Sunday, October 7, 2012

From Idleness to Determination

A dear friend visited us recently and brought me a book she had bought in India. Although everyone was intrigued by the title, it was the author's name that caught everyone's attention. Where have we seen the name Saeed Mirza? We asked each other since it seemed familiar but neither could pin it down for the  context in which it appeared, threw us off. The novel, Ammi: letter to a democratic mother, is the writer's debut novel, and originally written in English. A brief description suggested it was a “magical tale of love and romance to a personal testimony of growing up in India to a discourse between history and politics that presses into service Mulla Nasruddin, Studs Terkel, Ibn Senna, Eklavaya and Ra'abia Basri. The post- modern and post-colonial in me was hooked. The shocker, however, came in the next paragraph confirming the author was indeed one of the pioneers of the Hindi Art Cinema. Or as the book stressed “a pioneer of the New Wave, progressive cinema in India” even if his first film was made some twenty years after Ritwik Ghatak's Ajantrik. A question that nags many of us who write in English raised its head: why would a person so quintessential to the Hindi art cinema opt for English as a medium of expression for writing a novel, not a popular but literary one? Would Antonioni or Kurosawa write his first novel in English?

   At a different time, the whole issue would not have taken up so much of my peace of mind if for the fact that another friend, a fine writer in her own right, had not emailed a link to an article written by another fine writer from Pakistan. The article by Mohammad Hanif was published in an English publication titled Tehelka. It is a good article that raises the same interesting question and the author's humor is appreciated. In a lucid manner he explains why he writes in English by drawing attention to the socio-politico-economic situation in which he grew up, and most Pakistanis continue to do still. I have talked about the continuing tragedy in Pakistan of not paying attention to and doing something about making local languages the medium of instruction. I may have also written about how most Pakistanis grow up and/or reach college education through a two-tier process of self-devaluation. Since it is not a conscious process, most of us don't realize when and how we insult ourselves. Hanif Mohammad succinctly sums up when he says, “When I was growing up in Pakistan, the complete inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility.”

Likewise, I have witnessed family friends proclaiming that a Punjabi speaker can never pronounce the urdu word “hai”  correctly. He's bound to pronounce it with the tinge of a cow's mooo! Similarly, I once heard another family friend, a graduate from the prestigious St. Anthony's High School in Lahore, making fun of his brother-in-law, who belonged to a lower economic station, in the company of his friends as the brother-in-law habitually mispronounced, with an Urdu-inflection, the name of the then very popular, imported cigarette brand among youngsters.

Yet Mohammad Hanif confuses the issues of lack of education in ones mother tongue due to our leadership's shortsightedness and servile attitude, and why one does or should choose to writer in a language. Although he rightly points out that there was no college physics in Urdu, he doesn't engage with the question of its absence when there indeed was an Urdu physics for 10th grade. If authorities can produce physics books prepared for Urdu medium high schools, why can't they do the same for college level? Even that discussion is secondary and is often like beating a dead horse. My contention is with his answer to why he writes in English. Before I go any further I would like to present my own case of why I predominantly write in English, both fiction and non-fiction. This is what I stated in my previous article The Misshapen Twin published in this newspaper on May 27, 2012:  As for me, since I make my physical and emotional home in the US, English is the language I primarily write in and translate into. I am emotionally closer to the literary community I interact with on daily basis.”

Hanif Mohammad's response is multi-faceted. He writes in English, he says, because he “thinks and plots” and has read great literature in English and since Graham Greene, too, wrote his novels in that language. There is logic in there somewhere but I'll leave it to the reader to go hunting for it. He adds, “when I write a political rant or a comment piece, I lean towards Urdu because there are all these ready-made historical references, street slang and wordplay bursting to be put to use.” Fair enough, but it gets better, for he admits that if he's pissed, he is more likely to curse in his mother tongue. This hints at the intimacy and devaluation of the mother tongue the he and I have touched on, albeit, in different vocabularies. More interestingly, this reminds me of an exchange between Tagore and the noted actor Balraj Sahni, who switched from writing in Hindi to Punjabi. When inquired why Balraj Sahni didn't write in his mother tongue, one of the reasons he gave to the great poet was that Punjabi was not only a provincial language but a backward one too, not even a language, rather a dialect of Hindi. To which the poet replied that a language couldn't be called backward or incompetent when a poet like Nanak had written in it. He went on to recite Nanak in Punjabi. Balraj Sahni shot back that that's religious literature, and the Punjabi language lacked vocabulary for modern secular literature. Tagore then reminded Balraj that there was a time when Bengali too was perceived in such light by the educated Bengalis. That Bankim Chatterji and he have given their language thousands of new words. And that they have put their language on the world map and is mo more inferior to any other language.

The experiment of colonialism gave us an era of discontinuity, cutting most South Asians from their native traditions and literature. Its effect persists in making things worse for the coming generations. Its flow cannot be stemmed through laziness or by procrastination. If it bothers a writer that he or she does not or could not write in Punjabi, then effort has to be made, inertia  has to be overcome. If one can easily curse in ones mother tongue, then with effort and a little help from friends one can write in her mother tongue as well. The intellectual laziness and literary/artistic disconnect are but two sides of the same coin. On my last trip to Pakistan I was fortunate to fly beside a teenage Aitchisonian who was a great grandson of one of our ex-Prim Ministers. I was horrified to learn during our frank discussion about politics and literature that the young man had no idea who Waheed Murad was! No idea about Sultan Rahi! And the list went on. To be honest, I had never thought of the disconnect in those terms. I was ready to accept that those who are fortunate enough to afford and care to read literature would know of Western writers at the cost of their own or from neighborly regions. I was willing to admit such divorce makes one ill-informed about ones own literary heritage, thus distorting in the process understanding ones own historical narratives. But I had never imagined that this parting of ways could blind one to icons of ones modern history. 

Recently, as I brought up the subject in a different context, a close relative described it as only a result of “generation gap”. The sound of her argument had a ring of reason and I was humbled. But the disquiet wouldn't recede. It slowly began to seem that the ring of reason was hollow because I wondered and asked myself: Why did I know  of K. L. Segol or Najamul Hasan? How did I know that the latter eloped with Devika Rani? How do the Americans know who Chaplin and D. W. Griffith are? Why do we know who Bulleh Shah is? Why do we remember Amrita Pretam and the Spanish speakers reminisce about Borges? Two young nieces of my wife recently asked me of my views about movies belonging to the golden age of Hollywood which I thought were more like orientalist crap strengthened my point. How come our kids can know about Humphrey Bogart but not about Sultan Rahi? The answer to this conundrum lies in education which our schools, parents, and other outlets in society impart to a child. If that youngster did not know his cultural history, it is not, I suggest, simply a matter of generational gap, but of disconnect and laziness that the government and family have facilitated. And it is the same malaise that Hanif Mohammad has hinted at. I have read enough articles written by Hanif Mohammad to know that he has read and is aware of Najm Hosain Syed's poetry in Punjabi. I also know that he has read Nadir Ali's short stories in Punjabi which - according to a common friend - he enjoyed. I believe he can graduate from simply cursing in his mother tongue to actually writing literature in Punjabi. That is if would like to go beyond cursing. It won't be easy as it never is. But the process will great peace to his heart. Whereas cursing is concerned, what better advice than one parted by Caliban:

You taught me language, and my profit on ’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

Moazzm Sheikh is the author of The Idol Lover and Other Stories (Ithuriel Press)
p.s. a shorter version of this piece appeared in News International's Literati section.