Of Mangoes, Mosques and Muslims : A tale of Uncheygaon, my village
Politics is writ large on the landscape of Uncheygaon whether people talk about it or not. It is there in the graveyards that the Akhilesh government built, or the toilets, the izzat ghars, that the Modi government constructed. But I sensed that there has been a general apathy regarding politics in the muslim community of the village since the rise of Modi.
It is a spotless blue sky, shimmering in the glaze of a glorious Sun. The ground below has become a dusty cauldron, in the merciless heat of June, with mercury soaring to an excruciating 45 degrees. The parched earth, shrivelled and broken, screams for rain, as it were, so as to quench, what seems to be, its insatiable thirst for water.
At no other moment have I realised, with greater clarity, that water is life, as I witness the fury of an Indian summer, in my native village, Uncheygaon. It is located around 40 kilometres from Ayodhya, in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh. One wonders how true, still, the old saying about Indian agriculture being a gamble in the monsoons is.
Whenever I visit my village in the summer, a customary visit to the family mango orchards is always on the cards. It might be tough to believe, but the whole mango trade in our region is based on oral agreements between the owners of the orchard and the fruit merchants, or kunjras, the local cast which deals in fruit retailing. The orchards are auctioned for two consecutive seasons for a fixed price and an agreed amount of mangoes for household consumption. The responsibility of guarding the crop and tending after the orchard and trees also falls on the kunjra who wins the bid.
In a manner of speaking, this is our very own version of futures trading, as the bidder takes a risk on how well the orchard will yield in both seasons -- mango production, notoriously, is good only in alternate years. There is no written agreement, no bond, no contract, just the word. So far, this system has worked well, although there have been occasional cases where the kunjra has run away without paying the promised money, especially in seasons when the yield is abysmally low.
As I begin to sit on his charpai under a canopy of mango trees laden with fruit, Ganesh, the local kunjra who has purchased our orchards for two seasons informs me with a poker face: "Mangoes are stunted this year, they lack the flavour and aroma they should have". He almost assumed that I knew how important timely rains are for the mango crop. I didn't want to join issue with him as I was busy looking at the assortment of dusseheri and kali bambai mangoes neatly arranged in rows on the ground. The above two varieties ripen early in the season and are best eaten when they fall from the tree on their own, or what is referred to as the daal ka paka aam in the local dialect.
Other, more well known mangoes include Langda and Chausa which come a little later in the season and are usually plucked from the trees and ripened using additives. I tasted a couple of mangoes and they did seem a little insipid in taste and somewhat smaller in size. Ganesh was a little distraught about how the delay in rains might affect his profits. I tried to console him by mumbling something like the rains are on the way which I doubt he heard.
When I roamed around in the village in the evenings, I realised that most conversations seemed to veer around the weather in a very different sort of way; very unlike, say Delhi, or, any metropolis, where a stray line about clouds or hail is just an ice-breaker that warms up the chatteratti. Here in Uncheygaon, seasons have a bearing on livelihood, and any talk about the weather is always sombre, usually laden with foreboding.
Arshad, a small sugarcane farmer, is most anxious for rain. His restlessness is palpable as he seems forlorn in the nightly gatherings at Babbu's tea shop, a favourite haunt for the young in the village where I go every day without fail to soak in some earthy wisdom about everything from politics to religion. "Your grandfather always told me that a farmer always gives more than he gets from agriculture," Arshad tells me with a wry smile, as though he were preparing himself to bear the inevitable loss on the chin. There was a tragic resignation in his demeanour, a sense of helplessness that is quite impossible to describe.
It struck me that Arshad is the poignant face of millions of faceless farmers in India who are fighting a battle of attrition against the vagaries of nature and the vicissitudes of farm prices. It is a battle they can neither flee from, nor win, but one they have to endure.
Ghalib, another peasant, spits a mouthful of gutka on the mud beneath his feet with a practised splash, and joins the discussion. "Forget about sugarcane, it is a sturdy plant. I have a crop of maize which has begun flowering. I need to water my field every three days now to get enough kernels on each ear of corn. The cost of irrigation is bleeding me dry." It is the same tale of woe for paddy farmers and peppermint farmers--all are in desperate need of rain. "Timing is of the essence in agriculture, another week without rain will spell doom for all of us," says Babbu, who also does farming to supplement his meagre income from the tea stall, but cannot afford the prohibitive cost of diesel and pumping sets to irrigate his fields.
There is a moment of uncomfortable silence which lingers on heavily, long after it has passed. I try to release the tension by enquiring about the status of the canal. The only irrigation canal which meanders through my village was dug by the British, before independence. "The nehar is useless for us as it runs dry for most months of the year, and if there is water, it is too little to meet the needs of the village because it is hogged either by the well-off or those who have fields adjacent to it." Ghalib says this pithily, with a nonchalant expression, and others nod in agreement.
Qasim, the old man sporting a skull cap and a long flowing beard, was listening intently to the animated debate all this while, without speaking a word before, gets up suddenly on hearing the azaan. He has to go and offer the esha namaz at the village mosque. He patted me affectionately on the shoulder before leaving, and with a hint of mischief in his eyes, sheepishly said, "The British knew how to rule. They did justice with everybody." It had the desired effect and everyone burst into spontaneous laughter at hearing Qasim repeat something he had obviously said many times before.
The call of azaan is a signal for the dispersal of the gathering, and people melt away, one by one, in the distance, carrying with them the burdens that beset their insignificant lives. Some find solace in the mosque by dutifully praying, others--most of them--just go to their homes, bracing themselves for tomorrow.
I had the opportunity to attend the Friday prayers the next day. The village mosque is an exquisite building that everyone is proud of. It was renovated recently with contributions from the whole community. The Friday khutbahs, or sermon, was brief, much muted, and apolitical, to my surprise. Perhaps, it shows a general sense of helplessness, of disillusionment, that Muslims are feeling after the massive victory of the BJP under Narendra Modi in the recent elections. The nature of the weekly khutbah is a good barometer of the morale of the community. I have been witness to many lively khutbahs in the past that dealt with the state of the muslim ummah in India, and abroad, and such sermons are concluded with usual exhortations to unite the community politically.
Islam came to our village by the preaching of a sufi saint, Makhdoom Yahya, who came from Turkey some five hundred years ago. His shrine still stands on a hillock and he is widely revered by both Hindus and Muslims of the area. Legend has it that the local Hindu zamindaar was terminally ill when Makhdoom Yahya cured him of his disease and in return he was granted a lot of land situated on high ground thus giving the name Uncheygaon to the settlements he founded. The mosque built by Makhdoom baba, as he is lovingly called, is now deserted and the new one is only a few paces away.
For centuries now Hindu and Muslim families have lived together in peace and developed a village economy that intertwines all communities. The village itself has about one third Muslims, one third Jatavs, one third Ahirs, and a smattering of high castes like Brahmins and Thakurs. Even at the heights of the Ramjanambhumi movement, there was no rioting in the village, although the razed Babri mosque is not far from here.
As a child I heard stories from my grandmother, who is 85 now, where Rama was depicted in a good light, as a probable messenger of God, though not mentioned by name in the Qoran. Our milkman, Ramchet Yadav, always used to greet us by saying jai ram ji ki, a salutation that now has lost its sheen since the more aggressive jai shree ram has acquired prominence. A syncretic life, based on an enmeshed existence of all communities, has been the untold story for generations in villages like mine.
It is only recently that this way of life has seen disruptions and Yogi government's unabashed anti-Muslim stance has taken a toll on old traditions of togetherness. Mob lynchings have created a sense of deep insecurity among people here in the village too, as news travels quickly to them now through WhatsApp and Facebook. Every lynching is discussed threadbare at Babbu's tea shop and lamentations are made about the violence that Muslims face everywhere. There is anger too. But mostly impotent anger as people don't know if anything can be done about it. The mahagathbandhan was their last hope and that too fizzed out with BJP sweeping the state.
At Babbu's tea stall in the afternoon, after the Friday namaz, I tried engaging people in a conversation about the recent elections. Quite unexpectedly, there was a strange reluctance to talk about the goings-on of current politics. It seemed as though all energies, all resolve, was utterly spent in the recent elections, and the complete rout of the mahagathbandhan had deflated everyone. It was a topic best avoided like a raw nerve.
Instead, Rashid, a retired government servant and much respected in the village for his erudition, breaks into a monologue about Jinnah, holding him singularly responsible for all the woes of Muslims. The sincerity in his voice was genuine and the pain quite apparent: "Jinnah was not a messiah, but a prophet of doom. He presided over the vivisection of the largest Muslim community in the world into three distinct entities. He robbed Muslims of their history, stole from them their rich inheritance. The wholesome, unbroken thread of a shared civilization that both Hindus and Muslims had nurtured for more than a thousand years, was unmindfully sacrificed at the momentary altar of political self-determination. He is the sole cause of the deplorable state of Muslims today." Rashid styled himself as a know-it-all, and spoke with an air of remorseless finality. No one argued with him. I didn't either. He left soon after finishing his cup of tea.
Uncheygaon is facing another problem, perhaps peculiar to Muslim villages. More than half of the men have migrated to the gulf looking for job opportunities. Mohammad Arif, who went there 20 years ago is now a well established businessman. His is an inspiring rags to riches story. Arif, alone, has facilitated employment for 40 men in Dubai and Sharjah where he owns an MEP firm. Although conditions are hard for men who go there mostly as labourers but the pay is good. Remittances to home have ensured that families can survive here in relative comfort. There are no employment opportunities here in the village and getting a work visa to the UAE is like a lifeline for most. Faizan, Arif's childhood friend, says with pride, " Arif is like a saviour to many". However, along with the money, the gulf also exports a more austere, rigid, version of Islam back into the village which comes into conflict with local practices. Of late, the village has seen conflicts between the many denominations of Islam that flourish here.
On my last day in Uncheygaon, I visited a couple of poultry farms that have recently come up in the village. Naimullah, who manages the farm, told me that the village now has a combined production capacity of more than 40,000 eggs per day. Poultry farming is a capital intensive high risk business. It does not generate much employment as merely two people are required to run a farm with 6000 birds. "The profits were very good in the last two years, however this year because of excessive temperatures, the mortality rate of birds is very high, and we are all waiting eagerly for the rains," Naimullah says with hope in his voice. But there is no sign of rain. Yet.
As I board the train back to Delhi, I brood over the numerous conversations I had, and the many things I observed, this summer in the short trip to my village. Politics is writ large on the landscape of Uncheygaon whether people talk about it or not. It is there in the graveyards that the Akhilesh government built, or the toilets, the izzat ghars, that the Modi government constructed. But I sensed that there has been a general apathy regarding politics in the Muslim community of the village since the rise of Modi. There is a new-found despondency about the power of politics to save them. One could also call it the beginnings of alienation. All of them realise that the old order is changing, yielding place to new. What this new order might be, and where would be their station in it? This anxiety is yet nameless, not articulated well by the uncluttered minds in the village, but there is yet a sense that everything hangs in balance. Even their religion. Just like the rain.
(Syed Areesh Ahmad teaches Political Philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi)