by her Punjabi bodyguards, the government stipulated that recruits from the Punjab would be reduced. That rule barred many young Punjabi men from opting for this career path, limiting their options. ‘And thus,’ as our wonderful hosts, the Kahlon’s in Chandigarh told us, ‘began the drug problem of Punjab.’

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Punjab Journal: Hopes wrapped in dreams

Western Education

The dream makers on Grand Trunk Road

by Diditi Mitra

This poster on the wall of a building on Grand Trunk Road between Jalandhar and Ludhiana speaks volumes about the hopes and dreams that are sown in the hearts of rural dwellers in Punjab. It promises an unlimited supply of education, settlement abroad and employment. The obstacles to work and associated accumulation of wealth, along with changes in the social relations in Punjab, make such promises of success in a far flung mythical developed world attractive. According to Professor Ranvinder Singh Sandhu of Guru Nanak Dev University, crisis in farming as well as lack of opportunities in education and employment is a driving force of migration abroad for the youth in Punjab. The advertisement enticing people to travel overseas and expand their horizons is tapping into that frustration felt by the residents of rural Punjab.

At the same time, however, it is noteworthy that the poorest do not migrate internationally because they do not have the resources to leave. Only those with both financial and social capital needed to “purchase the passage” can make those attempts to be “successful.” Ashwini Kumar Nanda, project coordinator at the Center for Research on Rural and Industrial Development in Chandigarh, found exactly that in a study conducted on rural emigration from Punjab. Nanda found that 93 percent of emigrants from Punjab are non-poor and they occupy the top two wealth quintiles.

Punjabi Immigrant Mobility Book Cover

Cover Image: Anannya Dasgupta

My own research on immigrant Sikh taxi drivers in New York City has also shown that emigration is possible for those who have some amount of land which can be sold to pay toward the passage out of India. Furthermore, the rural Sikh immigrants I interviewed relied on resourceful friends and family members from whom they borrowed the money needed for the trip. And, the amount for the trip many reported can be very high if the visa is bought from an “agent” and/or an “agent” is needed to help the person jump the border without adequate documentation. The immigrants, thus, were part of a social circle with the knowledge and money to help. The presence of friends and family members abroad is an additional layer of support received by the newly arrived immigrants, a valuable resource for the Sikh yellow cabbies in NYC who had poor English language skills and low educational qualifications. Being plugged into a network of friends and family members upon arrival eased their transition into the new society, including search for strategies of permanent settlement (green card marriages for the ones who had arrived with fraudulent “papers”, for instance) and work.


Advertisements for foreign education at the bus stop in Jalandhar

It is precisely those dreams of success that seem impossible in Punjab and broadly, India that are captured by the makers of the posters.

But, there’s one other dimension of the dream presented by the poster above that begs our attention – the dream of a ‘Western Education and Immigration.” The lure of the abundant and developed “West” is portrayed cleverly by the “dream makers.” To me, it continues the work of the colonial masters – they extend to the villagers, as they do for the upwardly mobile urban dwellers, the promise of a better world made possible for anyone willing to fly westward toward civilization!

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