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?

8 Comments so far

  1. » Blog Archive The state of Punjabi (pingback) on January 1st, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    […] from: The state of Punjabi Read More Comments (0) […]

  2. Asim.Net.Pk (asim) on January 1st, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    when we wont built our national identities and appreciate the people
    among us and the poets and all those heroes who worked hard for pakistan
    we will be lost!
    when we send our genius people out in UK and US where they settle and
    never want to come back and even when they does, they bring their stories
    then we will follow who?

    When as a nation people understand this is my home, PAKISTAN
    and we have to make it strong by our own people and protect it
    we will not abuse and will do right thing to be done no matter what!
    when pakistanis dont like to go out of their countries and all their
    bank balance will be in Pakistan Banks and our export is more then our
    imports, when each person will fight for true justice! when our people
    can go out anytime of day or night without fear! that will be turning
    out of Pakistan History!

    When you will be doing right thing, you will be daring to stop wrong!

  3. Hasan Mubarak (hasanmubarak) on January 1st, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    It is a very sad reality and an unfortunate truth about how Punjabi is dying its own death by its own people. I would put largest part of the blame on our parents and family who out of some inferiority complex have degraded Punjabi as a language of no-choice at home. Just think of the last time when you talked to your family members in Punjabi (apart from joking around or sarcasm). The school education system has been the same for Urdu as well. I still remember how students used to cram Urdu Tashreeh and make fun of Ghalib, Mir Taqi Meer instead of understanding the true meaning behind their poetry.

    Out of my own personal experience, I really salute Sindhis, Balochis, Pathans and even Siraikis for preserving their languages in their family and social settings; both in written and oral communication.

  4. binaryzero on January 2nd, 2009 @ 5:03 am

    I’m amazed to see LGS have a Punjabi subject – i guess we need to have it as a compulsory subject in schools/colleges. I recall getting 140 marks out of 200 in PU BA exam (which i took for just fun on my mother’s push – literally without opening any book) – it was fun. But you are right, while traveling to different countries/continents I’ve realized people do stick to their native mother languages but we have done so poor in it. I wish if we can improve this somehow. The best example is Sindh – their official office language is Sindhi as well and its mandatory in college exams i guess.

  5. kaami on January 2nd, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    I totally agree with Hasan on this. Some how it got into the psyche of our elders that the National and regional languages are some how inferior and the only medium should be English. Then came the O and A level schools and all was gone. We lost our heritage in a span of a generation. However the efforts by the Sindhi populace are commendable, today the largest number of books are printed and read in Sindhi language not Urdu, not any other.

    Today its a well known scientific fact that a child can easily be taught to become multilingual. All across Europe you encounter kids fluent in more than one language. In Canada being a bi or tri-lingual is an asset. Chinese can barely speak audible English yet they are the fastest developing nation in the world.

    Here in Pakistan we inherited worlds most poetic languages and as pointed out by the author we are the custodians of wonderful works by Waris Shah, Buleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Rehman Baba, Shah Abdul Latif and of course writings by several Urdu poets and writers. Tragically, as a nation were we have failed miserably in several other areas, the failure to take care of our heritage and pass it onto the next generation is simply unforgivable.

  6. The state of Punjabi | Lahore Metblogs « (pingback) on January 2nd, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

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  7. Global Voices Online » Pakistan: State of the Punjabi Language (pingback) on January 3rd, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    […] at Lahore Metblogs discusses about the state of Punjabi language in Pakistan. Posted by Rezwan  Print […]

  8. adnanmg on January 11th, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    This is an excellent point. I don’t think this is the case with other regional languages in Pakistan, but it is certainly true of Punjabi. Does anyone know where you can buy books of Punjabi short stories for children or adults? Or novels? I have only seen Sufiana poetry books.

    Besides this, there are some books on Punjabi Folk Tales. I purchased an older edition very cheaply of The Legends of the Panjab Volume I and II published by IFH (Institute of Folk Heritage Islamabad). I happened upon this and bought them for Rs. 100 each. I did not see that cheaper edition anywhere else, nor were there more copies, but Ferozsons has a newer and much more expensive version. Basically the Punjabi is in Roman letters with English translations. It features folk tales as told in the late 1800s by travelling storytellers and written down and translated into English.

    I hope to find more Punjabi books, hopefully prose as well. I’m starting to get the feeling I will have to learn to read Gurumukhi for that.

    Anyone know where I can get Punjabi afsanay?

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