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In a maze of regret and relief

There was a constant battle at resisting the inferiority stamp affixed because of culture and language

In a maze of regret and relief

Well, it is quite difficult to be coldly objective about the generation gap because it may involve much that may be seen in the coloured light of the heightened relationship that exists between the parents and children.

I grew up in the years that followed partition and since my family had migrated in the blood and gore of 1947, the years were clouded with tales of loss of a culture and memories of leaving home. Those years were mainly about resettlement and making a home in a city and a country that was new to my father.

As the family had lived in one place for seven hundred years and had a name, it shielded the lot from much else; here they were thrown to the vicissitudes of time.

In this maze of regret and relief that I grew up in, the primary issue was that of language. My father spoke only Urdu and till the very end, after spending twenty five years in Pakistan, could not speak Punjabi except a truncated phrase or two, and that too badly mispronounced.

My mother was originally Punjabi-speaking having being born in Lahore. But after her marriage, as was the wont, she thought it her marital duty to totally negate her identity or merge it with her husband’s. Like most urban Punjabis, she spoke Urdu at home and it was all reinforced when she got married into an Urdu-speaking family.

Despite the slurs of bhaiyya and hindustani, I grew up speaking Urdu as the Punjabi spoken in the street was supposed to be low manners. Everything in the street, a source of corruption and bad behaviour, had to be avoided I was told in so many words.

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No English was spoken at home as there was great pride in speaking and writing Urdu. But the school I went to stressed on both spoken and written English. At school, to be caught speaking Urdu or worse still, Punjabi, made you liable to punishment and social approbation of being labelled as being from the Walled City, which implied being an ‘urchin’, a ‘ruffian’ or ‘uncouth’.

No, it was not to be — the slide of the son had to be stopped and he be saved from the underworld of flesh, drinks and sin.

The rebellion, if any, with the elders plus the institution that I went to started with language. It was manifested much later in college as the desire to be proficient in one’s own language, Punjabi, became more urgent. There seemed to be no logic or rationale in denouncing one’s own mother tongue as my awareness of the importance of the language, especially that spoken all round, became significant with years. All debates, controversies and studies pointed to the organic importance of the mother tongue and here one was acquiring another by rejecting one’s very own.

Though not very good in Punjabi, at least one got to know of its rich literature, thus outgrowing the embedded prejudice against the language and not dwelling on half truths about it — being inherently deficient or destined only for the illiterate and the uncultured. The allegation that it was ridden with four letter words containing many a colourful coinage/expression had to be countered by quoting the language used in Hollywood films, which had more foul slang than Punjabis could ever conjure.

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There was a constant battle against the inferiority stamp affixed because of culture and language. English uplifted you to another class, another reality. All professions, relationships, sexual acts and related frailties, not to be mentioned in Punjabi but in English, somehow took the offence, stench and filth away.

After the Muslims lost power in India as contrition and revaluation set in, there was a growing puritanical streak which probably was not there previously. And it decried the mystical latak (majzoob can be a more honourable substitute) as far as singing or music was concerned. One had seen strange scenes of being smitten by the sur. Haal was a common occurrence and mystical trance; it was a desired state. But then the practice of music was only for the specialists, the professional/hereditary musicians. The others were only meant to be smitten and moved by these instrumentalists and vocalists. These lines were not supposed to be crossed.

Despite great reverence for the gaiks and sazindas, no one had really thought of adopting it to any serious intent. It was not to earn a living and it surely was not meant to be a way of life. At best, it was to while away time, or plan the next sexual conquest in the company of rich inebriated friends.

There was the need to be only preoccupied with the classics. If literature had to be read it was to be Shakespeare and Tennyson, and if it was music it had to be the best, representing high culture. There was no gumption for the singing of Beatles or the prancing of Elvis Presley.

So, one knew by heart Mozart’s piano concertos, Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Chopin’s Preludes and Strauss’s Blue Danube. What other friends heard and appreciated, I was barred from it.

And the application of the sur was only tolerated, if it was not called music,sangeet,ghina but qirat, qaul, manqabat, marsiya, noha, soz o salam, that too for the majaalis within the family. With music and singing the imagination got hooked on to sirens/courtesans and to all those relatives who had “ruined themselves with lives of dissipation and depravity pursuing dancing girls and actresses”. No, it was not to be — the slide of the son had to be stopped and he be saved from the underworld of flesh, drinks and sin. Stories were recounted of all those who had gone the way to drunken ruin.

So, music came with so much else — it was not only the seduction of the sur but accompanied by a whole baggage of being in a fallen state and hence notoriety. In the words of Shah Hussain, “booriyaan booriyaan booriyaan way aseen  boriyaan wey lokaa”.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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