Meera’s English and our colonial hang-ups

Our colonial hang-ups
Fly on the wall

Thursday, November 12, 2009 (The News)

Zafar Khalid Farooq

We Pakistanis love to mock. As a nation we enjoy nothing more than sneering at other people’s behaviour and pretensions — especially those of the rich, powerful and famous. And so it should be. Not only is it cathartic to deride our leaders, but also ridiculing the mighty is an important function of a democracy. It also happens to be mostly justifiable. I thoroughly enjoyed sneering at the inappropriate behaviour of former Law Minster Wasi Zafar when he, in what can only be described as an uncouth manner, verbally attacked Ansar Abbasi on ‘Voice of America’ (VOA), threatening him with his ‘big arm’. Even better was watching the very same minister visibly perform a ‘cabinet reshuffle’ on ‘Capital Talk’. Considering this was the minister at the time responsible for overseeing the whole chief justice fiasco, laughing at his oafish and vulgar behaviour provided much-needed catharsis for us mere mortals.

But what we choose to ridicule as a nation often exposes our own insecurities and foibles. This was evident last week when a clip of the Lollywood actress, Meera, speaking English poorly, erupted onto several social networking sites. My Facebook page was inundated with postings of the clip and barring a few exceptions, the overwhelming response towards Meera’s verbal clumsiness was of one of contemptuous jeering from Anglophone Pakistanis. Here are just two of the comments (both from women):

“Hahahah! She is sooo embarassing! Stupid woman!

“She’s such a weird personality I swear. I dnt know y she has to try out such things to mke her self luk stupid.”

Setting aside for a moment the wonderful irony of their own substandard English, what do these reactions tell us? Besides reinforcing the view that in Pakistan, gross misogyny is not the unique preserve of men, it also reminds us once more of the language contradictions and hypocrisy that plague the country.

How’s this for a juicy paradox — in the week that we were commemorating the life of Muffakir-e-Pakistan (the thinker of Pakistan), Shair-e-Mashriq (the poet of the East), Mohammed Iqbal, our English speaking elite, who are unable to tell their ‘alif’ from their elbow, were insulting someone for their language failings.

Rather than Iqbal, our high society, the likes that attend Fashion Pakistan Week, prefer to ape the linguistic achievements of that other architect of Pakistan — Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah couldn’t read or write the official language of the country he founded. Fluent in both English and Gujarati, at least he had the grace to acknowledge and apologise for his linguistic shortcomings. Having given a faltering speech in Urdu, delivered in the distinct clipped tones of the Lincolns Inn-educated barrister that he was, Jinnah regretfully informed the crowd in English that “my Urdu is tongawala Urdu”.

The same can’t be said of our present upper class who, instead, actively revel in their ignorance of Urdu, wearing it as a badge of pride to distinguish themselves from the illiterate proletariat. They delight in the cultural and social apartheid that this language divide confers — preferring Fashion Week over Faiz, Mamma Mia instead of a mushahira. Yet, an elite that can’t communicate properly with the majority of its people is one that is in perilous danger (just ask Marie Antoinette who was unable to read and write her native German). Name me a strong functioning society where such stark language segregations exist between its people?

So before we laugh at Meera, let’s take a mirror to ourselves with our colonial hang-ups. At least she can speak her national language which is more than many of us, with our broken Urdu, can say. Surely, it should be us, the English elite that should be ashamed that we are unable to engage with our fellow Pakistanis on either a cultural or linguistic level. We should be embarrassed that English has become a barrier for capable people progressing in their careers in Pakistan. We should cringe that we are so far removed from our cultural heritage that we can’t read our own alphabet. Suddenly, it is us who are the illiterates. So what if Meera’s English is bad? She isn’t English, nor is she someone who has enjoyed the best education that money can buy, unlike my Facebook deriders.

Considering her humble background and the exploitation she’s had to endure throughout career in order to provide for her family, we should be saluting her, not mocking her. Ironically, with the proceeds of her exploitation, she is bettering the prospects of her family by sending her sister to the UK for study. Meera’s belief that a foreign education is the only way to improve her family’s social standing is a truly terrible indictment on Pakistan society. Sixty-two years after Jinnah created Pakistan, his people are still following his footsteps and getting their education abroad. Now that’s something worth sneering at.

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