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Reimagining Punjab

- Ramanjit Singh

There comes a stage in one's life when we begin to grapple with our own identity, about who we are as individuals, who we are as a community, about what defines us. And quite often, most of us would cling to religion because for many that's what defines us, but for me what defines us is the land where we were born in, it is Punjab, and it is the culture that we belong to, and that is Punjabiyat. It is the land of the sufis, the peers, of Baba Nanak, it is the land of Bulleh Shah, of Baba Farid, the eternal Heer, the land of five rivers, Punjab that once existed from Delhi to Peshawar. All of it, every inch of it, every dargah, every mandir, every gurdwara is ours. We carry Punjab in our hearts, we think of it even when we are thousands of miles away, we cherish its history and we pray for its well being.

I was reading about the life of a Pakistani Punjabi writer Afzal Tauseef (1936-2014), who Amrita Pritam called "True daughter of the Punjab". For Afzal Tauseef, Partition not only destroyed centuries of coexistence, but it is also destroyed what could have been a Punjabi century, an immeasurable loss of its true potential. In their writings, both her and Amrita Pritam were able to painfully put to words the overwhelming sense of this loss. Writer Mahmood Awan describes Amrita Pritam as a grievous symbol of Punjab, "the uprooted daughter of the Punjab who fought too many battles, faced so many betrayals but never surrendered".

It is rare to venture into someone's mind to understand what they believe in, or the things they care about. Tauseef talked about the sadness that gripped her family when she was born. In her biography she writes...

"When I was born on a hot afternoon of May, Dai Jhanddo lamented “Oh God! It’s a girl, Oh No…the very first child is a girl!). Afzal Tauseef composed this unwelcomed arrival in her biography where she narrated voices who suggested of killing the baby girl and telling others that it was a boy who was born dead."

When I read this, I was taken aback as to how she carried on with her life with that sense of being unwanted at the time of her birth. How does one struggle with their own identity when your own birth is questioned and the event is one of despair, an occasion to lament and not to celebrate. Where every turning point in one's life is judged by someone else's gain or loss. I think these events give a person a unique perpsective to judge life, to understand human failings, to determine what is good or evil. The context of how they interpret history is different, the gravity of events is weighed differently, behavior of people is seen through a different lense.

Afzal Tauseef was born in Simbli, Nawan Shahar, Jalandhar in 1936. During the Partition violence, she and her mother were the only survivors, her entire family was massacred. Such was the tragedy of her life, that she described Partition and the massacre of her family in her book "Lahu Bhijjian Batkhaan" where family ducks are slipping on the blood wet floors of her family house.

She never came to terms with this division and wrote so painfully in her East Punjab travelogue while visiting her birth town:

“Kal loki jadun mainu vaikhan gay tay kehn gay ‘Eih Simbli vãliaan di dhee ay, Chaudhary Niamat Khan di Bhateji, Mehndi Khan di dhee, Vichaari pehli vaar aaee ay’. Miary Vadkaay Mussalmaan kiss tarah ho’ay mainu patta nahi par Mussalmaan hon day Jurm wich 1947 vich apni dharti tay maaray ga’ay mainu patta ay. Unhaan apna des chaddan tu inkaar keeta….issay wajja tu ohnaaN day ghar da sona tay sonay vargyaan dhiyyãn Lutte’aaN GyaaN.”

Tomorrow when people will see me, they will say She is a daughter of Simbli, niece of Chaudhary Niamat Khan, daughter of Mehndi Khan, poor girl has come here for the first time. I don't know when my ancestors became Muslims, but our crime was that we were Muslims and in 1947, we were killed in our own land. We refused to leave our birthplace, and that is why they violated our beautiful daughters.

As I was translating this in english, an overwhelming sense of sadness and guilt gripped my conscience. That last line was rewritten multiple times. I struggled with the words because there are no words that can describe her pain. I understood long time ago that my struggle to understand Partition will be fraught with a sense of guilt, for the crimes that my community committed for which we have not yet come to terms with. In a sense, what I write in these blogs is my small token of atonement of what happened in Punjab, a small prayer to God to forgive us for what we have done. They wanted to stay and we didn't let them.

For Afzal Tauseef, her identity was one of a Punjabi, untethered, free from national or religious constraints. Punjab that once existed from Delhi to Peshawar.

Study of Partition creates a conflicted identity in one's mind. I sometimes feel like a wanderer, moving to West Punjab and then meandering back to East Punjab, like a person carrying a dual identity, not sure where I belong. I would feel as much at home in Bulleh Shah's dargah in Kasur as I would at Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. It has changed me personally, the strict adherence to religion or that of one's national identity has been erased from my mind as I read through the stories of ordinary people who were not able to cope with the senseless loss of life. I cannot explain that madness and I believe that Afzal Tauseef was not able to understand it either.

How can one come back to their birthplace and relive those moments and have the courage to face the same community that caused so much pain. For me, it is the greatness of Afzal Tauseef that she was able to forgive and wanted to forge ahead with a common bond that unites us rather than the hate that divides us. For me, it is people like her, Amrita Pritam and Khushwant Singh who represented my idea of Punjab. They had a finger on its pulse, they wrote about it, intertwined history and folklore to remind us of our common identity. We worshipped at Baba Nanak's Nankana and we worshipped at Baba Farid's Pakpattan, we celebrated Waris Shah, we celebrated Eid, we celebrated Diwali, we were one, and that is what she reminded us of who we were.

Afzal Tauseef
Afzal Tauseef

In one of her last public appearances in Lahore, she talked about Punjab and tried to instill a sense of identity, not from a national or religious point of view, but from a cultural perspective, one of Punjabiyat.

She spoke these words...

Our songs have muted, since long. Punjab is without a guardian (Nah Bullah, nah Waris, Punjab La-Waaris). There was a Punjab once from Delhi to Peshawar and from Shimla to Rajasthan. That was the blessed land, the Punjab of Baba Nanak

Over time, we are losing an entire generation of people whose identity transcended borders and proudly carried undivided Punjab in their hearts. We are losing those who were still connected to us emotionally, who thought of Amritsar as their own just like when we so fondly reminisced about Lahore. Writer Mahmood Awan writes about her last days when she became depressed, did not talk to anyone, when pushed to talk she mourned: “Saryaan gallan mukk gayyãn nay” (There's nothing else left to talk).

It is our responsibility as Punjabis, wherever we may be, to carry forward the idea of Afzal Tauseef's blessed Punjab in our hearts and minds. Our tribute to this daughter of Punjab is to remember her and cherish her legacy, a reimagined Punjab of her dreams and the memories of that single identity.

Rest in Peace O' Daughter of Punjab and may God Bless every Child of our blessed land.


Reference from wikipedia

Afzal wrote books and editorial columns. She wrote for newspapers and published thirty books on themes such as politics, social issues, and art and languages.

Her books include:

  • Punjab Ke'da Naa Punjab (what is Punjab)[5]

  • Tahli Mere Bachray (My kids, O Sheesham tree)

  • Panjjeevãn Ghanta (the 25th hour)[5]

  • Vailay De Pichay Pichay (Following the past)

  • Amman Vailay Millan Gay (we will meet in the time of peace)[5]

  • Lahu BhijjiaN BatkhaaN (Blood-soaked Ducks)[5]

Some of her books were later transliterated into Gurmukhi and published in India.


Here Afzal Tauseef is talking about Punjab



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