PUNJABI IS MY MOTHER TONGUE, my blood, my soul, my language. I think, dream and feel in it. I will also die in it,” proclaims Amarjit Chandan, an acclaimed poet born in Kenya. “In pardes (abroad),” he explains of his adult life spent in London, “I invented the Punjabiland.”
For a land that has been home to some of the world’s richest civilisations, modern Punjabi culture remains remarkably little known outside the noisy clichés of Bollywood and music videos. As the Indian state of Punjab grapples with complex social and economic issues, the Pakistani province of Punjab collapses due to political woes, and a large diaspora stays settled all over the globe, Punjabi poets and storytellers of old seem to be disappearing along with the water levels in the land of the five rivers. But Punjabis are nothing if not adept at handling change—it is the legacy of their own turbulent history, after all—and there are small but significant signs, that this vibrant melting-pot culture is on the verge of reemergence.
History has not been kind to the people of Punjab. The brutal division of the state during Partition led to both carnage and to one of the biggest mass population movements during the 20th century. Amidst the riots, butchery, rape and devastation, Punjabis of all religious persuasions suddenly found that they had to create new identities. In Pakistan, those identities had to be established through a new, Urdu-speaking nationalist ethos that sought to reimagine the country’s history and culture by severing ties with its neighbour. In India, those identities had to be reshaped by millions of refugees whose culture, possessions, love and longing belonged to another place. In the decades after Partition, hundreds of thousands of Punjabis from both East Punjab, in India, and West Punjab, in Pakistan, left their homelands to seek sanctuary and a new life abroad. For all of these people, the historical and cultural ties to their motherland had to be reforged. The multi-hued complexion of both states had become altered radically overnight.