The rest of the country has moved on but Punjab has become a prisoner of its boisterous old stereotype. It has forgotten its entrepreneurial energy, its competitive spirit and slipped into a complacent, decadent trance of perpetual balle-balle.
It can break your heart to tell the story of the terminal decline of a state you so love, where you grew up and then cut your teeth as a reporter. But you also can’t overlook the dire writings on the wall as Punjab approaches the polling date for its 13 Lok Sabha seats. Particularly if you can read the two languages, Punjabi and English, as written here. Punjabi, because what should be India’s most globalised state is actually trapped in the politics of localitis. If you’re blindfolded and left in a street here, you might find it impossible to say where you were, unless you were able to read Punjabi (in its Gurmukhi script). The Punjabification of the state’s walls, signboards, milestones, is now total. But you might still have a chance if you spotted something written in English, even if it is the name of a restaurant, bar or banquet hall.
You will take a minute figuring out what the “burgars” and “nudles” painted on so many fast-food shops mean, or why Lily is always spelt “Lilly”, whether it be the name of a restaurant in Phagwara or a beauty parlour in Bathinda. Or what a prominent, old and serious bookshop in Bathinda, such a famed centre of “learning”, means when its signboard lists “fictions” and children’s books along with military history as its most important offering. If you haven’t figured out already that this, indeed, is Singh’s English and you must be in Punjab (disclosure: I passed my class VI in Bathinda’s Mahavir Sanatan Dharam Public School in 1966 and, to that extent, my formal education too was “via Bathinda”, literally, if not metaphorically), look for other pointers. Which other state would offer you a highway restaurant called Burger Girl? That in a state which snaps viciously at its neighbour Haryana’s heels for the worst female/male ratio (Punjab’s 895 to Haryana’s 879 in the 2011 Census).
There are three ways to understand the gradient and pace of Punjab’s slide. One, just the plain figures and statistics. You ask any Indian to name the richest state in the country. Chances are that the answer will be Punjab. Which was true for decades. But now it is the fifth, after Haryana, Maharashtra and, of course, mini-states like Goa and Delhi. Its school dropout rate is among the highest in continued…