Living in Punj-Lish/Eng-Jabi?

On a personal note, over the years I have become increasingly comfortable with a combination of Punjabi and English in my social conversational life. My linguistic fluency is now perhaps better described as Punjlish or Engjabi. That’s why the puckish title to this essay.

| Opinion | 9 Sept 2016 | Asia Samachar |


By I.J. Singh

I came to this country almost a lifetime ago living and speaking a mixture of Punjabi and English, but that’s the way most of my friends were in India.

I came to the United States in 1960 and then for many years lived in parts of this country where there were no more than a handful of Indians with a rare or no Punjabi or Sikh. So for 25 to 30 years I spoke, read or wrote in no other language than English. When neighbors (non-Sikhs all) asked where my kind of people had a place of worship, my tongue in cheek response was that yes we had one or two but the closest one was about 3,000 miles away in California or British Columbia in North-West Canada. The universities where I went to school or found connections had no Indians or Sikhs on the faculty and only a rare one in the student body.

Then, in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the immigration policies changed. Instead of a quota system, immigration opened up based on qualifications. Within a decade just about every major city boasted of a gurduara – often more than one, mostly at loggerheads with each other. And I’ve since been watching our new arrivals come by the shiploads. (I had taken a ship from Bombay on my way here but I think plane-load is a more accurate descriptive now.)

I was prepared for their lingua franca to be a heady stew of Punjabi and English but they still shock me. These new arrivals prefer Hindi and with time began to master and flaunt a cultural goulash of Hindi and English. I, too, have such Hindlish spouting young relatives; they speak flawless Hindi amalgamated with Indian-British banter in English but shy (run?) away from Punjabi.

Many young arrivals, Punjabi-Sikh by background – reasonably worldly and sophisticated – openly looked down on Punjabi as the language of the unschooled uneducated herd and pointedly refused to touch it even within a gurduara or home. The Sikh families wanted to keep their children linked to Mother India’s culture and insisted on Hindi. And don’t underestimate the pervasive influence of Bollywood.

I suppose most “educated and sophisticated” Sikhs diminished Punjabi because they had never discovered a working relationship with Gurbani and the writings of the Sikh Gurus. They were also strangers to Punjabi writers, particularly Sheikh Farid or Bhai Gurdas, or with Bulley Shah and further along the line with the classic works of Bhai Kahn Singh (Nabha), Bhai Vir Singh or even Amrita Pritam; the justly celebrated novelist Nanak Singh; Giani Gurdit Singh, Harinder Singh Mehboob or Gurbaksh Singh, the founding editor of the Punjabi literary magazine Preet Larri. There is a linear continuity in this time line from the Gurus to today, longer than 500 years, and there are many more names than the space available.

For successful Sikh professionals and their progeny even in America, I see that the norma loquendi is Hindi even when gurduaras can painlessly teach them a modicum of conversational Punjabi.  Sure, many of us rue it but it is true.

This baffled me until I saw the dominance of Bollywood culture in the shaping of modern India. I see that India was never a single culture or unified entity except for brief periods under the Mughals or the British, and perhaps also during Buddhist dominance. For much of its history, I think, the Indian subcontinent comprised many independent or semi-autonomous nation states; they presented a mélange of different languages, religions, cultures, cuisines, music and historical narratives. Since 1947 Indians have mightily struggled to hammer together this awesome but awkward jigsaw structure into a seamless national identity. The process is uneven and invariably traumatic to its many vibrant minorities.

I will not comment much further on this experiment except to say that it reminds me of somewhat similar thinking in the creation of the European Union. Just as Spain and Norway have little in common except the land mass and the economy, I find that Punjab and, say, Bihar or Assam have similarly little in common. The wobbly union need not be fractured or dissembled but it needs to evolve into a different reality that better serves and enriches its diverse components, rather than forcing them into a strait jacket.

When I talk to young Indians it seems to me that in modern India the cultural glue that defines and unites India into a nation is Bollywood, now overlaid with a heavy patina of Hindutva. The primary goal of Hindutva seems to be promotion of Hindu culture, practices, values and mythology at the expense of minorities, be they Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Brand X. Keep in mind that glue sometimes dries to the consistency and structure of crazy glue.

I think any nation – certainly India with its vast and talented human resources of unequaled vitality and diversity – deserves better.  It seems that we Sikhs, whether in India or abroad, have a long and difficult road ahead.

On a personal note, over the years I have become increasingly comfortable with a combination of Punjabi and English in my social conversational life. My linguistic fluency is now perhaps better described as Punjlish or Engjabi. That’s why the puckish title to this essay. But I have to confess that my written life comes alive only in English with citations from the Guru Granth Sahib in the original language as needed. This aspect of myself I need to work on and develop further.

But then just recently (April 9, 2016), my eye caught a report by Michelle Innis in The New York Times on a closely related parallel. Here I am capturing parts of that report.  Though buried on page 17, it is both powerful and moving saga.

Australia had many native tribes before the White Man occupied it. Keep in mind that the White Man’s historical record all over the world is rather spotty, if not awful. And that’s putting it kindly.

The story is largely related through the life of Stan Grant, a member of the Wiradjuri tribe of Australia, now reduced to only a handful who can speak the tribal language. The tribe with its language nearly died out in the late 20th century. Why? Because then the law held that people of this tribe could be jailed for speaking in their native tongue in public. In fact, when he was about eight or nine years old, Stan Grant’s grandfather was arrested for calling out his grandson in public in the native language. After this arrest the grandfather never spoke his language in public.

Things change – surely, but slowly.

Just last year Stan Grant collaborated with the anthropologist John Rudder to produce a 600-page dictionary of the Wiradjuri language along with some grammar books. In December 2015, students at Charles Sturt University completed the first ever course in Wiradjuri language in Australia. Before such steps, there was a real risk that authorities would remove children from their parents if they were caught speaking the native language – their mother tongue.

How regressive were things? The natives had no right to vote until 1962. Even worse, until 1967, when the Australian Constitution was amended, natives were classified as “wild life.”

Imagine that! I do not know much more on this. But I wonder if as “wild life” these human beings were or could be traded in the open market like slaves? And even though the early settlers in Australia were British convicts I had always thought of it as one of the more enlightened nations of our world. How do you preserve a language and a culture under such conditions? Life is indeed full of rude awakenings. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief.

The heart breaking irony of life is this: After the British took over the Sikh Raj in the mid 19th century things changed dramatically. The pragmatic Sikh mind saw that material success in the new world would be easier if we changed our focus from Punjabi to English. So we did what seemed necessary. We diminished our gurduaras, schools and institutions, further turning towards English. The missionaries that came with the British further catalyzed the change, as did the large scale recruitment of Sikh in the British Indian Army. And we became a successful community.

When India became independent in 1947, the largest community, Hindus, all of a sudden after perhaps 600 years or more, flexed their muscles and felt the surge of power. Hindutva soon became the new Mantra of a newly formed nation. Hindi came to define India and Bollywood became the chief protagonist of Hindi and Hindutva.

In fact, I see some ardent Hindu Indians publicly proclaiming on the tube that Bollywood is the way to introduce Indian culture to the world. Heaven help us, I thought! There must be more to Indian culture than that.

Punjabis, I again remind you, are a pragmatic people and Sikhs are a small minority less than 2 percent of India. They, too, saw and accepted the highway that the new culture paved for them, with little or no room for their Punjabi culture or language. During the nationwide reorganization of India’s structure on a linguistic basis, the reluctance to create a Punjabi speaking entity was the most profound, almost a destructive, divisive process. But I will not visit it further today.

The result over the years has been that we now have a transactional relationship with our mother tongue. It has become relegated to social banter and humor. Our competence in it has regressed dramatically since 1947. We hardly ever pick up a book on history, philosophy or poetry in it.

Over the years I have strongly argued that our gurduaras and other Sikh institutions incorporate the language of the local culture in our religious services and social interactions. I still hold that position but today I want to balance that story with a powerful view from the other side of the coin. My purpose is never to preach a particular fixed point of view. It is, and I hope it always will be, to foster a conversation. Hence I argue today from what might seem like a contrarian perspective. There are always two sides to a coin. We must honestly and critically work through both views in life.

This story speaks of a time when adults took risks in teaching their language to their children. The Hindi-Punjabi problem that I highlighted is at this point not quite a mirror to Australian history but it might do us good to read and reflect.

To kill a language is to kill a culture and its people.


IJsingh-newI.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. Email:


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  1. To kill a language is to kill a culture and its people.


    Above comment is based on personal observations and when I did suggest to some in the Gurdwaras Ji to at least converse in Punjabi, the only response I received was a stare with some even taking offense at the remark. I rest my case.

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