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A fading language

Publication Date : 26-05-2014


It's a sad reflection on Pakistan’s urban elites, but the Urdu language seems to be losing ground quite fast.

On the one side is the matter of script, one of my personal bugbears. Between text messaging and advertising, the writing of Urdu in the Roman alphabet has become common, decreasing people’s level of comfort with the script. A decade ago, at a university where I used to teach in Lahore, I asked my students — the majority of whom had studied Urdu as a compulsory subject throughout school — how many could comfortably still read Urdu. Few could, even though all of them could of course speak it.

On the other side, a couple of years ago I went looking for a children’s puzzle that featured the Urdu alphabet, the sort pre-schoolers are given where they have to fit the letter into the correct space, thus learning the sequencing. I went to the bookstore at the nearest mall in the upmarket Clifton area of Karachi. They didn’t have one, even though they had any number of puzzles for the English alphabet.

It took trips to seven or eight bookstores to finally find one. Tired of the hunt by then, I bought it quickly without reading it properly. Later, I realised that it was in fact a puzzle featuring what was probably the Arabic alphabet, since it lacked certain consonants that Urdu has but Arabic doesn’t.

Since then, every time I visit a bookstore — naturally, bookstores that are generally located in areas most easily accessible to me — I check what their stock on books in Urdu for children are. They tend to be sparse. Barring a few high-profile (and high-quality) recent publications, there aren’t many. The men at the counters at these bookshops say there isn’t much of a demand for Urdu books for children, particularly in the young adult category — barring books that discuss/explain religious tenets. At the Karachi Children’s Literature Festival a few months ago, where about a dozen publishing houses had set up stalls, I was unable to find a copy of Iqbal’s Lab Pay Aati Hai Dua.

So the urban elites don’t seem to be interested in buying books in Urdu for their children — and it isn’t hard to guess why. Language and accent has been politicised and identified with class in Pakistan. This is true to varying extents for most languages anywhere in the world; consider, for example, the differences of experiences and being that a Glasgow accent underlines as opposed to the ‘Queen’s English’ accent, or the different reception that an American versus an English accent will invoke. But our upper classes seem to neglect making sure that their children are comfortable in writing and reading Urdu, particularly in its literary iteration.

And the same can be said not just for Urdu but for several other regional languages as well; many students in Lahore’s private schools cannot speak Punjabi except for a few words or phrases, for example, even though they can understand it well. (It appears to me that the situation is better with regard to Pashto and Sindhi, but someone needs to undertake research to identify the true picture.)

This is not to suggest that Pakistan is losing Urdu, of course, for the language is alive and healthy and new writers are adding to its literary richness every day. My intention is to point out how the younger generation in particular of a certain class of people — numerically few but important because of economic and other sorts of power — are becoming alienated from the language. I know of several (private) schools where children are discouraged from speaking amongst themselves in Urdu. In one or two cases I know, students actually get pulled up for talking in Urdu.

The loss, obviously, is that of these young people. But could this also be indicative of a certain turning away from things Pakistani and from the country itself that is possible to discern amongst certain sections of society? In my opinion, regretfully, yes; and, further, it is not too hard to imagine why: Pakistan, at the juncture it stands today, is a place full of unpleasant realities and there doesn’t seem to be much anyone is doing about it.

One could bemoan the fact that powerful stakeholders in the state are distancing themselves from a key aspect of the state, but there would be no point to that. Instead, can we urge schools and parents to focus more intensively on Urdu? At the moment, more than an active turning away, many young people seem to be losing the language out of neglect; that can easily be changed.

*The writer is a member of staff.


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