What does it mean to be a Punjabi

Those who have not seen Lahore, have not lived.
Those who have not seen Lahore, have not lived.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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Rajendra Nagar was one of Delhi’s Partition refugee colonies, hurriedly created after 1947 to accommodate the millions of displaced people pouring into independent India. In Delhi, these neighbourhoods were named after Hindu Congress leaders: Rajendra Nagar, Patel Nagar, Tilak Nagar and Lajpat Nagar. Over time, the accents of its inhabitants mellowed “Rajendra Nagar” down to the more rounded, affectionate “Rajinder Nagar”, just as Connaught Place became “Knaat Place”, and residential colonies all across South Delhi became “c’lonies”.

Rajinder Nagar was, without doubt, a Punjabi c’lony. Punjabi villages and towns had always had common tandoors for baking bread; women would prepare the dough at home, and then take it to the communal oven to cook. So tandoors sprang up in Rajinder Nagar, too. In the afternoons or early evenings, my grandmother would make atta at home and take it to the tandoorwala who sat down the street, relying on the households of the neighbouring lanes for business. He had no counter, no tables and chairs, no awning—just five bricks and a clay oven.

The Rajinder Nagar house didn’t originally belong to my dada and dadi. My paternal grandfather was from Pind Dadan Khan, in the arduous Potohar Plateau region of West Punjab, and his family had moved to Rawalpindi, and he to Lahore. My grandmother’s family, though, originally from Fatehgarh Churian in East Punjab, had lived in a village that fell across the new border, now in Pakistan. They came in 1947, like many other Partition refugees, on the trains from West Punjab carrying whatever they could salvage. My grandmother’s brother wangled a job exchange as a government clerk in Delhi, and this came with a flat in Panchkuian Road, to the west of the city then. For a few months, 70 people squeezed into its three rooms, waiting to find work and somewhere to go. My grandfather, who’d lived in university accommodation in Lahore, wasn’t eligible for any kind of house allotment. Still, in 1947, they counted themselves lucky. He was a teacher and he managed to find work, first in Rohtak, then in Ajmer, then in Dehradun. Others languished in refugee camps for years.

“Don’t be silly,” professor Aziz, my grandfather’s colleague at Government College, Lahore had told him. “In a little while you can have a permanent position here. I don’t know why you’re going off to god-knows-where. All this will pass.”

Most people were of the same mind. No one thought the border was about to become impermeable. My mother’s mother locked her treasures and books in her school desk when she left Lahore; she didn’t know she wouldn’t be back for the new term in July. My grandfather journeyed back in September 1947 to track down his niece in a tuberculosis asylum.

Not understanding the danger they were in, his sister Channo Devi and her husband refused to leave Murree, where they owned a curio shop; eventually, in September 1947 they were sent to an army-run refugee camp in Rawalpindi, and in October, lifted out to India on a DC3 Dakota flight.

Legend has it that Channo tried to persuade the soldiers to allow her to bring her prized tandoor with her on the plane.

In the early 1950s, land and houses were allotted to the refugees according to what they could prove they’d left behind; several old hierarchies were thus recreated. In Rajinder Nagar, the residents were mostly people with the same Punjabi middle class background, often linked in a loose way to the reformist Arya Samaj movement, so friendships formed fast. Channo Devi’s husband received a 90-square-yard plot as compensation, three rooms set around a courtyard. This was the house that she would leave to her brother some decades later.

The Partition refugees scraped a living out of small patri shops, hardware stores, taxis and phatphatiyas. Some people, like those of my family, became teachers, medical orderlies or joined the army; they became dry cleaners or restaurateurs, or opened textbook shops and ice-cream factories.

Others set up eateries. Some of these were restaurants like Moti Mahal and Chonas, but more often, they were dhabas.

With low overheads and slim profit margins, the dhaba owners didn’t have a lot of utensils. They concentrated on their tandoors: rotis toasted to a crackle, and whole chickens skewered and grilled in their red depths. There would be an assortment of pickles, and “mukka wala pyaaz”, a whole onion unmercifully smashed with a closed fist to release its flavours.

Sometimes there were chicken tikkas, or seekh kebabs, or tawa-fried meat, like keema or kaleji. The remains of the fire were used to slow-cook whole black gram or sabut urad dal overnight, which gave the black lentils, the famous “ma-ki-dal”, its distinct, creamy, broken-down flavour in time for the next day (the swirls of cream that you see in restaurants turn it into “dal makhani”, but these were not part of the original recipe). A recognisable dhaba repertoire bloomed along the arterial roads of the new colonies, along the highways of the new India, and anywhere anyone could set up five bricks and an oven and sweat their way to a loyal clientele.

“Today, when Dilliwalas are a minority in their own city, it saddens me to see butter chicken, dal makhani and other roadside fares take over as delicacies,” wrote a peevish Sadia Dehlvi in a newspaper article in 2010.

Butter chicken, the most famous issue of this era, is a restaurant dish, invented, so the probably apocryphal story has it, by Kundan Lal Gujral, the owner of Moti Mahal restaurant, in order to rescue some dried-out tandoori chicken.

Punjabi ma-ki-dal is real dhaba fare, born out of necessity and enterprise. But both are products of the pragmatism and drive that, in the 1890s, led groups of Punjabi labourers to migrate to Canada, Kenya and California to better their lives (several of the Punjabis in California married their fellow agricultural labourers, who were Mexican—an unexpected but obviously rajma-based coming together of hearts). These same qualities helped the new arrivals thrive in post-Independence Delhi.

Still, growing up in Delhi in the late 1990s, Punjabiyat seemed something to be embarrassed about. “The only culture Punjabis have is agriculture,” went the Delhi joke, a caricature that consigned to the dust of another place all Punjab’s poets, scholars, singers, artists and musicians. Punjabis were vulgar, dairy-swilling, glitter-loving yokels and, as Delhi historian Narayani Gupta sniffed in her Delhi between the Two Empires, contemporary Delhi was becoming a place where “Tilak Nagars and Nehru Roads proliferate, and hardly anyone knows of the poetry of Mir and Zauq, the humour of Ghalib, the quality of life that Chandni Chowk once symbolised.”

I tried to dissociate myself from the caricature. It irritated me that everyone in my family said “p’ronthi” instead of what I understood to be the correct Hindi “parantha”, and “lassan” for what my friends from Delhi or Uttar Pradesh called “lehsoon”. Even now, I always pointedly say “parantha”.

I didn’t really think of myself as Punjabi anyway. My parents, having lived so long in Assam and Meghalaya, spoke Assamese between themselves, and to me. I couldn’t understand any Punjabi, and I preferred rice to rotis. If my friends returned in the summer to families and ancestral homes here and there across India, I had Assam, all the leafy expanse of the tea estates around Dibrugarh, the unreal green of the paddy fields near Jorhat, the orchid-hung trees of Manas, the buttery early sun of Guwahati, the shifting islets of Majuli; I had the Brahmaputra, the angriest, most beautiful river in the world. I didn’t feel dispossessed. When anyone at school asked me where I came from, I said, “Assam.” Weaned on stubby joha rice like any good Assamese baby, and dipped at thirty days old into the raging Brahmaputra for luck, I didn’t know where else I could be from.

Jis Lahore nahi vekhya, woh janmya hi nahi”, goes the Punjabi saying.

Those who have not seen Lahore, have not lived. Both sets of my grandparents, who came to India from Multan, from Lahore and from Rawalpindi, spoke of Lahore as if they’d lost a lodestar. Since Ranjit Singh’s reign, Lahore, the capital of the region, had been the glory, the touchstone and the beating heart of Punjab, its hub of culture and politics. It must have been hard for anyone to imagine that this Delhi, this city that was both ruin and upstart, could take the place of a living Lahore.

I didn’t think seriously about being Punjabi until the early 2000s, when travel between India and Pakistan suddenly opened up. My family trickled over the border one by one (my father, visiting for the World Cup, was accosted by strangers in cricket stadiums inviting him over for dinner; it took months to exorcise the memory of so much good-humoured gosht).

When I went on a university trip to Lahore, I was expecting not only hospitality, but also a sort of homecoming. I wanted very much to find the house on Omkar Road where my family had lived, to parachute into an old Punjab that belonged to my grandparents, that I would now never see, a Punjab of planned towns like Sargodha and organic muddles like Lahore, the now- unmoored syncretic culture of travelling mirasi singers and trilingual scholars, the old worlds of Multan, Murree, Sialkot, Gujrat, Rawalpindi.

When I got there though, in 2006, it seemed more like the Amritsar we’d just crossed: a chaotic small town, equal parts middle-class swank and medieval confusion. Like Delhi and most Indian cities, its heritage is badly preserved, and its charms lie hidden beneath the modern cityscape.

I tried to squint to see if I could find a wormhole somehow, a window into what might have been my city. I thought that if I could, at long last, manifest in Lahore, something of Lahore might well manifest in me. There were Oberois and Sanans and Sardanas and Mongias somewhere in Pakistan, but I couldn’t find them. (There was, if I had only known it, my father said later, a famous Oberoi right there in Lahore, a Muslim mafia kingpin.)

When I told people about my family in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Multan, and they tried to speak to me in Saraiki or in Punjabi, I was a stranger again. I was Punjabi, but I wasn’t from either of the Punjabs that remained. I had lost something, but I wasn’t sure what had replaced it. I was out of joint.


Certain things are inherited.

My grandfather was an exigent, uncompromising person. He worked hard, supported his four children and his brother’s children. He was a well-read, intelligent man, a Fulbright scholar, an English teacher who wrote short stories in Hindi and translated Premchand into Urdu. He had no time for “khaki-shorts-walas”, or for organised religion either. Our family dinners were punctuated with stories, awful pun contests and borderline racist jokes, mostly about Punjabis themselves: their accents, their bumptiousness, their hirsuteness, their denseness. (Until I was ten, I thought that the Akali Dal was a kind of lentil, “a kali dal”.)

My father told me that when his father received a small inheritance from his sister, he set up a library instead of building a house. When he died, we found out that he had, for years, stretched his resources to sponsor the education of two unknown schoolboys. His last present to me was a copy of Jude the Obscure, which he left for me in the bookshelf, among his collection of Urdu, English and Hindi novels. These were what I was fed on.

Excerpted with permission from Inheritance, by Naintara Maya Oberoi, from Chillies and Porridge: Writing Food, edited by Mita Kapur, HarperCollins India.

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