Embarrassed Punjabis

I fail to recall any fresh incident of seeing educated Punjabis interact with each other in their mother tongue.  Forget about the fake Urdu accents that their apologetic parents shoved down their throats at a very early age; the long Urdu poems that they were made to learn by heart and recite in their faulty accent… or the odd greetings that they were obliged to display in front of their guests. And let’s not even attempt to discuss the state of their English language, which they use to convince others of their proficiency in a language smacking of colonial ancestry, especially in the Pakistani part of the Punjab. Punjabis in this part of the Punjab are still struggling with an identity crisis: they are embarrassed of their mother tongue and have relegated it to a status best fit for communicating the blue-collared tasks in.

The only tonal language of Indo-European linguistic family, spoken by more than a 102 million people world over has not been treated justly by its own children. I, being a Punjabi, can claim to understand the root-cause of this mania. A never ending romance with Urdu/English and repugnance towards our maan boli defines a mindset which has been developed over centuries...

Urdu embodies culture and refinement for many living in the Indian subcontinent, who grew up with the knowledge that the language represented the Muslims of South Asia during the later Mughal era. Urdu, over the last two hundred years, came out as a language that was more than just a means of communication for many: it became a message unto itself. The more it got engrained with the ruling elite (who happened to be Muslims, such as the Mughals and Nawabs of Awadh), the more of an elitist identity it gained. Like the imported Muslim culture in Indian subcontinent, it became synonymous with a vague Muslim ideology highly supported by the invaders who left word after word into this hodgepodge that stigmatized the local languages thus winning the status of a language representing elite, power and foreign culture.

This, however, is not to demean a language that is loved by millions and gave us Mir Aatish and Ghalib but to provide a context to why Punjabis hate using their language.

The callous portrayal of Punjabis and their close cultural association with Sikhism in numerous ways did not leave much room for the sons and daughters of the soil but to disassociate themselves from it at the time of the partition. The language had to be shunned: the colors of their heritage were bound to fade once the narrative was built for the new state; the newly surfaced patriotism did not have the heart to embrace the indigenous beauty of a language belonging to the Shauraseni family of languages (the language of Medieval India). It had to be replaced. The damage was done. The coolness of the laid back Punjabi had to be stripped off so that it could match the culture which was majorly concentrated in small pockets around Delhi, Hyderabad and Lucknow.

The ruling language that was passed down to newly formed Pakistan’s hapless population – which included Punjabis, Bengalis, Sindhis and Pathans – was Urdu. Like Persian in medieval times.  It might not surprise many that the court proceedings during the regime of Maharaja Ranjit Singh were conducted in Persian. The influence of Persian was so profound that Ranjit Singh’s son Dilip Singh and all of his granddaughters could not converse in any language other than Persian and English. So when it was replaced by Urdu, not many realized that one foreign language was being replaced by another one identifying with the ruling class.

After 1947 the ethnic group that was weary of adopting this language was not only criticized and suppressed in the name of a nationalism rooted in mock superiority of said culture; the residents of then-East Pakistan were forced to identify themselves with a language that they did not own. But the ones who did not bother to raise any concern about the over-running of their culture, were the Punjabis. The Punjabis, who were too impressed by the freshly found identity and too embarrassed to keep using their own language. The impression that took years to built had gone to their heads and developed a psyche that encouraged them to cozy up with the culture that it brought along. No matter how ill-fitting it may appear, Punjabis have since been on a high thinking that could be part of an exclusive club that is “culturally” better.

This might not be true for each and every one of the Punjabis, but collectively this is exactly what they have done to themselves. Severing their roots, becoming a part of a brand new establishment that echoed the existing misconceptions, Punjabis instead started learning it the way it should be. It is beyond dispute that, in Pakistan, the number of Punabi writers who have authored notable books in Urdu is way more than writers whose mother tongue is Urdu. There is no harm in this, no harm in how Punjabis learned and furthered Urdu, but the cause of this promotion was not pure love for the language. It was, instead, due to a diseased mindset that told them how adopting a certain language would prove them to be more of a true Muslim and a true patriotic Pakistani.  

This twisted brain game can only end if the horror of the Urdu-centric brainwash is fully understood by the Punjabis themselves, or else there would be no salvation – for the Punjabis or for the beautiful Punjabi language, itself.

Geti Ara is a story-teller, journalist and a documentary maker. Follow her on Twitter

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