Tell us about yourself. What do you do professionally? How did you get into it?
I am a Punjabi guy brought up in the capital of a country which needed an ideology to support its separate existence. The ideology — centered around religion and homogeneity of culture — made it necessary for the state to suppress the indigenous languages and cultures in the national narrative. I didn’t realise any of this growing up in Islamabad, conversing with my age- and class-group in Urdu, and considering all things associated with Punjab and Punjabi as “pendu.” It, however, changed for good, when —out of curiosity— I started to read the classical Punjabi literature (with the help of glossaries) to know what is so bad about Punjabi that many around me are ashamed of. What I found was beautiful! This made me want to explore more, which brought me to the vast and pure world of Punjabi folk music. It really struck a chord with me. Since then I am in love with folklore of Punjab and all its expressions.
When this was happening, I was — like everyone else — making my way up the ladder in the IT industry as a software engineer, in the field of web development. There was passion, there were skills, so I founded Folk Punjab. It was intended as a well-curated and well-organised space for Punjabi folk music. It’s now much more than that, you should see: FolkPunjab.com. Apart from this, I have also worked with Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange as a research fellow. Till last year, I was working as CTO at a software firm.
But I was not really meant for a career-oriented life. Poetry and literature have always been a fascination for me. In fact, I wrote a novelette back in the days. So last year I finally bid farewell to the 9 to 6 life. Now a days, I just curate Folk Punjab and write a poem every now and then.
You have traveled across Panjab and then Pakistan in fashion of Ibn Battuta. What were the things that your travels revealed that you did not expect about the state of people of Panjab and your understanding about them? Did you have an “illumination moment” like Budha had under a tree in Gaya, that completely changed your perspective?
I found that I was wrong on so many levels; that people in the big cities are often mistaken in their assumptions and opinions about the rest of the Punjab; that if one can’t understand a people, one should not speak about them; and that perhaps it’s the cities that are backward. No Buddha moment, though.
You are a strong advocate of Panjabi language. Why do you think it is important to preserve the indigenous languages? Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone spoke and understood one universal language?
One universal language at the cost of indigenous ones — a big no. This whole idea to reduce people and expressions to one way is mistaken and dangerous. Every indigenous language carries within itself the way in which a people view the world and their place in it. Every such view or perspective has its value — for those people and for the world at large. It’s preposterous for one person of group to suggest that the “others” should give themselves up.
You also work as research fellow with Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange on a project called Forbidden Love: The Love Legends of Southasia. Do you find aberrations in the love legends of Panjab as they are written and as we know them from pop culture? How big is the divide?
In the narrative, not so much. But people are usually only aware of the partial story, not the whole. It gets more complicated when we see what people make of the legends. Sahiban, for example, appears to be a sensible girl who was trying to save the lives of her brothers in the hopes that she might calm the situation, but is considered disloyal in the popular perception. This might be changing with each era and should be studied further.
In your writings you easily transcend from the shackles of religion and regionalism. You have written that “Guru Arjan gave his life so that you can read Farid” and that “Punjab is more than politics” and about “Status of consensual relationship in Heer Waris Shah”. How well are your messages received by your audiences. Do you get emails of support or/and opposition?
The response is mostly warm.
You are a technologist and an anthropologist. How do you juggle and balance the two roles? What does your typical day look like? If you were to advice a path for a 14 year old about following your path, what would that be?
I have almost quit technology, now I just freelance as a programmer twice or thrice a year; there’s no question of balancing the two, you see. Since I don’t “have to” do anything, I struggle everyday with myself on what to do. Once I wrote a novel when I was in college or university, now I want to write the second one; thinking about its plot and characters takes some time. I have plans to publish an accessible series of 50 books on classical Punjabi poets (selected poetry in side by side gurmukhi-shahmukhi), so I read up on that. On some days, I visit my parents who also live in Islamabad. On others, I wait for the date the next mela is going to be held somewhere in Punjab and then pack my bags a day before. Oh, my typical day almost always starts and ends with hearing the voice of the girl I love.
I wouldn’t advice anyone to follow my path. I’ll, however, ask those of you who are parents: don’t deprive your kids of the language of your ancestors; they are going to miss it when they grow up.
If you could recommend some resources (books, films, etc.) for our readers, what would they be?
Two novels: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez) and Bahao (Mustansar Hussain Tarar). Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Loona. And Punjabi Sufi poetry.
Just a camera phone when I’m traveling. A laptop, when in Islamabad.
Would you ever return to a 9 to 5 job?
I hope never.