Round the year, we do things that we like, yet there remains a need for a dedicated day to celebrate a cause or express our love and admiration for languages. Here we have February 21 as the World Mother Language Day, an occasion to reflect, flip over the wisdom-filled pages of books written in our respective mother tongues, sadly enough, whose alphabets have become alien to most of us. I, for one, believe the state-run media is largely to blame for first carving and then perpetuating the narrative of, as it were, ‘one nation’ that could accommodate only one language in its fold.
Professor Henry Higgins, a phonetician in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, could identify people down to their streets in London based on how they spoke. I doubt if he could have identified people acting or speaking on Pakistan Television Network and Radio Pakistan until the year 2002 when the field was opened up for private ownership. The accents and even names of individuals for the most part were origin-neutral. As a result, only those with ‘immaculate’ Urdu could perform on these channels.
There were sporadic efforts at breaking this mould. The famous TV play “Waris” deviated from the entrenched norm and its script, to suit the plot, was set in the Punjabi heartland allowing for Punjabi-ised Urdu. The characters’ ‘faulty’ accents raised many an eyebrow in the corridors of broadcast. But the audience felt as if the drama had been shot next door. But such exceptions were few.
Tariq Aziz of “Neelam Ghar” fame was once asked which city he comes from. We had to hear a long-winded answer which ran thus: I live in Punjab, have married in (then) Frontier, worked in Sindh, love Balochistan, hence Pakistan is the name of my city. Iss mulk kay saaray shehr meray shehr hain, he had said. This was how our ancestors in their wisdom set out to form a homogenous identity. A failed and flawed attempt at forging a new identity negating the already existing ones. We were reduced to half (geographically) but insisted on maintaining ‘one identity’.
The transmissions in the national languages on state-owned entities (famously called local or regional languages) were of short durations and aired at such times when few would watch or listen. Cultures and languages of the people became a threat to the country or so its rulers thought. The famous Punjabi poet, Ustad Daman, was labelled a traitor. He was as much a patriot as anyone could possibly be but the powers that be thought he had chosen a ‘wrong’ medium to express himself in. Punjab subscribed to this ‘narrative’ more than any other ethnic entity. It continues to do so even today. Mothers are reluctant to converse with their children in Punjabi for fear of spoiling their ‘accent’. Schools have chosen to ignore it for being a ‘rustic’ language.
Post-2002, private televisions channels and radio stations have gone on to employ ‘national’ languages and those shows which do so are very popular. Language is no longer sacrosanct. Hybridisation is the order of the day. The accent is no issue either. February 21 offers us an opportunity to expand the ‘narrow’ definition of a nation, ask ourselves certain questions. Do multiple languages pose any threat to the ‘one-ness’ of any nation-state? And does one language by itself guarantee a strong state? Multiple languages have not punctured the ‘one-nation’ tube. We still remain who we are — only with better communication.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st, 2015.