Punjab, Palestine, Israel: Refugee Resonances

The way I first heard the story of the Jews from my mother it was about refugees, endlessly wandering from expulsion to expulsion, who had finally found a home. The first history of the creation of Israel I read introduced me to the Palestinians; they were refugees too. And I had learned, long before, that I was a Punjabi, from a land which had been divided during the Great Partition of India in 1947, that my ethnic demographic included many who had become refugees during that bloody and violent movement of peoples, that I lived in a city–New Delhi–whose population had grown to accommodate many who had moved there from the former West Punjab, now part of the newly created nation of Pakistan. My father’s family had moved from their older home too, not quite in the dramatic way that refugees moved during the Partition, fleeing murderous mobs: my grandfather had found employment in Central India and moved, calmly and sedately, in 1930; his brothers followed. They were all safely across the border well before 1947. My mother’s family was from the East Punjab; they did not have to move, but they lived through bloody riots in the city of Amritsar on the eastern side. But my father’s family still lost lands–agricultural and residential–in our old home; and so as I grew up, moved around India, and then later, migrated to the US, I could still say with some fidelity to the facts, “My family is from the part of the Punjab now in Pakistan; we were displaced.’ It granted my otherwise rather humdrum biography a little frisson. (There was one refugee story I was told about a pair of my father’s cousins, a boy and a girl, a sister and a brother, who had traveled back by train together but alone during the Partition. The train was stopped by mobs before it could cross the border; the girl, just older than a toddler, hid below the seats, while dead bodies piled up around her. She was pulled out, covered with blood and barely breathing, at the next station. Her brother was beaten and left for dead; so many bones were broken in his body that he never regained the full use of his limbs and had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.)

So I found, at some level, the story of Israel and Palestine lay particularly close by; I did not need to move too far in the space of my affective responses to find one that lined up for Israel and Palestine. I was primed to read the story; one part of it–of seeking home–is universal, but other parts are only available to those who have traveled and lost, who can speak of another place other than ‘this one’ as being ‘home.’ Later, I exiled myself voluntarily to another land, losing one home and beginning the hunt to find another. I became another kind of refugee–seeking refuge in an ‘outside’ into which I had cast myself. Stories of refugees were always more meaningful to me than those of other kinds. But not all came to me in the same way.

When I first encountered the story of the Palestinians in the history of the creation of Israel, I skipped past it. I did not want to face up to the grim reality of their refugee camps, of the story that lay behind the black and white photographs of a grimy-faced boy and girl, clad in rags, visible through the barbed wire of the new homes created after 1948. Somehow, I felt overburdened by their tragedy; could it really be possible that the creation of a homeland for a people I knew as refugees would have turned another people into refugees? Israel and the Jews made a powerful claim on my attention and sympathy, drowning out the call of the Palestinian displaced; it left no space for them. The history of the Jews, the Holocaust, the stories of their suffering–they seemed to demand all the empathy I could muster.

But the Palestinians would not go away; they were refugees after all. I heard their stories–at some only dimly perceived level–in my descriptions of myself, in my invocation of a village, and its waters and food and peoples and summers, endlessly and glowingly talked about by my grandfather and my grand-uncles, in the way I would and could claim ethnic solidarity with Punjabi Pakistanis, who now, thanks to a geopolitical tactic, bore a different nationality than me; they all reminded me there was, in my family and life, the touch of the displaced. I had left home too to move to this land of people from elsewhere, who could all, in the right circumstances, dream nostalgically and wistfully of places other than this one. If the Palestinians could not find sympathy in me, living here, in this land, soaked with the tales of the dispossessed and their searches for a place of rest of repose, then where else would they find it?

 

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.

On First and Second Languages – III

In this ongoing series of posts on partially mastered languages and my frustrating relationships with them, I’ve written about German and Spanish. Today, I come to the most vexed alliance of all, the one with Punjabi.

My last name is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived in the Punjab. I did, however, spend many years in a city with a large Punjabi population: New Delhi. My parents never spoke in Punjabi with me (they did so with their parents) and so while I grew up listening to a great deal of Punjabi, I acquired no fluency in it whatsoever. In the tenth grade, during two years spent in boarding school, away in India’s north-east, I struck up a friendship with two Sikh lads and started some rudimentary practice. On returning to Delhi to finish high school, I initiated some tentative conversations with my grandmothers and attempted to learn some Punjabi from them. I noticed that none of my cousins, and indeed, no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi spoke the language.

By the time I left India for the US, my fluency in Punjabi was still minimal. Matters picked up, ironically enough, on moving to a land ten thousand miles away from ‘home.’ I was keen to practice, keen to establish a very particular sort of contact with the few Punjabis I met. I also made contact with a brand new community of Punjabi speakers: Pakistanis. Indeed, it seemed to me that more Pakistani Punjabis, even urban ones, spoke Punjabi than Indian ones. My vocabulary improved, as did some aspects of my grammar.

Moving to New York City in 1993 facilitated this process even further. The city is home to a large Punjabi community and opportunities for practice were only limited by my enterprise and shyness; they still are. 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, and I would frequently, embarrassed, switch to Hindi/Urdu in the middle of a conversation, unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way.

My attempts to practice my Punjabi had unexpected consequences: on occasion, a cab driver from the Punjab–Indian or Pakistani–delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow 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. (This followed me to Sydney, when on arriving there for my post-doctoral fellowship, the young man who drove me to the University of New South Wales also declined payment.)

My fluency in Punjabi is a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery; I need a period of immersion to make what I consider would be a significant breakthrough. (In the winter of 2006/7 on a visit to India, my family and I made a short road trip to the Punjab; my spoken Punjabi improved even in the space of those four days.) I do not think I will ever have the time or the patience to master the script but spoken mastery lies well within my reach provided I can achieve total immersion. Even two weeks, I suspect, would do it.  I’m not sure when and how I will be able to bring this about though; work and family seem to leave little time for such an adventure.

So near, and yet so far.