What, precisely, is Punjabiyat? Is it the Yash Chopra vision of men and women in bright shalwar kurtas doing bhangra? Or is it the dominance of a province in the state, military and popular culture? Mohammed Hanif was as confused as the other panellists of the enigmatically called session ‘Punjabiyat’ on the third day of the KLF. Nadeem Aslam, who grew up in Gujranwala, said that as a child, “my idea was that Punjabi was spoken around the world.” This naivety came from seeing Sikh pilgrims passing through the city to go to Hasan Abdal and being told that “these guests had come from abroad.” Perhaps that has come true, after all, as Aslam remarked that “we are now everywhere.”
Moderated by Sarwat Mohiuddin, in addition to Hanif and Aslam, the panel featured Indian writer Kishwar Desai. Their Punjabi identity has filtered into the works that they have produced and appears to have been a conscious decision. The lead characters of Hanif’s two books, General Ziaul Haq and Alice Bhatti, are Punjabi. Hanif commented that General Zia was never heard speaking Punjabi, “so he wasn’t ashamed of his acts, but ashamed of being a Punjabi.”
Aslam’s novel Maps for Lost Lovers is based on a family transplanted from Punjab into the Dasht-i-Tanhai of Britain. For Desai, the process of reconnecting with her culture was “very idealistic,” and led to her setting up a Punjabi television channel and writing about the state. “There was a Punjab I wanted to talk about which most people didn’t want to talk about,” she said.
But in another few years, will writers in Pakistan be able to write about it in Punjabi? Aslam and Hanif recounted going to school and being confused when taught words in Urdu that they had only known the Punjabi for. Aslam accused his teacher of lying when teaching him the alphabet and Hanif couldn’t reconcile how daddoo and maindak were the same. Mohiuddin noted that children in Punjab are “confused about language”. “Schools are supposed to teach how to read and write. In Punjab, we are teaching a new language,” she said. Hanif pointed out that laughably enough, one can do a master’s or a PhD in Punjabi, but can’t learn it at the primary-school level.
But it isn’t just about schools. As Mohiuddin pointed out, many believe that “Punjabi isn’t a language of the well-read and literate.” This is evident in the generation of Punjabis born in the 1980s, whose parents ensured that they learn Urdu — which would make them appear ‘literate’ and ensure jobs and upward mobility — and do not speak Punjabi. The language has also been missing from the province. Historically, Punjabi was not the official language of the government as Aslam and Hanif pointed out. And while in India there have been efforts to preserve the Punjabi script and promote the language, in Pakistan it is well on its way to dying out.
There was a sense of bitterness and introspection during the discussion, especially as the authors discussed how the story of Heer and Ranjha has been transformed over the years with Heer being seen as a wayward woman. “Punjabis are embarrassed of Heer but not embarrassed of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in Jhang,” Hanif remarked.
Mohiuddin asked Aslam about his latest novel, A Blind Man’s Garden, which is set in a town called Heer. Aslam said he had read about how Heer’s clan had reportedly stopped the 1970 film adaptation of Waris Shah’s Heer Ranjha from being screened in Jhang and had decided to set all of his future novels in a town called Heer. “I’ll give her her own town,” announced Aslam. “My future novels will be set in this fictional town called Heer; I have a map for it in my head.”
Desai also addressed the issue of patriarchy in Punjab. “This business of wanting to restrict women came to fruition during Partition. The number of women who were killed by their own parents or jumped into wells ... who does a woman really belong to? These issues became very real after Partition for the women of Punjab.” This is why, Desai said, she wrote about female infanticide in Punjab, based on a true story of a woman who was supposed to have died as a baby.
The animosity over the dominance of Punjab in the state and military was evident during the Q&A. Hanif said that if you talk to a Sindhi or a Baloch, Punjabiyat is a “monstrosity”.
— Saba Imtiaz