Speaking imperfectly among the perfect

Not once did anyone in my class think it was all right to be “bad” at Urdu - Urdu is very much here to stay.

Meiryum Ali October 25, 2011
She said “core”. Not “choir” but “core”. The person she said it to was perplexed for a minute, before it dawned on them that the word “choir” had been mangled. As the story made the rounds in school, for a little while, everyone listened, chuckled and was amused by the girl who said core not choir.

It was an easy enough mistake to make in a country where English is not a first language for many. It was cruel and mean-spirited to make fun of that girl. Some people would argue that they were just school kids. But would you have had the same reaction if she had mangled a word of Urdu? Would you have found it mean and cruel, or would you have been dismissive, been under the impression that it served her right, that she should have known how to pronounce her national language?

I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to why people react differently to Urdu and English. For a while, I believed the usual complaints of the crowd, that Urdu was dying out, that English was a sign of upward mobility, that provincial languages should be given more importance. Some people welcome the change: people like to give examples about how Urdu is a forced language. And then there is the classic, ‘Look what happened when we threw Urdu at East Pakistan’ argument.

I welcomed the change, came to a conclusion that kids now mix and match Urdu and English as they please, a curious Minglish, if you like. Aren’t languages living entities that are subject to change? And then, some people can’t bear that change. Purists argue the death of a poetic language, dismiss Minglish as fad of this generation only. Whatever will become of Urdu, they moan.

But I have something to say to all the naysayers, to all the people who would take the example of the choir girl and use it to say, “Look. This is what English-speaking children of Pakistan are like.” I say, dream on. Urdu isn’t going anywhere. Neither is English. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. It’s about the stigma of mangling your words and not being able to speak a language properly, whether it is English, Urdu or Swahili. And here, in Pakistan, perfection in a language is demanded.

The first time I opened an Urdu book I was nine years old. I had never lived in Pakistan before that age, and so while I could speak Urdu, I couldn’t write or read it. Noon ghunnas, do chashmay hay, and jeems danced before my eyes. The boy next to me in class could read Iqbal’ s poems, I had trouble between seen and swaad.

This wasn’t that much of an issue - I got through Urdu and people around me seemed more concerned with the A in English, in any case. But never, not even when at 16 I bid farewell to academic Urdu in my last exam of the subject, did I for once underestimate Urdu. Not for once did anyone in my class think it was all right to be “bad” at Urdu. Any boy or girl who passed comments like that was not ostracised but a certain amount of disrespect was handed to them, even in Class 4.

Around us, adults raged conversations, pitied the state of Urdu education, wondered whether to curtail English. Among the kids though, the one who participated in Urdu elocutions and bagged the Bait-Baazi trophy, it was all that more special and appreciated.

This is not a competition between English and Urdu - the English debater is just as praised as the Urdu poet. I mean that young adults value someone who can speak a language well. For some reason, we look towards people who can speak well, whose fluency isn't bogged down by questions of identity and complexes and education. As childish as making fun of choir girl is, the people who did it would do the exact same thing if she had mangled an Urdu word. They would do it because they’ve been taught that the only way to speak a language is the correct way. These are the kids who have no biased attitudes to languages, because they aren't as self conscious as their parents. By the time they turn 18, they’re already fluent in both, or becoming fluent. They don’t invest emotion into a language: they treat it as it is, something to be spoken correctly. And that makes all the difference.
Meiryum Ali A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Shehroze Ameen | 12 years ago | Reply Dear Ms. Meiryum Ali, I'm sorry for writing this particular reply after so long. I also would like to apologize if I present myself sentimentally, or obnoxiously, but when I read your particular article referring to why Pakistan has amalgamated english as a language and also writing of burger-puris (a term with which I don't agree with, but that is my opinion and I don't mean to be superimposing) I was happy and at the same time, remarkably impressed - it was very thoughtful. Of course I am posting this at random so I'll specify the title - "Why saying 'Scene On Hai' is more important than you think", Islamabad section of Pakistan Tribune, Published 26th July 2011. I didn't give it that much thought until I re-read it a second time around 6th of November, a day before eid. I found that your right, the sheer fact that we are resorting to a hybridized urdu-english (engdu from this point onwards) is no doubt a dilemma which we the youth can relate with very well. I smiled, because it reminded me of an age when the English masters, hoping to overwhelm the Russians during the great war, found it compulsory to understand the local languages. And in the process we actually find more words of Urdu and Pushtu and Persian in the English language as we would in Urdu or any local languages and thus we do find that this bridge between ourselves and the societies abroad constituting Pakistanis abroad - derogatively speaking, "Pakis" - are able to relate more with society. Engdu isn't that bad in my view - I don't always personally condone it, but always I have found that in explanations, you can get your point through with it here at least - like explaining to a taxi driver in islamabad, in my case. technically, these languages didn't absorb it so much as grammatically... conform with it. Like that sentence "Dude, chup kar" or as I find myself saying, "Moray, when are we leaving" or even "We'll be having (dish)" where the dish is always in the form of a Punjabi or Urdu or even an Arabic name generally speaking, although the affluent would definitely mention a foreign dish every now and then. and the same for England. Words like "thug", "blighty" which is vality, "Jodhpur", "Juggernaut" from the Hindi, "Loot" literally from the Urdu word we use so openly - lootna - and a word we see so often it would shock us into hearing it - "Shampoo"!!! I was checking these words on Wikipedia, so I could be wrong about their origins - it is an open-source encyclopedia so we should be careful about these words. Here's the link just in case: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ListofEnglishwordsofHindiorUrduorigin Apart from that... Your article concluded very well. I did think to myself what I wanted to do with myself when I graduate. I am a dual nationality - personally my bonds are stronger with the EU Passport, of course I saw a mention of the dual nationality dilemma of Pakistanis in your blog as well but again, I am not here to argue over your thoughts and rather personally prefer to hear your views and do my utmost to learn something from them and hopefully be a better person from them - and inevitably I will have to come back. I grew up here, I was educated here, and I shall graduate from here too; My parents are from here (1st generation) and my grandparents also spent a long time here in Pakistan; so at the end I will have to keep a strong link with where I grew up no matter how indifferent I may be to Pakistanis - at least enough that I give it a good name. Not a Faisal Shahzad, but rather a Tariq Amin or Riz Khan, or Aisam-ul-Haq - people who at the very least are honest and represent all those values I support in the Irish (where I was born and raised for the first three months of my life) and indeed are here in Pakistan only that community deterioration is to blame for it not being given so much prominence. Well, I've spoken what I meant to say. I do hope that you found this particular reply representative and I sincerely hope that you respond whenever you have time and are not burdened by exams or university work. I humbly await your response, hoping that I have provided a suitable response to your particular post on the Islamabad section of Pakistan Tribune Regards, Shehroze Ameen BS Virology & Immunology (2010-2014) NUST Center of Virology & Immunology National University of Science & Technology H-12, Islamabad
Dibs | 12 years ago | Reply "Noon ghunnas, do chashmay hay, and jeems danced before my eyes." <3 Great article :)
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