Punjabis beyond borders

Ammara Ahmad meets a trio of poets struggling to deal with the decline of Punjabi and the madness of hard borders

Punjabis beyond borders
I became acquainted with a group of three Punjabi poet friends this February. All three of the friends speak a slightly different dialect of Punjabi and hail from different sides of the divided Punjab region. Their bond was cemented by their love for Punjabi and passion for their home region.

The group consisted of Punjabi poets Mazhar Tirmazi, Amarjit Chandan and language activist Akram Varraich.

Amarjit Chandan was born in Nairobi but lived in Indian Punjab during his youth. He graduated from Panjab University (of India) and became involved in the Maoist Naxalite movement. This led to several years in imprisonment and two years of solitary confinement. Chandan openly questioned Punjabi nationalism, the now defunct idea of Punjabi nationhood and the tragic partition of Punjab. But despite his rejection of nationalism, he called himself simply a Punjabi before anything else – and didn’t recognise the division of the land. He acknowledged the Punjab of both sides as his own. That is, of course, a rare and endearing perspective in today’s South Asia.

Amarjit Chandan reciting his work at Lahore's GCU -Image Credits - Ammara Ahmad

He has published eight poetry collections and three books of essays. He has been translated into multiple languages abroad and therefore his standing as a poet is internationally acknowledged. He himself has worked as a journalist and editor in India. He has even translated left-wing poets of resistance like Pablo Neruda, Yiannis Ritsos and Nazim Hikmet into Punjabi. He is less sentimental and more silent. He is a man of memory. His childhood, imprisonment, youth – and the rains and romances of a long-gone past. There seems to be a deep sense of remorse at times. It usually remains unspoken but is felt.

Mazhar Tirmazi was born in Sahiwal, and before he moved to Lahore and started maturing as a poet, he had already become fast friends with Majeed Amjad. But his amicable disposition earned him many more friends in the Punjabi literary clique. He has significant expertise in Indian classical music. He plays the harmonium, can hum a tune or two and has interviewed the likes of Salamat Ali Khan.
The passengers turned around to look at the loved ones they were (mostly unwillingly) leaving behind. All, except for Chandan, who continued to look away…

Chandan seemed to be a sombre, almost unsmiling fellow, whilst Tirmazi seems to be more cheerful and fond of the finer things in life – classical music, dance, films and food. These attitudes reflect in their poetry as well. Though both write easy-to-read and brief poetry, Chandan’s work is more philosophical while Tirmazi’s is lyrical and more indulgent. Chandan’s work seems to be impacted deeply by his solitary confinement and a sense of loss. Most of his poems hark back to the past – the loss of his mother language, memories of his own mother and the Punjab that he cannot find anymore. Tirmazi’s work and conversations often focus on the Partition, the dislocation, and loss of heritage that followed. Chandan is an accomplished photographer whilst Tirmazi is an award-winning Punjabi playwright who even acted in a Punjabi adaptation of Toba Tek Singh in London. The two often attend conferences together and collaborate for literary projects.

Akram Varraich, now a stout man in his 60s, is also a self-taught painter and played host to the two returnees from London. He speaks in no other language but Punjabi and refuses to respond if spoken to in Urdu.

Amarjit Chandan and Mazhar Tirmazi in Sofia, Bulgaria - Image Credit - Sara Pawan Altaf, 2017


The trio always appeared together, commuted to places together and sometimes loitered around Lahore deep into the night. They were never short of topics to discuss – the streets of Lahore, its lost heritage, its paintings, its canals, its street foods and what not. I got a peek into their world when I escorted them to some public events.

One of those events was a poetry recitation in Government College University’s Punjabi Department. They borrowed a lecture hall in the Science block where dozens of rows were filled by Punjabi undergrads. They didn’t ask many questions but listened to the recitations with interest. There was a discussion afterward. Most of these discussions tend to spiral around the decline of Punjabi as a language, the inherent bias that Punjabis have against their own ‘Ma Boli’ (mother tongue) and how the quality of the language has also diminished. They lamented how Urdu’s ‘imposition’ has corroded Punjabi’s cultural footprint.

Chandan even read a poem by poet Ramsaran Das called “Iqbal naal shikwa.” The poems questions Allama Iqbal for not using his mother language for a single poem, despite living in Punjab for decades and using the language for everyday discourse.

All three, particularly Tirmazi and Varraich, knew Lahore fairly well. Varraich and Chandan often had large cameras to click photos.

After the recitation and a few meetings, we reached the Mall Road, all dug up and dusty from the Metro train construction.

Many visits to friends and meetings with poets and artists followed.

At the end of February, Amarjit Chandan was due to leave Pakistan because his visa was now expiring. He was due in Chandigarh to attend some literary events. So many friends had been separated by the 1947 Partition and this trio is no exception. Despite all the cheerfulness and togetherness, they knew this union was temporary and rare.

On a cloudy and cold day, I followed the trio on their way to Wagah Border on my car. They were being driven by another Punjabi poet – Raja Sadiqulla. They stopped at one point to buy kinnows from a street vendor and finished them all before stopping at the first check-post at Wagah, where everyone had to get in one car and approach the parking lot.

This was the farthest point we could reach without an Indian visa. Behind us was a sad little seating space which was mostly empty, thanks to the stringent visa policy. Next to the seating space was an unfortunate looking khokha (small shop for eatables). A train-like car standing near us was supposed to take the few passengers out of the parking lot into the area where passports are ultimately checked and the border is crossed.

There were about a dozen cars standing there quietly. In the distance, we could see a water tank with Pakistani flags painted on it. Akram Varraich said that the Indian trucks full of onions and other vegetables unloaded there. The train-like car was vacant and provided an opportunity for photos due to its interesting views from between the seats and carriages. The driver was present and assured us he would not transport us to India before informing us. That could land us in a lot of silly trouble.

‘Umraan Langiyaan pabbaan bhaar’ by Mazhar Tirmazi

(Lifetimes have passed as I wait on tiptoes)

phullaan de rang kaale
[Black is the colour of all the flowers]
surkh gulaabaan de mausam wich
[Though it’s the season of red roses]
pardes gaiyon pardesi hoiyon
[You’ve gone to distant lands, and become a stranger]
te teriyaan nit watnaan wallo raan
[Though all the time your native land cries out for you]

There was a family from Uttar Pradesh (UP) that had come by to attend a wedding. The family’s matriarch complained that the visa policies were becoming too tedious. The women had their hands covered in henna and arms full of glass bangles. They also had yellow mithai (sweetmeat) boxes. Another family was from Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir. A family from the Cholistan desert had come from Sindh to cross the border for a family wedding in India.

Most of the relatives were crying. People worried that they wouldn’t see each other again. And rightly so. Today’s visa policies are unnecessarily politicised and so unpredictable that they seem cruelly capricious.

The family from UP was decorated with garlands. The mood in the trio was sullen. The excited chatter, the cheerful anecdotes and the aroma of those kinnows seemed like a distant image. Soon Chandan started receiving long hugs from his friends. Akram Varriach was properly tearful and heartbroken.

‘Voices’ by Amarjit Chandan

I hear voices: Mother says something and laughs.
There’s a lump in my father’s throat as he talks.
Beard is beginning to sprout on my face.
A bell rings. School’s over.
I have kissed her again.
The train is leaving for Nakodar.
This is the voice of Baba Bhag Singh visiting our house.
The prison gate is opening.
My baby son chokes as he sucks at his mother’s breast.
My widow sister weeps while making rotis as the sun sets in
The moments when three times converge
Travelers throw flowers and coconuts in the sea.
One sound only is missing,
The one I am longing to hear.

Even Mazhar Tirmazi, who was due to reach London in a month’s time, seemed morose. The train was vacated and Chandan sat in the front, looking away at the water tank in the distance. The view was foggy now.

Chandan, in his maroon turban, sat in the front and continued to look away to the Indian side while the cries of relatives grew louder. All of us waited for the serpent-like car to start. It took a few minutes and delays, but eventually it did slowly start coiling around the parking lot. The passengers turned around to look at the loved ones they were (mostly unwillingly) leaving behind. All, except for Chandan, who continued to look away…

The train car slowly moved out of the parking lot and towards the Indian border where there was a large brick gate that said: “Welcome to Pakistan”. Ironically, one of the few people who doesn’t recognise and openly questions the division of Punjab could not stay here for more than a few days.

He is often described as being out of place in both the Punjabs thanks to the Partition, which has morphed the demographic, language and culture of the province.

The walls of the parking space were low and we could still see the train car slowly encircling the parking lot before moving away towards the border. None of us had a visa to India or any prospects of getting one anytime soon.

And all of us felt the pain of losing the trio and Amarjit Chandan to the border.

“This is madness,” said Tirmazi after a pause.

All of us agreed with a sullen silence.


Ammara Ahmad is a writer based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her work is available on www.ammaraahmad.com