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Reclaiming the native tongue

While teaching a creative writing class last summer, to children between the ages of eight to sixteen, the first question I asked my students what their favourite book was. They responded with multiple genres from fantasy, fiction, to adventure and thrillers. One thing they all had in common was that none of the authors they mentioned were Pakistani, or even South Asian.

A few classes later, I asked them to write a story on any topic of their choosing, as long as it involved a plot twist. The children were bright and inspiring with their stories and I learnt snippets about their lives through the imaginary worlds their young minds created. But there was one thing they all had in common; they all used western names. I heard of multiple ‘Toms’, and ‘Sallys’ but there were no ‘Ahmeds’ or ‘Sanas’. There were no details tied to Pakistan, or even our people.

I realised that it wasn’t their fault. These children had grown up reading about characters in foreign places, with exotic names that when spoken, didn’t sound exotic at all. That was because in a way, their culture was our own. Their names, their places, their words were becoming our own. We seemed to be growing yet we were being enveloped further into a bubble.

I was angry when I read those names on those sheets of paper that stood on my Pakistani table, in my Pakistani city. ‘Pakistan’. The word echoed in my ears as I told the children to use names from our region. The word swirled around in my mouth as I told them to write about empress market, or the clock tower. Pakistan — land of the pure, isn’t it? I knew that purity stemmed from the solid, the stable, the reliable. Yet I lived in a place where my own language wasn’t even solid.

I hadn’t realised how bad this language barrier was. It divided Karachi into parts that shouldn’t have existed; it divided our people into what we claim to be educated and uneducated. While I was in university, I would see everyone around me speaking in their own native tongue, and then there I was, speaking to my mother in a language that wasn’t even my own. Literature was what made me happy, I knew that. But I wanted to hear my grandmother reading her poetry out loud without translating the ‘big words’ into English for me. I had built a bridge, much like the one the people of Karachi had built between classes, but my bridge couldn’t be broken down by wealth or power. I had to slowly climb over it, learning my language, my Urdu, all over again.

Karachi, you used to be home

I walk out of the plane and I’m hit with humidity, heat, and a smell that I can’t even describe with words. This is home.

The airport is packed as I trudge my way to get my overweight, large suitcases. My eyes are watering, my hair is in a state, and my clothes that seemed so loose back in Rome are suddenly sticking to me as the gaze of almost every male present follows me in a carnal manner. 

This is home.

I try and relax as I look at the out-dated conveyor belt slowly moving bag after bag until I finally see my own. I push my way through around 30 males, clad in a mundane-grey uniform, to grab my bag as they all scream,

“Baji, baji” to catch my attention.

One of them reaches for my bag but I reject his offer as I can carry my own luggage. As I try to grab my suitcase, I realise that the 37 kilos are heavier than they were back in Rome. But still, I was not going to embarrass myself so I muster up all my strength and get it down. I can do this on my own, I tell myself.

Soon my other bag comes, another army of grey clad males try and stop me—again I resist. Finally I’m out. The heat hits my face and I can’t remember ever feeling this hot before. My family is screaming off in the distance, I recognise their voices; their faces are blurry because my eyes are hurting. I see the glistening tip of the M of McDonald’s as I am engulfed by a hug of multiple arms.

This is home, I remind myself.

It’s been two months since I’ve moved back to Karachi – two months of gradually falling back into the life I was so comfortable with for 18 years. Everything I depended on for comfort and familiarity is no longer comfortable, and no longer familiar. Some days I tell myself that today, I’ll do it. Today I won’t care what anyone says or thinks, but then the other night while I was blindly scrolling through Facebook I came across an article about a 13-year-old girl that was gang raped. How can we exist freely in a place where a girl is lured into rape with the promise of candy? I thought of Sabeen Mahmud and how vital a haven like T2F is in a society like ours. But they got rid of her; clearly unconventionality is not our friend.

How can we live in a place where innovation is synonymous with fear? I thought of Amjad Sabri and the joy he brought with every Qawwali he sang – but society failed him. How can we live in a place like this?

What can I say, this is home.

I stand in the driveway longing to walk to the nearest cafe, or anywhere at all – but the only way to go is by car and I can’t sit any more. I am sitting at work, sitting at home binge watching Netflix, sitting in the car only to go to another place where I’ll sit. What happened to standing? What happened to long walks? Now, my clothes are measured, the tone of my voice in public is measured. My whole life is measured by customs and rules that I no longer believe in.

I look up and stare at the grey sky from my courtyard. I am chained within four walls constantly. The walls of my house, the walls of my gender, the walls of the ever dominating patriarchy that keep growing taller and taller as I grow smaller to fit into my self-made box. I cannot breathe because I am larger than the box, my thoughts do not fit within it, and my actions do not either.

There, there were no borders, no lines—there was freedom in a way that I hadn’t known before. It tempted me with the ability to express myself in a way that I hadn’t previously been allowed to. And now that I’m home, the freedom I believed I once had has caged me. Every day I try to expand my box slowly and gradually, hoping that one day it won’t be a box anymore. But I know that this is my reality, this is home.

The English language is dying and we are the ones slitting its throat

Language shapes the way we think. It’s a system of investigation of reality, and control of reality. Today, so many of us live for language. It is our mode of communication, words are how we express what we mean, want, and desire. Actions do not speak louder. Words are direct, and distinct.

But what happens when they aren’t anymore? What happens when words begin to diminish into abbreviations and sentences into acronyms? People blame the millennials, they always do. But this hasn’t solely plagued our generation.

I was re-reading George Orwell’s 1984 for a class last semester. I realised that in the world of language, ours isn’t too far away from his. The way we use our words, spoken, and written, are restricting language. I guess you could say Orwell was predicting the dystopia that we now live in.

I log onto Twitter because I feel like expressing myself. But I only have 140 characters and my words do not fit. My thoughts cannot be broken down into 140 characters. It isn’t enough. Eerily reminiscent of NewSpeak in 1984, no? In the novel, the world of Oceania is afraid of art, and language is one of the ways to express art, thus Big Brother stunts the use of language. When people are forced to use limited words, it impoverishes language.

1984 explores the way someone can push an idea by saying what it is not, this is the theory behind Doublespeak. Realism is an ideological representation of truth. Verisimilitude is similar to truth, and part of the central concept in modernity that is explored by Orwell. The novel discovered and obscured fiction. It understands its own fictionality, and is not asking the audience to believe because it assumes belief due to the way it is narrated. Winston is able to resist Big Brother essentially by thinking outside the boundaries established by the Inner Party. But the question is; can we resist? Can we think outside the limits established by our society?

I log onto Facebook to see what’s happening around me. There’s #tbt, #fbf, awk, cray, dw, tbh — the list goes on. And no, that’s not to say I don’t use them, I do, I am a part of the world that is slowly helping deteriorate the English Language and I hate it. I want it to stop. I miss hearing people around me expressing themselves in wild hyperbole. I miss long sentences and paragraphs you got lost in.

I’m standing at Liberty books looking at the shelves around me. Somehow, nothing is appealing, aside from the smell of new books.

I remember having a conversation with a friend, and using words that they felt were Shakespearian, or (the horror) medieval. I don’t remember the word, or the phrase but this is normal these days. Every time someone speaks in rhetoric of winding sentences, they are shunned. The English language is dying, and yes, we are the ones slitting its throat. We are eating away at its resonating words, breaking down its sentences, and I’m afraid that one day it will no longer exist. And that’s scary as hell.

I was reading The Canterbury Tales, and oh, Geoffrey Chaucer really brought along the Middle-English vernacular. Was he shunned for it? Was he criticised for writing in a language that seemed so foreign? Yes. Because as humans, we have this innate need to despise change. After a whirlwind of Anglo-Norman literature, I was aching for English that made sense, English that I knew and was familiar with – today’s English.

I saw the slow progression of change with Chaucer, yet it wasn’t my language. I remember thinking how difficult it was to understand, and I know that the generations above ours feel the same way about the way language is changing today. Not everyone understands what ‘cul8r’ means, and that is not a bad thing. These days the word ‘chill’ has replaced verbs, leaving us with a placeholder to describe what we’re doing. Where did passion go? Did blown-up expressions deteriorate into chill?

God, I hope not.

When it comes to narratives in literature, we can see the way literature glosses over elements; it is a form that encourages thought, therefore it cannot go about pain realistically, and one has to write it symbolically. There is an inherent violence in human beings that literature does not know how to relate to physically. So we use simpler words to make the experiences easier, we use “how are you” to ask someone who’s suffered a loss, when we know it isn’t enough.

We know that the pain is too much to face so we allude, we gloss over, and we hide behind this new language that we call English, but it isn’t really. There are things in life that take on such a horrific mask that they cannot be exposed through literature. They must be narrated through symbols; we use emojis to express feeling, when words are there to do them justice. Why are we taking the easy way out? Why are we forgetting our words?

1984 questions to what extent knowledge can be suppressed. Is knowing better than not knowing? Today, I don’t know. Even when we know, even when we see what’s happening in this world around us, we gloss over it. We go on with our lives as a means of survival. But inherently, we aren’t surviving at all. We’re avoiding.

“We’re cutting language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050” (Orwell).

There is a limitation of language throughout Orwell’s narrative, and the simplification of language makes it impossible to think. This makes me wonder, if we keep cutting down our language, what will remain?

Prose cannot exist in abbreviations, poetry cannot exist in acronyms – literature, and we, as lovers of language, need alliteration, repetition, words that provoke and evoke sensation – we need an extension of words, not the opposite.

One cannot think a thought if one does not have the words to think it in. Language has the power to both isolate, and connect individuals. So let’s try to use to connect further than just hashtags and tweets. Let’s not forget that someone somewhere fought for the English language to find its place in the world. The next time you use an abbreviation, think of Shakespeare rolling over in his grave, think of Chaucer (agh) sighing, and Austen groaning – I know I will.