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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.