How to Become Punjabi in New York City

Photo by Nabil Rahman

(Photo by Nabil Rahman)

In the wake of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi’s recent rise to power as India’s prime minister, some have expressed worries that he and his Bharatiya Janata Party will attempt to redefine Indian identity in terms of a narrowly conceived Hindu one. To anyone even slightly familiar with the bewildering diversity that is a hallmark of the Indian subcontinent, such attempts appear entirely misguided, deliberately and obtusely ignorant of that land’s rich history of accommodation and synthesis of cultures, languages, religions, and social modes of organization.

Sometimes such diversity and syncretism can be found even within a single Indian life. Like mine.

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 In December 1988, while dropping off a friend for a flight back to India, I walked through JFK Airport’s departure hall, past a gate for a Pakistan International Airlines flight. I heard all around me a familiar language — Punjabi — spoken by the travelers headed home.

These were not Indians, like me; they were Pakistanis. Their fathers could have been among those my father had fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars. But we were all Punjabis. In this unfamiliar new country, I suddenly saw them as potential brethren.

A year before, at the age of 20, I had arrived in the U.S. as a graduate student from India. Once here, I struggled with the immigrant’s familiar and peculiar schizophrenia of identities. Sometimes I sought rapid assimilation and Americanization; sometimes I dreamed of returning to India. Perhaps, I thought, with these Punjabi-speaking fellow immigrants, I could try to resolve my struggles and fashion a new identity, far away from a place I used to call home.

To do that, however, I would have to rediscover a mother tongue that had been lost to me for most of my life. I would need to learn the language of my grandparents — one that, in my middle-class urbanite childhood in India, I had never really spoken. It is also a language that is losing ground in some spheres on the subcontinent of India and Pakistan, subject in both countries to the influence of an ambiguous modernity that classifies it as a “rural language.” (Though in India, despite only finding a marginal presence in modern writing, it has pride of place in the lyrics of popular Bollywood slang and songs.)

At that moment, my desire to speak Punjabi reasserted itself with some vigor. But that desire was not an unambiguous one; it never had been. In India, my struggle with my Punjabi identity had always been fraught with issues around class and culture — and that turned out to be no less true here in New York City.

A “Hick” Language

My last name, Chopra, is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived on either the Pakistani or the Indian side of the region of Punjab (which was brutally split during the partition of those two countries in 1947).

As a child, I was not particularly keen to assert a Punjabi identity. My first homes were on Indian Air Force bases, where my father was a fighter pilot. There, the lingua franca was English, and ethnic identities were deemphasized in favor of a more pluralistic Indian one. At home, my parents never spoke Punjabi to me though they did so — with fluency and aplomb — with their parents whenever we visited them.

sikh (3)

(Photo by Nabil Rahman)

I never felt much of a pull to the region of my family roots, either. Amritsar, with its Golden Temple, revered by Sikhs worldwide, did not exert a strong hold on me. Punjab smacked of the rustic, the agricultural, the homespun; I saw myself as an urban Anglophone. In my teens, I lived in New Delhi, the capital of India; my ancestors seemed to have lived in dusty villages and provincial towns. If this was my ethnic heritage, I disdained it, choosing instead the new, cosmopolitan one that my parents’ nomadic lifestyle afforded me.

I was not unusual among my cohorts in this respect. None of my cousins — and indeed, just about no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi — spoke Punjabi. They were content with their fluency in English and Hindi. Even as Punjabi blended with Urdu and Hindi in Bollywood movies, the migration of Punjabis to India’s urban centers seemed to have condemned our language to a slow death in those cities, where it was overcome by the homogenizing effect of Hindi and English.

Still, during my two years spent in boarding school in India’s northeast, during what would have been my ninth and tenth grades I found myself labeled “Punjabi” – and the identity that had seemed foreign to me now marked me as a hick.

In reaction to that prejudice, I began slowly to embrace that identity. On returning to Delhi, I wanted to be able to understand Punjabi songs, to crack jokes in Punjabi, to perhaps even watch a movie or two in Punjabi. I still did not speak to my mother in her mother tongue; our relationship was too entrenched in the familiar contours afforded by English and Hindi. But I began some tentative conversations in Punjabi with my grandparents, who responded enthusiastically.

The Punjabi I acquired thus was old-fashioned, and my early attempts at spoken Punjabi were, as might be expected, ludicrously bad. But a halting journey had commenced. It would continue in a land 10,000 miles away.

Photo by Nabil Rahman

(Photo by Nabil Rahman)

Punjab on the Hudson

After six years in the United States, in 1993 I moved from New Jersey to New York City. I found that my new home played host to a large ethnically, economically and religiously diverse Punjabi population of over 100,000 — including Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis. I could hear Punjabi spoken in subway cars, restaurants, streets. New York City seemed to enclose a small Punjabi city within its confines.

I found that my first attempts to speak Punjabi in New York City had unexpected consequences: a cab driver, for example, delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow Punjabi-spouting homeboy, would simply decline my fare payment, and give me a free ride. My American friends were nonplussed by such remarkable displays of generosity and ethnic camaraderie. So was I. I grew embarrassed and would try my best to pay, but to no avail.

I was struck, especially, by how hard it was to imagine such brotherly gestures back in India, where class and culture separate urban, middle-class young men like me from cabdrivers and other working people. Here in New York City, however, these gestures draw upon a commonality I had overlooked. I took pride in these conversations, in the display they afforded of an old-world generosity, now made visible in this most modern of cities.

I discovered that the Punjabi spoken in the Punjabi hinterland — in both India and Pakistan — was far harder to master than the urban variant I had been previously exposed to. So my progress in learning Punjabi — and thus building bridges to New York’s Punjabi community — was halting. All too often, in the midst of a conversation, I would be unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way, and I would have to switch back to the safety of Hindi-Urdu.

I relished the opportunity I now had to reach out and make contact with small-town Indians and Pakistanis. New York had, for me at least, enabled a partial transcendence of class boundaries. By moving to the U.S., I had come into contact with a slice of my ancestral culture that I might have been denied had I stayed on in India.

A Multiplicity of Identities

Some remnants remained of my old ambivalence about my Punjabi identity. As a graduate student, and later a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College, I have been immersed in sophisticated theoretical discourse that drew upon ideas from around the world. What was I doing, expending precious time and mental effort in learning a language that was shrinking even within India and Pakistan’s villages?

I had married an Indian-American woman who spoke no Punjabi at all, and our daughter, now 19 months, will almost certainly never learn the language; indeed, it would be a miracle if she learned a bit of Hindi or Urdu. Although there are now more than 100,000 Punjabi speakers in the city of her birth, her New York City is unlikely to bring her into close contact with many of them. What role did Punjabi have to play in my future family life?

Here, as in India, many of my South Asian friends, middle-class professionals like me, still associated Punjabi with the plebian and the unsophisticated; the language of taxi drivers and their all-night food joints, whether on Houston Street in Manhattan or in Jackson Heights, Queens. It has become a language associated with our pasts, with the lives left back home.

In December of 2000, I became an American citizen, and was forced to give up my Indian citizenship. It was a bittersweet moment, but also curiously exhilarating; my identity, I realized, had become more ambiguous, offering me new opportunities for its reconfiguration.

Photo by Nabil Rahman

(Photo by Nabil Rahman)

I now live in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood that abuts a large Pakistani and Bangladeshi community. Here, my opportunities for speaking Punjabi are confined to short conversations with local shopkeepers, and my fluency in Punjabi remains a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery. I could practice more Punjabi in New York City if I interacted more with the Punjabi community here; perhaps if I visited a Sikh gurudwara, for instance. But I am not a religious person, and I feel out of place in those settings.

There are limits to the extent of the effort I will put into fashioning a Punjabi identity. I cannot fight the reality that the Punjabi speakers in my family, in my line, will end with me.

My earlier angst about seeking an identity has died down. I am treated as an American when I travel overseas. I am happy to slip in and out of the three languages — English, Hindi, Punjabi — that I can call upon with varying degrees of felicity. I delight in the varied perspectives these linguistic lenses afford me. I am now, perhaps, finally comfortable in my skin; as a transplanted person that can look back on a childhood spent elsewhere, and who can claim allegiance to, and membership in, various cultural traditions. I am destined to be a mongrel of sorts.

But even as I accept the multiplicity of my identities, I don’t regret my foray into Punjabi solidarity. I realized what it had achieved on a trip back to India some years ago, when, in the Punjab, I went with my brother and some of his friends for a late-night dinner at a roadside eating joint — the ubiquitous Punjabi dhaba. There, without thinking much of it, I ordered my food, the classic parantha and daal with a side order of green chilies, in reasonably fluent Punjabi — as I had so often done before in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. My brother’s friends, highly amused, sent some friendly joshing my way: I was a hick, speaking a language they associated with farmers and truck drivers.

But I could also see that they looked at me with a grudging respect. I must have provided an incongruous spectacle indeed: a U.S.-returned Indian, complete with his khaki slacks and American twang, had crossed a boundary they could not, connecting on a simple linguistic level with the people behind that counter — people from a sphere that hardly intersected with their own.

To them, at least, I had gone to the U.S. an Indian, and come back a Punjabi.

Samir Chopra is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He blogs at The Cordon on ESPNcricinfo and at He can be found on Twitter as @EyeOnThePitch. He has authored or co-authored  five books. His latest book, “Eye on Cricket: Reflections on the Beautiful Game” (Harper Collins) is due for release in January 2015.

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