Herpreet Kaur Grewal
11 August 2004


I was at an Asian wedding recently where there was no alcohol and a friend sitting at the same table remarked: “I want to go to a Punjabi wedding, at least they know how to have a good time!” A Punjabi wedding is likely to have a full dance floor within the first five minutes, plenty of whisky and red meat. A typical Punjabi tends to be extrovert with a voracious appetite for the finer things in life like eating, drinking and dancing.

The Punjabi people of northern India and Pakistan trace their history to the Aryans, in one source called nomadic warriors, who settled in the region because of its fertile farmland. Whether their passionate, flaring temperament derives from martial origins or from a linkage (as in another theory) to Mediterranean cultures such as the Greek, it can be summed up in one word: kapkhana.

As a fluent Punjabi-speaker myself, gatherings like Punjabi weddings often bring kapkhana to mind. Its rough translation might be “useless noise” or “madhouse” but its practical associations go much wider than this suggests.

Kap translates directly as “noise”, khana as “compartment”. Thus, kapkhana refers to noise (and therefore nonsense) concentrated all in one place. Variations of the phrase include bakwaaskhana (talking nonsense), kothkhana (dog-nonsense; this word is particularly crude and communicates extreme disapproval). The phrase ghusselkhana describes a small, cramped enclave (hence khana) in Punjabi Indian villages where people wash. In some rural areas it could even be used to urinate in.

The way kapkhana is spoken is important. I grew up hearing my Dad say it in a throwaway manner but with an undercurrent of agitation – even anger. The word can be used to describe a situation one has lost patience with; a Punjabi-speaker who thinks someone or some people are making a song and dance about nothing may say: “what’s all this kapkhana

I’ve always liked the word and it has suited my dry but boisterous wit well at times. When my two aunts, my Dad, my uncle and I were stuck in a traffic jam in the Punjab a while back, I exclaimed: “what kapkhana this is!” My aunts laughed at my sudden outburst and asked where I had learnt that expression. I pointed at my Dad and he looked slightly sheepish but amused. The phrase was coarse but it had its own charm when a “mannerly” girl like myself used it.

The word also connotes the way in which many Punjabi males tend to talk over each other, as if they are brawling with words. (Virility means a lot to the Punjabi male and some Punjab-based rural sports prove the point; one event revolves around who can survive a tractor being driven over them). But Punjabi women can equal, even surpass, their male counterparts in tumultuous verbal exchange – among other things. Punjabi weddings sometimes witness a ritual called sithnia where someone from the mother’s (nankai) and father’s side (dhadkai) of the bride or groom’s family engage in a half-joking sparring-match over which family is superior.

At my brother’s wedding in India, this was vividly demonstrated between my quicksilver aunt who has a knack for the rapid-fire comeback and my uncle, with the booming voice, who had met his match; their encounter revealed an amazing exchange of witty energy which exemplified the vibrant, down-to-earth and often humorous feel that Punjabi culture has – although others watching may well have thought it was nothing more than kapkhana.

There is an industry of Punjabi films which are largely driven by repartee of this sort. Their language has a bounce and liveliness that infuse phrases sounding very ordinary in English with a new lease of life.

Punjabi is sometimes called a plebeian language compared to the supposedly more refined and harder-to-learn Hindi. I would disagree. Punjabi can be rough but it has its own freshness, wit and vitality – all evoked by the word kapkhana.

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