Saturday, November 1, 2008

Native Tongues

I have lived in Pakistan for an overwhelming part of my life: nineteen out of twenty-two years. Yet my first language is English. I understand Urdu; I speak, read and write it, but I am just not as comfortable in Urdu as I am in English. It takes me long agonizing minutes to decipher just one sentence in Urdu newspapers and I speak Urdu searchingly, stumbling through the grammar and tripping over the diction. I think in English, write in English, read in English and am most expressive in English.

There are lots of people here who think that this makes me less Pakistani, less authentically native. I have always contended that that is utter nonsense. For one thing, Urdu is not the native language of a majority of Pakistanis. Balochi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Seraiki, Pushto, Hindko, Dari etc are the first languages of a lot of Pakistanis. In fact, I have met many people on trips to Thatta and Swat who cannot speak or understand any language besides Sindhi and Pushto, respectively. And what's more, according to, in 1993, only 7% of Pakistanis were native speakers of Urdu.

It seems a little preposterous to me that this 7% can lay sole claim to being Pakistani, disenfranchising the remaining 93%. It was such linguistic chauvinism that ultimately cost us East Pakistan.

As for the ridiculous claim that Urdu is more native to Pakistan than English, let me point out that both Urdu and English were brought to the subcontinent by colonial armies, the Mughal and British, respectively, and that too around the same time, in the sixteenth century. Urdu and English have equal history in the subcontinent.

The actual reason why most people have a problem with English is that it does not fit in well with the post-independence narrative, which, somewhat artificially, binds Pakistanis to the Mughals, spiritually, culturally, linguistically and historically, and distances us from the British and their legacy in the subcontinent. This is the outcome of Pakistanis – an extremely heterogeneous group of people – desperately looking to define themselves. But it is a misguided effort. Defining ourselves through a monolithic narrative (and language) is to marginalize the local histories, cultures and realities of the people of Pakistan. We are a diverse, pluralistic people with many differences and the sooner we learn to embrace and celebrate these differences instead of demonizing and suppressing them, the faster we will evolve a more cohesive and inclusive national identity for ourselves.

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