Punjabi – A Forsaken Language

To think of Punjabi is to be reminded of a tremendous brain drain. Since the beginning of this century it has been, constantly, losing talent to other languages namely Hindi, Urdu and English. Yashpal, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Mulk Raj Anand and Khushwant Singh who lend lustre to other languages, are all Punjabis; and there is no reason why Manto, Faiz and Iqbal should not be counted in this list.

Why has Punjabi to suffer constant deprivation? Does it lack a literary tradition? No. This could not be said of a language in which Farid, Guru Nanak and Warris wrote in the fourteenth, sixteenth and eighteenth centuries respectively, and, which can claim prose writings dating back to the seventeenth century. There is a vast body of literature, mostly ballads produced during the last four hundred years, available in print. Hand written editions as old as a hundred years or more are commonly found. This point gains significance when we remember that in Bengal, for instance, such ballads were not available in print and to save them from extinction, these had to be collected from the lips of village minstrels through the hard efforts of a university man, Shri Dinesh Chander Sen, only some sixty years ago.

Punjabi was serving the literary needs of its people till as late as the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was only in the beginning of the twentieth century that the Punjabis got alienated from their language – for non-literary reasons (before this date it was only the Sikhs who kept away from Punjabi because the Sikh Gurus had written mostly in Hindi). This was the time when they came to believe that their mother tongue was Urdu, Hindi or Punjabi accordingly, as they were Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs. Thus when other Indian languages were being invigorated through contact with Western literatures, Punjabis began to try their hand at other languages. English and Urdu, being the languages of administration in Punjab, enjoyed high-caste status. In schools, Urdu was taught for the first four classes, English being added in the fifth. On reaching the seventh class, a child was offered the choice of Punjabi or Hindi instead of Urdu but few accepted it because of the difficulty of having to learn a new script and also because it was more in style to be good in Urdu. A rather paradoxical upshot of all this was that only uneducated persons, that is, those without a formal education, knew Punjabi. These people produced their own writers whose work in verse called kissas were sold at village fairs. Subjects dealt with in these verses, ranged from the exploits of a local daredevil to the evils of female education. Few matriculates and graduates knew the Gurumukhi script or had enough confidence to compose a sentence in Punjabi. The chances of this language being selected by a writer were, therefore, slender. Writing is the sort of trade for which there is no training and little preparation. Writers are generally so, by accident and not by design. One starts off quietly, almost secretly, in the language one thinks one knows best, and given the necessary skill, is a writer before he is aware. It is normally too late, then, to change over to any other language. Urdu and Hindi had, also, better publishing houses and sales organisations than Punjabi, which added to their attraction.

Those non-Sikhs who did take the trouble of learning the Gurumukhi script found that the literary atmosphere in this language, in the early decades, of the twentieth century was none too soothing for them. The Sikhs, being a small and compact community surrounded by huge majorities, easily succumbed to the urge for self– glorification. A large chunk of Punjabi writing was devoted to expounding the good points of the Sikh religion and way of life. In fact these were considered the only proper things to write in Gurumukhi, a word which literally means that which has issued forth from the mouth of the Guru. So close was its link with the Sikh religion that an odd bit of Gurumukhi paper was thrown into a well or fire to save it from profanation. The marble slabs spread on the Gurudwara flooring always bear the names of the donors in the Persian script. How could these be in Gurumukhi with people stepping on them all the time? Only the inscriptions on the walls, which no foot could touch, were written in this script. This veneration for Gurumukhi scared away non-Sikh writers form putting secular stuff in it. Filmstar Balraj Sahni who became a prize-winning Punjabi writer, hinted at this situation in a letter to the novelist Nanak Singh in 1954. 

“You had this advantage over me,” he wrote, “that you went into the Sikh fold at an early age which decided the language of your literary expression. I have made the decision only now after a loss of several years.”

Nanak Singh was converted from Hinduism to Sikhism at an early age while Balraj Sahni, of course, continued to be a Hindu.

This emotional split between the Punjabis is so strong that they do not have even a common hero. Who is the hero of Punjabi? Guru Nanak? Guru Gobind Singh? The Gurus of one faith cannot be heroes to persons professing other faiths. (The respect felt by the Muslims for Guru Nanak did not prevent them from deleting the respectful suffix from the official name of Nanakana Sahib. Buses plying to Nanakana Sahib after Independence showed their destination with the brief ‘Nanakana’). Are Maharaja Ranjit Singh or Late Lajpat Rai – common heroes? No. Bhagat Singh? No. While the Sikhs want his pictures to wear a beard the Hindus wish him represented without one. Ranjha? He is, by any standard, a poor hero. (In all Punjabi romances heroes have less colour and substance than the heroines). But the maximum agreement may be found in this favour. The old romances of the Punjab represent an area where all Punjabis love to wander. In the late thirties they thronged the cinema houses in unprecedented numbers to see Punjabi films based on these romances. But even the arousal of this common love did not convert any writer to Punjabi.

So much about the sufferings of this language before the partitioning of the Punjab between India and Pakistan. After Pakistan, when both the other communities got areas to rule over, Sikh politicians also longed for a similar place for themselves. They began to agitate for the redrawing of the boundaries of the State ostensibly to separate Punjabi-speaking areas but really to increase the proportion of the Sikh population. The slogan of a Punjabi-speaking state met with instant and widespread approval from the Sikhs but a similar opposition from the Hindus. For the latter, this unfortunate language became a stalking horse and they began to treat it as such. A time came when the President of an All India Party, in order to, please them, went to the absurd length of saying that in the Punjab every village was bilingual.

For this opposition from the Hindus, the Sikhs by no means compensated Punjabi. Even their politicians did not love it too much. For instance, posters announcing Master Tara Singh’s visit to a town were printed in Urdu in order to reach a larger readership. Politico-religious leadership and literature are, in fact, poor companions. Literature is after all a display of the agitations of the mind while religion is offered as a means of keeping it under control. All those in favour of settled opinions, whether religious or political, look at literature with suspicion unless it is literature directly furthering those opinions. Besides, powerful voices were now and again raised profaning the Punjabi language with treatment in it of sex and vice. To give an example, in the mid-fifties an adventurous publisher brought out three volumes of Manto’s stories in Punjabi. Even before the police laid their hands on him for publishing obscene literature, a respected critic in the language censured the publication, saying that there was no room in Punjabi for such writings because it was the language of a decent people.

Yet another disadvantage of this language being linked with the Sikh religion is, that it gets cut off from the Indian cultural tradition. For a Sikh, the world begins with the birth of Guru Nanak five hundred years ago. Before that there was only darkness and anarchy. Sikhism has no Ramayana with its devoted and beautiful Sita, no wily, love-making Rishis, no Apsaras, no tantric rites. While the Granth Sahib contains repeated references to Hindu mythology, these are necessarily for the very learned. To a layman, Sikhism is all about fighting and sacrifices, martyrdom and meditation. Even the Hindus of the Punjab but vaguely realize the ancient world. This deprives the literature, particularly poetry, of much of the richness, which some other Indian literatures have.

A Punjabi writer, in general, has his readers only among school and university teachers and some literary minded students and ex-students. This type of readership can sometimes be quite frustrating. The finer points of writing may clean escape it and one may find oneself being admired for altogether the wrong reasons. But it is no use running away from it because this is the total limit of a Punjabi writer’s fame. By writing in Punjabi, one is talking to no one of importance, not reaching anywhere. One cannot, for instance, hope to raise a statewide discussion in this language. This general indifference does not let Punjabi writing become an exhilarating experience. Top writers find solace in doing commissioned work, mostly translations, because it brings some money. A Punjabi writer is like a naturalized citizen who has all the necessary status on paper but who fails to click with the local people. Few eminent Punjabis stop to wonder whether there are any writers writing in the language they speak day in and day out. This was illustrated by an incident some years ago. A function was organized to felicitate Professor Mohan Singh on his winning the Sahitya Akademi Award at his hometown Jullundur. 

One of the invitees, an eminent politician of that place, when requested to say something got up and said, “I am sorry, I have never met the award winner before nor have I ever heard of him. In fact I was expecting to meet here, another literary person with this name whom I knew long ago in Lahore.”

It is said that the status of even an important Punjabi writer, unless he improved it by taking up some other job, is roughly equal to that of a Tehsildar outside his own jurisdiction.

What is the general level of Punjabi writing compared to other Indian literatures? Since it is not possible for anyone to know all the Indian languages well, judgement is usually made with the help of available translations in English. Here, Punjabi has not much to show. No modern Punjabi book has been published in translation in England or America. Individual short stories and poems have met with better luck particularly in USSR and other socialist countries. Punjabi books published in the English translation in India can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There is much better reception in Hindi. Almost everything written by Kartar Singh Duggal and Amrita Pritam, for instance, is published in Hindi. The common Hindi reader takes them for writers in his own language. Poor representation in English is due, more than anything else, to lack of good translators. The usual sort of people to undertake this work like college teachers, high official and English language journalists have no interest in or access to it because they do not know the script.

Whatever threat one follows in the texture of Punjabi writing, it leads to the same barren spot — Punjabis’ lack of concern for their language. But while the writers blame the people, the latter could, probably, with equal justification, blame the writers. 

“Why can’t they produce a Tagore who would lend respectability to the language and make Punjabis feel proud of it?” they say ask.

But it is somewhere between these two points that the search of an antidote to this depressing situation should be made.

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