From religion to arts and politics, eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) has nurtured major talents in the past. But today an acute Darwinian struggle for survival is driving talented young people towards the west. Allahabad onwards, everyone, it seems, wants to migrate west to escape annihilation: towards Lucknow, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Punjab, Mumbai and eventually perhaps to Europe and America. With its low social indices, violence-prone countryside and overpopulated districts such as Azamgarh, Jaunpur, Pratapgarh, Bhadoi and Handia, eastern UP has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. It is no longer on anyone’s itinerary unless they happen to be natives coming home for a visit.
I am not a native, but had spent many years in the area as a student at Allahabad University and recently visited the town to launch a local edition of the Hindi daily that I edit. The travel desk at the office for some reason thought it would be better if I took a short flight to Varanasi and then drove to Allahabad. This being the Magh mela season spread over January-February, the first sight I saw was the usual serpentine streams of rural Kalpavasins headed for trains and buses for Allahabad. Too poor or too old to have fled their ravaged homelands, this lot attends the mela each year where it spends the holy month of Magh in huts on the banks of the Ganga, shivering and praying. They carry their belongings on their heads or else under their arms in dirty, loosely tied bundles. They are uniformly poor, but appear happy at the chance of escaping the usual drudgery of their lives and may be querulous sons and daughters-in-law as well. They head for the river banks where they will spend weeks listening to learned men talk about good karma and bad and how divine forgiveness shall rain over all believers.
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Buses and trains that the poor use may appear as primitive artifacts to tourists, but UP Roadways buses and trains were also our mode of transport as students. These still look more or less as they did then—rusty, savage looking beasts spewing diesel fumes and impossibly overcrowded.
Roadside scenes reveal eastern UP to be largely peasant country, poor and placid like the skinny cows that roam everywhere from the Grand Trunk Road to the makeshift weekly markets eating anything in sight till driven away by a heartless thump on the rump. The bus stations remain dusty and stink of human excreta. The toilets continue to be unimaginably filthy. Notwithstanding the filth, people consume quantities of food while awaiting their bus or train, off old newspapers or leaf cups—roasted gram, puffed rice seasoned with chutneys and chillies, fried snacks of various kinds and syrupy sweets.
Now and then one bumps into old college mates from the region in living rooms of Delhi, Mumbai or London or New York. They ask you to look up their family when you are there next, are reminded how they remember you fondly and would love to have you stay with them. That day seldom comes. But why on earth should one wish to visit an area which those who urge you to visit it have themselves fled?
After the evening’s function is over, a clutch of old friends—writers, teachers, and journalists—sit down to talk through the evening. “The area needs a powerful and principled politician,” says one of my few friends who has chosen to stay on and aged like the town, “but all we get to choose from are powerful criminal dons fielded by various parties. They become our elected representatives, because they can get anyone anywhere in India killed for a fee or kidnapped by their gangs for exacting vast sums of money. They have enormous wealth. They go to any political parties with bags of money and buy party tickets.”
“All political parties need bahubalis (strong-arm men) to win elections,” quips another. “They can change parties like we change our shirts. They have made us into a very bad neighbourhood.”
Of late, I have discovered that an astounding number of Hindi bloggers are migrants from eastern UP. Most of them are from upper castes. They are spread all over—from San Francisco to Delhi and Mumbai and write about their periodic visits to their towns/villages.
There are serpentine queues outside automated teller machines from Handia to Jaunpur, the blogs report; multiplexes have sprouted everywhere and of course the mobiles, the argumentative Indians’ ultimate toy, can be seen in everyone’s hands. But in its dark heart, the society, the blogs reveal, remains deeply divided along caste and gender lines. Only the power pyramid is upside down now. The Dalits wield the power and own land, the upper castes work for the government dominated by Dalit politicians. Those that have managed to join the railways, courtesy political connections (most Union railway ministers have been from the eastern sector), are eyed with envy.
For there to be big winners, a friend once said, there have to be a few big losers somewhere. Perhaps this part of India, whose wage worker migrants have helped create the economic miracles of Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Gurgaon and Punjab, is the loser.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Comments are welcome at email@example.com