“Jahan Koyi apna Dafn na hua ho woh jagah apni nhi hua karti” [A person does not belong to a place until someone beloved is buried there]Gabriel Garcia Marquez- One Hundred Years of Solitude
Reading the book, “Bread, Butter and Cement” by Annie Zaidi, felt like a trip down memory lane. It made me nostalgic. It made me think of my roots, my identity, and my belongingness. I finished this book in one week along with my office work as I so wanted to know the author’s story. The book is beautifully written and expressed. It feels like a slow cold breeze passing below your feet while you read this book but also makes you worry about the things happening in our country as to how our heritage and culture are being devoid of diversity.
Like the author, I always wanted to own a place that I can call mine. But there were always two strands of thinking of me owning a place or calling a place my own home. The first one is of course where my grandfather, my grandmother, and my mom lived their whole life. I loved the above-mentioned quote as the author was also fascinated by this quote. It feels so right that where your ancestors have lived, that place belongs to you. If you see this in a larger sense, it’s so difficult to imagine the lives of the people who were uprooted from their homeland because of partition, communal strife, or poverty and had to move to a different place. The second one is that place that I am going to build/buy that is my own.
I was intrigued by knowing the name of the book. It made me think and speculate what would be the meaning of this title. The title of the book comes from the author’s childhood when she was living in the J K Puram colony. It was a colony for workers of the cement factory of the same name where her mother was working as a principal in the school runned for kids living in the colony. Her mother moved to this unknown place so that she can provide ‘bread’ to her children. The author also describes the circumstances and situation prevailing in that colony and how the author wanted to escape the everyday ‘sameness’ of the J K Puram colony. She could only see some cactus devoid of any life. There was nothing nearby and it almost felt like as she was living on some island.
The book is neatly divided into nine chapters with very unique and thoughtful names. Every chapter name has some hidden meaning and sense. The most beautiful thing of this book is that as these chapters follow, the author narrates her personal story reflecting and interlinking the socio-political happenings of the country. For instance, I absolutely loved the chapter named ‘Gur, Imarati and Goons’ telling the story of Azamgarh in particular and eastern UP in general. ‘Listening to mother’ and ‘Place like Home’ are the two other beautiful chapters giving a beautiful perspective on how language is so important to feel the sense of belongingness and how creating your own home or having a home makes a lot of difference in your life. This line from this chapter is so beautiful writing here as it is: ‘Home is where suffering is shared out, like a bread, and or a three-seat bench shared by four’. The chapter on language is very insightful. It makes you think how much language diversity we have in our country and despite that, there is an imposition of one language on everyone. Hindi itself has many variants that embed around 49 languages.
Just finding out that the author’s hometown was Azamgarh which is also my hometown created a strong urge for me to read this book and know the author and what she has to say in this book. While reading this book, being a woman who also belongs to the same district and also migrated to a different place and trying to create her own identity made me feel so relatable to the author and this book. Just like the author of this book, ‘belonging had always been a fraught question for me’ because I also never lived at one place for long. I am also not sure where I am from. And especially after my marriage, I moved to south India totally devoid of north Indian roots, culture, food, and the people.
I remember my first UPSC interview when they asked me about my hometown and I remember, I was trying to defend the reputation of my district as it has been stereotyped and demonised as a place linked to terrorism. I can confidently say that even I was suffering from that bias otherwise there was no need to defend. The author is also anguished why a place of poetry, textile, and imarati has been stereotyped just because a section of minorities live there. It is sad. Even I agree with the author that this stereotyping isolates the minority community and also prevents the Hindu majority from taking pride in their regional identity. At this moment I remember this couplet:
“Sabhi ka khoon hai shaamil yahaan ki mitti Mein,Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai” [Everybody’s blood is mixed into the earth here, Hindustan does not belong to anybody’s father]Rahat Indori
Across the whole book, the author has shown concerns towards the marginalisation of a minority communities with a special focus on Muslim communities. Being a Muslim and a woman, she has had to face a lot of questions, rejections and how the socio-political climate of the country has made her conscious of her identity. She was worried that what people will think or how will they behave if she is dressed up in a certain way.
This is the sad reality of this country. As per the recent findings of a three-year study on discrimination in housing, also reiterated by the author, most cosmopolitan cities and neighbourhoods continue to keep Muslims and Dalit out. Stereotyping and discrimination against Muslims and Dalits is rampant in our country. One of my close Muslim friends who is a writer and public policy expert tells me, ” he no more thinks India as its own country and wants to move out from here as soon as he can”. Hearing this, I just thought; where we have reached and what we have become as a nation.
“The ache for home lives in all of us.The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”Maya Angelou
The major theme of this book is about home, identity, belongingness, and most importantly about mitti (soil) of one’s birthplace. How absolutely nothing can replace the feeling of your roots. How this mitti or zameen as we call it at our place has ‘dual connotations’ that mean land and also a certain psychological environment. It makes me feel proud when I read in this book that the author traces her roots to eastern Uttar Pradesh. People who belong to this place and now settled in different cities generally don’t accept and tell other people that they come from this part of India because they don’t want to be associated with various stereotypes and backwardness associated with this area.
Note: I created a draft of this blog last month but could not publish it because almost everyone in my family were sick. Finally, when I started feeling bit normal and things are better at home, I completed this blog today and published it.