What proverbs say

Proverbs come with their own diction.

Intezar Hussain June 03, 2011

I have come across a collection of Urdu proverbs. Muhammad Zaman Khan, a lawyer by profession, has compiled it – a labour of love. He has also published it on his own.

In the first of two sections of the book Urdu proverbs appear along with English proverbs of similar content. The second, more voluminous, part has just Urdu proverbs.

I found the collected proverbs an interesting read but every so often wondered whether or not the proverb had been accurately reported. In the foreword, which I read later, there was this explanation: “It is hoped that the readers will notice the effort that has been made, as far possible, to rephrase most of the Urdu proverbs to broaden their scope.”

The statement turned me off. In fact, it reminded me of the famous proverb about the goat milk coming with dung in it. Having done a great job, he has gone on to ruin it. Proverbs are like verse. If you are tempted to rephrase them, you will end up spoiling them.

Proverbs come with their own diction. So many refer to an ancient tool or profession which has long ceased to be a thing of everyday use but which still amuse and enlighten us.

What’s a proverb? It is an unbelievably apt expression of an experience shared by a people. It has a conciseness and comprehensiveness about it that makes it as enjoyable as poetry and a luminous wisdom comparable to choice quotes from sages. Of course, there is no telling who authored a particular proverb. In that respect proverbs are like folk poetry. The collective creative conscious of a people plays on the shared human experience to come up with expressions that are then entrusted to the collective memory. These nuggets are then passed on from a generation to the next and we no longer need to hone or polish them further at the individual level. The collective creativity of society takes care of it.

So what is the significance of similar proverbs occurring in English? What it shows us is that despite being divided into nations, tribes, clans and families for eons and being separated by huge distances, humans are essentially the same people. Their efforts and experiences are so alike, their desires and longings and their frustrations and fears so similar that their expressions too have to be greatly similar.

Differences of language and culture, of geography and history, make them sound different but every now and then we come across something that shows us that what we had long believed to have been an expression produced by our unique social environment has had a parallel in a far off land.

This is a feeling akin to that produced by reading folk tales from other lands. Thousands of miles away, in a land that looks nothing like ours, inhabited by a different race, in a society that evolved in entirely different ways, we learn, children are told a tale we remember having heard from our own grandmothers. As Saadi has observed, despite their differences, their historic disputes and their bloody feuds, mankind is one big family.

*Translated from Urdu

Published in The Express Tribune, June 3rd, 2011.


Deb | 10 years ago | Reply

Very interesting and thought proviking observation.

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