By Gurmukh Singh
VANCOUVER: When you land here at the end of the world, Punjabi signs greet you at the airport: Ji Aayan Nu. If you speak only Punjabi, there are Punjabi-speaking airport staff to guide you.
It is not uncommon to see street and market names in Punjabi in Vancouver and surrounding cities of Surrey, Richmond, Delta and Abbotsford.
Go to government offices, banks, city hall, hospitals or any public service place, and you invariably see a Punjabi signboard, saying: Asi Punjabi Bolde Haan (We speak Punjabi).
Welcome to Punjab away from Punjab.
As per the 2011 Canadian census, Punjabi is the third largest spoken language after English and French. In fact, Surrey – which has a population of about 500,000 – has the largest concentration of Punjabi-speaking people outside Punjab.
“The 2016 census will show even more Punjabi-speaking people in Canada,’’ says Balwant Sanghera, president of the Punjabi Language Education Association based on Richmond on the outskirts of Vancouver.
Sanghera adds, “There are three Punjabs – Indian Punjab, Pakistani Punjab and NRI Punjab. We are the NRI Punjab, and we are doing more than the two other Punjabs to promote the Punjabi language. In the NRI Punjab – which is spread in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the US – we Punjabis in British Columbia are in the forefront of promoting Punjabi.’’
Forget the high and elementary schools which offer Punjabi classes. Even all the universities here – the University of British Columbia, the University of the Fraser Valley , Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Simon Fraser University offer Punjabi courses.
Indeed, the roots of the Punjabi language run deep in Vancouver because it was here that the first Punjabi immigrants settled in the 1890s. It was here that the first Punjabi classes started in 1908 at Vancouver’s first Khalsa Diwan Society gurdwara. It was here that Canada’s first Punjabi newspaper – Swadesh Sewak – came out in 1910.
“Because of our joint family system, three generations of our people have stayed under roof. The elders, who could speak only Punjabi, forced their grandkids to learn this language. That’s how Punjabi got perpetuated and new generations know Punjabi so well,’’ says folklore writer and actor Gurcharan Talewalia who came to Canada in 1970.
According to Talewalia, almost all activities of the Punjabi community are woven around their mother tongue and traditions. “There are seven to eight literary associations here. There are many bhangra groups and Punjabi music academies. Then there many Punjabi radio stations… the turban tying competition, kabbadi tournaments, etc.Punjabi has benefited from these actitivies.’’
As the community has grown and its language flourished, Punjabi has the become the preferred language of employment. “Police, banks, businesses want to reach out to the fast growing Punjabi community, so they prefer to employ Punjabi-speaking people,’’ says Sanghera.
Surrey-based author-poet Mohan Gill, who founded the Kendriya Punjabi Lekak Sabha in 1986 and who is known for satire, says most of the budding Punjabi writers in Punjab who went abroad landed in Canada. “It is these immigrant writers and authors and poets who have boosted the Punjabi language in Canada. When I came here in 1977, I used to be published in India. Like me, there were others who were published in India. But in our initial struggle for survival here, we had to forget about our passion for our mother tongue. Once we established ourselves financially, we all re-started literary activities. We have over 100 published Punjabi authors here in the Vancouver area.’’
Novelist Jarnail Singh Sekha cites two other reasons in favour of the Punjabi language in Canada. “Apart from all the above reasons, I think continuing immigration from Punjab is also a major factor. It has kept replenishing the number of Punjabi speakers.’’
(This article appeared in the Times of India on June 27)