UFO in a Punjabi wedding

This article first appeared in Hindustan Times.

Imagine my reaction when a middle-aged man with a most straight face told me that the flying machine – a UFO? – I just saw with my horrified eyes descending from the sky was actually the escort vehicle for the bride and the groom. Whoa! These rich Punjabis are certainly out of the planet, I thought.

Standing in the sprawling, well-lit farmhouse, I gave the alien vehicle a harder look, and noticed the flashing laser lights and the accompanying music. The huge blue-black thingy landed on the ground and all eyes, that until then were reserved only for the next round of Tandoori Chicken, turned to the fascinating scene unfolding a few meters away.

Half-expecting a few gray creatures with long-necks, large heads and almond-shaped eyes to appear at the gate, I swear I was the happiest when I saw two beautiful, dressed-in-their-blingest-best humans jump out and wave at all of us.

Marriages they say are made in heaven, and the two just seemed to reiterate the saying, flying as they probably were straight from the place.

Much was made of the grand entry and, with cries of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, the couple was greeted, hugged and fussed over while I wondered if what I just saw matched any of the quite bizarre wedding entries I had seen in my life. Nah! No stretch limo or a royal carriage came anywhere close to this spectacle that was, well, simply out of the world.

Which made me ponder over a growing trend in nuptial celebrations these days: the fascination with putting the couple on a higher pedestal than the public, literally. Hydraulic stages themed as moon, hearts, royal palkis or stars lifting the couple high up in the air to a thousand eyes craned eyes and gingerly returning them to the ground to wild applause aren’t uncommon.

Within minutes, my mind, wandering away thus, was rudely brought back to the wedding. It was the couple again, this time spiraling up and up on what seemed to me a revolving stage. All of s sudden, the bride went a bit dizzy and almost collapsed into the arms of the groom while the onlookers roared with hoots and cheers. Finally, the stage stopped some twenty feet above the ground. With me, the couple too seemed to heave a sigh of relief. Chants from the holy scriptures set to music reverberated the air and a rain of flower petals was pumped out from a machine. As I soon realized, it was the perfect setting for the Jaimala ceremony.

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A 3800 years old history and no takers!

This piece was first published in Hindustan Times.

It’s been more than two years of my stay in Ludhiana and there is a certain route I traverse almost daily. Lined up on the kilometre-long stretch are beauty salons, department stores, a single-screen theatre, gurdwaras, a gym and various small eateries dishing out pizzas, ice creams and momos.

Recently, I chanced upon a newspaper story on the internet and discovered that a huge fenced ground at a turn on that route – that barely catches the attention and looks like a piece of commercial real-estate property waiting for construction – has underneath it the remnants of a civilisation that existed 3,800 years ago!

The story said that during excavations at Ludhiana’s Sunet village, carried out by the Punjab archaeology department in 1984, thousands of coins and seals from the times of ancient kings such as Hermaeus, Gondophernes, Chandragupta and Samudragupta were found. The land was subsequently declared protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, the instruction announced by a small rust-eaten board in a corner.

This was incredulous to me. I wondered how a site of such massive historical importance could lie in total disregard. No friend who accompanied me to that area for evening strolls had mentioned it. To my shock, it emerged that they had no clue and, in fact, didn’t show much interest either. Those few who did know had only a vague idea about the excavations and rubbished my curiosity with, “Yeah, there was some talk of rare coins back then”

In this city of flashy cars, deep pockets, colossal houses and a long roster of successful homegrown industries, history is neither preserved nor bothered about.

A woman showing her finds; the picture is taken from a newspaper

A woman showing her finds; the picture is taken from a newspaper

Curious to dig more, I met a family   with the help of a local resident   which has been inhabiting the area for more than 60 years. The eldest member, a smiling Sikh, though hard of hearing, chatted with me happily and offered me eye-popping glimpses into the land’s recent history. It was 1965 and the family began construction of a new pucca house in the area, moving from a rundown tenement nearby. As the masons dug the earth, the family discovered at a depth of 7 ft a pot (matka) buried underneath. As the digging continued, they found 11 similar pots hidden underneath in a row!

What did they do with the pots? “One or two were cracked, so we broke them down. The ones that were in good shape, we used them to store grains. But they burst. Until a year ago, I had one of those pots,” he said with childlike excitement. While I sat stunned, regretting it all, he saw my disappointment. “Nobody like you ever came to me asking anything about those things. My children and grandchildren never valued them and eventually I, too, began to think little of them.

Anyway, he showed me three coins he had saved over the years. Interestingly, people from faraway places in the country used to visit the village, asking residents about the rare coins and artefacts. The innocent villagers would barter the rare possessions for what they thought was a princely sum. There are quite a few elderly people in the village who have safeguarded these artefacts in cupboards, he said, but with little hope that their children will take care of their prized possessions. Not that they understand their real value either.

Sadly, owing to uninhibited commercial activity in the village, the historical site has been reduced to the fenced ground spread over 10-12 acres. Further excavation work on the site has not commenced since 1984, with the archaeological department blaming the inactivity on the lack of requisite technology.

This village has the potential of being declared a tourism site. If only the city wakes up to its roots.

A moving Experience

One of the best gifts of journalism is the experiences it offers that leave one inspired and moved.

I encountered one such incident recently while covering the results of Punjab State Education Board 2013 for class tenth. The assignment took me to a village Dhandari Kalan, some 10 kilometers away from the main city of Ludhiana, to meet Deepak Kumar, who had stood third in the state with 96 percent.

I went to his school SGD Grammar Senior Secondary School, standing amid a bustling market. With summer vacations on, the school bore a deserted look, even as a gangly, shy and very disciplined-looking boy dressed in school uniform strolled around the entrance. As I found out soon from the school principal, he was Deepak.

“We called him to congratulate him, even though the celebrations are really a quiet affair given the vacations,” the principal told me. She added that Deepak has been a brilliant and very disciplined student always and with potential to reach great heights.

I thought a photo with Deepak’s family huddled around him would be great, and so I requested him to guide me to his home. He felt reluctant and, when I reached his house, I sensed why.

The humble house laid bare the family’s financial condition, making it as embarrassing for me as for him. A chair was hurriedly arranged for me to sit, his mother began to conceal with a cloth things strewn on the bed, and somebody began to wave a handfan for me. I politely asked her not to as I was very comfortable. To ease the situation, I smiled and began to ask the parents how they felt about their son’s achievement. The father trembled as he answered me and, as I learnt in a few minutes, he was a migrant from Bihar who had shifted to Ludhiana to work as a labourer a decade ago. Now, he ran a small grocery store from the two-room house.

I asked Deepak what he wanted to pursue his career in, and he told me it was his dream to become a Maths lecturer. This was why he had opted for non-medical stream in class eleventh. As I learnt, it was less out of choice and more out of a lack of knowledge for further options; a Maths lecturer was the most accomplished person in the village so far.

From the house, I came to know, Deepak walked to the school daily, negotiating broken paths on the way. Asked about his window to the world of opportunities, Deepak said he watched Discovery channel regularly and had Internet on his cellphone.