Farsi: A Whole Lot of Learning

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.

  • Fiaz Khan
    Posted at 07:15h, 05 December Reply

    Greetings from Lahore Anjum sb. Where did you attend the Farsi classes ?

  • sohailkizilbash
    Posted at 09:11h, 05 December Reply

    Enjoyed this post. I too am keen to learn Farsi as I want to read Rumi, Hafiz and Omar Khayyam.

    The bit about Mughal munshis is very interesting.

    I am so thankful that you provided a link to the book about Chandar Bhan. Immensely enjoying it.

  • Radhika Yeddanapudi
    Posted at 20:30h, 07 December Reply

    Congratulations Anjum – wonderful to learn a language at any age. I have recently been taking my Spanish to a more advanced level and will be sitting for translation exams next year. My motivation is to read and write in it and translate back and forth in Hindi. So, your tip really works. To write in the ‘other’ language that was our original mother and not the one that our brains have been hardwired to use. Recently, I noted that when writing certain words in English I had a contrary impulse to correct them and write them as the Spanish cognates would be written. I took it as a good sign that Spanish was interfering. A few months ago, I read my first Spanish novel, translated from Italian. It was a wonderful feeling to be ‘allowed’ into the psychic space of another language.

    I appreciated Chander Bhan’s point about a well-rounded liberal arts education. This ideal has been lost because we value workers, not thinkers, as though it is possible to shut off the tap from which thought arrives. No wonder so many people have mid-life crises – somebody ought to write a history of the mid-life crisis from ancient to-date! We have lost the time either by choice or circumstance but yes, learning a language and the world that it inhabits, remains a joy that is still available.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 20:16h, 10 December

      Radhika: Yes, learning a new language is an exciting experience. I am delighted that you have crossed several milestones in Spanish and are beginning to think in it. I found the article on Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri very informative especially where she writes of the constraining effects of English and her yearning for a kind of liberation.

      There is so much that a good liberal arts education to add to the sensibility of any professional. Our misfortune is that we can rarely imagine what we might be missing without it. One can get by in life with so little if all one wants is to get by.

  • Muhammad Athar Masood
    Posted at 09:59h, 09 December Reply

    Yes , my students at LUMS do face similar problem perhaps with greater intensity as they are more “hardwired in English” than you have mentioned. Their English too is not up to the mark and they are worse in Urdu which makes learning Persian a little more difficult for them. However, the sooner they overcome SOV/SVO problem, the faster it makes the process of learning.

    Pertinent is to mention that we can hardly find some Pakistan parents these days who desire that their child genuinely improves his or her language skills. And, due to the absence of “accidental advantages” that you have mentioned, it is least possible that we could have civil servants, engineers, accountants or even lawyers speaking or writing good Urdu or English.

    Thanks for sharing remarkable book by Kinra on Chandar Bhan Brahmin Lahori whose following sher is one of my favourite ones:

    مرا دلی است بہ کفر آشنا کہ چندین بار
    بہ کعبہ بردم و بازش برھمن آوردم

    Another such wonderful man was Anand Ram Mukhlis (1697-1750) about whom I read a fine write up at British Library blog (http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/11/when-good-literary-taste-was-part-of-a-bureaucrats-job-description.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+asian-and-african+%28Asia+and+Africa%29) whose last paragraph deserves to be quoted:

    “Mukhliṣ is relevant in our time because he confounds expectations about India’s past. Some today seek to define Indian culture as static, monolithic, and synonymous with the modern understanding of Hinduism. However, the existence of historical figures like Mukhliṣ is at odds with the worldview of such revisionists. He was perfectly at ease with Persian, even using Islamic devotional formulae in his writing, while being in the eyes of those around him and in his own mind unproblematically a devout Hindu, whatever that meant at the time.”

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 20:10h, 10 December

      Athar Sahib: Thanks for the reference to Mukhlis. I had also seen that and added it to a comment on an earlier article that you would find of interest:

      My experience learning Farsi has suggested some possible pedagogical experiments that might help with the students at LUMS. I will share these later.

  • Radhika Yeddanapudi
    Posted at 17:54h, 09 December Reply

    I read the British Library article referring to Mukhlis. The people trying to define Indian culture as static are usually not writers; they are usually trying to persecute writers! In the Progressive Writers movement of the early 20th century many writers had a good understanding of more than one language. The English-only crowd is much more recent.

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