Never mind the book (Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant 1995 classic Butter Chicken in Ludhiana), the sinful makhkhan-murgi speciality is far better in Chandigarh. And the best butter chicken I have ever eaten was not in either city, but at the airport restaurant in Amritsar. What I discovered on my most recent trip to Punjab’s busiest, most prosperous megapolis is that the historic rivalry between Ludhiana and Chandigarh continues to this day, with Chandigarh residents smugly talking about their clean, well organised sectors, inhabited by genteel folks, who spend their time in academic pursuits, playing golf over the weekends, hosting elegant dinner parties, walking pedigreed dogs in the park, driving up to Kasauli for weekends in their grand country manors, revelling in a life that makes very modest intellectual demands…. hmmm…. retirement suddenly starts looking attractive, as one drives from the spick and span Chandigarh airport towards Le Corbusier’s planned city (India’s first).
Ludhiana, on the other hand, is wild and hectic, loud and chaotic. It is a city for the hungry, ambitious young business people, who lead incredibly lavish lives in gated communities just outside the frenzied city centre and order their artisanal cheeses from gourmet stores in New Delhi. It is a city of fast cars, designer lives and global aspirations. I can visualise “Crazy, Rich Indians” being filmed in this charged-up city, which in many ways symbolises the spirit of being Panju, as the rest of India imagines Panjus to be -- loud, brash, aggressive and flashy. There is no embarrassment about displaying wealth brazenly and boldly -- have it, flaunt it! From zooming around in limited edition cars that run into crores, to sporting what I call the “Ranveer Singh Look” -- top-to-toe bizarre, high-end gear, even a short stay is enough to provide valuable jhalaks into the most industrialised city in Punjab. There is the other, far more restrained, highly sophisticated, well-travelled and successful crowd -- but those select ones live their lives discreetly, below the radar, and are enormously successful.
Aaah -- the politics! Rahul Gandhi is still dismissed as “Pappu” in these parts, with a strong lobby that is loyal to chief minister Amarinder Singh, but is also sick of the Gandhis and their clumsy machinations. Navjot Singh Sidhu has his fan club, but most laugh him off as a court jester, whose ambitious wife is pushing him to make an absolute clown of himself. On the other hand, I ran into a beautiful young woman who introduced herself as a Congress worker and was gung-ho about Sidhu, saying he has injected fresh energy into a complacent administration. “The days of maharajas and palaces are over,” she declared, tossing back her curls. “Not so”, said a friend, who insisted that the old boy was still relevant, and would be calling the shots as always during the next elections, “even if he doesn’t fight again himself”. Local gossip has it, though, that the Captain Sahab has Plan B firmly in place -- two loyalists are on standby in case he opts out of contesting the election next year. “He’d rather be a kingmaker now…”
Till he makes an announcement, the wheeling and dealing taking place is vastly amusing to watch. Big money, huge promises and so much at stake. The BJP is dying to muscle its way back in at any cost, and wild suggestions are flying around about a third front, breakaway group etc. But as a local know-it-all said: “Punjab has always been ruled by Sardars… outsiders are not accepted.’’ The contentious farmers’ issue has several versions here, depending on who one is talking to. Thank God I had reached Chandigarh airport on time for my return flight, or else a farmers’ protest en route would have led to a 26-km diversion and endless delays, as a travelling acquaintance discovered. There is plenty of loose talk about the deliberate “mischief” that was caused “that” day --and how it could well have been averted with the right and timely intervention. The point is that it wasn’t -- pinning the blame in retrospect is easy.
Today’s Ludhiana is in a different league from the rest of Punjab. Its industrial belt presents a picture of frenzied activity, as young entrepreneurs take the lead and break age-old boundaries. One or two are poised to crash into the all-important “Billionaires’ Club”. There is assertiveness and confidence in their approach. Interestingly, they want to insulate their young children from getting sucked into what I call “the wealth spiral”. Some thinking parents have packed off the kids to schools down South, where they hope the youngsters will be exposed to a different societal environment, which is value based and not obsessed with wealth. The clichés about loud and loutish Panjus, flashing acquisitions and playing games of one-upmanship, have been turned on their heads by this lot. The political bosses of Punjab need to factor in this newly minted creature and not take the voter for granted in the coming Assembly elections. So much has changed -- and the voter wants to see that change translate into action on the ground. If you think “Udta Punjab” was a thing of the past, think again. Drug money and alcohol continue to vitiate the atmosphere as families struggle to cope with the menace.
Behind the designer lives of the rich and famous of Punjab, an entirely altered reality exists. The elite of Chandigarh have stubbornly kept their blinkers on and live in a cloud of nostalgia, reveling in the bygone days of lunches and dinners at sprawling bungalows, discussing the state of their “farms” (of a thousand acres and more). Ludhiana, on the other hand, stands as a symbol of what’s possible if forces align and push for progress on all fronts -- healthcare, education and infrastructure. Till Capt. Amarinder Singh moves out of his Faridkot palace mentality, and connects with the real world, he is only going to make it very easy for a jester to smoothly hijack his throne. Jaag utho Captain Sahib… There is rampant corruption in your state. Punjab is paralysed. And the voter is not your serf!