Language/Meaning / 12.01.2021

By Anjum Altaf I recently visited public high schools in two villages in Mandi Bahauddin district. I was impressed by the insights of their heads on the merits of various languages of instruction. They regretted not being consulted on the matter and I couldn’t agree more with them. I had one incongruous visual impression pertaining to the names of the schools that might seem peripheral to many. In villages with every student a native speaker of Punjabi and Urdu the medium of instruction, the names of schools, written in both Urdu and English, were comprised entirely of English words -- Government, Girls, High, and School.  I wonder if this strikes anyone as odd? It would be fine to refer to a school thus in a report written in English but shouldn’t it have an indigenous name as well? In India, one comes across ‘kendriya vidyalaya’ and in Iran...

Language/Meaning / 23.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf On November 14 I participated in an event jointly organized by the Ma Boli Centre of the Institute for Art and Culture and the Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan (THAAP) at the latter’s serene premises in Lahore to discuss various aspects of native languages including their contribution to the creative process as also their future in Pakistan. The event, besides being informative and entertaining, succeeded in its objective by provoking many thoughts and raising many questions. I explore some of them to include those who might be interested in the issues but were unable to join for one reason or another. To start on an incongruous note, I was struck by the fact that in an event aiming to highlight native languages the opening addresses leaned on English with forays into Urdu when emotions welled over. This recalled Khaled Ahmed’s claim that...

Language/Meaning / 21.05.2019

By Anjum Altaf There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order. Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again -- almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu -- kaarner for corner and shaap for...

Miscellaneous / 22.02.2018

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s The Sun That Rose From the Earth: Insights into the world of Urdu poetry in the Late Mughal Era By Kabir Altaf South Asians continue to be fascinated by the Mughal period. Whether one sees this period as the origin of North India’s high culture (the view of most Pakistanis and partisans of the Islamicate culture) or as hundreds of years of slavery under the Muslims (the view of the Hindu Right), it is clear that the Mughals remain central to India’s history and to the country’s conception of itself. This period was also the time when there was a great flourishing of the arts, including music and poetry. For example, it was during the reign of Muhammad Shah “Rangila” (r. 1719-1748) that khayal gaiyki—presently the main style of classical vocal music in North India—was developed. Some scholars also state that it was in...

Language/Meaning / 14.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country. This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world. Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province...

Language/Meaning / 12.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points. Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart. Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be...

Politics / 30.12.2015

By Anjum Altaf My interpretation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Kuttey was published on 3 Quarks Daily on December 30, 2015 (here). Why Not even dogs Go as quietly as these men Battered and bruised Idle and begging Homeless and hearthless Stabbing each other o'er scraps Starving in silence Why What myth is it That keeps you Divided Amongst yourselves That keeps you Blind To your strength The original (in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman) can be seen here. Over the course of a life there are many who nudge you in one direction or another but very few who entirely alter its trajectory. In my experience I can count four, all encountered between the last two years at school and the first two years in college. Faiz Ahmed Faiz made me see the world beyond myself in a manner at once appealing and hopeful. Since then, Faiz has become a kind of Bible-substitute in all the manifestations of sight and sound. Three poems – Kuttey, Bol, and...

Language/Meaning / 05.12.2015

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,...

Cities/Urban / 30.11.2015

By Anjum Altaf I ‘wrote’ a poem, The City, which appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on Monday, 30 November, 2015. The poem is reproduced below followed by comments on its genesis, connections with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and some reflections on translating poetry. The City Look My city bedecks itself in fetters The carefree walk The careless talk No more The head held high The feet unbound No more No more I trust Light from dark Wine from blood Joy from mourning Flowers in my city Wilt into the dust After the Paris attacks, Brussels went into a lock-down that continued for a number of days. Faiz’s poem Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho (Look at the City from Here) came to mind and seemed to speak to the situation. But how could one convey the sense of the poem in English? This brought forth the dilemma of translating poetry. Personally, I am skeptical it can be done especially if it were intended for an audience unfamiliar...

Language/Meaning / 07.11.2015

By Anjum Altaf The article on the transition to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis) elicited a number of substantive comments which I will address in this third and concluding part of the series. Almost all these comments challenged, from one standpoint or another, the usefulness of and need for Urdu in Pakistan and stressed, by default, the importance of English in a globally connected world. I intend to defend the decision of the Supreme Court against these objections but before doing so I will spell out the recommendation of the 2010 British Council study on schooling in Pakistan, not because I consider it sacrosanct, but because it provides a concrete suggestion which can serve as a reference point for the ensuing discussion. The study arrived at the following conclusion: Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language....