The state of Punjabi
Farid, do not slander the dust, hate the dust
Nothing is so great as dust
When we are alive it is below our feet
When we are dead it is above us
Eat dry bread and drink cold water
Farid, if you see someone else’s buttered bread, do not envy him for it
Farid, my clothes are black and my outfit is black
I wonder, I am full of sin
Yet people call me a dervish, a holy man.
For the past hour, my little sister has been chanting these verses, first in their original Punjabi, then in the English translation. I typed them as she repeated them over and over again, with her back turned to me. She has a Punjabi exam tomorrow. Just a little glimpse of the educational system in schools in Lahore: Punjabi is compulsory in grades 7 and 8 in Lahore Grammar School, one of the best schools in Pakistan. Ever since our beloved principal learnt that Sindhi is being taught in the schools of Karachi, Punjabi has been a struggling subject in the Gulberg branch of LGS, at least.
Hence, Baba Farid, no less, is being chanted by my thirteen year old sibling; who is, put bluntly, a tensed-up workaholic who simply wants the highest score in every exam or test or assignment she’s given.
The sad, sad part of it is that she has no idea of what she is saying. I am myself ignorant of many things, and the essence and appreciation of Sufi poetry is one of them. Especially these Punjabi verses. Only a slight enjoyment comes to me from hearing the well-known rhythm of the Punjabi words. But at the moment, I would give anything to have had someone force me to learn Punjabi Sufi poetry and give me an exam on it. But then, what kind of exam and what kind of a joke of Punjabi is being offered to us?
One must face it; Punjabi is a joke among us ‘educated’ people. But literally. Punjabi comedy plays are the most that we come up with in appreciation of the language that gave us Waris Shah; Bulle Shah; Baba Farid.
At the most, what do we middle class and upper class Lahoris do with this language? Comedy, or for bantering with friends. Or to elicit a ripple of laughter from students in a university audience during a lecture that is almost solely in English.
It is a joke for us to study Punjabi; it was for me when I was in grades 7 and 8, and it still is for my sister, and all LGS students who are studying it. But I cannot blame the students. I blame the teachers and the school.
While this subject is there in the curriculum, the manner in which it had been handed to these kids is…abysmal, to say the least.
Imagine, as I am now remembering: one of my fondest memories of Punjabi class was of us playing catch with the teacher’s backpack. He used to bring in a little deck to play Punjabi songs for us, and when he took it out of the backpack, the latter went all around the class with the teacher chasing after it! It was a mean, mean thing to do, but the question is; why were seventh-graders allowed to do such a thing? Why did we not feel the beauty of the language we were supposed to be studying, and why has the situation not changed in eight years?
As of now, my sister comes home on the days when she has Punjabi and gives us all a complete parody of what their teacher said and did that day. Hold on…no, it’s not a parody; it’s a complete reenactment of what happened in Punjabi class that day. This teacher-person stands in front of her class (eight-grade) and recites a Punjabi poem with all the actions and embellishments that drive the kids crazy with mirth. She waves her hands to depict a floating breeze; bow and jumps and makes a fool out of herself, but there’s nothing anyone gets out of it except a good laugh. Little sister mimicks it to perfection; she’s a born actress in that sense.
And this same teacher, when the exams are near, goes and tells her students exactly what is coming in the exam paper! I mean, what’s the point of teaching something if you’re not even going to test it in the proper manner? It’s a joke, that’s all it is then, isn’t it? You’re making Bulle Shah and Baba Farid and all the rest of the Punjabi Sufi poets just something to be learnt by heart, three puny couplets at a time, for one exam, and then forgotten! A hundred out of hundred in the Punjabi examination…bravo…
They’re eight-graders, for heaven’s sake. I myself started studying Shakespeare seriously before that age. It’s not that Punjabi poets touch on concepts that are only for the fading elites to grapple with, but how many preteens can fully grasp the beauty of Shakespeare? They can’t, but it’s still thrust upon them, and no one dares laugh at the Bard, do they, now? So why laugh at Punjabi poets? Why not respect them? Why not respect what we have been given? What’s wrong?