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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.

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