Recovery of native cultures | Literacy

never met Dr. Manzur Ejaz. I’ve seen him every week for two years.

On the other side of my laptop screen, the scenery behind him has not changed, only his outfit turns, between Virginia cold and summer heat, while we decipher Heer Waris Shah week after week, verse by verse. The gleaming white walls with large windows and the ceiling fan behind it seem as enduring as Heer’s heartache and Ranjha’s devotion. With his heavy central Punjabi accent and monotonous voice, he recites the epic romance of Waris Shah, devoting time and thought to every word, gushing with his beauty and the genius of the poet. He rarely smiles, but when he does, it’s because of the impossible beauty of the scenario he tries to reveal to his students.

Dr. Manzur Ejaz, one of the leading scholars of the Punjabi language and a prolific writer, is an authority on the history, language and culture of Punjab. At the start of the pandemic, he co-founded Meluha Punjabi University Online, a business that has endured beyond lockdowns and integrated into the enduring world of Zoom courses. Apart from being a prolific writer and translator, an economist and the pioneer of Wichaar publications and Wichaar webcasting, he is a long-time campaigner for the promotion of the Punjabi language.

There are no prerequisites for Dr. Ejaz courses which range from History and Philosophy of Punjab or Wichardhaara at literature, classical and modern poetry and sociological and religious evolution. Its students include Punjabi immigrants from the American, British and Canadian subcontinent. There are Sikhs and Muslims; retirees and professionals. The only requirement is a passion and commitment to explore the endless possibilities of what Punjab has to offer.

“No object is in constant relation to pleasure,” said French theorist Roland Barthes. “For the writer, however, it is the mother tongue.” The Punjabi language is non-territorial in Dr. Ejaz’s Zoom world. It’s fluid. Punjabiyat encompasses both the regional and the spiritual – from Guru Nanak’s journey of salvation to Bulleh Shah’s non-conformity to the aspirations of Shiv Kumar Batalvi. Expect the unexpected at one of the many Zoom meetings where students wait for Dr. Ejaz to shed light on uncharted worlds and situations. He says this is because the Punjabi language has not enjoyed regular academic investigation and its educational value has been undermined, despite being spoken by a large number of people around the world.

With his heavy central Punjabi accent and monotonous voice, he recites the epic romance of Waris Shah, devoting time and thought to every word, gushing with his beauty and the genius of the poet..

Meluha Online University is a misnomer. It challenges traditional associations with learning, becoming a safe space to challenge long-established ideas. It’s not even a platform to promote a parochial understanding of identity politics. There is no place for bigotry and chances are you will be snubbed if your opinions or knowledge are not nuanced or educated. Dr. Ejaz expects more from his students, whom he sees as a continuation of tradition and not mere transmitters of facts. It respects research and empirical evidence.

Unlike some open-access social media spaces, Dr. Ejaz’s courses allow for frank discussion of the text, but without unnecessary digressions or desperate correlations. Things quickly jump from Takht Hazara, Ranjha’s home village which he abandons for Heer, to Dr. Ejaz’s own village in Sahiwal. Everyone jumps in and a concoction of stories from Ludhiana to Amritsar and Lahore to Jhang is being built.

Now 70, Dr Ejaz has witnessed the ebbs and flows of the political and ideological landscape of Punjab. A meeting with him can give access to anecdotes about legends like Munir Niazi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Madame Noor Jehan and the melodies of Baray Ghulam Ali that he experienced in person. He is also well versed in the other literary traditions of Punjab and the subcontinent, adding Ghalib as an accompaniment to Waris Shah.

Anyone with even a little interest in language and culture should read his Punjabi books and those he has translated into English. His last translation Shahmukhi by Stephen Hawking A brief history of time empowers and enables access to one of the phenomenal texts of modern physics.

Punjabi Adabi Sangat, a weekly online meeting, designed as a space for young and new Punjabi writers to showcase their work, is co-led by Dr. Ejaz. It is not, he often repeats, a space where people receive hugs. Rather, it should serve as a platform where literary works are critically analyzed and freely examined without fear of judgment and unpleasant engagement. He has no patience for oversimplification of the text or naïve interpretation. Each poet and writer, he often suggests, must be appreciated for their distinctive style before being assigned categories.

Waris Nama: Heer Waris Shah Explain, a 2009 book, is undoubtedly one of his most important contributions. While pop culture sticks to Romeo-Juliet style interpretations, Dr. Ejaz’s work shatters that perception. Waris Shah’s 600+ stanzas of epic romance, he says, are just not a romance. Often, students in his class are impressed by the unexpected – the socio-political depth of Waris Shah’s words. He pushes the boundaries further by invoking the feminism of Heer’s entourage as she prepares to meet Ranjha la Jogi; or Ranjha’s scathing critique of organized religion in his altercation with the mullah; or the esotericism of to jog that blurs religious boundaries; and the collectivism of a caste-centred agricultural society.

In a global consideration of reclaiming Indigenous cultures, Dr. Ejaz’s continued service is a testament that the struggle is worth it – not only to reclaim the past, but also to define a more inclusive future.

The writer is a US-based freelancer. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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