Butter Chicken in Ludhiana Travels in Small Town India by Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Misra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995) is peppered with diverse stories of people from across the small towns with a single common underlying theme: Aspirations. Each anecdote has a shade of ‘climb up the ladder’ motivation.
There are the quintessential rich man’s children, the unknowing victims to consumerism: here in this book, a certain Mr Sahrma, resident of Ambala whose daughter uses only the imported Camay soap and watches Bold and the Beautiful, and the sons of businessmen in Shimoga who travel in Maruti and fritter away parents’ money.
Proprietorship is the unemployed youth’s answer to the problem of lack of jobs (if you can’t pay your way into civil services that is). Mishra talks in particular of how shoddy fast food joints have opened in the small, until-now-pristine towns. Mishra reminisces of the time when the town landscapes were clean and seems almost apologetic about the change. Well, the change may be ugly but it affords a livelihood for some one. The joints wouldn’t be open and running if it weren’t economically rational for someone to be running them.
In the struggle for livelihood many other recurring themes are encountered. Havelli owners who have thrown open the palace doors to tourists or have converted old palaces to hotels. And of course the inevitable – UP migrant. The author talks to Munna Yadav in Udaipur, originally from East UP. Munna dropped out of the school in class five because he did not like studying and because the teacher beat him. He had travelled to Jalandhar and Delhi and was now on his way to Ahmedabad. The importance of social capital in finding a job in each of these places is highlighted.
Even back in 1995 when the book was written, Mishra notices the willingness of parents to send kids to school. There is the story of his senior at Allahbad University who was the first one in his family of farmers to be sent to college for higher education. There is also the story of a south Indian businessman who knows from experiences of his brother that not being educated is a handicap to doing business.
The societal impact of television seems to be varied across the cities in India. The direct economic impact is of course jobs creation. In the book, Mrs Shukla, an army man’s wife escorts her daughter to Mumbai for the latter to try a career in modelling. However, satellite TV seems to have completely ruined the culture capital of the country – Benaras, which has become an unsafe city for women. The author contends, through observation and interviews (with victims not perpetrators), that this is due to negative impact of television on the unemployed youth. However I do not understand why the impact of TV is different in Benaras as compared with impact in other urban centres. Are the sensibilities different in these cities? Or maybe the urban culture is not so alien to what is shown on TV. It does seem though that Benaras is beyond repair now.
The book is not without its share of sob stories. One narrative is of a caretaker in Murshidabad who supported a family of 5 sons and 3 daughters on a salary of Rs 50 per month. The salary had been the same for last fifty years! The son was now a caretaker at a palace. How evident, the vicious cycle of poverty.
The rich and the poor of the small towns emulate the trends of the cities. And of course where else do we see this better than in the weddings? Or in the lone rich man’s house that boasts of all ostentatious artefacts albeit surrounded by crumbling small-town infrastructure including the kaccha road leading up to the house? A father in a small town wants to wed his daughter to a city boy. Is that too bad now? Well, Mishra didn’t appreciate it much, maybe because he was city boy in this case. Of course aspirations are not unique to small towns. In the short plane journey from Nagpur to Hyderabad the author gets a taste of how the rich want to get richer! The small town is a mere shadow of the large city.
A measure of the Aspirational Class in India, NCAER
PS1: Author’s travels: Himachal Pradesh (Shimla, Mandi), Punjab (Ambala), Rajasthan (Jaipur, Pushkar, Ajmer, Ghaneroa, Ranakpur, Udaipur, Bundi), UP (Hapur), Karnataka (Bangalore), Tamil Nadu (Tiruppur, Trichur, Kottayam, Kanyakumari), Karnataka (Shimoga), UP (Benaras), West Bengal (Murshidabad, Malda), Bihar (Gaya)
PS2: Author never travels to Ludhiana. The book is so named after a conversation he overheard.