Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Punjabi literature & Ray-Ban Glasses
During a literary meet I once attended, someone popped up this rather uneasy question in an equally unexpected manner: What is it that ails the Punjabi literature? All kinds of plausible and implausible answers were put forth, ranging from the lack of government support to the apathy of readers. If someone spoke passionately about the need to promote our literary culture through a network of libraries, others felt it necessary to promote, albeit aggressively, Punjabi language in states other than Punjab.
Almost everyone agreed that the problem lay with the external, motivating factors. Not even a single speaker thought it worthwhile to look inwards and suggest how far our personal and cultural attitudes were responsible for whatever was found wanting.
Though the literary discussion ended inconclusively, as most of these discussions often do, I came back wondering if it wasn’t necessary for us to do some introspection and see how and in what different ways we were responsible for whatever had presumably gone wrong.
This is what prompted me to look through the haze of forgotten memories, and as I did so, a series of incidents came leaping back. Somehow I felt, that the answers lay hidden somewhere in these personal anecdotes. Once I had a chance encounter with a bright-looking young man from the department of Punjabi, who presented me with a strange request. He was looking for a portrait of Shakespeare and wanted my help in procuring one. I asked him, ‘Whatever do you want Shakespeare’s portrait for?’ He said, ‘Sir, I believe he was the greatest dramatist we have ever had. I admire him a great deal. I want to get his picture framed and put it up in my room.’ Now this had me completely flummoxed. After years of teaching Shakespeare, I felt I had finally come across a genuine Shakespeare lover. I said, ‘This is interesting. So you must have read most of his plays?’ Without so much as a blink, he shot back, ‘No Sir, I haven’t read any. But I have heard a great deal about him.’
Despite my familiarity with this oft-orchestrated Indian habit of icon-making and idolization, I somehow felt rather uneasy about the excessiveness of this Punjabi response. I wondered if this was the way we Punjabis often formed our impression(s) about authors, our own or those of the other languages and cultures? Merely on the basis of what we hear rather than what we read or discover?
What disturbed me the most was that despite being a student of Punjabi literature he wasn’t interested much in idolizing one of his own, but someone as remote and distant as Shakespeare, someone he hadn’t read, only heard of.
This would have continued to mystify me, had I not met one of my colleagues, a few days later. After meeting him I began to understand that idolization of a young fellow was not an aberration or an exception, but rather a product of a peculiar mind-set, an outcome of a certain way in which we continue to perceive ourselves in relation to the Europeans in general and the British in particular, their literature, history and culture. In course of an absolutely innocuous conversation, this colleague of mine, who incidentally teaches Punjabi, nearly had me zapped when he said, ‘Oh! Your situation is different. After all, you teach English literature (emphasis not mine).’
More than the mixture of awe and envy in his words, it was this ideological mask of self-inferiorization that unnerved me a great deal. It took me quite some time to recover from the shock and gather my wits. Finally when I had, I said, ‘Why do you say that? You should be proud that you teach your own language/literature. I feel like a condemned soul who is forever enslaved to teach someone else’s.’ No doubt, the conversation ended on this note, but the words of my colleague had continued to haunt me for a long time.
Though he had dedicated several ‘precious’ decades of his life to the teaching of Punjabi literature, ‘my friend’ hadn’t really developed genuine pride in what he did. Somewhere he still nursed a secret envy for his counterparts who taught English literature. Was it not a symptom or an expression of self-inferiorization? Was it not the outcome of an ideology that often compelled us to indulge in inferiorization of our own language(s) and culture(s) at the cost of valorizing someone else’s?
Once while attending a parent-teacher meeting, I was shocked when the teacher complained to one of the parents of a six-year-old, saying, ‘I always tell him to speak English, at least, in my class, but he doesn’t listen. He has this ‘bad habit’ of using Punjabi expressions in between. You must check him.’ Do you recall having been subjected to this or having witnessed such a scene ever? Of course, all this is real, not just a figment of some crooked imagination.
Now, had it been a matter of a few isolated individuals or their flights of fancy, one may not have really bothered much. But unfortunately, it has percolated so deep down to our institutional practices that it’s actually worrisome.
While attending a seminar on Punjabi literature, I was aghast to learn how widespread and endemic this tendency among the scholars and academics of Punjabi was to flaunt their knowledge of the critical theories, tools and procedures churned out by the
. With a genuine tinge of pride in his tone, one of the academics boasted, ‘In less than a year, every new book or theory that the West produces is made available to the Punjabi readers through translation.’ Western Academy
But when I asked him about the reverse trend, he wasn’t too sure. It appears that our imports from other languages/cultures in terms of the translated literature, literary conventions and critical theories far exceed our exports of own literature and literary traditions to others. (Elementary economics tells us that exports must exceed the imports, if the balance of payments is to remain favourable).
A well-known publisher of Punjabi literature once told me in strict confidence, ‘I’ve bought the rights to publish all the works of Paulo Coelho in Punjabi.’ This is admirable, but my point is different. While too many people are worrying about how the Punjabi reader is to be acquainted with the best there is in the world literature, not many seem to bother about how our best could also be made available outside the frontiers of our state.
Put simply, it’s a classic case of adverse balance of payments in purely cultural, if not economic, terms? Won’t it, then, create conditions where our own cultural depletion or impoverishment could become threateningly real?
The height of celebrating our writers is that we eulogize Shiv Batalvi as the Keats of Punjab, and Mohan Bhandari as the Chekhov of Punjabi short story.
By thus depriving our authors or their works of cultural specificities, we, willy-nilly, render them nameless or ‘identity-less.’ Of course, we continue to wear and flaunt our masks of conquest, which, whether we realize or not, are our masks of self-defeat, too.
Now finally, the clinching question. Will this mind-set, this state of affairs, this cultural self-hatred ever change?
Yes, it just might. Only if we are prepared to change three things. One, genuinely improve our reading habits. Two, develop natural pride in our language/literature and increase our export surplus. Three, stop looking at our language, literature, writers and literary traditions through the tinted Ray-Ban glasses minted elsewhere.
By Rana Nayar