Friday, May 21, 2010

The Unbearable Loudness of Being (Punjabi)

I recently read two books on second generation Indians growing up in England - Anita and Me (Meera Syal) and Bend it like Beckham (screenplay by Gurinder Chadha et al, book by Narinder Dham- written after the film was made). These two very different books are about growing up and finding oneself. I guess everyone can relate to them at some level, but what I was struck by was how similar the Punjabi community is in India and abroad. This is of course a great generalization and there are many differences based on the specific environment that people live in. But it got me thinking a little about each community having its own intangible yet distinct spirit or perhaps just a code of conduct. In Punjabis, this is expressed with great loudness and fervour and, if uncontrolled, sometimes has a hint of aggression or excessive vitality. But it also carries a spontaneity and passion - all things especially pain and joy are expressed with unabashed intensity.

Life has changed dramatically for the present generations - partition (division of Punjab at its very heart - Lahore to create Pakistan and Punjab) brought many challenges which several Punjabis faced with fortitude and the typical 'never say die' attitude- one can see tremendous strength written into the faces of the older generation. (This is a very different attitude from the sentiments expressed in Bengal after it was divided into west Bengal and Bangladesh, where, I think, people expressed much of their anguish using art, philosophy and words.) This older generation struggled to provide for the younger people things they themselves did not have access to - including freedom. But freedom means different things to different individuals- perhaps this is where all the struggles for finding one's identity begin.

I suppose these Punjabi struggles were similar in nature, whether they took place in different parts of India or in other countries, hence one finds it surprisingly easy to relate to the issues irrespective of where they arise. For instance, it is as irritating to have to stop your work in India and learn how to make a perfect chapati as it is in England. And it is as common to see your mother working away to make the fish n' chips you read about in India as in England, rather than allow you to go outside and eat that unhealthy stuff. This then is what Punjabi families are all about - opinions being thrown about (backed by solid, sometimes unrelenting action) - voices of your family, your distant relatives, family friends - and in between all these is your voice, perhaps not heard very often but when things are really important, it is heard and in the midst of all those hands pushing, pulling in different directions, you find that if you stand firm and move steadily, the hands are often held out to help in unexpected ways.

This then is the Punjabi spirit that I am familiar with- one depicted quite well in the recent Hindi film 'Chak de India' (about women's hockey in India). I am familiar with Punjabi, so I never realised till many weeks after it became a 'super-hit' that most Indians did not understand the (Punjabi) title. Chak de means 'lift it up'- and that is a common refrain in Punjabi households - lift your spirits, don't droop, do something and so on. It's exhausting and infuriating at times, but is also heartwarming - in a loud, cheery sort of way.

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