Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Pathan in Guwahati

Guwahati is characteristic of small town India, caught in the struggle of coping with rapid globalisation and still not able to successfully shrug off the time warp it has been living in for the past few decades. For years, it has existed as the ‘gateway to India’s North East’ and tried to live down its reputation of being a violent little dot on India’s map suffering from insurgency in the 1980s and the all too famous Assam bandhs. However, today it exhibits what Pankaj Mishra in Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India discovered of similar former ‘unremarkable places’. These small towns ‘have shed their sleepy, half apologetic air’ and ‘modest’ is not an adjective that one can use for their inhabitants as they pursue their ambitions, appropriate brand names and ‘create a whole new pan-Indian culture’ (Mishra, 1995). So the city is caught in the chaos of gawking men from nearby villages trying to make sense of the Van Heusens and Tag Heuers on display in the shiny new malls, a constant influx of brand new cars jostling for space on dusty broken down roads, and the traffic police bewildered by motorists who leave their cars parked on flyovers. The expansive wetlands near the airport will soon give way to the concrete jungle the city is turning into.
My second day in Guwahati finds me in the midst of the notorious Assam bandh. My host family is not sure the evening before whether it will be a ‘complete’ bandh or not, and a flurry of telephone calls are exchanged across the apartment building. The barometer of a ‘complete’, read successful, bandh is if the buses don’t ply early morning or the maid doesn’t turn up for work. The residents of the city are reconciled to bandh culture and take it in their stride. Though the city loses millions of rupees in revenue every month, no one seems overly concerned. It has long been a feature of their relaxed existence and it is only the burgeoning business class that is making polite noises now. The day goes by peacefully and, in the late afternoon, I decide to visit a local monument that gives a birds-eye view of the surrounding valley. Billed as Gandhi Mandap, though everyone is unsure whether Gandhi ever visited the city, it is a research centre set up by a Congress government trying to build a profile in Assam’s heartland. The state had earlier been cool towards the Congress party post a rueful Nehru, who apologized that mainland India could not do much to protect the region. This was as China threatened to march through during the 1962 Indo-China war. An Amitabh Bachchan who came garnering votes for his best friend Rajiv Gandhi was sent away garlanded with shoes by an incensed city that was still harbouring its hurt. However, today the Congress sits comfortably in power. The Gandhi Mandap has a surly Gandhi with his back to the city as he gruffly views the city’s young who find it a convenient place to escape the moral police in the valley.
I am eager to explore the city’s Pathan population. They are the grand children of former money-lenders and fruit sellers who travelled frequently to the region. Many of them still carry on their ancestral profession of lending money and what is politely called ‘debt collection’ (truant children are still cautioned of the Pathan who will carry them off). Guwahati Pathans form a fascinating microcosm of an immigrant population that has kept its ways in a city that is so different from their earlier homes. Saleem Khan, who welcomes me to his home, is in his late twenties and he says his family moved here from Ghazni. Saleem is one of the ‘settled’ families of the city; there is also a sub-class of transient single men who travel through the region. His living room seems out of a baithak in Quetta, though he says he was born here and has never been home. Afghanistan is a mysterious land which he tries to fathom through B-grade films and his parents’ tales.
As I settle down on the floor cushions, he takes a mock interview of the intermediary who has introduced us. He explains it is ‘close to election season’ so these times make it necessary to be sure of who I am. His concerns allayed, he is quite an eager host, calling up assorted uncles and aunts on his mobile to make them speak to the visiting Pathan. One uncle is quite sure that he has visited relatives of mine in my village. Saleem attempts to brief me about his life here. Where we are sitting now are rooms attached to his ‘public life’; it is here that he conducts his work and entertains guests. His family lives in a separate Afghan colony some two hours away. He jokes that people in Guwahati claim that their community is very ‘cruel’ towards their women. Though women in his generation remain uneducated and live in seclusion, he assures me that the younger generation of women has started going to school. His parents’ generation stay in touch with family back home in Afghanistan through exchanging audiocassettes. I picture his mother recording our conversation today in an audio-letter home. Saleem speaks in the classic Pushto; unlike me he doesn’t speak a hybrid dialect. Perhaps, over years, it will be only the ‘first generation’ of Pathan diaspora like his that will speak the uncontaminated Pushto of earlier years.
I am curious about Saleem’s money lending business and whether it has been affected by the budding finance companies in the region. Saleem says that he works with the low end of the market, with those who cannot afford the collateral that the organized financial sector requires. However, his services come with a hefty interest. Don’t borrowers default? He says he has a ‘scientific assessment’ process; the ‘applicant’s’ home is first surveyed for items of equivalent value which can be easily hauled away if anyone defaults on payments. And he says he can judge people in a manner the anonymous financial companies can’t. I inquire whether he gets into trouble with the police due to his high-handed tactics. It’s the first time in the afternoon that I witness him playing the Cultural Arrogance Card . “They know me, and no one messes with us. Everyone knows who we are.” Our interview done, Saleem struggles with being a good Pathan host. I have come on short notice and he fears that he has not accorded me the welcome that my ethnic CV demands. There must be something that I would like to take with me. A mobile?  Could he arrange a loan for me, he inquires after he has exhausted ideas.
Outside, the Assamese Muslim families that neighbour his house are eager to invite me for a cup of tea. Like others in the city, they ask me to make a list of ‘Pathan’ (read Muslim) sounding names for their children. Similar to diligent city officials and their love to ‘rename’ roads, schools and buildings, I take a perverse pleasure on meeting the Wahdanas, Palwashas and Zaraks of the city ten years on.


  1. Good stuff. I didn't know a lot of facts although I am born in Assam.

  2. An uncle of mine has long been in debt with local Kabuliwalas (for all I know the same people who have lent to my neighbours). They have regular 'episodes' at home, lots of shouting and threatened violence. However, there are also those relatives who believe (myself among them) that at least some of these 'episodes' are staged in collusion with the Kabuliwalas to get the rest of the joint family to pay the instalments! So that is yet another way of collecting money. :)

    Fascinating piece, 'Neela. I see this is before your song-quoting days.


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