On July 12, 1972, Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz sent a letter — the only letter he ever produced in Russian to his recently exiled, to be fellow Nobel Laureate, Russian Poet Joseph Brodsky. In the letter Milosz wrote: “I think that you are very worried, like all of us from our part of Europe brought up on the myth that life of a writer ends if he abandons his native country.”
Milosz was right. In fact, Brodsky was not only worried but afraid as well. He spoke about his fear during a poetry reading at the Boston University nine months before his death.
“At the beginning of my exile, I was in a state of real panic and trepidation, for instance on third or fourth day after I landed in Vienna I was trying to find a rhyme for some word. I didn’t succeed and was really shocked. That had never happened before, I could get a rhyme to any Russian word or so I thought. I got scared that something horrible was happening. I started forgetting Russian. The next day I found that damned rhyme”. Brodsky was not that much worried about leaving Russia as he was concerned about losing his mother language. In his poem ‘In the Lake District’, he sobbed: “Whatever I wrote then was incomplete: my lines expired in strings of dots.”
The quote above is not only about exile but also languages. Brodsky and Milosz stayed for the most part of their lives in exile but never abandoned their mother languages. Milosz went into exile in 1951 and until 1980 he was not allowed to be published in Poland; still he kept writing in Polish, knowing well his words were not reaching his people whose language he worshiped.
Bogdana Carpenter, Milosz’s English translator and fellow Polish scholar said during a remembrance session, “I used to get calls from Milosz at odd times and for no obvious reason, except that he wanted to talk in Polish and he had no one else to speak Polish with.”
So, a language can survive in exile. But what about a language that has been exiled by its own people and by its own state?
Now, without any state patronage, staying original in its character and content, one wonders how Punjabi has survived and thrived over centuries. It has not only survived the colonial onslaught but also the post-colonial ‘brownslaught’.
What British Empire did to Punjabi is understandable but what Punjabi elite did to their mother language is beyond comprehension. You can’t speak Punjabi in the provincial assembly of Punjab unless authorised by the speaker. How many MPAs of Punjab are allowed to express themselves and represent their people in their language? Most of them come from a rural background. They are such a sight when trying to speak in Urdu or English.
Article 251 sub section 3 of the Constitution of Pakistan states: “Without prejudice to the status of the national language, a provincial assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in addition to the national language”.
Article 28 reads: “Preservation of language, script and culture: Subject to Article 251 any section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture shall have the right to preserve and promote the same and subject to law, establish institutions for that purpose.”
What more can I say to illustrate what has been done by the Punjab assembly in the last 67 years?The very first Punjabi Qaeda was produced by Maharaja Ranjit Singh around 1812 and every married woman was instructed to learn it so that the next generation of Punjabis would all be literate. But since annexation of Punjab in 1849 by the East India Company, Punjabi became the target. The company’s own Act 29 of 1837 which made it mandatory for the local administration to use vernacular languages, and was implemented all over India, was also discarded in Punjab.
Was it due to Charles Napier’s infamous comment in 1849 when he said, “Punjab has been occupied but not conquered. The Punjabi and his language have yet to be conquered,” or the resentment of Farsi-Urdu oligarchy towards Punjabi that this became the company policy which is still being pursued by the native “conquerors”.
The British Raj’s anti-Punjabi campaign becomes more evident when we see an arms recovery poster still available in the Lahore Museum that announces: “Two Annas for a sword and Six Annas for a Punjabi Qaeda”.
With the partition, Punjabis were compartmentalised into Hindu Punjabis, Sikh Punjabis, Christian Punjabis and Muslim Punjabis. The language has been condemned by its elite for centuries and now by its working middle-classes. It’s a shame to talk to your kids in their mother language which is soon becoming their grandmother language. Who will tell the Punjabi bureaucrats, politicians and army generals that language diversity is not a threat but a binding factor for any multi-ethnic society and state and loss of one language is the loss of all the languages spoken in that area.
Does the language of Baba Nanak, Madho Lal Hussain and Hafiz Barkhurdar deserve this?
All classic poets of Punjabi from Baba Farid to Mian Muhammad Baksh were well-versed in Farsi and Arabic yet they chose their mother language to express their thoughts. Who knows that Sultan Bahu wrote more than 40 books in Farsi; yet his small collection of Punjabi verse is sung and learnt by heart since centuries by millions.
“Mairi Maan Boli Mairay Purkhay Suttay”, let’s read Amarjit Chandan’s poem “Maan Boli” (translated by Shashi Joshi) and help the mother language find her kids: “My mother language is secure as a womb/ Warm as my mother’s lap/ To which I daily cling in fear of my being/ And then the worrying yesterdays, the anxious tomorrows, recede from me./ My mother language/ Sucked at mother’s breast/ I learnt to write/ As father held my small, nervous hand/ Beginning my endless friendship with paper, ink and pen./ I find the shade of fragrant flowering mango trees, in my mother language./ I see my woman’s body gleam and glow/ I hear the blood throb through her veins, in my mother language./ In my mother language, my forefathers sleep, dreaming of me awake./ In my mother language, Mirzas and Heers invoke God/ In my mother language, Angels sing the Gurus’ hymns./ All live and die, in my mother language.”
Baba Farid summed it all a thousand years ago; “Farida Mann Maidaan Kar/ To’ay Tibbay Lah”.