Posts Tagged ‘Urdu’

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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The Sun That Rose From the Earth

February 22, 2018

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s The Sun That Rose From the Earth: Insights into the world of Urdu poetry in the Late Mughal Era

By Kabir Altaf

South Asians continue to be fascinated by the Mughal period. Whether one sees this period as the origin of North India’s high culture (the view of most Pakistanis and partisans of the Islamicate culture) or as hundreds of years of slavery under the Muslims (the view of the Hindu Right), it is clear that the Mughals remain central to India’s history and to the country’s conception of itself. This period was also the time when there was a great flourishing of the arts, including music and poetry. For example, it was during the reign of Muhammad Shah “Rangila” (r. 1719-1748) that khayal gaiyki—presently the main style of classical vocal music in North India—was developed. Some scholars also state that it was in Muhammad Shah’s time that Urdu replaced Persian as the language of the Mughal court. What is without question is that the 18th and 19th centuries were when Urdu poetry reached its heights and when the works of authors such as Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) and Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) were created.

It is the lives and works of these poets which forms the core of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s collection of novellas, The Sun That Rose From The Earth—the author’s own translation into English of his Urdu work Savaar aur Doosre Afsane. The three major stories–“Bright Star, Lone Splendour”, “In Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately” and “The Sun That Rose from the Earth”—are about Ghalib, Mir, and Mushafi respectively. Faruqi is known as the “grand old man of Urdu literature” and received the Padma Shri from the Government of India in 2009. His novellas reflect his vast knowledge of Urdu poetry and the culture that produced it.

“In Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately” is one the longest stories in the book and revolves around Mir Taqi Mir’s romance with Nurus Saadat, a courtesan from Isfahan. The title comes from one of Mir’s verses from his first divan (1752), which Faruqi translates as follows: “In such meetings and partings, ultimately/ Lives are lost. There is no end to Love/And Beauty never relents.” The story ranges from Armenia—where Nurus Saadat’s mother, Labiba Khanam, is orphaned and becomes a courtesan, to Isfahan, and finally to Delhi, where Mir meets Nurus Saadat. Since she is a courtesan and is contracted to another, her meetings with Mir must remain secret. She is also dying of consumption and eventually she pushes Mir away so that he will not have to deal with the grief of her death.

Faruqi is a master at physical description and at describing people’s clothes (which reveals his immense knowledge about the cultural details of the period). Here is his introduction of Mir: “He was twenty-two, twenty-three years of age, tall but slim. His wrists were strong and broad, his eyes, red with sleeplessness—or was it drink?—were still commanding, full of character, though it could be seen that they could twinkle with humour when the occasion demanded. His beard was not long or dense…” This physical description is followed by a paragraph on Mir’s clothes, which begins: “He had a short, light, full-sleeved tunic on his upper body. It was called nima, or angarkha, depending on the style. The nima was worn waistcoat fashion. The fabric was woolen, russet coloured. It was called banat, but it was not of the best quality and its russet was now fading somewhat. Under the nima he wore a long woolen tunic. His trousers were of Aurangabadi mashru…” (Faruqi 250). Though such long descriptions tend to slow down the narrative pace, they are invaluable for giving one a sense of the period.

Another noteworthy aspect that Faruqi gets across is that it was not only Muslims who were involved in the creation of Urdu poetry. One of Mir’s close friends is Rai Kishan Chand Ikhlas, an Urdu poet in his own right. Similarly, the narrator of the story about Mushafi is Darbari Mal Vafa, whose father, Kanji Mal Saba, was a Persian poet and a student of Mushafi’s. The fact that Hindus are shown as being involved in the creation of Urdu and Persian poetry gives the lie to the modern Hindutva version of history that the religious majority was deeply oppressed under “Muslim” (really Mughal) rule. Faruqi’s book is thus an essential corrective to the revisionist myths of today’s India.

The book is filled with Persian and Urdu verses, though these suffer from being sometimes awkwardly translated into English. However, this is my limitation as a reviewer of being unable to fluently read the Urdu version of Faruqi’s book. Probably, the verses would have more power there. In the English version, they sometimes get in the way of advancing the plot.

Overall, The Sun That Rose From The Earth provides a fascinating look at Delhi at the beginning of the long Mughal decline. It is a must-read for those with an interest in Urdu poetry and culture.

This review appeared first on Brown Pundits and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Kabir Altaf received a B.A. in Dramatic Literature from George Washington University. He has studied Hindustani classical vocal music and is currently teaching Music History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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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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Faiz – 3: A Twist in the Tail

December 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

My interpretation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Kuttey was published on 3 Quarks Daily on December 30, 2015 (here).

Why

Not even dogs
Go as quietly as these men

Battered and bruised
Idle and begging
Homeless and hearthless
Stabbing each other o’er scraps
Starving in silence

Why

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

The original (in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman) can be seen here.

Over the course of a life there are many who nudge you in one direction or another but very few who entirely alter its trajectory. In my experience I can count four, all encountered between the last two years at school and the first two years in college.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz made me see the world beyond myself in a manner at once appealing and hopeful. Since then, Faiz has become a kind of Bible-substitute in all the manifestations of sight and sound.

Three poems – Kuttey, Bol, and Tanhai – retain a particular association because my son knew them by heart around the age of two. It was a party-stopper of the time when, leaning innocently over the shoulder of one of the parents, he would startle an unwary guest with an imperious ye galiyoN ke awaara bekaar kuttey or bol ke lab azaad hain terey. Our doubts as to whether he was a typical hafiz or knew what he was talking about were set to rest when, on one such occasion, he pointed to a departing friend with an unforgettable woh ja raha hai Bundu bhaii shab-e gham guzaar ke.

My fondness for Kuttey, for this and other reasons, notwithstanding, I continued to rethink the poem over time. For one, I did not feel it had been entirely fair to dogs. For another, and more seriously, I tossed around the issue of agency. This was not a well-articulated concern at the time Faiz was writing but since then we had been introduced to the notion by the growing critique of post-colonial theory. Early accounts in the theory conveyed the impression that the colonized were like putty to be pushed this way or that entirely at the whims and machinations of the colonists. The evolving critiques had challenged this depiction arguing that the colonized too were endowed with passions and interests and acted in their own welfare as they saw best – in a word, they also had agency in the vocabulary of the theory.

The final couplet of kuttey ran headlong into this issue. After asserting that the downtrodden could own the world (yeh mazluum makhluuq gar sar uthaye/to insaan sab sarkashii bhuul jaye) the poem concludes with koii in ko ehsaas-e zillat dilaa de/koii in kii soii huii dum hila de. This external koii, emblematic of the early Marxist vanguard, had become problematic towards the end of the twentieth century – it was the issue of agency.

My rendering of the poem frames this issue of agency in perspective and asks what it might be that keeps the wretched of the earth from acting in their interest. Among the possibilities in this regard are the various powerful myths that shape our lives and convince us that we are living in the best possible world. As one example, it is quite remarkable that only now has economic inequality even begun to be talked about as an issue of any importance in mainstream economic theory and public policy.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz continues to inspire. It remains for us to take that inspiration forward into our own times. I am convinced that is how Faiz would have liked us to honor his legacy.

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Farsi: A Whole Lot of Learning

December 5, 2015

I deserve to be congratulated because I have now passed Farsi Level 1 (Beginner) and graduated to Level 2 (Intermediate). Although nowhere near the accomplishment of Jhumpa Lahiri whose next book will be coming out in Italian (see Teach Yourself Italian for an inspiring story), I am greatly encouraged by the progress I have made.

Some readers might recall my struggles with Farsi narrated here some time back (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond). Very briefly, as an Urdu speaker, I had assumed I would pick up Farsi quickly given the common script and overlapping vocabulary. That did not turn out to be the case leaving me exceedingly frustrated after almost a year of struggle.

I finally discovered the right mix of teaching methods and tools – interacting with an instructor in a small class and learning the grammar by reading and writing short texts. That, however, was the straightforward aspect of this exercise in learning. As always, what I discovered along the way about myself and my world was much the more surprising part of the journey.

I finally figured out why I had been having so much difficulty with Farsi and it was a deeply disconcerting experience. Before I elaborate on that there is need to negotiate a few basics. The structure of the Persian sentence is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) unlike that of English which is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). For example, in English we would say ‘The boy eats an apple.’ The same sentence in Farsi would be ‘The boy an apple eats’ (pisar seeb mi khorad), where mi khorad is the third person singular conjugation of the verb khordan – to eat – in the present tense. Quite apart from the conjugation of the verbs, tenses, active and passive forms, subjunctives, positive and negative conditionals, it is this structural difference in which the verb is always at the end of the sentence that offers the primary cognitive challenge for an English speaker learning the Farsi language.

I was stumbling over this in spades. When asked to submit a short essay, I would write it out first in English and then translate it into Farsi. In fixing the sentence structure I would forget, for example, whether to apply the rules for the present continuous or the present perfect tense.

My fellow students, whose first language was English, were having the same difficulties which was reassuring till it struck me that English was not my first language. My first language was Urdu which shares the SOV sentence structure with Farsi. In theory, I should not have been having the difficulty I had been experiencing. Had I been writing my essay in Urdu instead of in English, I would have greatly simplified the translation into Farsi.

This for me was not an ordinary discovery. What it was telling me was that although I believed my first language to be Urdu, in which I can speak, read, and write fluently, my mind was actually hardwired in English. Thoughts and ideas occur to me in English and are then translated into another language, including Urdu – to all intents and purposes, my first language is English.

In hindsight, I can understand this phenomenon because I not only began learning English in grade one, I learned everything else in English as well at the schools I attended in Pakistan. And although, unlike many of my contemporaries, I did not lose proficiency in Urdu because of my mother’s deep attachment to the language and her tutoring at home, the language that provided the default mode of thinking was English.

I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have come out of this experience with a reasonable grasp of both English and Urdu. While my mother was a student of Urdu literature, my father had a MA in English Literature from Government College, Lahore. Our house was full of books in English and Urdu. While my father made me write a page of English every day from a very early age, my mother read Urdu poetry to me. I went to school in an era when teaching was still taken seriously and was fortunate to come under the tutelage of some outstanding teachers, of whom Brother Keely was in a class of his own in the subjects of English literature and composition.

The absence of any of these accidental advantages would have meant a much poorer grasp of either language, a fate I come across all the time in the students I meet and increasingly so as one moves past the 1970s when school education in Pakistan suffered a very serious deterioration in quality. Imagine a scenario in which the majority of the population is not proficient in any of the languages that are used for official purposes. Ask a mid-level bureaucrat to write a paragraph in either language and ninety-nine times out of hundred one would draw a blank. The reading or writing of literary texts is outside the experience of all but a very tiny minority.

One might be tempted to think that such was always the case in South Asia. The best way to disabuse oneself of this comforting delusion would be to read a few chapters of Rajeev Kinra’s new book (Writing Self, Writing Empire – available free as an e-book) which describes the minimal set of skills required of employees of the Mughal administration with the great emphasis on literary sensibility.

Here is a section of the text discussing a letter from Chandar Bhan, a munshi in the Mughal administration, to his son Tej Bhan:

It becomes quickly evident upon any perusal of Chandar Bhan’s works that in his view merely being literate in the Persian language and mastering a certain set of scribal techniques might get you a job but was not nearly enough to vault one into the ranks of the elite munshīs of the Indo-Persian secretarial world. Perhaps the most explicit formulation of this view on Chandar Bhan’s part comes to us from a letter that he wrote to his son Tej Bhan, which is included in both of his major prose works, Chahār Chaman and Munsha’āt-i Brahman. In it, Chandar Bhan makes clear to Tej Bhan that to be a successful munshī one had to have what we would nowadays call a well-rounded liberal arts education and that to truly excel one had to have, among other kinds of training, the early modern equivalent of graduate degrees in disciplines as various as history, literature, philosophy, and political science. He advises Tej Bhan, for instance, to begin his studies of prose composition by emulating the collected letters (ruq‘āt) of ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami (1414–92), the celebrated poet of Timurid Herat, and by studying Sa‘di’s Gulistān and Būstān, two cornerstones of Persianate literary culture that have been used to teach the art of prose and inculcate moral wisdom in young and old alike for centuries. The well-educated Mughal gentleman should also have a strong background, Chandar Bhan felt, in the canonical treatises on statecraft, civility, and ethics (akhlāq), such as Akhlāq-i Nāṣirī, Akhlāq-i Jalālī, and Akhlāq-i Muḥsinī, as well as histories of earlier eras (tawārīkh-i salaf) such as  abīb al-Siyar, Rauẓat al-Ṣafā’, Rauẓat al-Salāt̤īn, Tārīkh-i Guzīda,Tārīkh-i T̤abarī, and   afar Nāma, all of which he specifically names (CC, 176).

In the same letter, Chandar Bhan also shows his stripes as a professional poet, a vocation that, as we saw in the previous chapter, he saw not just as an entertaining diversion but as a craft that was inextricably tied to his success as a state secretary. To be a great poet, though, one first had to master the canon of literary greats. Thus he provides Tej Bhan with a lengthy syllabus of scores of “some of the great masters [ustādān] whose collections of ghazals and mas̤ nawīs this supplicant [i.e., Chandar Bhan himself] studied as a youth”—both ancients and moderns, some of them well known, and some barely traceable today—whose works Tej Bhan ought to study and emulate until, in time, “his own talent has been honed and he has a grasp of the art of expression” (CC, 176–77).

It is much too late for any of us to aspire to this level of accomplishment but it does give an idea of what to keep in mind if we aim for a reform of our education and hope for an improvement in the quality of decision-making and governance.

As for myself, ever since this discovery, I have now consciously started to write in Urdu before translating into Farsi. My hope is that over time I will first teach myself to think in Urdu and then, hopefully, in Farsi itself. If you read the narrative by Jhumpa Lahiri, you will note that she has taught herself to think in Italian. It is an experience she likens to a metamorphosis, one that transforms a person.

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Faiz – 1: The City

November 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I ‘wrote’ a poem, The City, which appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on Monday, 30 November, 2015.

The poem is reproduced below followed by comments on its genesis, connections with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and some reflections on translating poetry.

The City

Look
My city bedecks itself in fetters

The carefree walk
The careless talk

No more

The head held high
The feet unbound

No more

No more
I trust

Light from dark
Wine from blood
Joy from mourning

Flowers in my city
Wilt into the dust

After the Paris attacks, Brussels went into a lock-down that continued for a number of days. Faiz’s poem Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho (Look at the City from Here) came to mind and seemed to speak to the situation.

But how could one convey the sense of the poem in English? This brought forth the dilemma of translating poetry. Personally, I am skeptical it can be done especially if it were intended for an audience unfamiliar with the language of the original. (See this essay by Dick Davis on why this may be so: On Not Translating Hafez.)

A poem is not the sum of its words. It is not a vehicle to transfer meaning. Rather, a poem evokes feeling, sentiment, and mood. If I were to annotate the dictionary meaning of every word in a poem, the outcome would not be a poem. For a translation to work, it has to be a poem in its own right. And, this is what makes the task extremely difficult because the images, metaphors, idioms, and rhymes that work in one language do not carry over into another – they may for neighboring languages like Urdu, Hindi and Persian but not when the transition is from Urdu to English or Japanese. A translator must have near native proficiency in both languages to be able to find meaningful parallels. An example would be the metaphor of the owl which would make translating the following Urdu couplet into English very tricky:

har shaakh pe ulloo baitha hai
anjaam-e gulistaN kya ho ga

(an owl is perched on every branch
what will be the fate of the garden)

Going the other way, one could consider the opening lines from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by Keats:

St. Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl for all its feathers was acold;

The Urdu reader would certainly wonder what prompted the poet to choose the owl to open his poem with.

Recently I wrote a set of posts on Urdu (here, here, and here). In the commentary on the posts, I set out a challenge for the readers. It was to translate the following lines from Faiz into English for a reader not familiar with Urdu:

sabza sabza suukh rahii hai phiikii zard do-pahr
diwaaroN ko chaaT raha hai tanhaaii ka zahr

No one has responded yet but you can give it a try. Victor Kiernan has translated them as follows:

Listless and wan, green patch by patch, noonday dries up;
Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls

And Agha Shahid Ali, a very fine poet in the English language, has essayed the following translation:

On each patch of green, from one shade to the next,
the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color
becoming pale, desolation everywhere,
the poison of exile painted on the walls.

Both these versions convey some of the meaning of the lines from Faiz but, in my view at least, they are literal translations and not English poems. What does ‘the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color’ convey to an English speaker who does not know Urdu? And what does ‘Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls’ call forth as an image for the same reader? The intensity of loneliness is captured powerfully by the metaphors used by Faiz but English must have its own metaphors that better reflect the aesthetic of its history and culture.

As I see it, the self-inflicted problem of most translators of Urdu poetry into English is that they seem to be doing so for readers familiar with both languages and, furthermore, as if the Urdu readers were constantly looking over their shoulders to judge their faithfulness or lack of it to the original. This predilection, in my view, has limited the appreciation of as major a poet as Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the non-Urdu speaking world.

Why would an Urdu reader need to read an Urdu poem in English when he/she has access to the much richer original? A translation is meant for those who do not know the language of the original and for them faithfulness matters relatively little. What matters is if the emotion, the spirit of the original, carries over and gives some inkling of what the poet was trying to convey in the original. In order to do so, the translation into a foreign language has to be a poem in its own right, good or bad being a secondary issue, consonant with the cultural and literary aesthetic of the target language. The venomed tongue of pale solitude licking the walls stutters on this count. It only works for those who are familiar with the lines in the original.

For myself, one without native proficiency in both languages, I wouldn’t even try and attempt to translate a poet like Faiz whose poetry is laden with context-specific images which breathe life into the emotions he so successfully evokes. Rather, I do away with as much of the imagery as possible and convey the bare-bone skeleton which remains to be dressed with the clothing of images. Hopefully, the skeleton would suggest to the non-Urdu speaking reader what the poet is trying to do and his/her own imagination would furnish the appropriate images and metaphors from his/her particular aesthetic milieu.

This is what I have attempted with ‘The City.’ I would not be so bold as to claim it a translation of Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho. ‘The City’ is a poem in English inspired by Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho for which the latter serves as a point of departure. It is for readers to say to what extent I have succeeded in capturing the spirit of the original.

For those who are interested, the poem by Faiz is reproduced below in Roman script (it can be read in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman scripts here):

YahaN se sheher ko dekho to halqa-dar-halqa
Khinchi hai jail ki soorat har ek samt faseel
Har ek rahguzar gardish-e-aseeraaN hai
Na sung-e-meel, na manzil, na mukhlisi ki sabeel

Jo koi tez chaley rah to poochta hai Khayal
Ke tokne koi lalkaar kyuN naheeN aayee
Jo koi haath hilaye to Wahem ko hai sawal
Koi chanak, koi jhankaar kyuN nahiN aayee?

YahaN se shehr ko dekho to saari khalqat meiN
Na koi sahab-e-tamkeen, na koi wali-e-hosh
Har ek mard-e-jawaN mujrim rasn ba gulu
Har ek haseena-e-raana, Kaneez-e-halqa bagosh

Jo sayay duur chiraghoN ke gird larzaaN haiN
Na janey mehfil-e-ghum hai ke bazm-e-jaam-o-saboo
Jo rung har dar-o-deewar par pareshaaN haiN
YahaN se kuch naheen khulta yeh phool haiN ke LahU

– Faiz (Karachi, 1965)

A translation into English by Naomi Lazard is as follows:

If you look at the city from here
You see it is laid out in concentric circles,
Each circle surrounded by a wall
Exactly like a prison.
Each street is a dog-run for prisoners,
No milestones, no destinations, no way out.

If anyone moves too quickly you wonder
Why he hasn’t been stopped by a shout.
If someone raises his arm
You expect to hear the jangling of chains.

If you look at the city from here
There is no one with dignity,
No one fully in control of his senses.
Every young man bears the brand of a criminal,
Every young woman the emblem of a slave.

You cannot tell whether you see
A group of revellers or mourners
In the shadows dancing around the distant lamps,
And from here you cannot tell
Whether the color streaming down the walls
Is that of blood or roses.

(Source for the transliteration and the translation by Naomi Lazard is here.)

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Urdu in Pakistan: Do We Need It?

November 7, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

The article on the transition to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis) elicited a number of substantive comments which I will address in this third and concluding part of the series. Almost all these comments challenged, from one standpoint or another, the usefulness of and need for Urdu in Pakistan and stressed, by default, the importance of English in a globally connected world. I intend to defend the decision of the Supreme Court against these objections but before doing so I will spell out the recommendation of the 2010 British Council study on schooling in Pakistan, not because I consider it sacrosanct, but because it provides a concrete suggestion which can serve as a reference point for the ensuing discussion.

The study arrived at the following conclusion:

Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.

Based on this conclusion, it recommended initial education in the mother tongue to be succeeded as follows:

… from class three to five Urdu is introduced and gradually replaces regional language as the language of instruction… English is studied as a main subject for four years up to grade 9. At class 10 English becomes medium of instruction with Urdu and regional languages becoming subjects.

The first objection to any such schema that includes a place for Urdu in the school curriculum, a necessity if Urdu is to be the official language of the country, represents the view of certain constituencies in the smaller provinces. Simply framed, the argument is the following: Let us have the initial years of education in the mother tongue and then switch directly to English skipping the intermediate transition via Urdu.

The justification for this argument is that for employment and getting ahead in life in Pakistan today it is English and English alone that matters. Given the above, what is the point of wasting public and private resources on teaching Urdu?

The second objection can be said to represent the view of the national, supra-provincial, elite that has acquired proficiency in English at the cost of familiarity with either Urdu or a regional language, at least to the point of being able to read the latter two with any degree of comfort. The argument is, once again, that the primacy of English requires us to prepare world citizens for the globalized world of tomorrow but the solution advocated is somewhat different.

In this view, it is alleged that we are slowing down the progress of students by imposing on them the burden of learning two scripts, that of the vernacular languages and that of English to which children have to switch midway through their schooling. This group, although equally dismissive of the place of Urdu in a global economy, is willing to retain it as a subject as long as there is a universal shift to the Latin script as has been the case in Turkey and Indonesia.

There is a third, minority, opinion that can be said to reflect the preferences of religious groups. It advocates the inclusion of Arabic, at the expense of either Urdu or English, given its growing importance in the cultural orientation of the country and as a way to offset the advantage of the English-speaking elite.

Needless to say, these are elite perspectives, irrespective of whether the elites are presently empowered or marginalized, simply because this discussion is being carried out in English and over the Internet, both of which rule out the participation of non-elite audiences. It is therefore necessary for some institution to poll citizens and uncover the extent to which these views are representative when disaggregated across various relevant dimensions: ethnicity, level of education, gender, income, urban/rural location, etc.

However, even without such a survey, there is a general response that can be offered to these proposals. In my view, each of them is focused almost exclusively on the private returns to a student while ignoring the public benefit to the country. In taking this stance, they are missing entirely the thrust of the decision of the Supreme Court that is motivated to maximizing the public benefit even if that comes at the expense of some private gain though the latter is by no means a necessary outcome.

As argued in the first two articles in this series, the public benefits of language policy arise from promoting both a common medium of communication amongst citizens and of inclusive development in which citizens can participate in policy discourses that matter to their lives and those of their children. Citizens are entitled to being able to comprehend the laws that govern them and the communications they receive in their interactions with various organs of the state. In today’s world, this can be termed a basic human right – to be addressed as an equal in a mutually comprehensible language.

This perspective can reduce the policy alternatives under discussion to the bare essentials. Almost everyone is agreed that early education should be in the mother language so that component can be dropped from the discussion. The only substantive question that remains is whether the subsequent transition is to be directly to English or via Urdu. (For the purpose of our discussion, we can leave out for now details of the exact ages at which the language transitions are most effective.)

As a next step, we can, via appropriately designed referenda, pose two simple questions to the majority of our citizens in order to practice what we are preaching, i.e., having an inclusive, participatory, and democratic process of policy deliberation. The questions can be the following:

  1. In which language would you prefer your national representatives to address the citizens of the country, at home and abroad, on matters that pertain to the latter’s present and future?
  1. In which language would you prefer to interact with various organs of the state in communications, both to and from, related to the provision of services, e.g., justice, taxation, utilities, etc.?

My best guess is that Urdu would be the answer of the majority to the first question while that to the second would be some split between Urdu and the regional language depending upon the province.

The reason for the answer to the first question should be easy to grasp. Clearly, an address to the nation in any one provincial language would not be understood by the citizens of other provinces and one in English would be understood by less than one percent of the population. With Urdu, however, one could expect raising the outreach immediately to at least around half the population, if not more. Given that, the goal of reaching the entire population would be advanced much more rapidly and effectively by imparting a knowledge of Urdu than the alternative of either English or Arabic.

The reason for the answer to the second should also be easy to grasp given its local ambit and it favors the increased use of regional languages within provinces, something that the Supreme Court decision does not in any way discourage.

In view of the above reasoning, there is a place for Urdu in the school curriculum even if not as the medium of instruction. My own view as an educationist agrees with the recommendation of the British Council that the early introduction of English as the medium of instruction in Pakistan would be harmful for learning outcomes but this claim can be tested by further experimentation. What should be obvious is that there are huge advantages to retaining Urdu as a subject that is taught to everyone at school to an acceptable level of proficiency.

I am also not persuaded by the recommendation to switch to the Latin script for Urdu and/or the regional languages simply because there is no real evidence that the benefits are worth the costs. At the individual level, children have a truly amazing learning ability in the early years if taught well while at the collective level language has at best a marginal impact on development with other factors being more far more determining. To take just one example as an illustration: Vietnam changed to the much easier phonetic Latin script while China stayed with the much more difficult character-based script; yet both countries have equally high literacy rates while there is no correlation with economic growth.

It should be reiterated that outside of a specific context there needs be no logical objection to a direct transition to English from the mother tongue. After all, Urdu is not taught in Bangladesh where the transition is directly from Bengali to English. But as long as we are part of one country, we are all better off with knowledge of a language that most readily connects people across provinces and that language, at this time, unlike in the past, happens to be Urdu. Hypothetically, if KPK were also an independent country it could well choose the Pashto-English transition; or the Hindko-Pashto-English transition, till such time that Hazara also attains the status of an independent country. The implication of stretching the argument should be clear. It has an obvious bearing on the direction in which we wish to proceed.

What this boils down to is our ability to rise above making language a victim, as we have to our detriment in the past, of the desire to settle political scores, alleviate historical injustices, or disadvantage others. We should not cut our nose to spite our face. Languages don’t have religions or ethnicities. If Urdu is to be considered the language of oppressors then by that logic English is equally the language of oppressors. The argument does not hold. If the choice of language depended on such considerations we should all be learning in Chinese because it is the language of our best friends whose friendship, at this time at least, is sweeter than honey and deeper than the ocean. One should view in the same perspective the suggestion to create a hybrid Pakistani language incorporating bits and pieces of the existing regional languages as a compromise. It is possible, though, in my view, it would signal the victory of parochial over national interests. Nevertheless, this could be another proposition that could be tested through a poll of citizens.

People all over the world are eager to acquire proficiency in languages other than their own. In our case, we would be extremely shortsighted to throw away access to a language with which we are already partially familiar and which yields many collective benefits at a very low price. What we should avoid is turning this into a binary, either-or, discussion. Learning Urdu should neither be at the expense of the regional languages nor of English. It is really a matter of sequencing the learning of languages appropriately and effectively for which there is a lot of guidance from regions that have already successfully adopted the trilingual, mother-tongue plus two, mandate.

…Part 3 of 3 …Concluded

Anjum Altaf was Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is presently the Provost at Habib University. 

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Urdu in Pakistan – Language as the Key to Wisdom

October 31, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I am grateful to those who have participated in the discussion initiated by the post on the recent Supreme Court decision mandating the switch from English to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis). Unfortunately, the majority of the comments were received as emails which do not help to generate a public discussion and I once again request readers to post their thoughts on the blog itself.

The majority of the comments pertained to the scope of the article, the accuracy of historical claims, and to issues of interpretation of past events. However, there were some that raised substantive questions and I will address them in a subsequent post. In this post, I intend to clear some misunderstandings that I see coming in the way of a fruitful discussion. I also do not wish the misunderstandings to be compounded by the comments of those who have advocated their own points of views without reading the previous article. While I respect their views, I don’t think there is much to gain by talking past each other. We need the patience to listen to a point of view if we are to move from mindless confrontation to meaningful communication.

The first point I am forced to make is that I have no material stake in the outcome. My life has been lived out and even my children are out of college – a new language policy is for me a purely academic exercise. I believe I had a reasonably good school education benefiting from some exceptional teachers and from the period before the real confusion in language policy crept into our system of education. My college and university education in Pakistan were much poorer but that can be left for a separate discussion.

My concern in this matter is triggered by my association with two of the leading private undergraduate educational institutions in Pakistan – as Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at one and as Provost at the other. Close contact with students has left no doubt in my mind that our language policy has had an extremely debilitating effect even on the best students in the country – the majority are not solidly grounded in any one language.

One can ask why that is a problem? Why is it not good enough to know a language just sufficiently enough to undertake every day transactions and to buy and sell whatever it is that one might want to transact? Indeed, one should ask what being solidly grounded in a language means and why it is of any importance for students.

I believe an understanding of this dimension is vital for the discussion we should be having, keeping in mind that at this time we are talking not of the entire population but about students attending the leading universities in the country. These are the students from among whom will emerge the decision-makers of tomorrow and we should have a very great stake in the creativity and intellectual ability of this cohort.

In the earlier post I had identified two practical functions of language – to transfer information between generations and to be able to share information within a community. Here, I would like to add a more fundamental function, that of education, which stems from the characteristic of language that makes it a key to the storehouse of wisdom. This needs some elaboration.

One can readily accept that a great number of extremely learned and gifted human beings have been part of human history and that their accumulated wisdom is enshrined in the texts they wrote and the commentaries that have been written on those texts subsequently. Access to this storehouse of wisdom, and the ability to interpret it, is an essential starting point for all those who aspire to contribute to human progress. This is best exemplified by the saying attributed to Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Examples of the creators of wisdom abound – Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina, Panini, Buddha, to name just a few. It was the wisdom of the Greeks, kept alive by the Arabs, which re-lighted the lamp of knowledge in Europe. In our region, an incredible amount of wisdom resides in the legacy of Mirabai, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif, Ghalib, and Iqbal down to our times. Creativity is enhanced by being able to draw upon this knowledge in the performance of our everyday tasks. In a way that forms the positive aspect of a question like “What would Jesus do?” You have to know what Jesus did in order to answer that question. A useful analogy is of a plant that, without conscious effort, draws nourishment from the soil. If the soil is dry, the plant withers in no time.

Our linguistic heritage is akin to the soil that nourishes our ideas, that makes possible the spark that can connect disparate thoughts and thus lead to new ways of seeing things. If we lose access to this nourishment we weaken the source of our creativity and thereby the ability to draw upon the wisdom of the past in deliberating intelligently on current problems and their possible solutions.

When I come across students who cannot read their first language, whose second language, in most cases Urdu, is barely adequate for verbal communication, and whose English is only proficient for essential reading and writing, the critical dimension of our dilemma becomes obvious. In no language are they equipped to access the many storehouses of wisdom.

The difficulty is compounded in our region because the wisdom of our vernacular traditions is not adequately translated into English, the one language in which our best students can read with any proficiency. This is unlike the West where, say, the wisdom of the Greeks, is kept alive by continuous reinterpretations in local languages so that some access is possible for those who are educated in those languages, say French in France or German in Germany.

I am being generous in conceding that our students are proficient in reading English – the ability to truly understand a language comes from being imbued in its culture. Stanley Fish has mentioned that just one course in one poem, Milton’s Paradise Lost, is sufficient to make students rethink all the big questions of life:

“You who read “Paradise Lost”… what do you read but everything? This book contains all things and the origins of all things, and their destinies and final ends.” How did the world begin? Why were men and women created in the first place? How did evil come into the world? What were the causes of Adam’s and Eve’s Fall? If they could fall, were they not already fallen and isn’t God the cause? If God is the cause, and we are the heirs of the original sin, are we not absolved of the responsibility for the sins we commit? Can there be free will in a world presided over by an omniscient creator? Is the moral deck stacked? Is Satan a hero? A rebel? An apostate? An instrument of a Machiavellian and manipulative deity? Are women weaker and more vulnerable than men? Is Adam right to prefer Eve to God? What would you have done in his place? Wherever you step in the poetry, you will meet with something that asks you to take a stand, and when you do (you can’t help it) you will be enmeshed in the issues that are being dramatized.

It is not enough for our students to pick up Paradise Lost and get the same out of the poem. For one, one needs to be steeped in that culture to make sense of the literary allusions – much of English literature has its roots in the Bible. For another, we don’t have enough teachers who can make up for that deficiency. But we do have similar wisdom in, say, Noon Meem Rashid’s Hasan Koozagar or in Kabir, Bulleh Shah, and Ghalib that can be much more readily accessible because the allusions and metaphors belong to our own lived reality. We do need to ensure a solid grounding in our first language and/or Urdu to get to the point where we can access this wisdom.

Hopefully, I have made the intellectual case for why we need to ensure mastery in at least one language. If we are convinced of this its translation into reality is actually quite easy. All we need to do is to get rid of the confusion in policy and structure the linguistic education appropriately.

See the post Milton and Ghalib on this blog and our attempt to make the wisdom of Ghalib accessible to students in English. See also my 2014 presentation on this subject (Bunyaad Kuch To Ho) to the entering freshman class at LUMS.

Anjum Altaf was Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is presently the Provost at Habib University.    

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Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis

October 24, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Our experience with the politics of language has been so traumatic – first with the Urdu-Hindi divide contributing to the partition of India and then with the Urdu-Bengali divide contributing to the partition of Pakistan – that we need to step with the utmost caution in the new quagmire created by the recent Supreme Court decision to replace English with Urdu as the official language of the country.

That said, the decision has to be examined on its own merits without our judgement being prejudiced by the experiences of the past however traumatic they may have been or any politicking aimed at local and parochial gains. To state my conclusion at the outset, I find most of the objections to the decision misplaced and analytically unwarranted but I would like to begin by outlining the primary functions of a language in order to support my contentions.

In the context of this discussion, language can be considered to have two primary functions. First, as a tool to facilitate learning across generations and, second, as a means of communication between people in any given period of time.

The evidence as regards the first function is so overwhelming that those who disregard it can justly be classified as ignorant, the only ambiguity pertaining to whether the ignorance is real or contrived for some unstated purpose. It has been repeatedly proven that the mother tongue is the most effective vehicle for instruction during the early years of education.

While the evidence has become scientifically more rigorous in recent decades, the insight itself is not only quite old but also directly related to our own region. Almost everyone is aware of the infamous 1835 Minute on Education by which Macaulay is said to have favored the use of English as the medium of instruction in British India. Very few know of the evaluation of that policy by George Curzon who became the Viceroy in 1898: “Ever since the cold breath of Macaulay’s rhetoric passed over the field of Indian languages and textbooks, the elementary education of the people in their own tongue has shriveled and pined.”

Note the observation from the 1904 resolution that followed on the education policy in India:

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 century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan offered the following major recommendation:

Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.

Given the above, it should be obvious that as far as the learning function of language is concerned all the objections to the Supreme Court’s decision are not only misplaced but irrelevant. The choice is not between Urdu and English but between either and the mother tongue. The real policy question is at what stage in a child’s education a second language should be introduced and whether it should be Urdu or English.

All those harping on the importance of English as the dominant global language of science and technology and thus necessary for development are being dense to put it mildly. First, the choice of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years and Urdu as the second language does not rule out the acquisition of English at a later stage. Second, the evidence regarding development from countries like Japan, South Korea and China that use their national languages as the medium of instruction is so stark that only the deliberately obtuse could overlook it. If facility with English had been the dominant requirement for development, Pakistan and India should have been global leaders and if lack of facility in English had been a genuine hindrance Japan, South Korea and China ought to have been laggards.

The fact is that facility with English in non-English speaking countries is very poorly correlated with any index of development. Pakistan’s elite, responsible for all its policy decisions, is fluent in English and yet what do Pakistan’s rankings reveal: the sixth largest country in the world ranks 146 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, which measures health, standard of living, and education and 136 out of 144 countries in primary education according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Arguing that this abysmal plight would improve if the entire country learns English is the kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking that has plagued our education policies to date. More seriously, it also ignores the evidence that even the acquisition of English depends on sound early education in the mother tongue.

Communication at any given point in time is the other primary function of language and this has two dimensions. First, horizontal communication amongst citizens and second vertical communication between elected representatives and the citizens. Clearly, the existence of a common language greatly facilitates communication across both dimensions as we can observe again from the examples of Japan, South Korea and China.

Of course, this quest is greatly complicated in multi-national countries like Pakistan and India when the choice of a single language becomes politically fraught. This is particularly the case when there are distinct linguistic groups with equally large populations as is the case in India and was the case in Pakistan before 1971. The decision to force one language as the national or official language in such cases is a mindless application of the model of the nation-state borrowed from Europe. Consider this excerpt from Jinnah’s speech in Dhaka in March 1948:

…let me make very clear to you that the State Language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Any one who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one State Language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries.

Both the tragedies mentioned in the beginning of this discussion stemmed from the lack of sensitivity in how to negotiate such linguistic minefields. The choice of any one language in such circumstances would disadvantage a part of the population. While the provinces of West Pakistan did accede to the choice of Urdu in order to counter-balance the political weight of East Pakistan, there was absolutely no lack of understanding that the decision would disproportionately disadvantage the Bengali speaking population. In such a case the choice of a neutral language like English would have been a sensible second-best compromise without, of course, conflating the issue and imposing it as the medium of early education as well. The Mughals, when they arrived in India, were faced with a similar conundrum and chose a neutral language, Persian, as the language of administration even though, and it is very important to recall this, it was not their native language. It was a pragmatic not a chauvinistic compromise. Precisely because Persian was a foreign language, every non-Persian speaker had an equal opportunity to learn it if he/she aspired to positions that required knowledge of the language.

But the Pakistan of today is in a very different situation. If horizontal communication amongst citizens is important it would not be politically possible to do so in any of the sub-national languages. The only choice is between Urdu and English and here the fact that the provinces of West Pakistan had agreed to Urdu as the national language very early has altered the linguistic demographic beyond recognition. Almost everyone now has a working familiarity with Urdu, much more than the familiarity with any other language including English.

Thus the argument that Urdu is the mother tongue of only eight percent of the national population is only a polemical one without any real relevance. If the choice being debated is between two foreign languages then English is not the mother tongue of even a handful of Pakistanis – Urdu wins handily on that count.

Furthermore, it is really an advantage if Urdu is considered a foreign language in Pakistan by virtue of not being the native language of any of its constituent nations. That makes its acceptance much more possible compared to any one of the sub-national languages just as Persian was the neutral choice in Mughal India.

The fact that Urdu is understood to some extent by the majority of the population, that it is akin to a foreign language and not one of the sub-national languages makes the case for its acceptance as the language of horizontal communication very strong, certainly stronger than the case for English. The unstated fear that the choice of Urdu would somehow enable the eight percent native Urdu speakers from conquering all the commanding heights is misplaced, to say the least. One can rest assured that regional elites which did not allow that in the past will certainly not do so in the future, more so since many have already adopted Urdu as their language of communication. Amongst the educated cohorts, the native Urdu speaker today has virtually no advantage over the native speaker of the other sub-national language – all of them communicate equally well or equally poorly in a mangled hybrid of various languages because of the breakdown of primary and secondary education.

The function of language for vertical communication is much more important in some senses and here the situation has deteriorated to a critical pass. Inclusive development calls for a common medium of communication and its absence is stark in countries like Pakistan and India where the ruling elites communicate in English while the majority of citizens is unfamiliar with the language. Ministers and experts pronouncing in English leave virtually the entire population out of the national discourse at great cost.

One illustration would suffice to make the point re lack of inclusion. The entire debate about development centered round the Millennium Development Goals is taking place without any credible translation of the term in Urdu or any other national language. How can the people participate in this debate? Contrast the case of China where every policy decision, sensible or otherwise, is summarized as a slogan in Chinese for popular dissemination – ‘Away With All Pests’ being one example.

This gulf is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s deliberation and decision. We need inclusive development, participatory governance, and a shared discourse. How are we going to get there? That is the real question that we face today.

Is it possible to bring the entire population to the level where it could follow the mangled English of its elite? Do we even have teachers with sufficient grasp of English to teach others? Or is it politically possible to do so in any one of the sub-national languages, even Punjabi that is the language of the numerical majority in the country? Or is Urdu the sole remaining feasible choice that the tragedies and follies of the past have, so ironically, transformed into the commonly understood language of the majority of the population. When a cruel fate throws us some crumbs we should at least have the sense to pick them up.

There is little doubt in my mind that the choice of Urdu as the official language would be the sensible and far-sighted one in the concrete situation that exists in Pakistan today. The debate should really be on how to operationalize the transition. My recommendation, keeping very clear the distinction between learning a language and learning in a language, would be to have the early years of education in the mother tongue, introduce Urdu second, followed by English. This would yield a sound educational foundation, a common language for communication, and a facility with English when the study of science and technology requires its use.

The experience of the European Union where the “mother tongue plus two” mandate is widely accepted, and where there is great emphasis on the acquisition of English, can provide very useful guidance on the stages at which each of the languages is best introduced and the points at which the language of instruction is switched, if warranted. There is little need to reinvent the wheel.

It is an added advantage that this transition does not take away the option of the provinces to conduct their parliamentary procedures in their own language or to make information available to their citizens in the language with which the latter are most comfortable. Indeed, this is what they should be doing in any case just as in the US most material related to citizen-state interaction is made available in Spanish as well as English.

Bibliography:

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http://muslimmodernities.org/uploads/Alam-Persian%20Lang%20in%20Mughal%20Politics.pdf

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Stupid in English,’ Dawn, December 3, 2010.
https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/on-being-stupid-in-english/

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Macaulay’s Stepchildren,’ Himal Magazine, January 2010.
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Altaf, Anjum. ‘Millennium Development Follies,’ Dawn, December 24, 2010.
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Haqqani, Hussain. ‘Let Down by Both Carrot and Stick,’ The Hindu, October 23, 2015.
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Jaffrelot, Christophe. The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience, Oxford, 2015.

Macaulay, T.B. ‘Minute on Education,’ February 2, 1835.
http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_1835.html

Supreme Court of Pakistan. Order on Urdu as the official language of Pakistan, August 26, 2015.
http://www.supremecourt.gov.pk/web/user_files/File/Const.P._56_2003_E_dt_3-9-15.pdf

Wright, Wayne E., Sovicheth Boun and Ofelia Garcia, Eds. The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education, Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
https://books.google.com.pk/books?id=KG_-CAAAQBAJ&pg=PR3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false

Anjum Altaf is Vice-President and Provost at Habib University, Karachi.

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