By Harpreet Kaur, National Practice Lead
It’s South Asian Heritage Month, which celebrates the eight countries that make up the region: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, The Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This year’s theme is Stories to Tell, so I thought I’d share some stories that I know from one tiny part of this region, to which I feel deeply connected: the state of Punjab in North India. Punjab is where my Dad was born and where my Mum grew up, and is best known for the Golden Temple in Amritsar. When I was younger, I made many trips there with my parents. As I got older, I became increasingly aware of the two worlds in which I had a footing, as British South Asian.
I once read that if America is a melting pot in terms of its people, then India, with it’s 28 states, is more like a thali, with individual, distinct little dishes that have their own character and flavour, which complement the whole. Local culture and identity is strong in India. For example, people of different faiths from one state will have more in common with one another – shared history, language, cuisine, dress and even festivals – than someone of the same faith from another Indian state. Punjab is a real example of this, where Punjabis of all faiths and backgrounds have lived alongside one another peacefully. One incredible example is the city of Malerkotla.
Punjab was divided along religious lines in 1947, with the Partition of India and creation of Pakistan and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. The trauma of Partition remains present in my older relatives, and inter-generationally. My Dad’s eldest remaining brother was ten at the time and remembers it like a dream, walking from Lahore in the West to Amritsar, near the newly drawn Wagha border. He remembers people in all directions, with their animals and carrying whatever possessions they could take. Despite the horrors of Partition, Punjab and Punjabi people have retained a strong sense of identity and culture on both sides of the border, and Punjab has a reputation of being “rangala” – a colourful and spiritual place. It is connected to the founding of Sikhism and many spiritual figures from Hinduism, Islam and Sufism are said to have originated there.
Punjab is named after its five rivers: the Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, and Jhelum. 3 of the rivers – Sutlej, Ravi and Beas – are in Indian Punjab, and the Chenab and Jhelum are part of Pakistani Punjab. Folk songs on both sides talk movingly about the rivers being sisters who have been forced apart and ask each other if they know news of the others.
Punjab is known as the breadbasket of India. It is a wheat growing region and has historically been one of the most fertile agricultural areas. My paternal family are farmers by background, and my three paternal uncles still grow crops to sell and feed their families. Many of their grandchildren have left Punjab to study and work in Australia and Canada. This has become a trend in Punjab over the past 20 years.
Punjab and its people have undoubtedly had a turbulent history – from experiencing the sharp end of British rule, such as the Jalliawala Bagh massacre in 1913, as well as what is now known colloquially as 1984. More recently, Punjab can feel like a place where there is little hope for young people: human rights violations around social and political beliefs are commonplace, particularly for minorities, and there is also the well-known drug crisis (opium and synthetic substances), which disproportionately affects the youth. The standard of education in government schools is deemed to be poor, leaving those seeking opportunities after school at a disadvantage, and contributing to a desire among the young to leave.
For me, the documentary Toxification (2019) captures some of these current issues in Punjab really well, and amplifies the stories of people living there. The documentary focuses on the overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilisers in agriculture, which has depleted the soil and contaminated the water in many areas. It makes the connection between the fast-becoming dependent soil, with the drugs and opium epidemic. I’d really encourage you to hear the stories of the farmers and their families in the film.
This South Asian Heritage Month, I’ve been reflecting on my connections and heritage, and how they have been shaped by the legacy of colonialism. We all have a shared history within this context, and I’m very grateful to have been able to share some of my story and reflections, and contribute these as part of Pause’s anti-racism work.
Pause is on a journey to become an anti-racist organisation. If you want to ask us anything about our anti-racism work, contact our national team.
Some South Asian book recommendations
The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand
What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
The God of Small Things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, And the Mountains Echoed by Khalid Hosseini
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
Some film recommendations
Personal favourites: The Lunchbox (with the late, incredible Irffan Khan and Nimrat Kaur who you might recognise from Homeland), Dhanak, Viceroy’s House, Lion, Fire, Monsoon Wedding, 2023’s Polite Society, and OF COURSE… Bend it like Beckham.
Anything directed by Aamir Khan. He also stars in Laal Singh Chaddha (Bollywood’s re-make of Forrest Gump). Other films directed by him are: 3 Idiots, PK, Taare zaman par, Dangal.
If you only ever watch one Punjabi film, make it Qismat (Prime video), others are Sufna, Sardaar Udham, Jogi, Kesari and Punjab 1984.
I’m loving Sanya Malhotra at the moment, her films tend to be underrated, but great! Pataakha, Pagglait, Meenakshi Sundareshwar and Kathal are all entertaining.
Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway – based on the true story of Sagarika Bhattacharya, whose children were removed from her care (over-dramatised-Bollywood-style in places, but worth a watch!)
Bollywood’s MeToo moment (article)
BBC Sounds episode: A little more around the themes in the 2019 documentary Toxification