Language and Identity: The Case of Punjabi

My last name is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived in the Punjab and I have yet to master its language. The story of my attempts to do so reveals familiar struggles—by people like you and me—to fashion an identity, no matter where we live, whether in India or elsewhere.

As a child, I was not particularly keen to take on the mantle of being a ‘Punjabi’. My first homes were in Indian Air Force bases and later, in a city with a large Punjabi population: New Delhi. On air force bases, the lingua franca was English, and ethnic identities were de-emphasized in favor of a more pluralistic Indian one. At home, my parents never spoke Punjabi to me though they did so—with fluency and aplomb—with their parents whenever we visited them. So I grew up listening to a great deal of Punjabi, but like most urban Punjabis of my generation, without learning our supposed ‘mother-tongue’.

This cultural and linguistic distancing from the Punjab had other dimensions. When an Amritsar-resident uncle invited me to spend my autumn vacation with him, I politely declined; its historic attractions—the Golden Temple, Jallianwalah Bagh—did not seem to exert a strong enough hold on me.  I spent a day in Jalandhar on my way to a family holiday in Kashmir and did not think much of it; compared to Delhi, it seemed impossibly small-townish. Punjab smacked of the rustic, the agricultural, the homespun; I saw myself as an urban Anglophone. I lived in a big city, the capital of India; my ancestors seemed to have lived in dusty villages and provincial towns.  If this was my ethnic heritage, then I would do better to leave it behind and take on the new one that my parents’ expatriate lives—elsewhere in India, away from the Punjab—afforded me.

But migration—of whatever stripe—can change such perspectives. In my ninth and tenth grades, during two years spent in boarding school, away in India’s North-East, I was not-so-gently nudged toward my Punjabi identity by my fellow students, who, though by virtue of hailing from all over the country constituted a demographic similar to the one I had enjoyed on air force bases, were not shy about showing off their ethnic prejudices. Perhaps it was simple immaturity; perhaps it was the absence of the military impress. Be that as it may, whereas previously the label ‘Punjabi’ had never been applied to me, now, I was now supposedly a hick, despite being from New Delhi. As a confused and callow act of defiance, I became interested in acquiring my new identity’s other trappings. One important and seemingly singular one was language. Soon, I struck up a friendship with two Sikh lads—transplanted from Chapra, Bihar—and started some rudimentary practice in spoken Punjabi. For the first time in my life, I drew on a supposed ethnic solidarity. The irony of a Delhi lad finding it with Bihari boys was not lost on me. My early attempts at spoken Punjabi were, as might be expected, ludicrously bad, but a halting journey had commenced.

On returning to Delhi to finish high school, I noticed my partial competency in Punjabi made me an outlier in my cohort. None of my cousins—and indeed, just about no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi—spoke Punjabi; they were content with their fluency in English and Hindi; perhaps they were just as ambivalent about their Punjabi identity as I had been. More broadly, the migration of Punjabis outwards from the ‘home’ state seemed to have condemned their language to a slow death in India’s urban centers, overcome by the homogenizing effect of Hindi. (Elsewhere in the world, Punjabi flourished in locales like Southall and Vancouver.)

I now grew to dislike the sense of exclusion I experienced when a fluent conversation in Punjabi was conducted in my presence. I wanted to be able to understand Punjabi songs, to crack jokes in Punjabi, to perhaps even watch a movie or two in Punjabi. I still did not speak to my mother in Punjabi; our relationship was too entrenched in the familiar contours afforded by English and Hindi. But my grandmothers had no such established habit; if I attempted to speak in Punjabi with them, they replied accordingly. I began some tentative conversations in Punjabi with my grandparents. The Punjabi I acquired thus was old-fashioned; it had to be given its provenance.

At the age of twenty, my fluency in Punjabi was still minimal. Matters picked up, like they had before, when I left home. This time for a land ten thousand miles away: the US. There, as I struggled with the immigrant’s familiar and peculiar schizophrenia of identities, I made attempts to seek refuge in one or the other of the many variants—American, Indian, Punjabi—available to me. Sometimes I sought rapid assimilation and Americanization; sometimes I dreamed of returning to India; and at yet others, my old desire to speak Punjabi reasserted itself with some vigor.

New York City, my new home, played host to a large Punjabi population; opportunities for learning Punjabi were only limited by my enterprise and shyness. (They still are.) Thanks to my displacement from India, I had made contact with a brand new community of Punjabi speakers: Pakistanis. Once, while dropping off a friend for a flight back to India, as I walked through JFK’s departure hall, past a gate for a PIA flight, I was stunned by the Punjabi I could hear spoken around me by the travelers headed home. This was a huge community of fellow Punjabis; once they had only been those my father had fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars; now, perhaps, I could view them as potential brethren of a sort.  A charmingly naïve view perhaps but in that context not an entirely misguided one.

My attempts to practice my Punjabi in New York City had unexpected consequences: on many occasions, a cab driver from the Punjab–Indian or Pakistani, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, it did not seem to matter–delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow Punjabi-spouting homeboy, would simply decline my payment of the fare, and give me a free ride. I grew embarrassed at these inordinately generous offers and would try my best to pay, but to no avail. My American friends were suitably nonplussed and impressed by these remarkable displays of generosity and ethnic camaraderie. So was I.

My progress in learning Punjabi was halting; all too often, in the midst of a conversation, my verbs, tenses and vocabulary would break down and I would have to, yet again, switch back to the safety of Hindi-Urdu. I discovered that the Punjabi spoken in the Punjabi hinterland–of whose representatives in New York City there were many–was far harder to master than the urban variant I had been previously exposed to, and I would frequently switch to Hindi-Urdu in the middle of a conversation, unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way.

My progress was hampered occasionally by some old ambivalence about my Punjabi identity; I was a graduate student in philosophy, immersed in sophisticated theoretical discourse; what was I doing, expending precious time and effort in learning a language that seemed destined to be confined to India and Pakistan’s rural regions? I had married an Indian-American woman who spoke no Punjabi at all; what role did Punjabi have to play in my future family life?

Years on, as I live in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that abuts a large Pakistani community, where my opportunities for speaking Punjabi are confined to short conversations with local shopkeepers, my fluency in Punjabi remains a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery. Perhaps such competence would be possible were I able to achieve total immersion; in the winter of 2006/7 during a visit to India, my family and I made a short road trip to the Punjab; my spoken Punjabi improved in the space of four days. Work and family though, leave little time for such adventures.  Perhaps I am destined to be stuck at my current state of fluency. My ten-month old daughter will almost certainly never learn Punjabi; indeed, it would be a miracle if she would learn a bit of Hindi-Urdu. The Punjabi speakers in my family, in my line, will end with me.  And Punjabi’s melancholic trend toward a seemingly ever-smaller cohort of speakers will continue. (Word has it that in Pakistan, Urdu is fast displacing Punjabi.)

My earlier angst about seeking an identity has died down. I am happy to slip in and out of the three languages—English, Hindi, Punjabi—I can call upon with varying degrees of felicity; I delight in the varied perspectives these linguistic lenses afford me. I am now, perhaps, finally comfortable in my skin; I am who I am, a transplanted person that can look back on a childhood spent elsewhere, and who can claim allegiance to, and membership in, various cultural traditions. I am destined to be a mongrel of sorts.

Note: This is a revised and extended version of an earlier post on the same subject.

19 thoughts on “Language and Identity: The Case of Punjabi

  1. A great little essay. I wonder, though, if the factors of class and religion should be given a bit more weight. Punjabi is (I think, although I have no data) taken more seriously as a language among Sikhs than it is among Hindus and Muslims, for whom Hindi/Urdu have become automatic alternatives. And the Punjabi language probably remains much stronger for working-class and agricultural Punjabis than for middle-class urban Punjabis. Not surprisingly, the Punjabi-speakers in North American and British cities are typically working-class migrants (cab drivers, etc.) and often also Sikhs. On another note, Punjabi migrants in Indian cities often have a second, semi-secret linguistic identity: not only do they speak Punjabi and Hindi, but they can speak flawlessly, without any accent even, in the local language. Last week, I found myself having a conversation, in fluent Bengali, with the sardarji security guard at my Calcutta hotel. These cosmopolitan possibilities are, I think, among the most satisfying things about being Indian.

    1. Satadru,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree; I wrote this for Open Magazine initially, and had a word count to deal with so I left many details. This could very easily be a much more detailed take on my personal experiences with Punjabi. I do allude to class issues at time but a more nuanced treatment is definitely required. I love the story about the Bengali-speaking Sikh guard- I would have loved to have seen that conversation go down!

      Also, don’t forget the divide caused between Hindus and Sikhs in the Punjab by the choice of Hindi as first language by many Hindus, which factors in the post-independence partition of Punjab into Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

      1. I’ve known quite a few Bengali-speaking sirds in my boyhood, but this one was the first I’ve met who didn’t even have an accent! I’ve got a technically-Telugu friend like that. We had an interesting discussion last week in Calcutta about whether he’s “Bengali” or just “Bengali-speaking.” (I argued the former.) But for Sikhs it’s a bit more startling, because the turban and beard automatically produce a certain expectation. About those Bihari sardars you mentioned: I used to know a peda-seller in rural Dumka (now in Jharkhand) who was a totally assimilated migrant sardar.

        Re language-politics in pre-1967 Punjab: you’re right, of course. The issue of the script (with the Sikhs insisting on Gurmukhi and the Hindus on Devanagari) added another layer of contention.

  2. Satadru,

    I’m always fascinated by the phenomenon of transplanted Indians who speak a local vernacular that is ‘distant’ from their ‘mother-tongue.’ I met a Keralite gentleman that spoke Punjabi for instance!

  3. As always, excellent post. I very much enjoyed reading about your relationship with Punjabi and your so-called “ethnic” identity, and I am sorry to hear that the language is quickly disappearing. I experienced a similar re-assessment of my identity when I started attending university in Chicago. Having graduated from high school in Texas, I never really took on a Texan identity until I realized that many of my classmates in Chicago looked down on the state. And then I developed a perverse sort of pride about my supposed “origin,” even though I was not born or really even raised in Texas. Strange how new places always draw out different aspects of one’s identity, no?

  4. A well written and fascinating blog post; I’m very glad that I came across this! I’m a writer and I write about the issues that many first, second and third generations in Britain face regarding the balance between an ethnic heritage and their national identity.
    I can relate to you so much even though I don’t personally know you. My family are Punjabis but because we’ve been in East Africa for 4 generations, we also speak fluent Swahili, Gujurati, Urdu, English, Hindi and our Punjabi is different to “theth Punjabi.” As a result, my Punjabi is often mocked, by other Punjabis which is so disheartening! It really affected the way that I viewed myself with regards to a Punjabi identity. Of course now, I don’t care whether my Punjabi is “theth” or not – the fact that I understand it and can speak it, is all that matters.
    Keep writing, definitely keeping an eye on your blog for future posts.

    Avid Scribbler.

  5. Hindu and Muslim Punjabis have let the Punjabi language down unfortunately. How is Hindi or Urdu a more sophisticated language than Punjabi? Last time I checked, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh are the most deprived and backwards states in India. Whereas Non Hindi states like Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra are the most well off with lower levels of poverty. I see so many beggars in Punjab from these Hindi belt states and they beg in Hindi never in Punjabi. So how can you say Punjabi is a hick language? Next time tell your ‘bhaiya’ friends this. Hindi belt – most deprived, backwards, overpopulated area in India.

    1. Your blogs seem to be attracting an odd readership. Is this the same person who made the foreskin comment? Curiously,


      From: Samir Chopra To: Sent: Thursday, December 17, 2015 1:38 PM Subject: [New comment] Language and Identity: The Case of Punjabi #yiv6316571634 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv6316571634 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv6316571634 a.yiv6316571634primaryactionlink:link, #yiv6316571634 a.yiv6316571634primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv6316571634 a.yiv6316571634primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv6316571634 a.yiv6316571634primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv6316571634 Ranvir commented: “Hindu and Muslim Punjabis have let the Punjabi language down unfortunately. How is Hindi or Urdu a more sophisticated language than Punjabi? Last time I checked, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh are the most deprived and backwards states in India. Whe” | |

      1. I made a valid point on the Hindi language. There is nothing special about this language or Urdu and like I said the areas where this language is spoken are some of the most poorest places in India.

  6. Strange how I came across this article searching something in Punjabi. Well I was born and brought up in Punjab but spent the last 5 years in Canada. Punjabi appears to be making a comeback especially with music and art. Not long ago in both India and pakistan, it was considered as a language of illiterates, but not anymore. I feel the importance is growing. I remember while taking the oath of citizenship, the judge said, do what you can to preserve your language. All it takes is just one generation to lose it!

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