Urdu kay aakhree lamhay
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
The glorious tales of wit, spirituality and love from Urdu’s golden age are sometimes so heavily infused with South Asian Latin (better known as Persian) that my generation of English-as-a-first-language Pakistanis are completely out of our depth when Grandpa or old-school uncles are in their element. Urdu has been sliding out of the national consciousness for so long now, that attempts to resuscitate it are perhaps too little, too late. After all, if this is what we wanted to do with Urdu, why did we treat the brothers from the Bay of Bengal with such unadulterated wrath when they asked the simple question, “Can we please conduct business in a language we are comfortable with?”
Back in the day, everyone from the Quaid to the UP and Punjab nawaabs were deeply committed to ensuring national unity, even if it meant pursuing a linguistic apartheid. This passion for Urdu, more than anything else, ended any chance of a successful union of the two grand wings of South Asian Islam’s political mainstreams. Stanley Wolpert quotes the Great Leader as having once said something to the effect that Urdu is Pakistan’s national language, and anyone who felt or thought otherwise was an enemy of the state.
So that was that for East Pakistan, the intellectual jewel of the South Asian Muslim experience. The residual post-1971 Pakistan not only lost that jewel, it clearly also lost its lust for Urdu. It is nearly 40 years since the legitimate aspirations of Bangla-speaking Pakistanis were achieved through the independence of Bangladesh. It made sense to assume that the birth of Bangladesh should have been the beginning of the golden age of Urdu. What has happened to Urdu instead is a gut wrenchingly tragic story that will end in the ultimate death of the language.
Three symptoms are particularly worrying for Urdu. The first has to do with the increasing invisibility of Urdu in symbols and instruments of the state. The second is the emergence of Roman Urdu. The third is the absence of a standardized and widely adhered to natural Urdu script.
Starting with the formulation of laws in the country, to the oath taken by the president of the country, to the rather disturbing unconfirmed rumour about a judge insisting that all citizens appearing in his courtroom need to speak English–Urdu is increasingly invisible in matters of the state. The range of its invisibility is both at times gravely depressing and at times, just downright hilarious.
When Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority (CDA), the bureaucratic dictatorship that runs the capital, installed shiny new bus shelters all across the city this summer, it did so in some cases at locations where a bus or van has never been, and will never be. The real rub however was the signs on the blank advertisement spaces on the bus shelters. The exact words were, “Use this Bus Shelter. PLEASE DON’T ABUSE IT!”
It does not take the intelligence of Dr Abdus Salam to unscientifically conclude that an overwhelming majority of Islamabad’s patrons of public transport may not be able to digest the catchy and sophisticated English-language message.
The absence of Urdu is not always funny however. When President Asif Ali Zardari took his oath of office with President Hamid Karzai in attendance, the contrast between a nation with a coherent identity and one without it could not have been clearer. The president of a country of 172 million took his oath in English, a language that (conservatively) more than 100 million of his citizens can neither speak, nor read, nor understand. Afghanistan has many, many problems–but one problem it does not have is linguistic confusion. Afghans speak Dari and Pashto without shame, and for the most part with much pride.
We can tell that the slide of Urdu has reached epic proportions when the distribution of state patronage through politicians and their families begins to be disbursed in standardized templates that are in English. The recent cyber-hullabaloo about a letter from the prime minister’s sister asking government officials to treat people’s request favourably is an overblown reaction to one of the building blocks of “real” Pakistan–patronage, or “sifarish”. There is nothing scandalous about this.
The scandal is that the infamous letter of “sifarish” letter is in English, and in utterly poor English at that. The irony could not be deeper. Here is a letter bearer (spelt “barer” in the actual template) who clearly does not know the English language. The letter he “bares” has been typed by a person who is clearly not comfortable typing the English language. The letter has been endorsed by someone to whom English is not natural or native. Most importantly, the letter is addressed to an employee of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (the same republic that was torn asunder to retain the supreme status of Urdu as the national language). And of course, the person it is addressed to is most likely also less than comfortable with the English language.
If this letter of “sifarish” had instead been delivered through a phone call, the conversation would most certainly have been in Urdu. Yet it is clear why the letter was in English–a langree, loolee English, at that. For a high-ranking public official to send someone a letter in Urdu would have made the “barer”, the sender, and the recipient all feel like they were part of something way below the level of a Prime Minister.
This brings us to the second major sign of Urdu’s imminent death, the emergence of Roman Urdu. From the perspective of the English-as-a-first-language crowd, this has been a brilliant way to conceal the inadequacy of our Persian-script writing abilities. Most importantly, the takeover of Pakistan’s multinationals by the yuppie, English-as-a-first-language types allowed this slender minority to infuse the popular culture with a virtually new language where it could plug the gap between its own incompetence in the Urdu language, and the majority of Pakistanis who are equally incompetent in the English language. The imprint of this strange nexus between the burger minority and the bun kabab and daal roti majority is most visible in the fake American accents splattered all over the electronic media. The most painful element of Roman Urdu is how Roman Urdu is spoken. Its pronunciation is a tragicomedy: perfectly local boys and girls raised by hard working, decent Pakistani parents have decided all of a sudden to forget to roll their R’s, and inexplicably elongate their vowels.
Since it is the 21st century, it is only appropriate that underpinning the cultural avalanche that is killing the Urdu language, is the third major symptom of Urdu’s imminent death: technology. Despite valiant individual efforts from stalwarts like Dr Sarmad Hussain of the Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing, and Dr Attash Durrani, of the Centre for Excellence for Urdu Informatics, there is no single agreed-on standard for the use of a natural Urdu script in information and communication technologies. Several agreements have taken place in meetings since 2000–when this problem emerged as a major challenge. But such meetings and agreements have never resulted in a widely used or standardized script. The greatest proof is always in the pudding. The Jang and Nawai Waqt websites both use image files, rather than normal script to post their Urdu content on the Web. Websites that use Urdu script, such as the BBC Urdu site (itself a reality that is dripping with irony), and others like Google’s Urdu page, and the Iqbal Academy’s website use an unnatural script that looks more like Arabic. The natural Urdu script (that Jang uses for example) is called Nastaliq–and in 2008, there is still no standardized and widely used Nastaliq script.
Urdu is not important because it is a unifier. History has taught us that in fact Urdu may not be much of a unifier at all, but it is a functional least common denominator. In a country of 172 million that desperately needs common denomination (and functionality), that’s important. There are less women, minorities, children or the disabled in Pakistan than there are citizens who cannot read, write or speak English. The tangible truth is that language is the greatest instrument of social exclusion in Pakistan. There can be no democracy in Pakistan without the rescue of the Urdu language, beginning with its patronization by symbols and instruments of the state. (The News)
The writer enjoys the resplendence of irony entailed in a call to save Urdu, in English. He can be reached through his website at www.mosharrafzaidi.com