Language Dilemmas

First person: How learning Punjabi in Chandigarh helped me discover my true identity in Karnataka

I wanted to study French rather than Punjabi and I am glad my school did not let me.

It has been over 10 days since I left Delhi after recovering from a ligament tear, but my mind drifts back to a series of articles with a poignant theme that I read in one of Punjab’s leading newspapers – Punjabi is on the decline!

A dear friend had written, almost two years ago, about the impending doom of the Punjabi language in both Pakistan and India. The recent spate of articles was not my favourite déjà vu.

Studying in one of the better schools in Chandigarh in urban India, I was first introduced to Punjabi in the fifth standard, much like my peers.

Fond of Alexandre Dumas’ works, I pestered my principal, asking her why we did not have an option of studying French as well.

It was, after all, a prominent and posh language. My principal pacified me with carefully worded statements; she was clearly used to this annual badgering by students like me.

Thus began my frightful journey into the world of Punjabi. Despite the fact that she spoke Punjabi, my mother had never had the opportunity to read or write in her native tongue in school.

My very strict father was thus tasked with teaching me Punjabi, just as he had taught my sister years earlier. I spent hours mugging up the Gurumukhi alphabet.

If I had struggled with the Hindi alphabet in the first standard, learning Punjabi was worse than facing Goliath – I was a 10-year-old boy who was content in simply being able to tie his shoelaces properly.

With different symbols for similar sounding diacritics, and perplexingly similar symbols for different letters, my mind would perform nauseating barrel rolls every time I would pick up my Punjabi books.

My grasp on Punjabi soon improved, however, and I found myself scoring the highest in the subject. That I was my teacher’s favourite and enjoyed studying languages further piqued my interest in Punjabi.

But Punjabi was never the medium of communication in my household. Having made an egregious grammatical error while trying to converse with my mother in the Queen’s tongue, my parents made sure all conversations at home were in English.

Without anyone to practise my Punjabi with, my knowledge of the language was limited to the written form.

Conversations at my relatives’ and grandparents’ places would always be in Punjabi, and I feel the handicap even now when I partake in these conversations.

I would understand most words, but my participation would be limited to Hindi. My Punjabi just was not fluent enough for my relatives who hailed from Amritsar and Patiala, and the preteen child in me did not want to embarrass himself.

It would be over a decade from the day I first picked up my Punjabi textbook before I started talking in Punjabi.

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One of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's Punjabi poems sung by Atif Aslam.

A life transformed

Off studying the nuances of engineering in remote, coastal Karnataka, there were few speakers of Punjabi there, and even my broken, often grammatically incorrect sentences in Punjabi would be welcomed by my Punjabi brethren.

With time, I started watching Punjabi movies to ward off homesickness and it was not long before Linkin Park and Metallica were replaced by Gurdaas Maan and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan on my playlists.

It was there that I discovered my identity, felt like a Punjabi for the first time, found confidence which I never knew existed, and saw my life transform.

Later, I made new friends, and came out of my comfort zone to forge new connections in college, met fellow Amritsaris in the streets of Washington DC, and broke bread with jubilant Lahoris and Multanis in the cafes of Vienna.

Punjabi, as a language, has been on the decline for the past several years, staring us in the eye, taunting us at our inability to save our heritage.

My dear friend had once posed a question to the people of Pakistan and India: is Punjabi staging an exit? It almost has.

Schools and colleges in India and Pakistan face a paucity of Punjabi teachers, and as such few takers for Punjabi as a language.

For a variety of reasons, Punjabi is being dropped as a means of verbal communication at an alarming rate. Learning Punjabi is restricted to learning the lyrics of the latest songs, and that is just about it.

We know of Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah, thanks to cinema and music, but few of us would know of Amrita Pritam, Nanak Singh and even Faiz Ahmed Faiz who wrote many of his poems in Punjabi.

As a young man who had unwittingly lost his mother tongue before destiny chose his fate, I feel it is paramount for Punjabis to learn their native language and embrace their rich cultural and literary past.

Years after I wanted to study French rather than Punjabi, I am glad I was not given a choice in my school.

I went on to study French in college, but never would I have had another chance to study Punjabi and, ultimately, be connected to my roots.

It is sadly ironical that the Punjabi diaspora in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada makes every attempt to keep Punjabi alive, but only the opposite can be said about the language’s fate in the Indian subcontinent.

Gurdaas Maan ji has put it beautifully in his song Ki Banu Duniya Da: “Har boli sikho, sikhni vi chahidi/Par pakki vekh ke, kachchi nahi dhai di.”

It translates as: Learn every language; it’s important to do so/But never at the expense of your mother tongue, never at the expense of Punjabi.

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This article first appeared on Dawn.

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