“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. 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 Zaidi, I always wanted to own a place that I can call mine. Do I belong to a place or Do I want a place of my own own? The first one is of course where my dada, dadi, and my ma lived their whole life. 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 have had to move to a different place. The second one is that place that I am going to build/buy that is my own.
The title of the book intrigued me because what story could link three unconnected words: bread, butter and cactus. It 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. Her mother was working as a principal in the school run for kids living in the colony. They moved to this unknown place so that her mother could 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 colony. The only life around was some cactus.There was nothing nearby and it almost felt like 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.The most beautiful thing of this book is that as these chapters flows, 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 shows how much language diversity we have in our country and despite that, there is an imposition of one language on everyone. Hindi itself has around 49 variants.
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. Being a woman who belongs to the same district and also migrated to a different place and trying to create my own identity made me relate to the author’s feeling in 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. Especially after my marriage, I moved to South India totally devoid of North Indian roots, culture, food, and the people. I am not sure where I belong.
I remember my first UPSC interview when they asked me about my hometown and 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 would be no need to defend. The author is also anguished about 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. A couplet comes to mind:
“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
Throughout the book, Zaidi shows 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 and rejection. The socio-political climate of the country made her conscious of her identity. She was worried what people will think or how they will behave if she wore a hijab/burqa.
This is the sad reality of this country. The recent findings of a three-year study on discrimination in housing, 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, ” I no more think India is my country and I want to move out from here as soon as I can”. Hearing this, I thought; where have we reached and what have we 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 theme of this book is about home, identity, belonging, 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, 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. Generally people from Uttar Pradesh who have relocated would rather not reveal their identity out of fear of being stereotyped.
Note: I created a draft of this blog last month but could not publish it because almost everyone in my family was sick. Finally, when I started feeling a bit better and things got stable at home, I completed this blog today.