Roundabout: Mother tongue and other tongues

One is tempted to talk Punjab and Punjabi this Sunday and the inspiration comes from a fine article by Haroon Khalid, a writer who has dwelt upon the composite culture of Punjab and its relics in Pakistan in the Pakistan of today with sensitivity. The article referred to here is on the lost and found Punjabi identity as he talks of Punjab, the Urdu literary hub of Pakistan, slowly waking up to its lost Punjabi identity.

It all started with Khalid conducting a workshop with a group of some 40 undergraduate students in an upmarket university in Lahore on ‘forbidden love’ with reference to the Punjabi folk love legends. He found, however, that despite being familiar with the names of the famed lovers, the young people knew nothing of the stories of love , rebellion and death. One can assume that they would have been able to narrate the story of Romeo and Juliet in detail.

On this side of the border, the decline of the Punjabi language is a matter of concern indeed and there are rallies and protests for implementation of the Punjabi language in government offices, but there is no worry yet about the loss of Punjabi identity primarily because of the dominant Sikh religion in Punjab. Ask undergraduate students here about the love legends of Punjab, incidentally enacted out along the Chenab River on the land that is in Pakistan’s Punjab and they will happily recount the stories .

The reason for this perhaps is Bollywood’s fascination with love and legends and these stories have been kept alive on screen and in song from Ranjha to Majnu one way or the other. Recall the popular song which went: “Jo Ranjha thhe woh chale gaye, chale gaye/Jo Majnu thhe woh chale gaye, chale gaye…(The Ranjhas went away, the Majnus went away)” What is bemoaned is the loss of Urdu and the culture that went with it.

The politics of language is such that Urdu which was born and nourished on this side of the border was banished from here wilfully and systematically as a ‘Muslim’ language and thrust upon the Punjabis on the other side who had little to do with it. Of course, the roots of the problem go back a few centuries in which the British colonisers were trying in different ways to weaken Punjab. With the annexation of Punjab in 1849, Urdu was given prominence in offices, courts and educational institutions. Thus the top elite studied English and the next aspiring rung Urdu. Punjabi thus became the language of the rustic village folk.

This led to a tradition of Punjab writers doing creative writing in all three languages and in Hindi too with the rise of Hindu movements. If Khushwant Singh and Mulk Raj Anand wrote in English, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi wrote in Urdu along with Faiz Ahmad Faiz, while Krishna Sobti and Upendra Nath Ashq wrote in Hindi. Punjabi then was the conscious form of expression of say Sant Singh Sekhon or Gurbax Singh Preetlari. Haroon reaches the crux of the matter when He puts together the pieces of the puzzle saying: “The absurdity starts to make sense in the local educational context. In no school in Punjab, public or private, is Punjabi taught as a compulsory subject, unlike Urdu and English. The situation is similar in higher education, where only a handful of universities offer programmes in the Punjabi language and literature. There are only three Punjabi language newspapers in Punjab, compared to around two dozen Sindhi language newspapers published in Sindh. The Punjab in India publishes more than two dozen Punjabi language newspapers.”

Never mind, Haroon, it may not be so bad for Punjabi here, but our writer-activists of the Kendri Punjabi Lekhak Sabha constantly stage dharnas and court arrests for the implementation of the Punjabi languages in the government offices. They are adamant that the ‘babudom’ be well-versed in Punjabi and education bothers them not because their children must study in Punjab and go eventually to Toronto, California or London and so on as the case may be for we have well extended the Punjabi identity there.

And now as far as the mother tongue goes, it is precious indeed but let’s not belittle the other languages because one language enriches the other and a constant interaction and advancement helps in the evolution of languages . So, when we build a case for the mother tongue, let’s not dismiss the other tongues too.

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