Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Transgressions: Book Review

July 14, 2020

Anjum Altaf, Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz.
Delhi: Aakar Books, 2019; Karachi: Liberty Books, 2020.

Transgressions, by Anjum Altaf, is a book of poetry that is a comment on the nature of translation more than anything else. This commentary is made all the more poignant since the book is not a work of translation in the first place, but is rather reflections on the poetry of the late, great master of Urdu poetry, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Described on its cover as a book of ‘Poems inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz,’ Anjum takes on the task of picking different poems by Faiz, and writing poetry inspired by those poems. He insists, and correctly so, that these are not translations. Instead, it is a very humble offering. The act of making another poet your muse is not just rare, but also a nod and an acknowledgement towards the greatness of the poet of inspiration.

This is, of course, not an unheard of exercise, the Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova famously wrote about literature, including haunting poems titled ‘Reading Hamlet’ and ‘Dante.’ Her poetry was also inspired by the literature of another language, since she was also a Russian poet, and perhaps the only poet capable of rivaling the great Pushkin. Others have written poetry in which they have borrowed lines from the old masters, including Iqbal.

Recently, the second collection of poetry by upcoming Pakistani poet Afshan Shafi titled ‘Quiet Women’ featured a poem titled ‘Buried Amongst Flowers in Pakistan,’ a piece brilliant composed entirely of verses from Rumi, Browning and Nabokov. But what Anjum Altaf manages to do is one by one pick poems, and systematically presents his reflections on them in poetic meter.

A career academic whose discipline is economics but true love is literature, a subject he has read deeply and with great care, there is a hint of academia in how Transgressions is structured. However, it is clearly a work of heart, soul, and respect. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was the last great Urdu poet, or at least the last great, era defining Urdu poet. The strength of his words, however, was international. Edward Said in his essay Reflections on Exile, describes an evening where himself, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the late Pakistani intellectual giant Eqbal Ahmed sat in a cafe in Beirut and recited Urdu poetry. Said writes that “After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating the verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on, it did not matter. What I watched required no translation.”

This goes to the core of Anjum Altaf’s book of poetry. Faiz’s words do not require translation at times, their strength and musicality going beyond language, and thus beyond translation. Translating Faiz might be futile and purposeless, at least trying to translate the poetry might be. Because while the meaning is there, the flow of the words can only be felt in Urdu. This is where, perhaps, Anjum Altaf manages a bold stroke quite prudently. If one is to grapple with Faiz in English, it might as well be in the form of honouring his poems and reflecting on them in the poetic meter instead of in the form of an essay.

It is also a little strange for a poet to publish an entire uniform collection meant to be printed as such with a singular theme. The most famous work of such a nature is perhaps Pable Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor (100 Love Sonnets). It is even more strange for the entire collection to be dedicated to the work of another poet. But Anjum Altaf manages to make it an honest tribute.

Even the title, Transgressions, seems respectful in nature. Almost as if Altaf is afraid he is transgressing by commenting in a way upon the work of Faiz, and that too in English. But his poems manage to capture some of the essence of Faiz despite being in English. It reflects exile and hope simultaneously. It is a book of poetry that stands on its own merits, but most of all is an important read for any fan and scholar of Faiz, particularly since it is such a unique concept. Translations are a dime a dozen and a google search away, but this collection has a heart and a soul.

This review was published in Pakistan Today on June 4, 2020. Abdullah Niazi is a member of the newspaper’s staff and is currently studying Literature at LUMS.

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The City From Here

June 4, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

The amazing thing about Faiz Ahmed Faiz is that you can never leave him behind. Witness how he emerged in the midst of the recent protests in India with ‘hum dekhenge’ being sung in half a dozen languages to the point where flummoxed authorities were forced to treat a man, dead for a good 35 years, as a threat to national security.

These days the title of one of his poems, ‘yahan se sheher ko dekho’ (Look at the City from Here) has gotten into my head and is driving me insane. That is because, if you think about it, the ‘here’ in the title can blow your world apart. What it is telling you is that the city looks different from ‘here’ than it does from ‘there.’ And, knowing that can forever change the way you look at your city.

I was recently part of a panel where the participants laid a lot of stress on Faiz as the poet par excellence of hope. Personally, I don’t relate to that as the lasting value of Faiz’s poetry; to me his major gift is that of awareness. Once again, the ‘here’ and ‘there’ have salience. Faiz in the twilight of one’s life works his magic differently than he did on first encounter with someone leaving his teens behind. Coming across ‘mujh se pehli si mohabbat meri mehboob na mang’ (Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again) can be the first of those perplexing and shattering experiences that make one see a world much larger than one’s self.

Awareness, followed by the desire to change the world, is what motivates the lovers of Faiz. There is, of course, the solace at the inevitable setbacks on the way and the hope that all is not lost. But hope, without the awareness and the courage, is just an opiate. At my age, I wish more to engage with Faiz and ask him ‘hum kya dekhenge’ and ‘hum kab dehkenge.’ What do we need to do to reach that ever-receding destination? How long do we have to keep walking on bleeding feet through these deserts before the flowers bloom?

All this has been churning in mind ever since I received an otherwise innocuous email from a group to which I belong. Some members had hit upon the idea of putting together an e-book documenting their experiences during the prolonged lockdown due to the coronavirus. Two of the questions in the survey they circulated were the following: 

  • What new hobbies, activities have you tried, e.g. baking bread, gardening, learning a language?
  • How are you amusing yourself/yourselves? What movies do you watch/recommend? Books to read? What else?

I was barely getting to terms with these questions when I came across an interview with Adil Rashid, a Muslim member of England’s cricket team in which he complained that “cricket can come in the way of one’s religion” while citing his inability “to perform the Hajj pilgrimage because of a hectic schedule as an example.” He added that “The last 10-15 years, I have been away every Ramadan playing sport and doing cricket training. We were always on the go but this Ramadan there are no excuses. We can keep all 30 fasts, we can read and learn more, maybe another language, so it has been a blessing in disguise.”  

If you look at the city from ‘here,’ the lockdown during the pandemic is a “blessing in disguise,” an opportunity to “amuse” oneself, to learn a new language or to bake a fresh bread. If you look at the city from ‘there’ you are walking 500 kilometers in the sun, pulling a pregnant wife in a cart, and carrying a child who dies within a stone’s throw of home. If you live in the system to which we have adapted ourselves, here is here and there is there and never the twain shall meet. 

Another of Faiz’s poems — ‘kahaN jaoge’ (Where Will you Go) comes to mind:

iss ghaRi ae dil-e-awaara kahaN jaoge
iss ghaRi koii kisii ka bhi nahiiN rehne do
koii iss vaqt milega hi nahiiN rehne do
aur milega bhi to iss taur ke pachtao ge
iss ghari ae dil-e awaara kahaN jaoge

Where will you go at such a time
Everyone is for his or her own self
No one will hold your hand
And you will regret it if he does
Where will you go at such a time

Hope by itself has failed us at this time and it is cruel to ask those trudging out of the cities to be hopeful. Awareness and courage is what we need to reject this invisible world that has become visible before our eyes and is staring us accusingly in the face.

We have seen the city from ‘there.’ Can we bear any longer to see it from ‘here.’

The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019. Karachi 2020. This opinion was published in Dawn on May 27, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Review: ‘Transgressions’ Celebrates the Timelessness of Faiz’s Poetry

June 1, 2020

Anjum Altaf’s renderings are elegant, and often melancholic, exploring Faiz as a poet of solace for those licking their wounds in the aftermath of inevitable injustices.

Review: 'Transgressions' Celebrates the Timelessness of Faiz’s PoetryUrdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

By Vipul Rikhi in The Wire on 18/May/2020

“Not even dogs
Go as quietly as these men

Battered and bruised
Idle and begging
Homeless and hearthless
Stabbing each other for scraps
Starving in silence”

The nightmare unfolding on Indian highways through the abruptly-imposed ‘lockdown’ – of migrant labourers, rejected by the cities they served, walking hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres home to their villages, often without food and water, under the hot, unsparing sun of the Indian summer – reminds us in stark visuals of the cruelty of visited by one class of humans on another.

A cursory look at history reveals that such cruelty is hardly new. ‘Why’, the opening poem in Transgressions, Anjum Altaf’s collections of poems inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, continues thus:

What myth is it
That keeps you
Amongst yourselves
That keeps you
To your strength”

Faiz’s poem, ‘Kutte’ (Dogs), from which Altaf’s poem is inspired, is more abrupt and forthright in saying that if all dogs were to unite in their misery, they would overthrow human rule in no time.

Dreams of revolution have accompanied us since the time there has been institutionalised oppression. Actual revolutions have taken place and sometimes turned into even worse oppressions themselves. Does history simply repeat itself endlessly or is there some kind of progress through time?

The challenge for those who fight on the frontlines of suffering, or even those who just empathise, is to be able to stand spectacles of sorrow which mind cannot comprehend and throat cannot swallow. And yet there is beauty, love and truth in the world. How are these to be reconciled? Faiz’s poetry is constantly in the thorns of this dilemma.

Faiz re-entered mainstream consciousness in India in light of the anti-CAA protests that convulsed the country at the beginning of the year, through his poem ‘Ham Dekhenge’. This poem became a rallying point for protestors and a point of attack for supporters of the act. The poem promises an eventual day of justice, when we shall at last witness (‘Ham dekhenge’) the ascendancy of the oppressed, and the decimation of the oppressors:

“Sab taaj uchhaale jaayenge
Sab takht giraaye jaayenge”

Will we in our lifetimes witness such a day? Perhaps each generation has asked itself this question. Faiz is often described as the poet of revolutionary hope. In the poem quoted above, he’s attacking General Zia-ul-Haq’s repressive regime, promising it won’t last forever (it didn’t; but other regimes replaced it).

In the introduction to his book, Altaf says that poems by Faiz would often spring to his mind and his lips at critical moments in the history of his own time – bombings at the Stade de France in Paris, the lockdown of Brussels, the attack on young students inside the JNU campus. Poems become commentaries on events – ways of dealing with news that is often too disturbing to digest ‘rationally’. Faiz’s poems, having played this role for Altaf, inspired him to re-interpret the poetry for his own time, in English. He calls his poems not ‘translations’, but ‘transgressions’.

Altaf’s renderings are elegant, spare, and often melancholic, without the fire with which Faiz’s Urdu poetry is bursting. They give us a different point of entry into Faiz from the usual one – Faiz is not only to be ‘used’ as a rallying cry for activists (as Kabir is sometimes ‘used’ to invoke ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’); rather, Faiz is experienced as a poet of solace for those licking their wounds in the aftermath of inevitable, overwhelming injustices.

Continue Reading…

Vipul Rikhi is a poet, Kabir singer and author of One Palace, A Thousand Doorways, a book of translations of mystic poetry from South Asia.

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Perfection of a Poem

May 14, 2020

By Enum Naseer

In his new book, Anjum Altaf revisits the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz

The French essayist, poet and philosopher Paul Valéry once said of poems, that they are never finished, merely abandoned. If it were possible, a poet could spend an entire lifetime perfecting a poem. To some degree, poems do not provide the closure that prose can afford. Instead, they complicate the worlds that we inhabit to mirror our rich and complex lived realities.

Anjum Altaf undertakes a gargantuan task in Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz by revisiting the work of one of the most celebrated revolutionary poets of South Asia. At the outset, he lays out the purpose of his work – his poems aren’t translations, instead, they are “transgressions” as the title quips – musings on Faiz’s verse, poems “borrowed and reworked as a tribute to a major poet of our times”. By his own admission that South Asian culture is rich in orality, he provides a framing for his work.

Memory reigns supreme as far as the preservation of collective wisdom is concerned – unlike paper, it is unperishable: Faiz continues to be recited, sung and chanted. Altaf does not include the Urdu text of Faiz’s original poems underlining the fact that the intended audience is readers unfamiliar with Urdu and Urdu speakers “don’t need to read Faiz in English when they have access to much richer originals”. However, he provides sources to access Faiz’s originals just so the reader isn’t lost.

Altaf laments the fact that there is a dearth of influential Urdu poets today. In many ways, Faiz has remained an obvious choice – to render a transcendent meaning to “resistance and hope.” Like the author, we, too, have learnt to lean on him. Altaf’s renditions come from an emotional place and are an exercise in vulnerability. Floundering for the exactness of a word, feeling or reaction, many of us have often quoted a couplet or borrowed the vocabulary of a poet. Amongst our own community, the meaning transfers with ease, perhaps with greater precision, eloquence and beauty. This happens as one goes through the personal notes at the end of the poem explaining what reminded him of a particular piece by Faiz.

A poem called Resist based on Dar-e-umeed kay daryuza-gar is dedicated to the students and faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University who were attacked in 2016. His personal note also details that it was read by Professor Harbans Mukhia at an event in Delhi the same year.

“We collect the shreds they tore

Dyed red in our blood

Sew them back in a banner

Bigger, brighter than before”

One can remember Faiz’s closing lines, kucha-o-bazar se phir chun ke reza reza khwab, ham yunhi pehle ki surat jorne lag jaenge. Altaf stays true to Faiz’s theme, engages with it meaningfully, and articulates hope of healing, reform and justice in a manner that suits the occasion.

Another one goes out to the same audience. Faiz’s much-loved poem Bol is rendered as Speak. Who knew that in 2020, Hum Dekhenge would take over protests in India, where it caused a stir for the metaphors used? That debate would begin again on the context within which Faiz wrote it – during exile, while Pakistan was under Gen Zia’s dictatorship, the crowd erupted when Faiz’s poem was sung by Iqbal Bano. It is Faiz’s judicious selection of vocabulary and the powerful way in which he employs it that makes his poetry accessible and the kind that instills hope during dark times.

For instance, a phrase like “jo hoga dekha jaega” that in ordinary conversation has become a cliché of sorts mired in nihilism, is infused with transformative power when it appears in Tum Apni Karni Kar Guzro. Fehmida Riaz too writes in synchrony with Faiz in her poem Faiz Kehte;

“Kuch log tumhein samjhain ge

Woh tum ko khauf dilain ge

Jo hai woh kho bhi sukta hai

Iss rah main rehzen hain itne

Kuch aur yahan ho sukta hai

Kuch aur tou aksar hota hai

Par tum jiss lamhe main zinda ho

Yeh lamha tum se zinda hai

Yeh waqt nahin phir aaye ga

Tum apni karni kar guzro

Jo ho ga dekha jaega

In recent times, this poem was recited by former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Asif Saeed Khosa, as an affirmation of the role of poetry in legal discourse, as recourse for judges to respond to criticism against them. Even in the unlikeliest of places, verse finds a way to communicate what cannot be said otherwise.

Altaf grapples with regrets that mount as time passes, in his rendition Do What You Have Left Undone (Tum Apni Karni Kar Guzro). Perhaps, this is the only poem in the collection that overtly focuses on dilemmas of a personal nature:

Why didn’t I take mum out the day before she died

Or have dad’s cataracts removed in time

Why did I have or not these kids

And provide or not for them a stable home

Why did I consume so much when so many are starving

Why didn’t I do more for poverty, injustice and global warming

Altaf adds an honest note – that he was oddly reflecting on this poem at the time that the eccentric French President Francoise Hollande, against protocol, ventured on his scooter trysts.

Altaf’s love for poetry runs through the family. His son, Hasan Altaf writes a note on Faiz’s poetry helping him forge a link and later acclimatise to Pakistan when the family moves back from the US. His poem is the first to be featured in this book is a conversation with Faiz, where interestingly, words like faryaadi and phrases like roshniyon ke shehr feature as they are in the middle of an English poem.

Anjum Altaf’s collection of poems is a creative experiment. Perhaps, there is something to be said for our culture of orality that whilst consuming everyday news or going about life, there are couplets to fall back on and poetry to revisit. Perhaps, also for a poet who, without meaning to, can even inspire a popular romantic song with just half a couplet.


Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Author: Anjum Altaf

Publisher: LG Publishers and Distributors, Delhi

Pages: 80

Price: Rs. 325/-

The writer is an assistant editor at The News on Sunday where this review was published on May 3, 2020.

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Transgressions: A Review

February 23, 2020

By Sayed Amjad Hussain in The Friday Times, February 7, 2020

The Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz has been translated by many writers including Khalid Hasan, Victor Kiernan, Shiv Kumar and Daud Kamal, among others. The small volume under review, while coming under the rubric of translation, is much more than literal translation of the original. Each poem is identified by its original Urdu title, making it easier to find the poem in Faiz’s published poetic works. In addition the author, in the footnotes, gives the names of others who have translated the particular poem and mentions the trigger that prompted him to translate the poem.

Title: Transgressions
Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Author: Anjum Altaf
Pages: 80 pp
Published by: LG Publishers Distributors, Delhi
Price: Rs. 660.25

Anjum Altaf is a well-known Pakistani academic. He has served as Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and later as Vice-President and Provost at Habib University, Karachi.

Faiz’s poetry has been a source of inspiration for people in the past 70-odd years in Pakistan and also in the Urdu Diaspora. It continues to inspire the multitude beyond imagination. Let me digress a bit to emphasise how Faiz has remained relevant.

Recently there were widespread student protests against the controversial Citizenship Law in India. In response to the intrusion by hoodlums and police on the campuses of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, both in Delhi, the students of India Institute of Technology in Kanpur, as students elsewhere in India, left the classrooms in protest and sang Faiz’s famous poem Hum Dekhen Ge. The powerful poem was immortalized by the voice of Iqbal Bano and many other singers – actually including singers from India.

At the Institute in Kanpur the administration formed a commission to look into whether the poem was anti-Hindu. The poem was originally sung by Iqbal Bano during the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq. Faiz was not against any religion but he was against religious bigotry and tyranny. At different times in Pakistan there was plenty of both – as it is today in India under Narendra Modi.

Anjum Altaf in his introduction to the book reaffirms the observation that Faiz’s poetry has always been topical and relevant. He points that it is a typical reaction in our part of the world, still steeped in the culture of orality, to recall poetry that speaks to any given situation.

In 2016 the students and faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, were attacked by the police. Anjum Altaf saw a deeper meaning in Faiz’s poem dar-e-umid ke daryuuza-gar. He rendered the poem in English under the title ‘Resist’. His rendition was read at the Pratirodh event at the Constitution Club in Delhi. One stanza of the short poem is telling:

Hordes swarm the streets
Goose-stepping, flaunting steel
Threatening, intimidating those
Who dare refuse to kneel

Faiz’s poem KahaaN Jaaoge is titled ‘Hope’ in Altaf’s rendition. Commenting on the poem Ejaz Rahim, an award winning English language poet, wrote, “Great poetry has a way of affirming life even in the darkest hour. There emerges a rainbow of hope even inside the word-painting of Dante’s Divine Comedy.”

Here is the rendition of this poem by Altaf:

There are times
When everyone, everything, exists for itself
The moon refuses to share its light
Stars recede into their black holes
Mirrors swallow their images
Even lovers fail to turn up for their trysts

What does it mean to hope in such times
Who would one turn to and for what
Faith would only call forth deception 

Let such times pass
The moon will yearn for the admiring gaze
Stars will pine to light the way
Mirrors will invite the longing look
Lovers will crave the warm embrace

Amidst the nods of recognition
Hope will find its place again

In the beginning of the book there is a beautiful piece penned by author’s erudite son Hasan Altaf. Faiz Ke Naam addresses Faiz and refers to his various poems. The writer uses Faiz’s Urdu words within the text of English renditions. The words written in Urdu sparkle and enhance the thrust of his powerful tribute.

Translating poetry of one language into another is always fraught with difficulties. Idioms, metaphors and similes that are peculiar to one language come in the way and can’t easily be rendered into another language. There the poet has to leave the literal translations aside and use imagination and a bit of poetic license to do justice to the the theme and the central idea.

Earlier in this review I mentioned the name of Ejaz Rahim. He is a retired cabinet secretary and a poet par excellence having published in excess of 20 books of English poetry. In a personal communication with the author, Ejaz Rahim wrote:

I believe the thematic translations can do more justice to a poem than attempts to render it literally. It is the spirit that needs to be caught by the translator’s imagination and conveyed in the form and metre close to his own heart. On this principle, a translated poem’s success depends upon the fresh pair of wings provided by the translator. One has read many translations of Faiz but I consider your ‘Transgressions’ extremely powerful and persuasive. You have been able to convey the passion and sapience of his verse with admirable verve and skill.

Going through Transgressions one realizes that Anjum Altaf has indeed used imagination and has ‘transgressed’ a bit to bring out the true intent and spirit of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s exquisite poetry.

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain holds Emeritus professorships in Humanities and cardiovascular surgery at the University of Toledo, USA. He is also an op-ed columnist for Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar.

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Poetry: Inspired by Faiz

February 4, 2020

By Muneeza Shamsie in Dawn, Books and Authors, Sunday, February 1, 2020.

Urdu poetry is celebrated for its multi-layered resonances which transcend time and age. Whether written in the 18th century or the 21st, it can be quoted in political meetings, debates and daily conversations to make an apt comment on current events, public or personal.

In recent weeks, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem Hum Dekhein Gey [We Too Will See] — which was written as a critique of the Zia regime and rings out with its universal message of protest against tyranny, repression and injustice — has been chanted by huge crowds in India against the brutal attacks at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.

The power of Faiz’s poetry and its ability to reach out across languages, cultures and nations is central to Anjum Altaf’s unusual collection of English-language verses, titled Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Each poem in the collection provides an intertextual engagement with, and adaptation of, a specific Faiz poem. Altaf supplements each with a brief note, giving the context in which it spoke to him personally and led him to capture its essence in his own verse.

Interestingly, the collection includes two poems, ‘Resist’ and ‘Speak’, which draw on Faiz’s ‘Dar-i-Umeed Ke Daryuza Gar [Supplicants at Hope’s Door] and ‘Bol’ [Speak] respectively. They were penned by Altaf in response to the Modi government’s 2016 attacks on JNU’s faculty and students protesting over issues of sedition.

… More here.

Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
By Anjum Altaf
Aakar Books, Delhi, India
ISBN: 978-9383723362
80 pp, Price INR 325

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English.

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Language and Society

May 21, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order.

Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again — almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu — kaarner for corner and shaap for shop. Once attuned to the pattern, you will see Bismillah Burger Point, Iqbal’s Beauty and Hair Salon, Butt Tailoring Services, Well Dress Garments, The Knowledge School System for Boys and Girls, etc., etc. Exceptions would be rare.

Shop Sign

The underlying phenomenon is the same in the small city except that names would now be written in both scripts reflecting the presence of a sizeable population familiar with English. Once you get to the posh areas of the metropolis, however, the Urdu script disappears altogether mirroring the clientele that communicates almost entirely in English. It is like being in California surrounded by Coffee Planet, Gloria Jeans and the like. Even Bundu Khan announces itself in English. The only unusual aspect in such environs, especially if you look at the billboards, is a coy use of Urdu written in the English script — slogans like ‘jeet ke jeeo,’ etc.

So, what’s going on? It needs an expert like Dr. Tariq Rahman to fully interpret the phenomenon but to a layperson like me it seems that the vast majority associates English so obviously with superior quality that even a lowly khoka senses the advantage of labelling itself a ‘kold kaarner.’ This is even more the case for services like education or training of any kind — varieties of ‘shaart’ courses are advertised all over in the Urdu script. Only the thin sliver of the population that has arrived because of its facility with English can afford the reverse snobbery of using Urdu words in its messaging.

This inference is strengthened by the observation that such linguistic practices are confined to goods and services for sale. Civic and moral injunctions continue to be written in Urdu as spoken in the language rather than rendered into more impressive English versions. There is no attempt to raise the acceptability of messages like ‘yahan peshaab karna sakht manaa hai’ or ‘namaaz qaim karo.’

(It is quite possible that the phenomenon I have highlighted is peculiar to the rural towns and small cities of Punjab and may differ in comparable localities in other provinces. I have asked a colleague to extend the scope of the observations and produce what could be a very interesting photo essay. Meanwhile, I request readers to email me any amusing signs they come across in their travels.)

Once alerted to these linguistic anomalies, you will begin to notice other things as well. When I say ‘shukria’ or ‘meherbani’ after getting the receipt at a toll booth the reply received more often than not is ‘welcome.’ I have often wondered how the power inequality in Pakistan stemming from differential access to English can be overcome. Many educational policies are framed on the premise that the mastery of the many can be raised to the level of the privileged few by making English the universal medium of instruction right from the very beginning. Alas, this is impossible given the quality of English language teaching in public and most private schools for the majority. (Pedagogical Alert: The policy is also ruinous for the cognitive development of young children — ask any expert in early childhood education.)

The realization of this impossibility may well be the reason for the radical choice of software used to provide road directions and to manage queues in offices. Both the language and the accent is American English in an environment where the majority of users are unfamiliar with either. I have become used to Multen, Mo-zang and Kasher (Kasur) roads but was completely floored recently by the instruction to turn left on Gallamandi road. For a moment I fantasized being in Italy till the illusion was shattered by a sign in Urdu pointing to Ghalla Mandi.

Our linguistic confusions are compounded by the fact that Urdu, unlike say Hindi, is very carefree with its pronunciation and use of diacritical signs. At a toll plaza in a Daewoo bus, one is always inundated with phone calls from passengers informing families that they have arrived at the ‘tool’ plaza. In this vein, many English signs written in Urdu can be a source of great amusement. I always have a silent laugh at a ‘Police Check Post’ thinking of their cheeks, silent because laughing at the police and the like is most likely a punishable offence in Pakistan.

A striking occurrence of this nature was witnessed at the time of the last elections when, looking up, I spotted an electoral symbol in Urdu written simply as BLA (Bay-Laam-Alif). For a while, one couldn’t figure out if it was really bla (as in the Shah of Blah) or balaa or bilaa or bulaa or balla or billa or bulla. Reverting as one does to one’s own language in dire circumstances, I could only worry about the cost of such sloppiness and mutter, again under my breath, jal tu jalaal tu, aaii balaa ko taal tu.

Many things are changing in Pakistan as is to be expected. Is it possible that linguistic changes of the type highlighted above are signalling a certain direction for the evolution of our society or are they just harmless epiphenomena that can be enjoyed without wasting a worry?    

This opinion was published in Dawn on May 19, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Language, Learning and Logic

July 11, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning.

The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity.

So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full:

There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one has to choose from an early age which language one’s children should excel in — in a local language which does not have any worth in the job market or the one that can serve as a vehicle for the development of their careers.

This belief does not reflect just the opinion of the author. It effectively represents Pakistan’s language policy and the understanding of parents making it necessary to show why it is misleading. A minor problem is that it undermines the author’s objective. Only living languages are sustained attempts to preserve languages as museum pieces inevitably fail. Languages shunned as worthless for employment are doomed to slow death.

The major problem is the argument’s negation of evidence on linguistics and learning. First, the critical early-age decision is not choosing the language a child should excel in with a career in mind. It is choosing the language of instruction that maximizes the child’s ability to learn effectively. There is ample evidence to suggest that children learn best in their first language they pick up subjects like arithmetic better if taught in a familiar  language.

Second, it is false that children can only learn one language well because it becomes harder to learn a language with age. In fact, evidence suggests that children who begin learning in a familiar language are better at acquiring a second unfamiliar language later compared to those who start directly with the unfamiliar language. After much research the European Union has adopted the ‘mother-tongue plus two’ formula whereby children begin school in their mother-tongue and acquire two more languages before completing high school.  

Third, the belief that excelling in a language requires learning it from day one is incorrect and results from misunderstanding the learning process. Children acquire their first language effortlessly because they are immersed in it and have to survive by communicating their needs in it. This need-driven acquisition is not transferrable to alien languages. For example, in a Seraiki neighborhood if Chinese is made the medium of instruction children will not acquire it as fluently as Seraiki. Rather, they will retard their cognitive abilities struggling with an unfamiliar learning vehicle.

Fourth, adults learn foreign languages quite easily. They may lack the accents of native speakers but can be highly proficient otherwise. Observe the number of non-native scholars of Urdu in Western universities doing world-class work Annemarie Schimmel did not learn four oriental languages as a child. Adult Pakistani students in France and Germany do so likewise.    

Fifth, career decisions are not made in kindergarten. They are based on aptitude which matures later and is itself an outcome of a good education. Dr. Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education nor did they start it in English. Had they done so they might have ended as babus in a British office.

The importance of language in early education has long been recognized. Macaulay introduced English as the medium of instruction for the Indian elite in 1835 triggering a wider demand because of its association with employment. However, a review of the policy in 1904 by the British themselves came to the following conclusion:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction… This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

Over a 100 years later, a British Council study in Pakistan noted “various adverse outcomes arising from negative attitudes towards indigenous languages and for using Urdu and English as languages of instruction. These included high dropout rates, poor educational achievements, ethnic marginalization and, longer term, a risk of language death.” The study concluded that “there was an urgent need for awareness-raising about the importance of the mother tongue in the early years of education.”

Parents most in need of this message, with children shortchanged by early education in poor English, do not read such studies. It is for educationists to both raise awareness and convince the authorities to respect available evidence. Note that the Chinese have made remarkable progress without using English as the medium for early education while we who have done so are left far behind. All Chinese who need to learn English to advance their careers manage to do so.

The simple message to convey is that to acquire English it is not necessary to have it as the language of instruction in early education and doing so is bad for learning. It is understandable if parents confuse the issue; for decision-makers to do so just proves that knowing English does not necessarily correlate with intelligence.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on July 10, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Language and its Functions

March 14, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country.

This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world.

Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province in Pakistan, is also the least developed?

A great deal of similar confusion on language stems from not realizing that it has very distinct functions in society. Take only three that are extremely important in Pakistan today – language as a glue to cement nationhood, as a necessity for participatory development, and as a medium of instruction in education.

Consider nationhood. While it is true that no nation can become stronger just by having a ‘correct’ official language, it does not follow that nationhood cannot be weakened by having an ‘incorrect’ one. For proof, recall the contribution of imposing an ‘incorrect’ language on East Pakistan which not only weakened the nation but split it asunder.

The choice of language to build nationhood needed a lot more thought and discussion in 1947 than it was given. The situation was particularly complex but, as the example of India shows, more intelligent alternatives were available. In any case, this remains an issue best addressed through the democratic process. Citizens can decide whether they agree on a common official language for present-day Pakistan. If not, some other formula needs to be found.

Regarding development, it is hard to imagine socially meaningful progress occurring in a country without an inclusive dialogue. How can there be a shared vision if the state continues to conduct its business in a language that so few understand? Take, for example, the campaign for the Millennium Development Goals that consumed enormous sums in five-star talk-a-thons. How can citizens participate when there is not even a semi-comprehensible translation of the title in any local language? When officials speak in important forums do we want citizens to follow what they are saying? It is this concern that motivated the Supreme Court to mandate Urdu for official purposes. Whether it should be Urdu or Urdu and other regional languages is again a choice that needs analysis and democratic resolution.

As an educationist, I believe a critical function of language is as the medium of instruction which bears on the cognitive ability of successive generations and thereby on the future of the country. The fact that this is yet to be addressed seriously in Pakistan borders on criminality as it has impaired the ability of millions whose parents set aside scarce resources hoping to educate their children.

Here the evidence is overwhelming – early learning, which provides the foundation on which later learning is acquired, takes place best in the language spoken in the home. This does not imply a binary choice between one language and another that has become the staple of partisan polemic in Pakistan. The emphasis is on early education which is followed by appropriate changes in the medium of instruction over the years depending on the needs of students.

There is lot to go on for those seeking a rational approach to the issue. Many multi-national countries have evolved bilingual and trilingual sequences for sound school education. In such countries people still manage to acquire good English despite early education in a different language. This should discredit the rhetoric that education in any language other than English would close the door to the modern world. Had this been even remotely true, South Asian countries would have advanced much faster than East Asian ones.

It is important to realize that education in Pakistan, like in many developing countries, is a highly contentious ideological and political issue. Its problems, largely of content and pedagogy, are not amenable to technocratic remedies but confusion on the importance of the medium of instruction does little to help.

We need vigorous, open, inclusive, and participatory discussion on the issue of language followed by democratic decision-making. It would help towards this end to separate the various functions of language and be open to the possibility that each might call for a different formula and compromise.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 13, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Which Language Should We Choose?

March 12, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points.

Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart.

Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be improved by flipping from English to Urdu or vice versa. Change can happen only when education is seen as a means for opening minds rather than an instrument of ideological control.” No one will dispute the claim that opening minds is critical but that has more to do with the content of education and pedagogy than language. Even so, the question of which language would be more effective in opening minds in Pakistan, provided the intent is there, does not become irrelevant.

In this connection, the author himself states that “Using different mixes of bilingualism and even trilingualism… has enabled some [former colonies] to develop a better education for their young. Pakistan has not.” Clearly, if Pakistan were to emulate these countries, it would have to decide what mix of languages it would need.

Some of these contradictions have arisen because the author has not addressed separately the three quite different functions of language – as a means to cement nationhood, as a mode of communication between the rulers and the ruled, and as a medium of instruction in education.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is quite right that “nation-building needs more than a common language” but at the same time one cannot dismiss the functional need for an acceptable common language in a nation. It was indeed impossible to find one in 1947 but today, as the author points out, Urdu is Pakistan’s lingua franca. This remains an issue best addressed through the democratic process – citizens can decide whether Urdu can serve as the common language of Pakistan. If not, some other formula would need to be found.

Regarding communication, it is hard to imagine that real development can occur without being inclusive. How would we progress to a shared dialogue and vision for the country if the state continues to conduct its business in a language that “fewer and fewer people speak and understand”? It is this concern that motivated the Supreme Court to mandate Urdu for “official and other purposes.” The fact that “English stayed” is to be taken seriously as a failure to include citizens as full partners in the business of the country.

The most critical aspect of language is its function as the medium of instruction because it bears on the cognitive ability of new generations and thereby on the future of the country. The fact that it is yet to be addressed in Pakistan does not lessen its importance. Here, the author himself states that “Early learning happens fastest in the mother tongue, and only the tiniest fraction of Pakistanis speaks English at home.” How then can one be indifferent to the importance of having a ‘correct’ language policy for purposes of education?

It is a bit odd when the author goes on the state: “So go ahead and change the language to the ‘right’ one. You might get a 10 pc improvement at most.” The author does not clarify what the improvement would be in but whatever it may be, in a country of close to 200 million people a 10 pc improvement is not something that can be discounted so readily.

I am fully aware that Pervez Hoodbhoy, like many others, is frustrated by what is being taught in schools and the manner in which it is being taught. This is a contentious political and ideological struggle which does not make the choice of language irrelevant. In fact, even if nothing else changes, the use of languages more easily understood by those being educated would be a step in the positive direction.

In this context, one can subvert the author’s claim that “A parrot singing in Urdu or Sindhi understands no more than one who sings in English.” True enough, but for listeners it would be much easier to distinguish sense from nonsense if the parrot were singing in Urdu or Sindhi rather than in English.

This opinion appeared in The News on March 11, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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