Urdu in Pakistan – Language as the Key to Wisdom

By Anjum Altaf

I am grateful to those who have participated in the discussion initiated by the post on the recent Supreme Court decision mandating the switch from English to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis). Unfortunately, the majority of the comments were received as emails which do not help to generate a public discussion and I once again request readers to post their thoughts on the blog itself.

The majority of the comments pertained to the scope of the article, the accuracy of historical claims, and to issues of interpretation of past events. However, there were some that raised substantive questions and I will address them in a subsequent post. In this post, I intend to clear some misunderstandings that I see coming in the way of a fruitful discussion. I also do not wish the misunderstandings to be compounded by the comments of those who have advocated their own points of views without reading the previous article. While I respect their views, I don’t think there is much to gain by talking past each other. We need the patience to listen to a point of view if we are to move from mindless confrontation to meaningful communication.

The first point I am forced to make is that I have no material stake in the outcome. My life has been lived out and even my children are out of college – a new language policy is for me a purely academic exercise. I believe I had a reasonably good school education benefiting from some exceptional teachers and from the period before the real confusion in language policy crept into our system of education. My college and university education in Pakistan were much poorer but that can be left for a separate discussion.

My concern in this matter is triggered by my association with two of the leading private undergraduate educational institutions in Pakistan – as Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at one and as Provost at the other. Close contact with students has left no doubt in my mind that our language policy has had an extremely debilitating effect even on the best students in the country – the majority are not solidly grounded in any one language.

One can ask why that is a problem? Why is it not good enough to know a language just sufficiently enough to undertake every day transactions and to buy and sell whatever it is that one might want to transact? Indeed, one should ask what being solidly grounded in a language means and why it is of any importance for students.

I believe an understanding of this dimension is vital for the discussion we should be having, keeping in mind that at this time we are talking not of the entire population but about students attending the leading universities in the country. These are the students from among whom will emerge the decision-makers of tomorrow and we should have a very great stake in the creativity and intellectual ability of this cohort.

In the earlier post I had identified two practical functions of language – to transfer information between generations and to be able to share information within a community. Here, I would like to add a more fundamental function, that of education, which stems from the characteristic of language that makes it a key to the storehouse of wisdom. This needs some elaboration.

One can readily accept that a great number of extremely learned and gifted human beings have been part of human history and that their accumulated wisdom is enshrined in the texts they wrote and the commentaries that have been written on those texts subsequently. Access to this storehouse of wisdom, and the ability to interpret it, is an essential starting point for all those who aspire to contribute to human progress. This is best exemplified by the saying attributed to Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Examples of the creators of wisdom abound – Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina, Panini, Buddha, to name just a few. It was the wisdom of the Greeks, kept alive by the Arabs, which re-lighted the lamp of knowledge in Europe. In our region, an incredible amount of wisdom resides in the legacy of Mirabai, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif, Ghalib, and Iqbal down to our times. Creativity is enhanced by being able to draw upon this knowledge in the performance of our everyday tasks. In a way that forms the positive aspect of a question like “What would Jesus do?” You have to know what Jesus did in order to answer that question. A useful analogy is of a plant that, without conscious effort, draws nourishment from the soil. If the soil is dry, the plant withers in no time.

Our linguistic heritage is akin to the soil that nourishes our ideas, that makes possible the spark that can connect disparate thoughts and thus lead to new ways of seeing things. If we lose access to this nourishment we weaken the source of our creativity and thereby the ability to draw upon the wisdom of the past in deliberating intelligently on current problems and their possible solutions.

When I come across students who cannot read their first language, whose second language, in most cases Urdu, is barely adequate for verbal communication, and whose English is only proficient for essential reading and writing, the critical dimension of our dilemma becomes obvious. In no language are they equipped to access the many storehouses of wisdom.

The difficulty is compounded in our region because the wisdom of our vernacular traditions is not adequately translated into English, the one language in which our best students can read with any proficiency. This is unlike the West where, say, the wisdom of the Greeks, is kept alive by continuous reinterpretations in local languages so that some access is possible for those who are educated in those languages, say French in France or German in Germany.

I am being generous in conceding that our students are proficient in reading English – the ability to truly understand a language comes from being imbued in its culture. Stanley Fish has mentioned that just one course in one poem, Milton’s Paradise Lost, is sufficient to make students rethink all the big questions of life:

“You who read “Paradise Lost”… what do you read but everything? This book contains all things and the origins of all things, and their destinies and final ends.” How did the world begin? Why were men and women created in the first place? How did evil come into the world? What were the causes of Adam’s and Eve’s Fall? If they could fall, were they not already fallen and isn’t God the cause? If God is the cause, and we are the heirs of the original sin, are we not absolved of the responsibility for the sins we commit? Can there be free will in a world presided over by an omniscient creator? Is the moral deck stacked? Is Satan a hero? A rebel? An apostate? An instrument of a Machiavellian and manipulative deity? Are women weaker and more vulnerable than men? Is Adam right to prefer Eve to God? What would you have done in his place? Wherever you step in the poetry, you will meet with something that asks you to take a stand, and when you do (you can’t help it) you will be enmeshed in the issues that are being dramatized.

It is not enough for our students to pick up Paradise Lost and get the same out of the poem. For one, one needs to be steeped in that culture to make sense of the literary allusions – much of English literature has its roots in the Bible. For another, we don’t have enough teachers who can make up for that deficiency. But we do have similar wisdom in, say, Noon Meem Rashid’s Hasan Koozagar or in Kabir, Bulleh Shah, and Ghalib that can be much more readily accessible because the allusions and metaphors belong to our own lived reality. We do need to ensure a solid grounding in our first language and/or Urdu to get to the point where we can access this wisdom.

Hopefully, I have made the intellectual case for why we need to ensure mastery in at least one language. If we are convinced of this its translation into reality is actually quite easy. All we need to do is to get rid of the confusion in policy and structure the linguistic education appropriately.

See the post Milton and Ghalib on this blog and our attempt to make the wisdom of Ghalib accessible to students in English. See also my 2014 presentation on this subject (Bunyaad Kuch To Ho) to the entering freshman class at LUMS.

Anjum Altaf was Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is presently the Provost at Habib University.    

  • Radhika Yeddanapudi
    Posted at 05:11h, 31 October Reply

    Anjum, this was a great follow up to the previous piece. One point is that one does not have to be a student of literature alone to feel the gap. For example, there is a song that as a college student, I heard often in India: The Tinman by a band called America. Perhaps your boys will recall it. Here’s the rub: there was a single line I never understood that went ‘Oz never did give nothing to the Tinman that he didn’t already have.’ Now I had not read The Wizard of Oz – it is a seminal artefact in American childhood but not in an Indian one. But my general knowledge or trivial knowledge was such that I at least got the reference to the title but I didn’t understand its import. If I had read the story I would have known that the Tinman didn’t have a heart and that gorgeous lyrical line implied that Oz was not a magician and that the Tinman only discovered what he already had and opened his eyes to look at himself, perhaps for the first time.

    I concur with your observation that learning a language deeply requires immersion. Our language policies in India and Pakistan hurt us twice: by enabling the loss of the experience at hand and by our following a language that we cannot live. As an adult I have learnt a lot more about English by living in the West. For example, the line – ‘April is the cruelest month of all’ by TSE – how could you know it unless you experienced the sudden dashing of hopes of an early spring because of untimely snowfall? Not that it is the only shade of meaning but not knowing it is a loss.

    I am trying hard to translate your extract from Prufrock that you gave one of the others who responded. Insane job.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 20:52h, 01 November

      Radhika: You have once again zeroed in on precisely what I was trying to convey. Almost all texts refer to things external to themselves and embody metaphors, and often inside jokes, particular to specific cultures. Academic texts cite their references but that is the exception that makes a complete understanding of other texts so incomplete if one is not part of the culture, and even then only if one is aware of the heritage of that culture. Both the examples you have mentioned highlight perfectly the importance of the cultural context for comprehension.

      This is what makes translation so difficult. A good translator must have a native or near-native sense of both languages in order to capture the feelings being conveyed. It was for this reason that I threw out the two lines from Faiz as a challenge. The metaphor that reflects best the sense of loneliness in Urdu is not necessarily the same in another language. Unless one knows it by osmosis or a great deal of study one would not be able to capture it adequately. This is one reason why a highly acclaimed Urdu novel, Qurat ul Ain’s Aag ka Darya is so flat in its English translation (River of Fire) done by the author herself. This is also why many claim that poetry especially cannot be translated – to be a considered a good translation, a poem must stand on its own as a poem in the translated language and for those who do not know the original. This linked article is of interest in this context: http://cat.middlebury.edu/~nereview/25-1-2/Davis.html.

      Your mention of The Tinman made me recall early years at school reciting quite often what to my ears was ‘ringa ringa roses, a pocket full of poses.’ Even if someone had explained ‘posies’ to me I would have had an impossible time imagining that unfamiliar flower. Another one was “inny minny mina mo, catch a nigga by his toe’ which went many, many years before the realization set in of what one had been saying. One even had to perform these rhymes in front of guests to demonstrate the advanced state of one’s education. There must have been plenty of perfectly good rhymes available from our own folk heritage that would have been much more meaningful. I do recall being familiarized at home with ‘tot batot ki motor car’ which was genuinely amusing.

      On nursery rhymes, I also recall what I was about to label an amusing incident. One day we received a call from the principal of the montessori my son was attending with instructions to withdraw him from the school. On investigation, it was found that he was continuously disrupting the class. According to the teacher, he kept insisting: main Mary had a little lamb nahin gaoon ga, main long gawacha gaoon ga (here is long gawacha for the interested: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xwt5fh_long-gawacha-by-musarrat-nazeer_music). I was quite proud of him and myself at that time but had to rethink many years later when the children accused us of ruining their careers by interfering with their early and rapid acquisition of English and its culture and cluttering up their impressionable minds instead with irrelevant vernacular stuff.

      That is just by way of an alert as you chart Himadri’s education.

      PS: On listening to long gawacha again, I realized the remarkable coincidence that its first word also comes across as’nigga’ except that in this case there was never any gap in understanding between the interpretation and the actual meaning of the word.

  • Hasan Aamir
    Posted at 23:14h, 08 November Reply

    I am shocked that people are having a problem understanding the crystal clear analysis you have presented. In a way it proves your point about possessing that deep understanding of a language.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 18:33h, 22 November Reply

    Karl Ove Knausgaard is a massive international celebrity after the publication of his six-volume My Struggle. There is an article about him today that begins as follows:

    “Like most Norwegian schoolchildren of his generation, Karl Ove Knausgaard started learning English at the age of 10. The curriculum didn’t extend to the study of literature, so he had to come to British and American authors on his own. Though he says the opposite, his English is excellent…”

    The following questions are relevant:

    1. Is Norway a under-developed country because children only start learning at the age of ten?
    2. Can people ever be excellent in English if they only start learning at the age of ten?

    And, then, there are the more important counterfactuals:

    3. Would Knausgaard have been a great writer in Norwegian if he started learning in English instead of in his own language?
    4. Would Knausgaard have been an equally great writer in English if he had started learning in English instead of in his own language?


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