The daughter’s case
Nonika Singh

Punjab is a readymade topic for researchers," quips academician author, a lecturer in development studies, University of Manchester. Documenting the obsession of Punjabis with a male child in a book titled Son Preference, this proud Punjaban is dismayed with the social inequalities that criss cross the social fabric of the state. "When it comes to social equilibrium, Punjab is a total disgrace", she says.

Dr Navtej K. Purewal
Dr Navtej K. Purewal has refrained from employing stereotypes in her new book Son Preference.
Photo: Pravesh Chauhan

Born and brought up in the US, studying Punjab wasn’t a natural choice for Purewal. Till the early 1990s it didn’t even blink on her radar. It was only when she co-authored Teach yourself Panjabi with her father-in-law Surjit Singh Kalra, a well-known Punjabi writer, and did her doctoral thesis on Amritsar (it later became a book — Living On The Margins) that she became aware of the strong currents of Punjabiyat in her being.

Today, as Teach yourself Panjabi is a ready reference textbook in several foreign universities and she has just wound up a one-year teaching stint at Lahore, she talks enthusiastically not only about one but three Punjabs. She smiles and says, "Indeed, the students in Lahore for whom I took a course in Language, Culture and History of Punjab, too, were tickled by this assertion." The three Punjabs she is referring to include, besides West and East Punjab, the one represented by the Punjabi diaspora. All three, she admits, are different yet enjoined by the shared culture.

But hasn’t Pakistan denied this collective legacy all along?

She nods but explains: "In India we see things as per the a one-nation theory. But Pakistan views the same from a two-nation angle. But Punjab transcends this divide".

Thus it is but natural that she feels as comfortable soaking in the opinions of young girls in schools across Chandigarh as taking music lessons from exponents of Talwandi gharana in Lahore.

The rababi tradition started by Guru Nanak Dev is as Punjabi as it can be. Without hesitation, she hails Bhai Gulam Mohammad Chand, the descendant of Bhai Mardana and torchbearer of the rababi tradition, as a miracle as well as the "love of her life."

On a sad note, however, she observes, "His life is a tragedy. Imagine for 60 years the circumstances in Pakistan prevented him from rendering Gurbani. Recently when he visited India, he was denied permission to recite Gurbani at the Golden Temple even though his forefathers had done so. Yet he remembers each and every shabd and sings it in the inimitable traditional style."

With 30 hours of his interview on record and video footage spanning several hours, she intends to write a book on him or may be produce a documentary film as the rababi tradition is on the verge of extinction.

But what prompted her to record the "status" of aborted female foetuses?

First things first, she would rather dwell upon the alive and the living and not on some "missing daughters" phenomenon. Abhorring jargon like ‘save the girl child’, in her soon to be launched book Son Preference, she has refrained from employing stereotypes, something that western research unabashedly endorses. Cheesed off by the book— May you be the mother of 100 sons — and the blinkered western perspective she decided to undo the damage. "It isn’t as if I am setting the record straight, only pointing out another way of looking at things".

Her book may be an academic exercise. But written in a story-telling style, "the idea", she insists, "is to make it accessible as well as readable." So, she weaves in autobiographical accounts of how a PNDT official in Punjab growled at her, her take on the Nawanshahr model and animated interface with young girls who have definite views on gender prejudices, including son preference. She asserts, "The problem with social activism in Punjab is that there is no grassroots movement. All of it is driven by government-led campaigns, hence it is not as effective as it would be if women picked up the cudgels and had men on board".

The book, which is likely to ruffle many feathers, especially of researchers in the West whose rigid mindset she has questioned point-blank, she hopes, will have some impact.

Whether writers can be the agents of change or not, she can already sense winds of change among the young generation of Punjabi girls.

And this Punjaban, who while traversing the continents finds her moorings in her Punjabi identity, is determined to be a moderator between different Punjabs as well as between tradition and change.