Is the middle class cold to Punjabi?

Ashok Kundra

It is ironic that Punjab’s middle class is wary of learning and speaking in Punjabi. Their interest in Punjabi literature is limited and most of them draw a blank at the mention of a novel or a poem by a Punjabi author or poet. Women conversing in chaste Punjabi are dubbed as Bhenjis, however intelligent and articulate they may otherwise be. Even English-baiting netas have no qualms about sending their wards to convent schools or, better still, to Canada. The film “Hindi Medium” accurately captures the aspirational surge among middle class parents to get their children admitted in English medium schools even if substandard.

Punjab Art Council chairman Surjit Pattar has rightly observed that private schools are discouraging children from speaking in Punjabi thereby inculcating an inferiority complex about their mother tongue. The pertinent question is, does the elite and middle class perceive Punjabi to be a crude and rustic language? That could be one plausible explanation, for someone speaking in English is considered to be smarter and well read. The harsh reality is that Punjab’s middle class is not instinctively enthused about acquiring proficiency in Punjabi. Undeniably English-medium schooling is popular in the rest of the country. But regional languages have also flourished simultaneously. Eminent writers have enriched literature in other states. Statues of icons of Tamil literature adorn Marina beach in Chennai. But the construction of an auditorium named after Shiv Batalvi was completed after 36 years, showing the apathy towards Punjabi writers, poets and artists. Punjabi litterateurs live in penury for lack of readership.

The hope that the trifurcation of the state in 1966 would see resurgence in Punjabi language has been belied. Although Punjabi was declared the official language many years ago, file work in government offices till recently was largely in English. Of late, there is some seriousness in ensuring the use of Punjabi with the enactment of the Punjab State Language (Amendment) Act 2008.

The general perception is that proficiency in English provides better career opportunities. It would be worthwhile to recall what Gandhi wrote in 1920, ‘I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I would not have a single Indian forget, neglect or be ashamed of his mother tongue, or to feel that he cannot think or express the best thoughts in his or her own vernacular.’ A language flourishes only when intellectuals, elite and the middle class own it up and contribute to its enrichment and the state extends patronage for its promotion. Not many in the middle class read Punjabi literature for pleasure. Punjabi is still far away from being a language in which they find resonance of their emotions, their heart throbs and humanism. One wonders how the Chinese, Russians, or Japanese, most of whom though not proficient in English, have made tremendous progress.

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