M A I N   N E W S

Return of the ‘puttar’
By Raj Chengappa

Ever since I joined The Tribune there has been a great deal of curiosity from numerous well-wishers as to how I came to be born in Ferozepur, or as a colleague put it colloquially, became a Punjab da Puttar.

So before I answered them, I decided to visit the place of my birth, my janmabhoomi. I had not seen Ferozepur for 50 years — since I left the town when I was three years old. My late father B.M. Chengappa was then a Captain in the Indian Army attached to an Artillery regiment posted there. My younger sister Kavita too was born in Ferozepur. Soon after that my father was posted to the high mountains in Kashmir.So my mother, Hema, decided that it would be best that all four children be educated in Bangalore and we moved down South with her.

According to my mother I spoke only Hindi then and a smattering of Punjabi. I carried something else from the place of my birth: a taste for eating paranthas for breakfast. So instead of having idlis and dosas that was common for anyone living in the South I grew up eating paranthas that my mother made lovingly every morning.

I decided to start the rediscovery of my roots by first paying obeisance at the Sri Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar. For the journey I took my son Aneesh who is all of thirteen and is on a holiday from school. This would be the second time in my life that I would be seeking darshan at the Golden Temple . The first was in 1988 when Punjab was a troubled state and militancy was at its peak. I had come as a correspondent of India Today to cover the religious tension. Then the place of my birth, listed in my passport, had a different impact. I recall that whenever I left India for a trip abroad at the airport my baggage was always thoroughly searched by security officials.

On my trips abroad, Guru Nanak Dev, his travels and teachings always had a special significance for me. In 2004 on a trip to Pakistan, I visited Gurdwara Panja Sahib located near Rawalpindi and as is custom put my hand on the famous handprint of Guru Nanak Dev embedded on a boulder. When I was in Baghdad to cover the Second Gulf War I was invited by the city’s Sikh residents to see how Guru Nanak Dev’s shrine had been damaged during the bombing. Then when I went to Jeddah I heard about Guru Nanak Dev’s visit to Mecca and the tale of how when he slept with his feet pointed to the Kaaba a few enraged devotees protested. They were stumped though when Nanak told them: “Then point my feet to any direction where Allah is not there.”

I recalled that parable when my son and I walked around the Golden Temple. The American author Alex Haley wrote in his seminal novel Roots that “When you start about family, about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth.” As a journalist in the past 30 years I have always tried to discover and understand the slender thread of life that connects us all.

In an essay titled Who Gives a Damn for a book published in 2006 in honour of the late Prem Bhatia, the distinguished former Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, I had written: “No journalist, I believe, can write with conviction unless he or she begins to understand that thread of life, that cord that binds us all, that makes us aware of the oneness of the universe that our ancient philosophy espouses. For me, journalism is a constant quest not just to find out who gives a damn but also why they should. In doing so, we empower people with the knowledge to understand themselves and the complex world around them. And bring a certain cosmos to the chaos of information that we constantly bombard them with.” (For those interested in reading the full essay I am posting it on our website www.tribuneindia.com)

As I sat in meditation on the top floor of the Harmandar Sahib where a priest read out an ardas from the Guru Granth Sahib I recalled Guru Nanak Dev’s simple message: “Ek Onkar” we are all one, created by one Creator. I felt truly blessed.

A little while later my son and I left for Ferozepur by car. The road was lined with trucks carrying wheat from the bumper rabi harvest. Chaff from freshly threshed wheat swirled around like ticker tape at a victory celebration — nature had delivered again. Most of the fields were a golden brown marred only by patches of burnt sienna caused by farmers setting fire to wheat stumps.

The road runs almost parallel to the border with Pakistan which is just 10 km away. The previous day I had watched the Beating the Retreat ceremony at the Wagah Border along with Aneesh. He loved the pomp and show but with both sides belting out patriotic songs he thought it was a bit too noisy for comfort. When the announcers competed over who could hold the war cry longer he said: “Do they have to shout so much?”

I noticed too that the two countries chose exceptionally tall and brawny men who made aggressive gestures to each other as they performed the ceremony. They stomped their feet hard and lifted their legs high enough to touch their foreheads and push their rooster-crest headgear out of place when they marched. An Indian officer told me that they had to constantly rotate the guards so that they did not end up with damaged kneecaps or dislocated heels. And at a recent meeting the Indian side proposed that they be less aggressive in their gestures but the Pakistan side hadn’t responded as yet.

Later, while having tea, another officer said there were almost a dozen cases of Pakistanis trying to stealthily cross the fence every month. Most of them he said were smugglers trying to bring in contraband goods and illegal drugs. My son asked me what the word “smuggler” meant. It took awhile to explain to him what crime they indulged in. His next question was more difficult: “Why are India and Pakistan fighting like this?” I gave him a brief answer. My generation had been brought up with hostile feelings towards Pakistan . I didn’t want his generation to be burdened with the baggage of the past.

I recalled a touching poem that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote: Pyar Karen ya vaar Karen (Should we be friends or attack each other)

Khoon ek behna hai (It is the same blood that flows)

Jo hum par guzri hai (What we have undergone)

Bachon ke sung na hone denge (We won’t let that happen to our children)

At the retreat we met an officer who had served both Vajpayee and the current Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh as their security guard. When I asked him what was the difference in terms of style of working, his reply was: “You should ask me instead if there were any similarities.” Apparently, while Manmohan is a punctual early morning riser and goes early to bed, Vajpayee as PM would invariably be a late riser and would sleep only after midnight. While Manmohan is a frugal eater and vegetarian, Vajpayee was a foodie and enjoyed eating sweets. When it came to signing files, while Manmohan read each of them closely, Vajpayee as PM would only be briefed of the gist and then put his signature on them without reading the file.

Coming back to my journey to Ferozepur, as I headed from Amritsar to my ‘hometown’ I called up my mother in Bangalore to find out if she recalled anything of the place. She said she remembered that I was born in the military hospital and they lived in a group of flats for Army officers near a club. And that everyone was very helpful.

As I reached Ferozepur, it was apparent that it was once a flourishing town that had fallen in stature and was now largely agrarian. Quaint but dilapidated colonial buildings lined the avenues and brightly painted Church steeples pierced the sky. The military is still in full strength upgraded from a regiment when my father was serving there to now a division headquarters. I went to the hospital that my mother talked about though I was not sure whether it was the same.

Despite that fact, I felt a sense of belonging. As if in many ways I had come home. As I stood with my son in front of the hospital, I thought how appropriate it was that when I would finally visit my birthplace, my son should be with me to share the moment. Life is full of surprises and no one can fault the Gods on timing. They have been more than kind to me. I am proud to be regarded as a son of Punjab. I am also proud to be from Karnataka, Delhi and Haryana where I spent much of my life. And most of all I am proud to be an Indian and a citizen of this world and universe. As Guru Nanak Dev said: Ek Onkar!

(You can correspond with me at editorinchief@tribuneindia.com or write to the Editor-in-Chief, The Tribune, Sector 29 C, Chandigarh 160030) 





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