We woke up recently one Monday morning at our home to find the front gate vandalized with graffiti. We live on the scenic Chandigarh-Shimla highway near Kandaghat. The red letters of Jai Shri Ram, Jai Sita Ram stood out starkly against the emerald green hills of Himachal Pradesh.
The Sunday before this vandalism, a stranger in western clothes had shown up claiming he was from holy Badrinath and asked for money saying, “yahan key log kehtey hain aap Punjabi log ho” (people here say you are Punjabis). I interpreted that as people tell me you are Sikhs/outsiders. My mom chose to interpret it as you are Punjabis. You have big hearts and money. My mother has lived through being dressed up as a boy in a crowded train from Pakistan in 1947 with her family and no food. Married in 1948, she moved with my father to Himachal in 1951, far from the village near Lahore where she grew up. My father passed away in 1984 in a jeep accident as he traveled for work. My mother trudged on relentlessly, thriving as one of the few female farmer orchardists in Himachal Pradesh. She refused to give money for shilpa seva when extremist marauders destroyed Babri Masjid in 1992 and armies of Hindu nationalists showed up at people’s doorsteps to extort donations for the new temple planned in Ayodhya. I knew what she meant, when she said nonchalantly Monday morning after the graffiti episode: “yeh, yeh to aisey kartey hi rehtey hain” (these people, they do this all the time).
As I worked to erase the graffiti, I could hear the loudspeakers from the nearby temple broadcasting bhajans as it happens 6 AM-9 AM every single morning. Years ago, when a few people complained to the police about the illegal noise pollution, they were told that the ‘community’ likes these bhajans. When my mother said this to one of the neighbors, a prominent benefactor of the temple, she received the same response. Two years ago, the local SDM wanted Hindu idols installed at the entrance to the Tehsil directorate. We did not bother to inform the police about the vandalism yesterday.
The Sunday before the vandals struck, Vishav Hindu Parishad’s Ashok Singhal announced that India would be a Hindu nation by 2020. These cultural politics are the causal links of the everyday effects of India’s undercurrents of political and religious fanaticism.
The good news is that our house was not quite singled out for vandalism. Five kilometers of the road from our house toward Solan is covered in similar graffiti. Most of the graffiti is on National Highway 22’s embankments, signposts, and retaining walls. Our residential property could have been targeted because of the perceptions of being ‘outsiders’.
My father started his government service in 1951 in a fruit orchard and a small Tudor-ish bungalow, a kilometer away from our current place. He had followed in my grandfather’s footsteps, a Deputy Director of Agriculture for Punjab during the British days and one of colonial India’s first post-graduates in agriculture. Empowered with his own Master’s degree, my father was a tireless horticulturalist. I accompanied him on numerous Jeep trips on kacha-pakka roads all over Himachal as he went for his ‘extension’ work. He was also part of the ‘modernizing’ India that put its faith in science, secularism, and progress. He truly believed that scientific but down to earth practical farming was good for Himachal, good for India.
He introduced wide-scale and commercial mushroom farming to Himachal in the 1970s when people still thought it was a poisonous substance. FAO and UNDP sponsored the project and my father trained for a year in mushroom farming in Kochel, near Munich, Germany. My parents moved to Kandaghat next to NH22 to enable my father and his colleagues to create what eventually became the national Directorate for Mushroom Research in nearby Solan. My mother started her own mushroom farm and started to sell fresh mushrooms and manufactured achaar from the unsold packets. She did not patent her recipe. I smile when I see a mushroom achaar bottle in India. Meanwhile Solan is now known as the Mushroom City of India.
My parents felt it was like homecoming, buying land and building a house one kilometer from where my father had started his government service. When my parents first moved to Kandaghat in 1951, it was part of Punjab and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU). Before Himachal Pradesh was created in 1971, PEPSU officers were given a choice to stay in Himachal or move to Punjab. My family stayed in Himachal. It was home.
The “foreign” crops
I was born in Mandi and grew up in Dharamshala, Chamba, and Shimla. I adore the mountains. I now live in Washington, DC, but have a second home with my partner in the Appalachian Mountains. When my father struggled initially introducing mushroom farming to Himachal, I was studying economics at St. Xavier’s, Mumbai, and questioned my father’s enthusiasm for introducing alien crops with assistance from multilateral organizations when indigenous crops would have been better. He pointed to the alien fruit, which earned Himachal its moniker Apple State. Dad was right: like apple, mushroom is a staple Indian food now.
In Mumbai, I met Sidharth Bhatia, at that time a young and gifted journalist and now the founding editor of the site publishing this story. I had invited him to visit Kandaghat in 1982. I think Sidharth expected us living in tents under apple trees next to babbling brooks. After his return to Bombay, he wrote a ‘middle’ for the opinion page of the The Times of India titled ‘Swan Lake in the Himalayas’ about Himachal’s landscape and connections to the world. One evening at our house we had sat listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. His story was about beauty and cosmopolitanism, values that enhanced India’s secular, democratic, republic.
By the way, I grew up with Talat Mehmood, not Tchaikovsky. My parents believed in Hindi language schools and I studied in a number of pathshalas until my parents caved in to peer pressure and sent me to St. Edward’s, Shimla, and then Lawrence School, Sanawar. There I confronted many teenage brown sahibs and memsahibs who teased me relentlessly for speaking English with a ghati accent. I stuck to the kind-gentle sort and, somewhere along the way, acquired a taste for Western classical music. Why not? It was like eating my dad’s alien mushrooms and apples.
India is complex! In a prior era, the artist and intellectual Nicolai Roerich, who designed sets for Igor Stravinsky’s ballets and petitioned the U.S. President Roosevelt to create a pre-cursor to what became UNESCO, settled in Himachal’s Kullu Valley. His son Svetoslav married the Indian actress Devika Rani.
Kandaghat continues to globalize. There’s the Kandaghat I grew up in as part of a secular India with people like my parents who worked hard to contribute to a prosperous Himachal through flourishing crops and global connections. The railway bridge over Kandaghat has a huge blue banner announcing the passing mountain railway as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s the Kandaghat now of religious extremism with the globalized everyday tools such as graffiti and loudspeakers to silence and terrorize people — not that different from the tools of white supremacists in Mississippi or terrorists in Mombasa. The globalized Kandaghat sits betwixt a swan lake and a swan song.
J P Singh is professor of global affairs and cultural studies at George Mason University, USA. He specializes in international development and has authored seven books. His 2015 co-edited book is titled Globalization, Culture and Development: The UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity.