How ironic it is for a mother not to be able to teach her son how to read and write in his own mother tongue?
How tragic it is for a motherland not to have the mother tongue of her citizens the medium of education in schools?
It sounds surrealistic even Kafkaesque as a writer that I was born in a community, country and culture where I never learnt to read and write in my mother tongue, Punjabi.
My parents taught me how to read and write in Urdu and Arabic and my teachers in schools taught me how to read and write in English and Persian but lately I feel that I was deprived of mystery, magic and wisdom of Punjabi language and literature as a child.
As a writer I grew up with the tradition on Urdu literature. As a teenager I studied the treasures of Urdu fiction from Premchand to Rajander Singh Bedi and of Urdu poetry from Meer Taqi Meer and Asad-ullah Khan Ghalib to Ahmed Faraz and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I was surprised to find out that in the last few years of his life Faiz wrote some poems in Punjabi. After studying his Urdu poems when I read his Punjabi poetry it seemed like an afterthought. After coming to Canada my studies of English literature expanded and I started enjoying English writers as much as I did Urdu writers. My contact with Punjabi language and literature kept on decreasing rather than increasing with passage of time.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“ I read your short stories in Urdu and I love them as they capture the pathos of Eastern immigrants living in the West. I want my countrymen to read your stories. So I want to get your short stories translated into Punjabi. Can I have your permission?”
“What do you mean my permission? It would be an honour for me.”
After that we talked in Punjabi for a while and wished him well on his trip back to India.
After a few months I received another call from Balbeer Singh Momi sharing the news that a collection of my short stories was published in India under the title of Ik Par With Zanjeer [Chain in One Foot]. He had asked Imroze, the artist and partner of famous Punjabi writer and poetess Amrita Pritam, to design the cover of my book. Babeer Singh wanted to get together. So I rushed that evening to Toronto to meet him and see a copy of my book. I could not believe that my short stories were in print in Punjabi. After meeting Balbeer Singh it did not take long for my excitement to turn into disappointment. When Balbeer Singh presented me the book, I could not even read my name. If my picture were not present at the back of my book, I would not have recognized that it was my book. That day I became aware of my ignorance. I did not know that my mother tongue Punjabi was written in two scripts: in gurmukhi script in India and in shahmukhi script in Pakistan. That evening when I was driving home I realized that my mother tongue got crucified on the altar of political and religious differences.
After my initial encounter with Balbeer Singh Momi, I met Rani Nigander, a wonderful Punjabi writer in New York. Rani wrote thought provoking short stories and prose poems in Punjabi. Whenever I went to New York to see my friend Jawaid Danish and my cousin Nauroz Arif, I made sure that I met Humaira Rehman to listen to her new Urdu poems and Rani Nigander to listen to her new short story. When Jawaid Danish and I went to Sweden to attend the international conference of immigrant writers hosted by Sain Sucha, another Punjabi writer, Rani Nigander joined us.
When Rani compiled her short stories, she asked me if I would write an introduction to her book. I asked her to send me the stories. When I received the package I realized that I could not read her stories as they were in gurmukhi script. When I told her that we both laughed. Rani suggested that:
…she would read her Punjabi stories
…make an audiotape
…I would listen to the stories
…write an introduction in Urdu
…she would get it translated in Punjabi
and then include it in her book. I felt quite honored by her going out of her way to include my introduction. I wondered life would have been easier if I could read her stories directly and write my introduction in Punjabi.
As time passed I met more and more people who, like me, were not taught to read and write their mother tongue Punjabi as children. They, like me, did not even know that their mother tongue was written in two different scripts.
In the last few years I have become aware that people like Rasheed Nadeem and his friends in Canada and Safeer Rammah and his friends in America have been working hard to educate Punjabis and make them aware of the rich heritage of their mother tongue. As I got re-introduced to the magic and mystery of Punjabi language I listened to the songs and music of Reshman, Pathanay Khan and Abida Perveen and read poetry of Munir Niazi and Shev Kuman Batalvi. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my own uncle Arif Abdul Mateen had published a collection of Punjabi poems by the name of Aklapay da musafir [traveler of loneliness]. I was impressed to find out that the Punjabi mystic poetry of Bullah Shah and Baba Farid had the same wavelength as that of the poetry of Kabir Das and Jalal-uddin-Rumi of the East and poetry of William Blake and Walt Whitman of the West. The more I read and listened to Punjabi mystic poets, the more I wished that more and more people need to listen to them as their poetry has a message of humanistic philosophy that challenges the fundamentalist tradition of religion. Unfortunately fundamentalism and extremism have been becoming more popular in the prejudiced and violent environment of India and Pakistan in the last few decades. Mustic poetry breaks down the walls of ignorance and prejudice and builds bridges between different people and communities. Their poetry is a genuine attempt to find unity in diversity and similarities in different traditions so that people from different ethnic, cultural and religious traditions can learn to have a harmonious relationship and live like brothers and sisters rather than becoming enemies and killing each other declaring holy wars.
Friendship with poets like Rasheed Nadeem and Azaad Danish has inspired me to write a poem in Punjabi and translate one of my Urdu poems in Punjabi as a token of my affection for Punjabi.
While I enjoy talking in Punjabi and listening to Punjabi folk music, I do not appreciate when people criticize me for not abandoning Urdu and exclusively writing in Punjabi. Most of those critics are not creative writers themselves. They do not realize that creative writing whether poetry or fiction is as much an unconscious as it is a conscious process. No one can decide one day that I want to stop writing in one language and start writing in another. Since people like me grew up with Punjabi as a spoken language and Urdu as a literary language, we are inspired to write in Urdu. Cultures change with time so does languages. The same family over the generations can learn to speak different languages. I find it amazing that in a few generations my family has adopted many languages. My great grandparents spoke Kashmiri, as they were from Kashmir. My grandparents and parents spoke Punjabi as they grew up in Amritsar. My sister speaks Urdu with her children and I speak English with my patients in my clinic and with my Canadian sweetheart Bette at home. After living in Canada for more than quarter of a century I am surprised to find out that lately I am more inspired to write essays and poetry in English rather than in Urdu. And that change is quite unconscious and involuntary. I hope people who insist writers from Punjabi families to write in Punjabi appreciate and respect the innocence and mystery of the creative process.
Although I enjoy reading and writing in Urdu and English and people enjoy my writings, I still sometimes wish that my parents had taught me how to read and write in Punjabi, alongside Urdu, Arabic and English. I am grateful to Balbeer Singh Momi for re-introducing me to Punjabi in Canada and to Rafiq Sultan and Rasheed Nadeem for keeping that interest alive. I am also grateful to Sain Sucha for writing the book Roots of Misery in which he discusses the sociological dynamics of mother tongue. That book was quite an eye-opener for me from a linguistic point of view. I have recommended that book to many people to read to have a better understanding of the cultural dynamics of language.
I hope we all see a day in Pakistan where literacy rate in Pakistan starts rising and children learn their mother tongue in schools, alongside learning Urdu and English. Maybe it is one of my dreams but we need to dream before our dreams come true.
I am gradually realizing how fascinated I am with the mystery and magic of words and languages. I believe all languages are sacred as human beings created them and then saved their wisdom literature in them. Translators who can transfer the knowledge and wisdom of one language and culture to another language and culture especially impress me. I hope there are more translations between gurmukhi and shahmukhi literature and also between both Punjabis and other languages of Asia and the world. Translators of literature help build bridges between languages and cultures and help us all feel an integral part of global village. We are all realizing that literatures of all languages and cultures are parts of our collective heritage and Punjabi language and literature is an important part of that heritage that has still not received its well-deserved international recognition.
Dr. K. Sohail