Language that doesn’t belong

It’s not just about bringing language back to life, but also exploring our diversity. We need both to grow into nation

Ayesha Siddiqa May 27, 2015
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter

The other day, I read a blog bemoaning the death of the Urdu language. The gist of the argument seems to be that Urdu had lost out to English in terms of its clientele. Consequently, there is little attention paid to its purity — how it’s spoken and the manner in which the English language has begun to dominate Urdu vocabulary. I would agree that the Urdu that is spoken today often does not even sound or look like Urdu. Courtesy the FM radio culture, one often wonders when one hears broadcasters speak these days whether they are being formal or informal. Grammar has certainly gone out of the window and no one seems to bother about correcting it.

Is this because people no longer consider Urdu as a language of mobility? The more affluent middle-middle and upper-middle classes increasingly have a propensity towards English. However, mobility is relative. In certain areas, Urdu is still considered a language of social mobility. For instance, I have come across many upwardly mobile middle class Seraiki families which choose to speak with their children in Urdu rather than in Seraiki. This is what Punjabis had done many years ago with their generations.

But referring to the complaint that no one seems to bother about the ‘correctness’ of the language: this is the very issue that made Urdu foreign for many people who adopted it as a language for communication. I personally think that the use of correct grammar and proper pronunciation feels good, but the manner in which at least a generation of non-Urdu speaking Pakistanis were ridiculed for their pronunciation or reminded that they were uncouth because they couldn’t speak properly did not really befriend people to the language. Today, Urdu is lingua franca but not a national language. People speak it but don’t necessarily bother protecting it because it does not belong to them and they never had a sense of its ownership.

Perhaps, the reason for this is that Urdu fell victim to the politics created around it by those who considered themselves to be the owners of the language. The significance and sanctity of language as part of an individual and peoples’ identity was lost on Pakistan’s policymakers. Muhammad Ali Jinnah tried to create a religious identity as a formula for nationhood but this lacked a consensus on language. No one seems to have ever noticed the significance of Muhammad Ali Jinnah having to leave the Dhaka University convocation due to students’ protest on his declaration that ‘Urdu, and only Urdu will be the state language’. So, the following generations of the policymaking elite did adopt Urdu as a tool for mobility but without necessarily a sense of ownership. When English became significant as a new stepping-stone towards success, Urdu was happily abandoned. Moreover, the politics of language created in the early days resulted in some of the linguistic cultures protecting their identities more vehemently which did not serve the interest of the Urdu language. People spoke it but didn’t adopt it.

With time, the reading and writing of Urdu, especially amongst the power elite or the upwardly mobile, became problematic. I remember writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi narrating how he would do story-telling in elite English-medium schools in Urdu to excite children. However, when these children wanted to buy any storybooks in Urdu they were strongly discouraged by their parents. Last year, one of the finest Montessori schools in Islamabad — Mazmoon-e-Shauq — shut down for good mainly because it was bilingual and parents were keener for their children to speak English. We may come across some political statements here and there reminding governments to attend to the preservation of Urdu but then no one really cares. It’s not just the government but the people as well.

Some tend to blame the fate of Urdu on inner tensions with other national languages. But it wasn’t that the Sindhis, the Baloch or the Pakhtun were narrow-minded and guarded their languages (not including Punjabis because they were all too keen to sacrifice linguistic identity and culture in the early years of independence). These people became more conscious of their linguistic and cultural ethos, especially when they were constantly reminded of being the ‘outsiders’. This continues to be the case. I look at the propagation of the type of Urdu literature in modern times as reflective of the older politics of Urdu and Urdu-speakers’ superiority versus the perceived inferiority of the native.

Then there are other dimensions of this politics. The writer of the blog on ‘death of Urdu’ that I referred to earlier talked about how people did not really read Urdu literature or understand its meaning. So, people read Manto like they recite or sing Faiz without allowing the language to get under their skin. But can we look at how restrictive Urdu literature’s publicity has been in the past couple of decades? For the upper-middle class youth, the main window to Urdu literature is through literature festivals. Not only is the proportion of time given to Urdu or other national languages abysmal, the debate on Urdu is limited to a few authors. For example, feminism in Urdu fiction seems limited to Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed. And did Urdu not produce any fiction writers other than Intizar Hussain? Or did Urdu poetry end with Faiz Ahmed Faiz? Indubitably, these are great names and amazing authors. However, the almost deliberate silence about the constellation of great fiction writers, poets and literary critics who were once ‘talk of the town’ is uncanny. Repeatedly listening to the same set of authors at every literature festival, the youth may not even realise the noticeable array of prominent writers in Urdu literature. Once upon a time the number of credible female writers was noticeable. Sadly, now, no one mentions or even knows them. The rich literature definitely extended beyond just the themes of Partition or General Zia’s rule. There are works that will certainly open eyes even to the pain and politics of 1971.

It’s not just a matter of bringing a language back to life, but also exploring our diversity. We need both to grow into a nation.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th,  2015.

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Javed Iqbal | 6 years ago | Reply Sabi says ‘Bengalis had unfair demand and Jinnah was a bold and wise man to dismiss it.’ Thus have no option other than to apart away from us along with our boldness and uprightness.
R | 6 years ago | Reply English is the language of globalization. Pakistanis should enter the 21st century and adopt English.
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