The Many Ballis of My Punjab

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The Many Ballis of My Punjab

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

I

n the last one year, we’ve had two break-ins at our ancestral house in Daanewala* village in Punjab’s Moga district. The first time it happened, we suspected the local petty thief. But when we realised that we were missing an ATM card and an old laptop, we suspected one of the many youngsters in the village who used chitta.

Then a few weeks after the incident, one of our neighbours reported a similar theft. They’d installed CCTV cameras a while ago. The following morning, the village panchayat was summoned and shown the CCTV footage – the boy in the footage was Harry*, a handsome college-going boy in his early twenties who’d been using chitta since he exited his teens. Harry’s father, a respected former member of the panchayat, was distraught and wanted to disown him.

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Harry was the one I kept thinking about as I watched Udta Punjab. Physically, he has the chiselled gym-toned look of Shahid Kapoor’s Tommy Singh, but in reality, he is closest to the haunting figure of Balli, the vulnerable adolescent boy addicted to a cocktail of injectable chemical drugs and with very little recourse. My enduring memory is of him at a wedding, dancing to “Dekhin fer chitte te na laadin kitte putt jatt da” (Watch out, don’t get this young man hooked to cocaine again).

Yet, that’s just what ended up happening to him.

When we were growing up, Harry loved cricket. He was the best fast bowler in the village cricket team. We would see him on the field, unruly hair flying out of his patka, sweat coursing down his animated face. Now, he spends his time slouching near the tube-wells in the fields with his friends, his face hollowed out, his eyes expressionless. He often goes out into Moga city on his speedy motorcycle, wearing shades like Balli, to meet the same friends with whom he tried chitta for the first time.

For a lot of us, whose roots lie in the state previously identified as “the land of five rivers” and “the food bowl of India”, Udta Punjab cuts too close to the bone. The film is a bird’s eye-view of a region in the grip of a full-blown drug crisis – and the nondescript Daanewala, full of Ballis and Harrys, is a microcosm of that.

Daanewala is so small and insignificant that state transport buses stop there only if there are passengers to alight or aboard. Very often, there are none. We have only one government school, where the Dalit kids study. But our sole gurudwara, clad in expensive marble shines in the golden sun, thanks to the fact that almost every Jatt Sikh household has somebody abroad.

I belong to a generation that came just after the dark period of Sikh militancy was over. During my childhood, I only heard stories of army searches, militant diktats on what to wear, and blackouts. Newspapers were no longer riddled with stories of bloodshed, but that of widespread immigration to Canada, USA, UK, or Australia. The old houses with open courtyards gave way to kothis with closed garages. If you wanted to trace the way Punjab has changed over the last three decades, you need only look at our music: It has run the arc from Gurdas Mann’s folksy ballads, to Diljit Dosanjh’s peppy vocals, to the brash, stinging rap of Yo Yo Honey Singh.

Amid all these transformations, only one thing has remained unchanged. Smuggling. In the seventies, it was opium and gold. In the eighties, it was guns and opium. And since the nineties, it has been heroin. Amritsar was the first district to report a smack problem, the drug of the privileged city kid, while rural teenagers got their high from cough syrup.

When Diljit Dosanjh’s character, Sartaj, beats up his little brother Balli out of sheer frustration, we are left with a sliver of hope for Balli.

Over the last decade, however, I’ve seen chitta peddlers roaming around villages. Ten years ago, it was bhukki or poppy-husk peddlers, whose consumers were landless labourers looking to increase their productivity. A litre of bhukki would cost about ₹400 and would last the addict two weeks. The street rate for chitta, by comparison, is about ₹4,000 a gram, and runs for a week. And this addiction leads the kids to steal first from their own homes, and then from those of others.

Chitta is as alluring to idle teenagers as guns were to the generation before mine. The police are dealing with the drug dealers in the same compromised way they dealt with militants – by turning a blind eye. Before his tryst with theft, Harry had landed up on the radar of the authorities, when he had gone to procure his dose from the infamous Daulewala village and was caught. The policemen threatened him, and extracted the dealer’s name out of him. And then, to his amazement, took a hefty bribe from the dealer and let him off.

The police is only the most visible part of the problem, but it can’t function without active political participation. Earlier, politicians would settle scores by slapping “terrorist” cases against their adversaries – now it is drug cases. And profiteers, who used to benefit on the back of a terror economy, now deal in the currency of addicted bodies.

We really presumed that the worst was over for Punjab when the dreaded cloud of the Sikh militancy lifted. How wrong we were.

***

In Udta Punjab, Tommy Singh meets the unnamed “Biharan” in the ruins, when they are both on the run. Tommy asks her if she’ll commit suicide with him, since he’d be unable to do it on his own. Harry’s story was different.
After an FIR was lodged against him and he was publicly humiliated, Harry was so ashamed that he decided he wanted to claim his life all alone. So he went to the railway line, but the train never came because protesting farmers held it up in a rail roko agitation.

Once the urge to kill himself had passed, Harry regained his mind a little. He travelled around in rishtedaaris and even joined the Guru Granth Sahib desecration protests at Harike, Tarn Taran, all in a bid to escape the police. Just like Balli, Harry was admitted to a private drug rehabilitation centre in Ludhiana where he was injected with an antidote that would make his body rebel if he used chitta again. Harry didn’t talk about his rehab experience but another Balli from my village went into rehab too, where he was beaten up, humiliated, and tortured. This other Balli fled and out of spite, increased his chitta intake. Harry came out clean – or so we thought.

A few weeks ago, our village home was burgled again. This time, a cupboard’s lock was broken although there were no valuables in it, and the only thing missing was an LPG cylinder. The suspicion fell on Harry again. My mother told me on phone the other day, “Chache ne ohnu haakiaN naal kuttia, shayad hun sudhar je.” (His father beat him up with hockey stick, perhaps he will now reform).

When Diljit Dosanjh’s character, Sartaj, beats up his little brother Balli out of sheer frustration, we are left with a sliver of hope for Balli. Despite the odds stacked against him, we know he will somehow escape his circumstance and heal.

It’s a hope I am currently not feeling for Punjab.

We don’t know if Harry was indeed behind the LPG cylinder theft. The last I heard, he was still shuttling between cleaning up and falling back, much to the despair of his father.

I despair for them too. The many Ballis of my Punjab.

* Names changed

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