If Machiavelli wrote The Prince in present-day Pakistan, an additional chapter in the book would be titled: Learn local languages before leading your party.
To groom the party’s current chairperson, who’s spent most of his life abroad, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leaders and workers have been asked to speak in Urdu and Sindhi with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Bilawal, who recently graduated from Oxford University and lists English as his first language, is not the first Bhutto with limited grasp over local languages. His mother, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also went to Oxford and learnt Urdu and Sindhi as secondary languages before taking over the party reins.
“Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter were fluent in Urdu … but they had grammatical issues, and the accents were not clear,” said Dr Ghulam Hussain, a close associate of Zulfikar. “You cannot imagine Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s aptitude for languages. He learnt Sindhi and Urdu in a very short span of time,” Dr Hussain added.
Despite hailing from a Sindhi-speaking family, Bhutto’s command over his native language was initially non-existent.
“The Bhutto family was immersed in Sindhi culture, but since his mother, Khursheed Begum, was not Sindhi speaking, he did not learn Sindhi during his childhood,” said Dr Hussain.
‘Mein suni hoon’
His eldest daughter, Benazir, followed in her father’s footsteps – not just to Oxford, but also in her limited grasp of Urdu and Sindhi.
“The first time I saw Benazir interacting in Urdu and Sindhi was with her household help at 70 Clifton, after she completed her education and returned from aboard,” said Munawar Ali Abbasi, PPP provincial minister from Larkana.
“The maids were making fun of her pronunciations – Benazir said “mein suni hoon” [I have heard] instead of “mainay suna hay,” Abbasi added.
Sindhi, in English
The imperative for learning the local languages came after Benazir returned from exile in 1986, when she came into direct interaction with the people.
“I remember the initial days when we visited a village near Dadu, and Benazir was trying to speak in Sindhi with the locals,” said Shamim Ara Panhwar, a party office-bearer.
“Her Sindhi skills were almost non-existent. It was difficult for the locals to understand her Sindhi, with an English accent. She tried to speak Urdu but ended up using English words,” Panhwar added. “After that, she strictly asked us to speak to her in Sindhi, to learn the language,” Panhwar said.
Ama teaches Benazir
“Benazir learnt Urdu and Sindhi from a maid at home, whom everyone called ‘Ama,’” said former PPP activist Nuzhat Pathan. Initially, Benazir wrote her speeches in English and would deliver them in Urdu, but later she started writing them in roman Urdu, Pathan added.
The first time Benazir wrote her speech in Sindhi was at the death anniversary of her father in 1988, Panhwar added.
Interestingly, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, was fluent in Urdu and Sindhi, while Ghinwa, Benazir’s sister-in-law of Syrian-Lebanese origin, also learnt both the languages.
Bilawal started learning Urdu and Sindhi after the death of his grandmother Nusrat. The party, however, is considering hiring a tutor for him, so he can master both the languages as soon as possible.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2011.