Notes From a Punjabi Literature Conference in Vancouver

I was recently in cool Vancouver to give a talk at a conference on Modern Punjabi Literature. The conference was at the University of British Columbia, and it was hosted by the Asian Studies department (where they have a strong program in Punjabi language instruction, part of which includes the study of literature in Punjabi).

The community was invited in, and they most definitely came — including a number of poets and novelists in Vancouver’s surprisingly large Punjabi language writers’ community. One of the best-known Punjabi poets in Vancouver is of course Sadhu Binning, who has also taught the Punjabi language at UBC for more than 20 years (he’s now retiring, sadly). His collection, “No More Watno Dur” is one of the very few collections of Punjabi poetry I’ve seen to be published in a bilingual edition (which is especially helpful for someone like me — a person who reads Punjabi only haltingly, and always with reference to a dictionary).

Among the many other writers in attendance, it was great to meet, for instance, the Punjabi-Pakistani-Canadian poet, Fauzia Rafiq (who didn’t mention she had a blog!). Another writer who seems well worth checking out is Ajmer Rode.

At the poetry reading on the last night of the conference, Nadeem Parmar sang a ghazal in Punjabi. I Googled him today, and was surprised to find that he’s written lyrics for many well-known singers, including Jagjit Singh. I also Googled Darshan Singh Gill, and was intrigued to find that he had actually been featured in a CBC documentary about new immigrants in Canada, back in 1958. And those were just a few of the names.

I met a Dhol player who plays for a “world music”/fusion group called “Delhi To Dublin”, which seems worth checking out. He also plays Dhol for a “pure” Bhangra group called En Karma. (There might be another post about these Vancouver bands once I’ve had a chance to listen to the music.)

Those are some links to start off. After the jump, I’ll discuss some of the more substantial issues discussed at the conference.

I was surprised by the number of writers who showed up, and how prolific they all seemed to be. One of the questions we’ve sometimes discussed on Sepia Mutiny is the future of the Punjabi language (and other Indian languages) at a moment when English and Hindi seem ever more culturally dominant in India. But even more urgent in some ways right now than language in general is the question about the status of Punjabi literature — with the commercial market for Punjabi-language books apparently drying up quite quickly within Punjab (Punjabi writers in India have an obvious commercial incentive to write in English). Several writers at the conference voiced concerns to the effect that Punjabi language literature runs the risk of becoming more parochial and isolated — no longer a natural, organic part of the culture (where people publish in Punjabi because they think of it as their primary literary language). Even if it doesn’t disappear entirely, there is certainly a live danger of literature written in the Punjabi language becoming a kind of museum piece.

Of course, that is only one part of the discussion. The more “internal” academic issues, including some close readings of major Punjabi writers from the mid-20th century, including Gurdial Singh, Nanak Singh, Bhai Vir Singh, among others. A number of diasporic writers were discussed, including especially Gurumel Sidhu and Gurcharan Rampuri.

There were also discussions about the mistake entailed in conflating “Punjabi literature” with “Sikh literature.” Most of the authors discussed in the scholarly talks were Sikhs (in fact, most of the authors were Sikh men — I did discuss a short story by Ajeet Cour in my talk, but I was one of the few to do so.) But of course, there is a considerable body of writing in Punjabi by Pakistanis. The problem, of course, is that while the language is very close, Muslim Punjabis tend to write in Shahmukhi script (based on Urdu), while Sikh and Hindu Punjabis tend to write in Gurmukhi (the script thought to have been invented by the Sikh Gurus).

The conflation of “Sikh” and “Punjabi” is also an issue when we’re thinking about the disciplinary questions surrounding “Punjab Studies” and “Sikh Studies” in North American universities. The Sikh community has, in recent years, raised money to create a handful of Sikh Studies endowed chairs at different universities — including the University of Michigan, Hofstra University in Long Island, and UBC itself. And while these universities have learned, sometimes the hard way in some cases, that they must retain control when it comes to hiring and evaluating faculty for these positions, questions about how independent these scholars really can be have remained in some people’s minds, in part because of recent history.

Those of us who want this kind of scholarship to happen are in somewhat of a double-bind. Without support and encouragement from the community, it is highly unlikely that there would be much interest in studying Sikhism and Sikh history seriously in North America — universities aren’t funding it widely enough to support a sizeable community of scholars on their own, and very few religion departments are well-staffed enough to justify more than one “South Asian religions” person. But then, if scholars in “Sikh Studies” positions partially endowed by the community come out with scholarly work the community doesn’t particularly like, the universities find themselves on the receiving end of vehement criticism.

My own paper was called “Secular Sikh Writers,” and I was trying to do two things: first, provoke a debate about what is entailed in identifying oneself as a “secular Sikh.” In my view, one of the unusual features of the idea of secularism in (and from) South Asia is the possibility that one can retain an “observant” relationship to a particular religious community, while also being strongly committed to freedom of religion (or even freedom from religion), socially and politically. By contrast, in the west, secularism usually is thought to be more or less synonymous with “atheism.”

The paper I gave also tried to briefly chart a history of secularization in fiction by Punjabi Sikh writers, starting with Bhair Vir Singh (who was not, I don’t think, “secular,” according to my definition), then moving forward to Social realist writers like Kartar Singh Duggal in the 1950s and 60s, and finally to the “contemporary” moment, with writers like Ajeet Cour. My argument was that even the contemporary writers continue to interrogate the line between “religious” and “secular” experiences of the world.

Most of the discussion, not surprisingly, revolved around the first topic — what is a “secular Sikh”?

Overall, a fun — and humbling — weekend.

37 thoughts on “Notes From a Punjabi Literature Conference in Vancouver

  1. Amardeep, Sounds interesting! Can you say a bit more, though, about why “in the west, secularism usually is thought to be more or less synonymous with ‘atheism’”? While I admittedly haven’t encountered too many people in the US who call themselves (first and foremost) “secularists” I had thought that secularism in the West was associated with ideas like the First Amendment (i.e., freedom of religion)–i.e., agnosticism at the political level with respect to religion and ideally the rejection of religious-based justifications for laws/policies, but tolerance of individual practice. . . .

  2. I think secularism in South Asia did have a view similar to yours (in that one can be a follower of a certain religion, but remain committed to freedom of religion). At least, that would have been closer to the view of the founding fathers of independent India (less so the rest of south asia). However, in the present day, secularism has come to mean the government pandering to the loudest voices of any religion (and where the minority voices within each community, say, are ignored or worse, suppressed). It would be very interesting to read your thoughts on the evolution of the meaning of “secularism” within a south asian (particularly, an Indian) context over the past 60 years.

  3. While I admittedly haven’t encountered too many people in the US who call themselves (first and foremost) “secularists”

    What about “secular humanists?” I’ve met a few of those. ^__^

  4. 4 · Blue What about “secular humanists?” I’ve met a few of those. ^__^

    Sure, but whilst secular humanists are secular, not all secularists are secular humanists (and, I think, the drafters of the US Constitution were secularists but not secular humanists).

  5. Sure, but whilst secular humanists are secular, not all secularists are secular humanists.

    Huh… looked it up and you’re (of course) right. I always had the two words linked before. :P

  6. THis may be OT, but y’day i was listening to NPR and there was a discussion about world poetry . What drove me crazy was the pronunciation of “ghazal”, in that the two commentrators pronounced the “gh” as “kh”. I have always heard the “g” pronounced. Or were they talking about something completely different?

  7. Several writers at the conference voiced concerns to the effect that Punjabi language literature runs the risk of becoming more parochial and isolated — no longer a natural, organic part of the culture (where people publish in Punjabi because they think of it as their primary literary language). Even if it doesn’t disappear entirely, there is certainly a live danger of literature written in the Punjabi language becoming a kind of museum piece.

    There is a danger that the ‘elite’ who used to publish in Punjabi and other languages of the sub-continent will write in English instead. That’s where the money, cachet, and increasingly, the audience is.

    But I think it will take new forms, like all Indian languages, Punjabi will evolve, will absorb forms, ideas, and revify itself by addressing itself to the concerns of the Punjabi readership. As long as there are Punjabis on both sides of the border there will be Punjabi literature, and if nothing else, the language will be kept alive and strong through music of which Punjab is particularly rich in, from classical to folk to bhangra to pop to sufi spirituals and through poetry. Language continues on many different levels. There is a living poetry scene and movement on both sides of the border. And that Sikhs do see themselves in some ways as the guardian of the language will keep it vibrant and alive.

    This is one of the best resources for Punjabi literature, poetry and music, run by Indian and Pakistani Punjabis in America.

    http://www.apnaorg.com/

    I love listening to the poetry of Shiv Kumar Batalvi on the music section of this site.

  8. Amardeep,

    You seem to forget that ‘secular Sikhs’ as you define have a long history in the Punjab. Most of the Punjabi writers that you name, and those that belong to a particular generation, came from Communist Party backgrounds or leanings. This strain has been present in the Punjab for decades (some of the most notably names include Sant Singh Sekhon, among many others I could list) and many have written works with Marxist-influenced interpretations of Guru Nanak and Sikh History. The story relating to Malik Bhago and Bhai Lalo is especially popular. Although you can see the large number of Sikhs involved in the CPI in India, most notably Harkishan Surjit, and certain strains of influence are especially prominent in the Malwa region, as a whole ‘secular Sikhs’ have been marginal in the general Sikh polity.

  9. 4 · Blue said

    What about “secular humanists?” I’ve met a few of those. ^__^

    They are just people who don’t want to set off alarm bells all around them when they declare themselves “atheists”. Because atheists are clearly not moral, but secular humanists.. how couldn’t they be?

  10. By contrast, in the west, secularism usually is thought to be more or less synonymous with “atheism.”

    Can you elaborate? Are you talking about a historical evolution (which fundamentally contradicts the thinking of the deist founders, as rob points out), or current social attitudes? Despite the vocal radical evangelism movement, I think the majority of the American populace, which considers itself religious, believes that laws should follow the will of the people rather than the Bible, even when the bible contradicts people’s desires (there was a Pew survey on this). I think it is the case though, that the evangelicals have had a disproportionate influence on politics and policy in the last 25 years or so, but I don’t think that should be extrapolated to people (in fact, powerful religious minorities like the Jews have a strong interest in preserving “secularism”).

  11. Sorry it took me awhile to respond to Rob’s initial comment — I actually wrote this post in the Denver airport, while my flight was delayed. Immediately after posting, I had to board a plane for four + hours!

    Anyway, in the post I was thinking of secularism primarily as a personal ethos or outlook, not so much as a political system. I do think India’s history with Mahatma Gandhi and other strongly religiously-identified “secularist” leaders has created a way of being secular that isn’t quite as widely accepted in the west (though there is no doubt that it is there, and has been there in the past — if anything, it was actually more pronounced in the past, as the “Dissenting Churches” had a strong desire to keep the Anglican “Established Church” out of their affairs). Also, the very public nature of religion in the Indian subcontinent makes the idea of the “privatization of religion” kind of a non-starter in India.

    I wanted to provoke a dialogue within the Sikh community in particular (the majority of my audience at this conference) about what a “secular Sikh” might be, getting past the tired old cuts hair (=”not observant”)/doesn’t cut hair (=”observant”) divide.

    Mewa Singh (#10), I think you’re being too hard on Sant Singh Sekhon and others of that generation. The turn to the common man, and class struggle, was an important phase in the emergence of a more serious kind of literature in Punjabi. The great Hindi and Urdu writers of the 20th century (i.e., Prem Chand) are still widely read precisely because of their approach to these issues. I don’t think it’s a stain at all, but rather an important part of the intellectual history.

  12. I think my sense of Amardeep’s “Western ‘secular’” description fell in line more closely with Western Europe, where secular has meant a removal of religion from public (including non-government) spaces, as opposed to the U.S., where secularism is more closely tied with rhetoric around “freedom of religion” (with a default assumption that one is still religious — often contentious, particularly with atheists).

    Neale, I heard that story too! I just assumed mispronunciation; I’ll be honest, I can’t say the “gh” in “ghazal” properly either (although it definitely isn’t a “kh”).

    Amardeep, I’d love to hear more about your general argument, specifically in the context of Sikh secular writers. It seems like there has been a long strain of secular writing, although a lot of Sikh writing has been similar to early Islamic poetry and writing — inspired by divine concepts, themes, and/or one’s relationship with aspects of life as an analog for one’s relationship with God (I’m thinking specifically close to the style of Gibran’s “The Prophet,” but of course there’s a much larger body of work).

  13. Amardeep,

    I did not mean to criticize Sant Singh Sekhon and others of that bent, but only to give a longer historical context to your idea of ‘secular Sikh.’ This was/is an idea that has been explored by writers such as Sant Singh Sekhon. However that their direct impact (indirect impact can definitely be argued) was minimal upon the Sikh polity was not meant to be a ‘stain,’ but rather an empirical statement.

    However turning to the conundrum you presented about community-funded chairs, I do not see the problem of community’s desiring to influence the hiring process. To believe that the academy is free from politics borders on being disingenuous. I can understand the argument that community influence may make for bad scholarship, but to assume that the vacuum left by community influence is not filled by other powers would be completely naive. Individuals and governments influence university chairs all the time. That grassroots community activists that are not extremely wealthy individuals and in fact are non-state actors is extremely uncommon.

    Although the Kurdish population throughout the world is larger than the Sikh population, Kurdish studies in the academy (especially in Europe, where their concentration is greatest) does not compare to that of Sikh studies. I am not sure if Kurds are the best comparison, but I am trying to think of a non-state nationality of proportionate numbers. Any other communities for comparative purposes?

  14. Amardeep,

    Was Dr. Harjot Oberoi present at the conference? Dr. Oberoi wrote The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, and is a professor at UBC. It was a very interesting read at that time, and a book well debated about at that time (I read it during my undergrad in 1999). I managed to take his course on Religion, Society, and State in Modern India at UBC, as an elective and enjoyed it, given that the majority of my class was also punjabi… me being the lonely south indian…managed to bring some masala to the discussions :)

    Enjoyed your post… hopefully you had a chance to enjoy the campus and Vancouver during your trip as well.

  15. At last! I have waited two years for you to follow up on this! Well done. Beautifully written. Although I know you are concentrating on Canadian Punjabi Secular writers, there is a strong revival in the UK, lead by Amarjit Chandan, Jaggi Kussa and more unusally a British born writer called Rupinderpal Singh Dhillon. All three can be googled. Kussa is a exceptional writer whilst his student Roop Dhillon, has produced the firts western published Punjabi novel, Neela Noor, which again can be googled. It is on Barnes and Noble. Not surprisingly it is not for sale in India, as Punjabi writing is on the decrease, unlike the west.

    Anyhow, well done for bringing this to Sepia’s attention.

  16. Hi, Just some quick points. I have been reading Likhari’s comments on the various threads for a while. Like him I hail from the UK. I would briefly like to address the matter of Punjabi Secularism, the formers list and the future state of Punjabi.

    Punjabi Secularism in UK certainly follows Amarjeet’s view. I.e. a western view. Over the last few years a number of attempts have been made to unite Indian and Pakistani, Sikh and Muslim via Punjabi Musharias all over UK. I have attended some myself, where I have seen Sikh and Muslims read poetry together, from their separate scripts. I agree with the blogger’s view. It does seem though that for the main, Punjabi seems to be the territory of the Sikhs. And the men. Progress is needed.

    In terms of Likhari’s observation, I will ask him this. Likhari, are you aware that all three men you have mentioned are not part of the main stream, and to degrees differ in their views re Sikh issues and Secularism, as well as Literary style?

    Channan is a Naxolite and very atheist in his secular views. Kussa is the other end of the spectrum, although not a Khalistanni, he is progressive in writing, but distant from Channan. Both avoid public gatherings, especially the latter, who evades movements. This is partly because he writes in an earthy way and not pretentious (he does not want to lock horns). Thus he is popular with the people. One could say he is the people’s writer. Thus he falls in that future possibility mentioned about Punjabi Literature’s future above.

    Strangely both are associates of Roop Dhillon ( aka Rupinderpal Singh Dhillon). Kussa I believe is his mentor, whereas via the secular group Satraunga (run by Parminder Chadha, Gurinder’s sister); Channan is more in touch with the modern writers. He tend to go to Readings as well. The link with Chadha is significant. She is associated with Professor Saeed Farani from Pakistan, who is a Sufi translator. Satrunga believe that Punjabi can be written in any alphabet, by all Punjabis, despite their religious differences, as ethnically they are the same.

    Into this mêlée comes Roop Dhillon, who also knows Chadha and Farrani and Pakistani Punjabi editor Maqsood Saqib. In fact Roop Dhillon is an ardent supporter of http://www.apnaorg.com which is strongly secular. Even Sadhu Binning is a part of this. Dhillon is also a part of an elite group called Baagi Batti, run by Amarjeet Bolla. This as the name implies rebels against all traditionalist Punjabi forms, and merges western grammar and conventions to Punjabi. More significantly, it chooses its own members. They are only British, American and Canadian born. That is to say it rejects émigrés and does not bother with Punjab as its audience. The confidence I guess comes from Punjabi’s 2nd Language status in the UK, and its growing popularity amongst some parts of the new generation in the UK. This has been fostered by the last associate of Baagi Batti, Ajit Khera, who runs the radio station Desi Radio, as if both Punjabs were one country. This I then think proves that western style secularism is alive in some quarters of Punjabi artists. Just not in the Sikh dominant state of BC. In fact Neela Noor was a genuine secular novel, set in Pakistan and India, which is why it bombed amongst some of the Sikh community. I guess not all Sikhs trust Muslims.

  17. Hey Likhari, are you Roop Dhillon promoting yourself here? Or is there more than one Likhari? Amitabh, you have got me curious. I’m going to check out all entries by Likhari and Rupinder, whose replies I have occasionally seen here.

    Doesn’t change my view above though.

  18. Roop Dhillon is legitimate enough, in terms of a writer as far as I can see ( proofs below) As to why he would want to call himself Likhari ( assuming no one else has pretended to use his moniker, and that form the dubious punjabonline website) and pretend he is someone else writing about himself I can not answer, nor do I care as it has little to do with Amardeep’s article.

    http://www.punjabilekhak.com/?cat=56 http://www.apnaorg.com/articles/ruped/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Punjabi_Writers

  19. I hail from California. I agree with some of the things that Amardeep has said. “Several writers at the conference voiced concerns to the effect that Punjabi language literature runs the risk of becoming more parochial and isolated” I think that this is already the case. People understand Bhangra, but they don’t understand written Punjabi, mainly because most are Pindoos, and not pretentious.

    “The problem, of course, is that while the language is very close, Muslim Punjabis tend to write in Shahmukhi script (based on Urdu), while Sikh and Hindu Punjabis tend to write in Gurmukhi (the script thought to have been invented by the Sikh Gurus).”

    There is a clear prejudice between Sikhs and Muslims, perpetuated by 1947, script issues and religion. Punjabi is a muslim language, high jacked by Sikhs, betrayed by Muslims. Sikh Literature is definitely not just Punjabi. It is implicitedly written in Gurumukhi, or can be said to be written in any language that covers the religion only. There is no true secularlism as per the western sense. Desis are too caught up in religion, caste and other things discussed before. And yes females are seen as inferior. Thus Ajeet Cour or Amrita Preetum are significant. The latter was very good at pushing herself, and nowadays her style is so dated.

    In that sense I have read Roop Dhillon’s works. I have to say he is also a self promoter. TV, Radio, Blogs and any forum where he can. That said like Aman, I have think his writing is significant. Maybe not within itself, but as part of a revival, which is growing in the UK, as stated above. It is still way behind North America though.

    “hiring and evaluating faculty for these positions, questions about how independent these scholars really can be have remained in some people’s minds, in part because of recent history.”

    Everyone is in everyone’s pocket.

    Modern Punjabi Literature means differnt things to different people. I’d say that there is a minor Modern movement in Pakistan, a greater one in India and a smallish one in the UK. Canada probably is the strong hold.

    I doubt Punjabi will die out, but the Literature may change.

  20. Punjabi is a dying language anyway. Just like the rest. Look at how we all prefer English. The way these Budhay write is so outdated, and irrelevant to us in the west. It’s also a language without a land. Hell we call ourselves Hindu Punjabis,which implies Sikhs are the real Punjabis! Bull, considering most Punjabis are Pakistanies. Hardly a secular attitude.

    I read somewhere that the language has taken differenr forms in diffent countries anyhow.

  21. I recently came across this. I don’t often visit Sepia. Anyhow I find it annoying reading people who don’t know me make comments about me. Amitabh is presumptious, Aman just mad.

    Anyhow, re what Amardeep has actually blogged about..Great at least something about our culture. It’s just a shame these subjects are not that popular amongst American based Indians.

  22. Amardeep,

    “But then, if scholars in “Sikh Studies” positions partially endowed by the community come out with scholarly work the community doesn’t particularly like, the universities find themselves on the receiving end of vehement criticism.”

    Whatever I can remember w.r.t this is the case of Harjot Oberoi, Doris Jaokbsh, Pashaura Singh,W.H. Mcleod etc….. The community which raised the “vehement” opposition was a community of learned scholars which included people like Professor Pritam Singh, Dr. Baldev Singh(www.sikhspectrum) and many others….

    The problem with scholars is that they tend deduce/induce and hence produce their works which are based on their prejudiced/partial understanding of the sikh religion,history and culture.

    Dr. Baldev Singh has dissected the book “Relocating Gender in Sikh History”, where he eventually proves that Dr. jakosh does not convey the truth rather she has maligned the Guru’s and other sikh historical figures including the Guru-Mahals(wife’s of Gurus).

    Let me summarise what i intend to say: As in science Scholarship is both discovery and invention……. in religion the demonstration true understanding is scholarship……… this is the reason why universities have to face “vehement oppostion” sometimes.

  23. Only because I do not know where else to post this

    I have just read two Punjabi novels, one a translation from Englis The first was Sadhu Binning’s Jugtu…absolutely fantastic! The second was Hemmimgway’s The Old Man and the Sea translated into Punjabi….you know what, it really worked!!

  24. During a literary meet I once attended, someone popped up this rather uneasy question in an equally unexpected manner: What is it that ails the Punjabi literature?

    All kinds of plausible and implausible answers were put forth, ranging from the lack of government support to the apathy of readers. If someone spoke passionately about the need to promote our literary culture through a network of libraries, others felt it necessary to promote, albeit aggressively, Punjabi language in states other than Punjab.

    Almost everyone agreed that the problem lay with the external, motivating factors. Not even a single speaker thought it worthwhile to look inwards and suggest how far our personal and cultural attitudes were responsible for whatever was found wanting.

    Though the literary discussion ended inconclusively, as most of these discussions often do, I came back wondering if it wasn’t necessary for us to do some introspection and see how and in what different ways we were responsible for whatever had presumably gone wrong.

    This is what prompted me to look through the haze of forgotten memories, and as I did so, a series of incidents came leaping back. Somehow I felt, that the answers lay hidden somewhere in these personal anecdotes. Once I had a chance encounter with a bright-looking young man from the department of Punjabi, who presented me with a strange request. He was looking for a portrait of Shakespeare and wanted my help in procuring one. I asked him, ‘Whatever do you want Shakespeare’s portrait for?’ He said, ‘Sir, I believe he was the greatest dramatist we have ever had. I admire him a great deal. I want to get his picture framed and put it up in my room.’ Now this had me completely flummoxed. After years of teaching Shakespeare, I felt I had finally come across a genuine Shakespeare lover. I said, ‘This is interesting. So you must have read most of his plays?’ Without so much as a blink, he shot back, ‘No Sir, I haven’t read any. But I have heard a great deal about him.’

    Despite my familiarity with this oft-orchestrated Indian habit of icon-making and idolization, I somehow felt rather uneasy about the excessiveness of this Punjabi response. I wondered if this is the way we Punjabis often form our impression(s) about authors, our own or those of the other languages and cultures? Merely on the basis of what we hear rather than what we read or discover?

    What disturbed me the most was that despite being a student of Punjabi literature he wasn’t interested much in idolizing one of his own, but someone as remote and distant as Shakespeare, someone he hadn’t read, only heard of.

    This would have continued to mystify me, had I not met one of my colleagues, a few days later. After meeting him I began to understand that the idolization of a young fellow was not an aberration or an exception, but rather a product of a peculiar mind-set, an outcome of a certain way in which we continue to perceive ourselves in relation to the Europeans in general and the British in particular, their literature, history and culture. In course of an absolutely innocuous conversation, this colleague of mine, who incidentally teaches Punjabi, nearly had me zapped when he said, ‘Oh! Your situation is different. After all, you teach English literature (emphasis not mine).’

    More than the mixture of awe and envy in his words, it was this ideological mask of self-inferiorization that unnerved me a great deal. It took me quite some time to recover from the shock and gather my wits. Finally when I had, I said, ‘Why do you say that? You should be proud that you teach your own language/literature. I feel like a condemned soul who is forever enslaved to teach someone else’s.’ The conversation ended on this note, but the words of my colleague had continued to haunt me for a long time.

    Though he had dedicated several ‘precious’ decades of his life to the teaching of Punjabi literature, my ‘friend’ hadn’t really developed genuine pride in what he did. Somewhere he still nursed a secret envy for his counterparts who taught English Literature. Was it not a symptom or an expression of self-inferiorization? Was it not the outcome of an ideology that often compelled us to indulge in inferiorization of our own language(s) and culture(s) at the cost of valorizing someone else’s?

    Once while attending a parent-teacher meeting, I was shocked when the teacher complained to one of the parents of a six-year-old, saying, ‘I always tell him to speak English, at least in my class, but he doesn’t listen. He has this ‘bad habit’ of using Punjabi expressions in between. You must check him.’ Do you recall having been subjected to this or having witnessed such a scene ever? Of course, all this is real, not just a figment of some crooked imagination.

    Now, had it been a matter of a few isolated individuals or their flights of fancy, one may not have really bothered much. But unfortunately, it has percolated so deep down to our institutional practices that it’s actually worrisome.

    While attending a seminar on Punjabi literature, I was aghast to learn how widespread and endemic the tendency among the scholars and academics of Punjabi was, to flaunt their knowledge of the critical theories, tools and procedures churned out by the Western academy. With a genuine tinge of pride in his tone, one of the academics boasted, ‘In less than a year, every new book or theory that the West produces is made available to the Punjabi readers through translation.’

    But when I asked him about the reverse trend, he wasn’t too sure. It appears that our imports from other languages/cultures in terms of the translated literature, literary conventions and critical theories far exceed exports of our own literature and literary traditions to others. (Elementary economics tells us that exports must exceed the imports if the balance of payments is to remain favourable).

    A well-known publisher of Punjabi literature once told me in strict confidence, ‘I’ve bought the rights to publish all the works of Paulo Coelho in Punjabi.’ This is admirable, but my point is different.

    While too many people are worrying about how the Punjabi reader is to be acquainted with the best there is in world literature, not many seem to bother about how our best could also be made available outside the frontiers of our state.

    Put simply, it’s a classic case of adverse balance of payments in purely cultural, if not economic, terms. Won’t it, then, create conditions where our own cultural depletion or impoverishment could become threateningly real?

    The height of celebrating our writers is that we eulogize Shiv Batalvi as the Keats of Punjab, and Mohan Bhandari as the Chekhov of the Punjabi short story.

    By thus depriving our authors or their works of cultural specificities, we, willy-nilly, render them nameless or ‘identity-less.’ Of course, we continue to wear and flaunt our masks of conquest, which, whether we realize or not, are our masks of self-defeat, too.

    Now finally, the clinching question. Will this mind-set, this state of affairs, this cultural self-hatred ever change?

    Yes, it just might. Only if we are prepared to change three things. One, to genuinely improve our reading habits. Two, to develop natural pride in our language/literature and increase our export surplus. Three, to stop looking at our language, literature, writers and literary traditions through tinted Ray-Ban glasses minted elsewhere.


  25. A-O-A! Hello incharge, I visited your website, i am so impressed by your teachings and work. I found that you are doing such a wonderful work for the people in the mean time. I am interested to work with your ministry or organization as a translator. I hope so that you will consider me for this great option. I will wait to hear from you if you have any work of translation in to Urdu or Punjabi. Thank you Sincerely, Humaira Nazeer { Pakistan } huma_9@yahoo.com