A tribute to the Punjabi

It is not just entertainment and sports, Punjabis are everywhere. Ajay Banga, who used to be the CEO of MasterCard will head World Bank. Deepak Chopra is a champion of new age medicine, notes the writer.

Basab Dasgupta

Basab Dasgupta

The Statesman


Ajay Banga former CEO Master Card and Athlete Milkha Singh [Photo:SNS]

April 4, 2023

NEW DELHI – The Khalistan movement has been in the news in recent weeks following the escape of Amritpal Singh. He has been accused by the police of attempted murder and creating “disharmony”, declared a “fugitive” and is on the run. Vandalism and attacks on Indian consulates by supporters have been reported from the US, UK, Australia and Canada, as well as some demonstrations in India.

The Khalistan movement is a separatist movement with the goal of creating a separate sovereignty, “Khalistan”, exclusively for the Sikh people, and has been outlawed in India. An attempt is being made to revive the movement.

I wondered if I should even be concerned about what is going on with this movement. Without going into a political and religious discourse, I would like to reflect on my impressions of Punjabis. Since I cannot even tell the difference between a Sikh Punjabi and a Hindu Punjabi without the turban, I will put them together under the label “Punjabi”. We Bengalis seldom praise Indians originating from other parts of India and often use the word “nonBengalis” to collectively describe them, which conveys an implicit feeling of superiority. I decided to make an exception and write about the accomplishments of Punjabis.

During my childhood, my father used to work in a jute mill near Kolkata. A Marwari business group had purchased the mill from the British owners. Officers from various parts of India worked there: Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madras, Bihar and of course West Bengal. As a result, I grew up in a cosmopolitan environment which exposed me to the food and culture of those regions.

The Punjabi boys in our group stood out because they had a natural leadership instinct and were quite extroverted, not to mention their sharp features and fair complexion. I was closer to them compared to others. They were all very good at the game of cricket.

I especially remember Swapna, a cousin of one of the boys who occasionally visited during holidays. She looked like a young Brooke Shields and spoke fluent Bengali. I was known as an artist and Swapna started to bug me to do a drawing of her. I was a shy introverted kid but eventually drew a sketch of her face. It came out quite well. She was ecstatic and showed it to everyone she could find. I expressed modesty on the outside but was delighted on the inside. After my father changed jobs, we moved, and I never saw her again. She was my first crush.

I was impressed by the performance of Punjabi Sikhs in sports, especially hockey and track and field. It broke my heart when Milkha Singh (photo, right) was deprived of a medal in the Rome Olympics by 0.1 second. Neeraj Chopra restored the glory of Punjabi athletes by winning a gold medal in the Olympics 60 years later. Several famous Punjabi cricketers emerged over the decades. Jarnail Singh played soccer for my favourite team, Mohun Bagan.

The overwhelming presence of Sikh soldiers and military generals in our army generated a feeling of respect on my part for their bravery and patriotism. Speaking of patriotism, let us not forget the sacrifices of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. It is not just protecting the country, the Punjabis help keep the country running. For example, our day-to-day functioning relies heavily on Punjabi farmers toiling in the fields and transportation of goods by trucks, driven mostly by Sikh drivers.

After I entered college, there was not much opportunity to socialize with young people from other parts of India. My life evolved in a fantasy world centred around Bollywood movies and Bollywood music. Almost all of my favourite actors were Punjabis. This dominance has continued. Currently, one of the most famous actresses in Bollywood, Priyanka Chopra is Punjabi. She has now broken into Hollywood and is a heartthrob on both sides of the globe.

Mohammad Rafi, the legendary male singer in Bollywood during my time in India was Punjabi and so was Mahendra Kapoor.

I lost touch with Bollywood after I came to the US. My studies, domestic chores and professional life took higher priority. I re-established this connection decades later, thanks to the internet and YouTube.

By that time, Bollywood was taken over by Punjabi music. It was not just Bhangra style dance music, but appeared in all varieties. I was not surprised. The Punjabi language is inherently melodic and conducive to singing and dancing.

Indian rap music was a surprise. Until then I intensely disliked American rap music, partly because of obscene lyrics and partly because of the way the rappers dressed. The Indian rappers – almost all of whom are Punjabis – cleverly blended rap and traditional Indian tunes in a very appealing way. Now I even listen to songs, and not just rap, which are entirely in Punjabi and whose lyrics I do not understand.

It is not just entertainment and sports, Punjabis are everywhere. Take politics as an example. When I first came to the US, I attended the Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge in their physics programme. There was a Punjabi lady in our class named Raj Jindal and she was pregnant at the time. I remember visiting her house to see the baby after the child’s birth – a boy she named Bobby. Yes, this was Bobby Jindal who grew up to become the governor of Louisiana and a presidential contender in the 2016 US election.

Rishi Sunak, the first non-white Prime Minister of UK is Punjabi and so is Nikki Haley, the former governor of S. Carolina, who recently announced that she would run in the 2024 race for US president. There are two ex-prime ministers of India who are Punjabis: Gulzarilal Nanda and Manmohan Singh and an ex-president, Zail Singh.

In the area of technology, Punjabis can take credit for establishing Sun Microsystems (Vinod Khosla) and Hotmail (Sabeer Bhatia). Vinod Dham was instrumental in the development of Pentium chips.

The industrialist Sunil Mittal is famous for his philanthropic activities and Yash Chopra has been a movie production mogul for decades.

Ajay Banga (photo, left), who used to be the CEO of MasterCard has recently been nominated to be the head of World Bank. Deepak Chopra is a champion of new age medicine and internationally known.

My heart-felt salute goes to Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian American astronaut who successfully completed the Columbia space mission in 1997 but perished in the reentry disaster during her second space mission in 2003. She was a hero and a true pioneer.

When my Bengali friends point to Bengali Nobel laureates like Tagore and Amartya Sen, I remind them of Har Govind Khorana and Abdus Salam.

I admire the mild mannerisms of Punjabi men despite their physical strengths. I like Punjabi women even more. They are not only attractive but also more westernized and less inhibited compared to Bengali girls. I like the variety in how they dress; from traditional kurta-pajama to sari to Americanized top/tee-shirt and blue jeans. I love Punjabi food, especially their preparation of “baingan bharta” and “mutton curry”.

I am impressed that people in Punjab and Haryana have lived side by side without any major conflict for all these years despite differences in religions and languages sharing the same capital city of Chandigarh.

It is very sad that the Khalistan movement has raised its ugly head again. The Punjabis and especially the Sikhs have excelled in a wide variety of fields at considerable depth; their contributions have been instrumental not only in the survival but prosperity of India as a peaceful democracy. I cannot imagine an Indian nation without the Sikhs. I pray for a peaceful end to the current revival of this movement.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.)

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