-Illustration by Tahir Mehdi.
-Illustration by Tahir Mehdi.

A friend of mine, who teaches at an elite school, once referred one of her students to me. The young girl had chosen to do a research assignment on our indigenous heroes and needed some help. A young person with questions and zeal can always make my day. But this one, for sure, was much more than that. She had a heavy accent and could speak English at a speed that I huffed to pick up with. In our first conversation, what I found the most challenging to understand was her frequent use of a phrase – Dola Bati. What could that be? I hesitated to ask but as she repeated it again and again, I figured out one property at a time of that new lexicon – it is a name, of a man, from our history, a forgotten hero of Punjab, the times of Akbar the great. Gotcha! She was talking about Dullah Bhatti, the great Punjabi rebel and she pronounced it exactly the way a person brought up in New York would – and which a person brought up in Punjab was finding difficult to make out.

I did help the girl with her assignment but I think she was a bigger help for me in my quest to understand Punjabi society and polity. The girl was not a foreign-return Pakistani. She owed her language skills to her plush school. As we befriended each other, I came to know that her father owns a jewelry business at an up-class market. Theirs was in fact a goldsmith family that used to live in the old walled city of Lahore. Her father relocated the family business to avail new opportunities in this rising city, much before she was born. Her grandparents who spent the first part of their lives in the old mohallah were still alive and living with them.

Under one roof of her home lived three eras, three languages and three cultures. Her grandparents spoke Punjabi, the Lahori accent, with each other and with everyone else. They had no choice. Her parents, however, had to choose one from Urdu and Punjabi. They spoke Punjabi with each other but Urdu with their children. They conversed in Punjabi with friends and dealt their clients and customers in Urdu laced with English. Their Urdu was tainted with a Lahori-Punjabi accent. She herself was only at ease with English but could make it in Urdu as well with no great difficulty and had learned a few sentences in Punjabi to charm her grandparents. Her Urdu had an alien slant and her Punjabi was just out of this world.

I soon realised that the division was not confined to language alone. The phenomenon expressed itself in a number of other avenues. The aroma of desi ghee will make her grandparents' eyes sparkle, her parents would hide their feelings and go for the odorless olive oil and she would not only say 'yuck' but would act out throwing-up too.

I learned a number of lessons and I could see the divide operate and express itself in a number of benign, not-so-harmful and really nasty ways. But what I eagerly awaited was an answer to the question – whether this trisecting of Punjabi middle class reflects itself in politics, and how? My understanding of political science tells me that the trisection forms one economic class and shall be unanimous in political expression masking the internal divisions as diversity. My friend did not help me get to an answer. She wasn't interested in politics at all and left all these matters for her elders to decide.

Just when I was about to give up, I bumped into another young lady with the same heavy accent. It instantly struck a chord and I did not have to inquire from her about what language her father, grandfather spoke etc. I would rather tell her in affirmative, like a fortune-teller, and she would nod in agreement and further elaborate by telling a related story.

She was a good story-teller. She told me that she had learned the art for a purpose and that was a story in itself too. I met the lady in a delayed local flight. I had got the worst possible seat, the middle one in central row where you have to stick both your elbows to your body and wait till your neighbor changes posture and vacates the armrest. The good part was that my neighbor was a bright, young lady. A telecom engineer by profession, just married and she and her hubby, a banker, had not been able to sort out what city to settle in – yours or mine. So they both took turns and travelled over weekends to be together. The frequent flyer was afraid of flying and would overcome that by exercising her story-telling skills on whoever was sitting in the next seat. I struggled to complete the reading of a newspaper article but then gave in and decided to volunteer as her audience.

She does not wait for a cue from you and could talk on any subject. It was by coincidence that a few rows from ours sat a known politician, a PML-N stalwart. People walking to and fro would throw a salam at him and some would briefly hover over his seat to engage in some pleasantries. I prompted her to talk on politics. At first she dodged me, expressing disinterest in the subject but then couldn't resist my persistent stimulation.

She started with, "Look at this cartoon, he is wearing joggers under a coat-pant suit," referring to the onboard PML-N politician. "How come this joker represents me?" her ridicule now had a derogatory tone. Then we laughed together on a number of jokes, I did not forget to take my notes though. We made fun of Sharif for his supposed love for sri paya and all other slow and un-cool foods. We also imagined that a chicken fajita pizza, that watered her mouth, would get a thumbs down from them. She mimicked Raja Riaz's jatt hits at Urdu and we spent quite a bit of time on who speaks how. Jahangir Badar's ubiquitous use of the retroflex 'R' instead of the simple 'R' qualified a separate session. The accent is so peculiar to old city Lahoris. "The chap can't even say his own name – JahangiR BadaR."

When her battery of political jokes, cracked on YouTube and shared on Facebook, was about to exhaust, I pinched her telling her that all of her differences with these politicians were cultural not political. Her tone changed and she started narrating a story that she wasn't really good at telling: they are all corrupt, plunderers, looters, bla bla ... (of course, except one). Before our parting could become too unromantic, in fact I feared an anti-climax, they announced that the flight that had left Allama Iqbal has landed at Quaid-e-Azam.

But where did my quest land? I am afraid I cannot disembark with certainty and will continue to taxi till the general elections. The Punjabi middle class is the biggest of all in the country. The generation gap within it has taken the shape of a cultural divide that in turn is now expressing itself as a political fissure. The plant of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is making roots in this crack. Imran Khan is someone who the younger generation does not find shameful to identify with; they find him on their side of the cultural divide.

On a left-right political meter, the larger family falls on the same side as their stances on all major issues are identical. But they can't enjoy the same thing for their dinner. In fact, there is no one 'deal' on the offer that could make the entire family happy. So, will the upcoming contest in central Punjab be between nehari-with-desi-ghee-tarka and beef-jalapeño-burger? Whatever side you take, you can rest assured that it is going to be a sumptuous feast.


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Updated Feb 26, 2013 10:59am

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Comments (30) (Closed)

Kaleem leghari
Feb 27, 2013 11:00am
A good read, in deed, but Mr Tahir Mehdi did not tell as to why the emrging affluent punjabi upper middle strata still choose to opt for the the 'right of the right'...though usually such kind of shift goes for the centre or at least to the liberal democratic right.....
Khawar Khyam
Feb 26, 2013 01:15pm
Thank You Very much for your article. Pretty good depiction of changing environment of the country.
Krish Chennai
Feb 27, 2013 05:04pm
Brilliant article ! You not only highlighted affinity to language ( tongue ) but also food ( again, tongue ). I loved the R sound-part of it, a common recourse in both sides of the border of Punjab, even if they have a precise intonation of English language otherwise. But no matter, no apologies or sorrow. after all, Bernard Shaw said " England and America are two countries divided by the same language ". Mr. Taher, you got to do and write more for the common South Asian identity, else your superb talent will be lost.
Feb 27, 2013 01:22pm
i am not an ethnic punjabi but was born here and it always intrigued me when my punjabi friends tried to talk in urdu even amongst themselves unlike friends from other ethnic backgrounds. it is only the punjabis who consider other punjabis backward or 'paindoo' who have a punjabi accent , i did not observe this behavior in any other group of any other nationality which includes africans, eastern europeans and latin americans. the counter example is indian punjab specifically sikhs who are really proud of their language. if the writer had met a pathan,sindhi, baluchi or person from any other ethnic background he would have found that the issue is primarily with people from pakistani punjab. it is very easy to gauge,how many punjabis specially the younger generation uses it for conversation. if we go by the current trend only punjabi speaking left will be from the other side of the border or the ones in backward villages where people do not have a choice.
Feb 26, 2013 03:01pm
So you mean the election will be decided by the stomach not by the brain as usual. PBCV's(Pakistan Born Confused Valatis) will not bother mostly to cast their votes until there are concerts at booths. Sarcasm aside, in urban centers it may be a contest between PML(N) and PTI but rural voters in Punjab are still very traditional and it has been shown the same way in all the by elections up to the last one.
F Hyat
Feb 27, 2013 02:36am
Learning and speaking several languages is not elitist but a sign of intelligence. In a recent study by, Viorica Marian, PhD, she says that," in addition to facilitating cross-cultural communication, being bilingual or multilingual also positively affects cognitive abilities. Researchers have shown that the bilingual brain can have better attention and task-switching capacities than the monolingual brain, thanks to its developed ability to inhibit one language while using another." So lets appreciate all the multilingual Pakistani folk instead of disparaging them.
Feb 27, 2013 12:15am
Loved it, MAN!!!!!
Ranjit Jatt
Feb 26, 2013 11:57pm
Agreed Akhtar Bhai!! slave mentality it is, no pride in your past you can't really go forward with your head held high -Jatt Sikh
Feb 26, 2013 08:27pm
Don't worry pretty soon nobody will speak Punjabi or Urdu. They will text in romanized Urdu. What a shame.
Feb 27, 2013 11:22am
Nice article but a little too simple
Tahir A
Feb 26, 2013 09:55am
Nice entertaining stuff. I am myself a second generation "offshore" Lahori Punjabi born to Punjabi parents in Kenya where we have lived for over a century now. On my regular trips to Lahore, oh how I yearn to hold conversations in Punjabi but I am so disappointed that I am shunned at my backwardness in the plush and large hotel foyer where the desk staff are always helpful but in their inimitable "English". Commonly spoken English phrases like "I don't think so he will help you" take some time to understand get adjusted to. Then at the airline help desk, the very pretty lady is helpful but "sir, it will cost you a 'plenty' amount for changing your ticket". The urge to speak Punjabi gets a further knock when the assistant at the chappali shop in Anarkali would only speak in Urdu as he points out it is in keeping with good "tehzeeb". I feel insulted and walk away sulking at my bad luck of being a Punjabi at the wrong place.
Feb 26, 2013 10:11am
It is great to find that Punjabis are investing heavily in the education of their children. Which has pleasently formed a critical-thinking and generous new generation of the middle class Punjabis. Which is evident in the form of support PTI has garnered in Punjab, the kind of space and support which PTI can hardly make in Karachi, or interior Sindh, or Baluchistan, due to extreme racial and linguistic prejudice prevalent there.
Asad Malik
Feb 26, 2013 06:55pm
I speak English ONLY when I'm outside Pakistan. It's a relief to be speaking in Urdu once I land in Pakistan and honestly, these heavy fake accents of these girls are painful to hear. When you cannot speak English properly, either try to improve or speak in Urdu. They consider you a 'paindoo' if you do not converse in English. Burger babies
Feb 26, 2013 08:06pm
Tell your leader to come and spend time in karachi. Listen to our problems, pains and show some compassion. We will fall behind him. But he never cared for karachi - when he played cricket and now when he ready to play with our future. He and his followers are quite content with making inroads in Panjab, where majority of the votes are. They don't care about rest of Pakistan. Just read your own comments and see how you are allenating all other provinces. PTI was for Punjab and will always be for Punjab.
Danial Khan
Feb 26, 2013 10:38am
haha. Well written mehdi Sb. May i know where do you live?
Ahsan Raza
Feb 26, 2013 06:51pm
hahah this is why i love my Punjab :)
Feb 26, 2013 10:48am
Its parents themselves who have brought this divide in their homes. All im afraid of is whether the younger generation will ever be able to look into deeper issues. Even the ones well in their 30's are only concerned about which mobile is new, what is on facebook, new movie, branded clothes, trends, which place is best to eat. And in the end gossip like usuall. Rarely does one come across youth thinking or talking of any other topic. My hopes lie more among the lower middle class.
Feb 27, 2013 02:09pm
Here they call them ABCD - American Born Confused Desi.
Feb 26, 2013 11:19am
Very well-written piece. Enjoyed it :) In my view, generation and cultural gap is one thing, but youth is always ready to try new things, which is not that easy for the parent generation. Seasoned politicians are now too 'seasoned' for the young, to be tested so they are gonna give a try to whoever else is on the scene. Things will be complicated these elections.
Feb 27, 2013 02:07pm
Am I reading about my neighbourhood, a heavily Italian/Portuguese immigrant community, with grandparents knowing not a word of English and still carrying on with their lives in languages of their European village they came from, the English speaking parents fiercely for Canada that gave them an uplift, but the new multilingual generation into all things pop or American, only concerned about securing a job and survival. How do you represent such a mix? My long term MP was an Italian born with an English wife, now a HK Chinese who married a white. The MPP is a Portuguese speaking born in Brazil. Both are looking over their shoulder what next? It is a tall order for someone who can sit with Sharif types and enjoy Nihari, and with youth to munch on a Burger. But what of those health nuts like us who shun either? Is the common denominator of humanity a thing of the past.
Feb 26, 2013 06:24pm
its not 'education', its an embarassment of their punjabi language and culture. And no, other nationalities in pakistan do not suffer from such ailments.
Feb 26, 2013 06:19pm
This linguistic/cultural distinction is a particular fascination of mine. I am glad I know enough of each, Punjabi, Urdu and English, not to sound artificial in any. I must admit though, it takes a lot of determination and effort to keep all three fresh, especially when you are living in the West. I would submit that the division is more binary than triangular, with the middle generation becoming more and more closer to the grand-parents' generation with the passage of time. The Sola Aaney/Million Dollar question is will the "beef-jalapeño-burger" side actually vote?
akhter husain
Feb 26, 2013 12:40pm
Thank you Mr Tahir Mehdi for sharing what you observed regarding three cultures under one roof,though this is the the story of most of us ,who some how studied in English schools and distanced from the sense of originality.It may elitist but probably it is slavish mentality.I know many families who have command on many foreign languages but take pride while speaking in their mother tongue for fragrance and love they derive from it.God may save us from slave mentality.
Usman Ahmad
Feb 26, 2013 04:29pm
The best thing that I have read in a while. Thank you Tahir Mehdi Saheb.
Feb 27, 2013 03:33pm
Punjabi, pashto, sindhi, balochi, seraiki and even urdu will not survive if scientific knowledge is not translated into these languages
Feb 27, 2013 03:34pm
Very soon people in Western Punjab {Pakistan) will be for name sake 'Punjabi', who can't speak their mother tongue Punjabi.
Feb 28, 2013 03:29am
PTI is for all of pakistan you need to get over Altaf bhai
Feb 28, 2013 04:23am
This is an oft repeated story in India too... coming from the generation born in 50s and 60s, to 80s and the one born after 1998... there would be many like the girl in your blog....
Feb 28, 2013 05:48am
It is not good to make fun of people on their dressing or accent or anything else which they cannot help or is a personal choice...dont the seculars have these basic ethics? "O believers! Let no men laugh at other men, who may perhaps be better than themselves; and let no woman laugh at another woman, who may perhaps be better than herself. Do not defame through sarcastic remarks about one another, nor call one another by offensive nicknames. It is an evil thing to be called by a bad name after being a believer, and those who do not repent are the ones who are the wrongdoers." [The Holy Quran, Surah-e-Hujarat, Verse 11]
Feb 28, 2013 07:13am
I've always wondered what a "fake accent" is? I strive to speak English correctly; say the words like a native English speaker would say them. Is my accent fake? Am I a burger baby? I'm also attemtping to learn French. I also strive to say the FRench words just like a Parisian would. Would my French accent be fake too? Should I attempt to speak French with a Punjabi touch (since I'm from Lahore) to be "real" and "non-burger"?