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-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.