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Diary: I, the Punjabi

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August 05, 2003 16:15 IST

Let me, at the very outset, state categorically that with this diary I do not intend any glorification of myself or, for that matter, anyone even remotely related to me.

My sole intention is to give the reader an idea of the predicament a person like me, who belongs to the so-called 'refugee' background, faces when confronted with the dreaded question: "Where do you belong to?"

I have been asked that umpteen times, and each time I have had to face the humiliation of an unsatisfactory answer. I have never been able to explain as to which part of the 'Indian subcontinent' I belong to. I know the term 'Indian subcontinent' sounds rather intriguing and to allay your doubts, I must explain... there is absolutely no getting away from that.

The Malik family hails from the city of Jhang in today's Pakistan. And although my father was born in Delhi almost four years after, the family, like millions of others, made the journey from what back then was called West Punjab to India, I can very well claim to be a half-Jhangi.

As for my other half, well, my mother's family hailed from Jalandhar, in East Punjab, but in 1947 she was resident in Karachi (now in Pakistan).

The Sehgals, as they are called, also had to flee for their lives and 'return' to India. So, in effect, they became refugees, too, and like the Maliks were granted 'refugee status' by the Indian government. My mother too was born in Delhi, nearly eight years after the Partition.

While Mama's pre-marital life was spent mostly in Orissa and the present-day Chhattisgarh, Papa lived mainly in Rajasthan. That was where I was born in 1983 in the city of Bharatpur.

Since then, we have lived all over the country -- from Rajasthan to Andhra and then back to the Punjab. As for me, it is only since I joined the St Stephen's college nearly two years ago that I became a 'resident' of Delhi, the city my parents left decades earlier. Life for me has come full circle.

So why am I making you read all this? Why should you at all be interested in the chronicle of the life of a nondescript Indian?

Today I come under a category of people who are often described as 'second generation refugees'. In the decades following the Partition the refugee had in more ways than one been excommunicated from society. We became social outcasts.

But with the passage of time, this community became economically prosperous. Economic prosperity brought with it social acceptability, which in my view was possible only due to the sheer dedication and toil of the first generation.

The problem faced by my generation is of a separate nature. Indeed, today we lead relatively comfortable lives, where there is no dearth of educational opportunity, and, consequently, prosperity.

But over the last few decades there has been a constant erosion of our cultural and social values. So much so that a sizeable chunk of those with whom I fraternise do not even possess a minimal knowledge of their mother tongue (this holds especially true for the Punjabi community).

It would not be wrong to state that we, the Punjabis, have evolved as a more or less 'global' community. Today our reach extend not just to all parts of India but we have crossed the seven seas to reach the West.

But somewhere down the line the members of our community are losing track of their original customs and traditions.

One reason for this cultural erosion lies at the heart of economics -- blatant consumerism and unabated urbanisation (read Americanisation). But I intend not to dwell on this aspect any further, lest I be misconstrued as being averse to globalisation, which, I recognise, is a trend here to stay.

The only point I wish to make here is that globalisation should not translate into an utter disregard for one's cultural ethos.

Also, let the reader not be led to believe I in any way take exception to the manner in which the members of my community so readily imbibe the cultures and traditions of their adopted homelands. In fact, it becomes absolutely essential for them to do so in order to gain social acceptability among the local populace of the regions they inhabit.

But the members of the present generation of the community should strike a fine balance between what they have inherited by virtue of their lineage and what they now imbibe so as to become an integral part of the regions they live in.

I reckon as a first step to reverse this erosion, the Punjabi Diaspora needs to recognize the very existence of such a phenomenon. As a second step, we need to initiate steps to spark off a meaningful debate, by way of which we can arrive at a credible solution to this problem.  

To help strike such a balance, an instrumental role will have to be played by the members of the older generations. The 'elders' will have to initiate the present generation into their culture and heritage. They would have to ensure the generations following them imbibe only the positive aspects of their culture, not the negatives. In short, they would have to separate the chaff from the wheat.

The responsibility of the continuance of any culture rests with the members of that community; the onus of keeping it alive lies solely upon them.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Aman Malik