THE UP MAN: The Bhaiyya, The Bandit And The Bak-Bak Artist


He is a desperado. He is slow. He is a poet. He is a thug. Above all the man from up is just plain grateful he is not a Bihari, says Annie Zaidi

Illustrations: Samia Singh

WHEN THE family first began to entertain itself with the notion of obscene amounts of ghee, red meat, zardozi et al, at my expense, the question arose: What kind of man? I wasn’t sure what kind of man I wanted, but I was sure I didn’t want a ‘Bhaiyya’ — a typical UPite. Which necessitates that awkward question: What is a ‘typical UPite’?

Most Indians carry around a little sprinkling of prejudice in their DNA. Geographical and linguistic affiliations are so strong that most of us find ourselves tucked into little pockets of imagination. Call it stereotype. Call it community culture. Call it what you will, but we cannot help identifying each other based on clothes, accents, moustaches and different grade of jollity. But what is one to make of the UPite? What does he look like? How is he to be picked out in a crowd?

Up comes traipsing (well, sauntering, considering it is UP we are talking about) the first identity marker. But it is more a non-identity marker. You cannot pick out an Uttar Pradesh man in a crowd. He is virtually faceless. He has no lavish mop of curls, no twirly beard parted down the middle. He does not like to be seen in a lungi, if he owns trousers. And he does not set store by turbans.

When I was growing up, there were three broad categories into which I cast the UP man: White chikan kurta-clad sons of former zamindars who continue to rear pigeons and fly kites as a full-time occupation and sometimes carried guns, almost like a liability; the lean, inscrutable rickshaw-pullers/stone-breakers/gardeners; and the westernised, English-speaking intellectual. There was a time when, if a Hindi filmmaker wanted to create the character of a provincial intellectual, he would place the character in Allahabad — once known as the Oxford of the East. By the time I grew up, UP had cast off any intellectual pretensions it had and settled firmly into a mould defined by politics, caste and religion.

My mental picture is fuzzy, cobbled together from sherwanis and black bandgalas, Urdu couplets, paan, dawdling at street corners, gentility, tall tales, long memories, and tongues that instantly betrayed their origin.

It is common for a UP man to refer to a woman as ‘my girl’ because he has stared at her every day on the bus or knows her address

But almost as soon as I began to discuss the stereotypes surrounding the UP man, alarm bells went off. I was reminded of soft-bellied Bhojpuri-speakers from Azamgarh who ended up in poetic graves. And of English-speaking goons from Aligarh who force you off reserved seats during train journeys. Or Urdu couplet-spouting men with mafia links. The UP-wala is slippery. He does not like being lumped in a bracket, yet doesn’t make any effort at knocking down the brackets. He is the quintessential migrant who sends money back home, which keeps the land watered and sown, so he can return home and help bring in the harvest. The typical UPite is bound to land. For this, he will fight – with guns, with the little hegemony he can scrabble at, with endless court cases.

RESIDENT UPITES insist that they are pan-Indian: ‘The Hindustani man’. That they have little in common except accidental geography. But they readily admit to one binding feature. As Avinash Pandey Samar, a research scholar at JNU, puts it, “The first characteristic is the huge sense of relief all UPites feel about not being Biharis.” It hurts the UPite’s sense of self to find himself lumped with the Biharis by non-UPites. To the rest of India, UP, Bihar, and parts of Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana are one big ‘Bhaiyya’ blob – the guy who abandons the mofussil mitti, to trundle into metros without the assurance of a bed to dream in.

Like millions of other Mumbaikars, Mahesh Chowdhary, a sales and marketing professional, subscribes to this stereotype. “There are three kinds of UPites,” he says. “The lower class – one that leaves whenever there’s trouble at home. They leave with zero back-up and work in unimaginable conditions. There’s a Marathi saying that means ‘I will break but I will not bend’. The UPite will bend. One of my clients owns a zari workshop. The men who work there come from UP. They are crammed into a room, ten feet by ten, 25 men to a room.” Chowdhary deals with the middle-class and a few upper-class entrepreneurs from UP. “UPites have a decent business mind but one successful man will bring in 10 others from his backyard. There is a lot of cronyism, and that sometimes manifests in the form of gangs.”

There’s no getting away from that stereotype — gangster, goon, hired gun. There was always the bandit from Etawah lurking in the background. There was Rampur, famous for its switchblade knives, and the nascent crude revolver industry, caricatured recently in Ishqiya, a film set in Gorakhpur, in which a young boy says, “In my village, we learn to load a gun before we learn to wash our behinds.” Men such as Abu Salem, Dawood Ibrahim, Mukhtar Ansari, Babloo Srivastav have only bolstered this image. My grandfather had laughingly told me that in the place we come from, only two things are famous – imarti (a fried sweet) and goondagardi.

There’s no getting away from that stereotype — goon, gangster, hired gun. There’s the Etawah bandit lurking in the background

Almost everyone I know has a scary UP story to tell: family feuds in Ghazipur, Lucknow University campus murders, child murders in Nithari. Parvez Imam, a mental health professional turned filmmaker tells me of the time he met a cabbie from western UP who coolly confided that he’d killed a man. “He seemed quite proud of the fact,” says Imam, a gentle, poetry-loving soul who grew up in Aligarh.

Imam believes that machismo is common to all patriarchal cultures, including most parts of UP, but that it has an almost militant quality in parts of west UP, although the Purabiya (eastern UPite) is no saint. Dozens of people hired as contract killers in Mumbai and Delhi seem to have arrived from these dusty, fertile badlands — Azamgarh, Mau, Ghazipur. The usual arguments about lack of development and unemployment are made — that UPites have too much time on their hands and that they resent the emptiness so they begin to stray. But riding on the back of the jobless desperado, another UPite waddles in — the slow, lazy one, uninterested in doing any real work and yet, is hungry for power. I have to confess that I have never seen a UPite running for anything, bar his life. The rolling gait of a bearded professor; the straight-backed stroll of a pensive student; the lithe lolling of a field hand: Yes. A mad dash? No.

On the other hand, why rush? “The UPite’s slowness,” says Imam, “comes from a different approach to time. The language itself is long drawn-out, languid. Whether it is the poor rickshaw-puller or the nawab, they all share this quality. The British brought with them an industrialised mindset, the notion that time equals money. In UP, it didn’t and it still doesn’t.”

LACK OF discipline is another common complaint. Ask any college professor or university dean in UP. Lawlessness is but a by-product. However, from the UPite point of view, violence has little to do with criminal tendencies or even ambition. It is something history and society has thrust upon you. I believe I still have an uncle or two riding around the ancestral farms with a gun; they say there’s no other way to survive up there. Have land, get gun, keep land. Don’t have land, well, get gun anyway. Other people do. Nevertheless the UPite thinks of himself as a gentle person. The teenager who gets into a gang-war like situation on campus is probably recuperating by quoting Faiz to a pretty classmate. The grim, silent chauffer probably spends hours hunting for romantic couplets that invoke full moon nights which he might SMS to the cook.

According to Ashok Chakradhar, a poet and the vicepresident of the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan, UPites are the mildest guys. “We might be reactionary, but not aggressive. The poet Dhoomil has said, ‘Bhaasha ke maamle mein behad bhades ho/iss kadar kaayar ho ke Uttar Pradesh ho.’ We are somewhat cowardly.” Corroboration comes, swift and wounding, from the feminine quarter. An army officer’s daughter, Tanvi Saxena, who heads corporate communications for an it firm, says that UP men think of themselves as ‘dudes’, but only until push comes to shove. “Male cousins in UP will object if you wear jeans outdoors. The Punjabi will get into a fight to protect you. Not UPites.”

It doesn’t help that UP men have a reputation for ogling. And claiming ‘girlfriends’ on the basis of who has stalked a girl most consistently. It is common for a man to refer to a woman as ‘my girl’ because he has stared at her every day on the bus, or that he knows her address or the extent of her father’s influence with the police. The UP man does not see longing as distinct from wooing. What he wants, he deserves.

“Ogling cuts across class and caste,” says Samar. “Also the ogler does not ogle alone. He always elbows a close friend when he spots the object of his desire, saying ‘vo neeli wali mast hai yaar’ (the one in blue is something else).” In the midst of this happy, communal ogling, the UP man also weaves a little romance. If a lady’s book happens to be placed atop his, it is enough for a mental cartwheel. He is likely to approach a girl’s heart with a book of poetry. But he is more likely to lend it, not gift it. Call it frugality or cheapness, but UP men don’t wear their wallets on their hearts. Not for them the 100 red roses. Rich men are more likely to build themselves a house and put the wife’s name on the name-plate than to take her out to a seven-star pub. Tanvi has no qualms calling UPwalas ‘tuchha’ (petty). “UP doesn’t have lavish getaways, eating and drinking. The culture doesn’t allow it and the men don’t want to spend so much. They want to hang out with others who will pay instead.”

The teenager who gets into a gang-war is quoting Faiz to a pretty classmate. The silent chauffer sends romantic couplets to the cook

She concedes that whatever else a UP man might be, he is rarely dull. The UP man loves bak-bak above material comforts. Many UPites will traverse long distances for an opportunity for a nightlong blather-fest. Talk is social currency. There is little romance associated with a brooding, silent man. The ones who get attention are the storytellers, the poets, the robbers of other people’s couplets. However, this talk is often only just so much talk. The braggart UPite is a consistent stereotype. He will boast about his connections, the land his ancestors owned, his hundreds crore worth of business.

BUT WAIT. Surely, the UPite does not discuss money. He refers to it delicately, if he must, as ‘intezaam’. As a facility. All the UP men I’ve known talk of money with a squirmy disdain, as if talking about morning ablutions. I decided to check with writer and Delhi University professor Alok Rai who left Allahabad as a young man. There was a brief silence. “Let me guess,” said Rai. “Your people must be Shias from Lucknow.” I gasped, “How did you guess?”

The UPite, it appears, is a phenomenon split – as the state itself may be – between east, west and centre. Purab, Paschim, and the glory that was Awadh, centred in Lucknow.

Most Indians of the post-Independence era know the Awadhi aristocrat as frozen in theChaudvi Ka Chand mould. On either side of this frozen image lies, well, whatever is not Awadh. “The Purabiya has historically looked down upon the Pachhain (western UPite) as a boor, rich but uncouth, while thePachhain thinks of the Purabiya as uncivilised and poor,” says Alok Rai. The ones in the middle, of course, do not think much of either. Much of this pride stems from Lucknow’s fabled tehzeeb. Just like the average Mumbaikar does not see himself as merely Maratha, the average Lucknow-ite thinks of himself as poetic, refined, special. Unlike the country bumpkins to the east and the domineering Jats and Rohilla Pathans to the west, which got its fair share of swordplay and looting since it lay en route to the seat of power, Delhi.

The UPite’s obsession with politics brooks no denying. It could be because the state accounts for the most members of Parliament or because it has produced the most prime ministers, a fact tom-tommed by UPites like a personal achievement. Each dip in the power scale is tracked. Each election is watched closely. I have not been able to figure out why this is so. Perhaps, because there are so very many people with so little power that each man is obsessed with the idea of it, the gaining of it. Perhaps, because each man does not count, each vote does.



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