There was a law in our primary school. Anyone who spoke in Urdu was fined Rs 5. Teacher's pets would sniff around the entire day smelling for potential culprits. We were expected to speak only in English; we were enrolled, after all, at an English-medium school. Our administration didn't have to worry much about students speaking in Punjabi. The one out of a hundred who would dare to do this was immediately ridiculed by all the students and he would never dare to speak that language in school. We adopted that attitude and even in our O and A Level exams we considered Urdu a secondary subject which didn't require serious attention as much as English or Physics. The result today is that most of us have adopted English as our first language, in which we feel most comfortable conversing, verbally and in writing. For most of us trained at such institutions, even recalling the complete alphabet of Urdu is a marvelous feat. Most of us can't speak Punjabi. Today we dominate the political, social, economic, and business circles of Pakistan. We are "the cream", as we were told again and again at school (in English).
And yet, despite my access to these avenues of privilege, all related to my knowledge of this language, I am an alien in my own land, estranged from what I am suppose to represent internally and externally.
Today if I happen to sit in a public transport vehicle or at a truck dhaba I fail to communicate with the people around me. These are the people we refer to (in English) as "the masses" or, as a lot of people now like to say, the real Pakistan. I fail to appreciate their jokes, their music, their movies, etc. and they mine. Most of these people have never read the articles I have written. The only thing that we have in common is the green Pakistani national identity card. It makes me wonder about the futility of representing them and documenting for them the various aspects of our society in a medium which evades them.
This introspection began a few days ago while I was talking to a friend of mine, Iqbal Qaiser, the author of Historical Sikh Shrines of Pakistan. He told me that the famous 17th century Punjabi poet, Sultan Bahu, was adept in Persian, the English of that time, and wrote over 100 books in the language. However, today if his name is alive it is basically because of a poem that he wrote in Punjabi, Se Harfi. The reason for that is the language used in it. It came from the people, talked about them, and in a language that they understood. The people in turn rewarded him by keeping him alive forever. The same can be said about Baba Farid Shakar Ganj, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah, and many more. All of these Sufi saints were learned in the Englishes of their time, which were Persian and Arabic, but they adopted Punjabi because they realized that if they were to connect with the struggles of the people they would have to take up their language. Persian at the time was the official language of India. The struggles of the masses were against the Persian-speaking state functionaries. It would therefore have been ironical to use Persian, which was one of the mediums of oppression.
English today in Pakistan has acquired the status of what Persian did for centuries. It was brought by imperialist rulers and was used as a medium of subjugation. Being well-versed in English meant material progress, whereas knowledge of Persian, Arabic, or any other language receded to the status of unimportant 'vernacluars'. In present-day Pakistan one notices a similar trend. Writers in English newspapers are paid better than their Urdu counterpart (Writers in Punjabi newspapers don't get anything.) Knowledge in English opens all avenues, which cannot be said about the other languages. The problem here is not learning English, but embracing English at the cost of all the other languages, especially the mother tongue. This repudiation of a particular language is just not jettisoning a language but an entire culture and an entire section of the population that comes with it. For someone to understand the Punjabi culture it is important to read Waris Shah, Guru Nanak and Baba Bulleh Shah's poetry. However, for the elite of this province, which finds it difficult to communicate in this language, pleading for a case for them to understand these is a far cry.
During the days of Persian dominance there was a famous folk proverb in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that epitomizes the resentment of the masses against the elites:
Rajia didh farsi bole
A satisfied stomach speaks in Persian
There is a famous folk story in Punjabi which still a lot of old people from rural areas recall. This is situated in the Gujrat region of present-day Pakistan at some time during the Mughal era. A young boy traveled from his house to get higher education. Naturally all his education was in Persian. Like any other educated boy of today, he repudiated his mother tongue and only conversed in the language of the elites. Once he fell sick and his mother was taking caring of him. In his state he kept sayingaab aab. However, the mother being an uneducated woman didn't know what he was asking for. Saying aab aab, the boy died. Later the mother found out that aab in Persian is water. Wailing over the dead body of her son, she said the following verse:
Aab aab kar moiyon bachra
Farsiyan ghar gale
Je jana pani mangda
Bhar bhar dendi payale
Oh my son you died saying aab aab
This Persian has destroyed houses
If I had known that my son has been asking for water
I would have served vessels of water
The example of Sultan Bahu sent me into a reverie. I could write 100 books in English, and yet after my death no one would remember me because I never belonged to my people?
This article was originally published in The Friday Times