Our truck tongue

Published: May 18, 2010

Now literature written over trucks as well as their artistic look have captured the world's eye. PHOTO: AFP

Have you ever considered whether or not the trucks that ply on Pakistan’s roads and highways day in and day out, that run from Karachi to Kabul on one hand and the Gilgit and Neelum Valleys on the other, carry just the goods?

I, for one, had never thought about it but when Granta, the literary magazine, recently brought out a number on Pakistani literature, a truck adorned the title. This caused a fair amount of debate. Peeved, a writer remarked that the editors seemed to have been unable to find a better representative for Pakistani literature.

Now that Oxford University Press has published From Hindi to Urdu, a book containing serious research work by Dr Tariq Rahman on linguistic issues, the truck is once again under review. It’s about time, I believe, we seriously thought about the truck as more than a means of hauling cargo.

I am not yet finished reading the book and cannot therefore comment on the conclusions the author has drawn. I am sorely tempted nonetheless to grab the mention he makes of the truck. Dr Rahman is concerned about the linguistic situation of the entire subcontinent. Trying to open the Hindi-Urdu knot, he has gotten into how far different languages go at the grassroots level in Pakistan. That is how he got into researching the mottos, the poetry and the messages that share space with our world famous truck art.

According to Dr Rahman’s research while most of the truck drivers are Pashtu speaking, only 14 per cent of the quotes appearing on the trucks are in that language. Representation of Punjabi, the mother tongue of 44 per cent of Pakistanis, is merely 10 per cent. The share of Sindhi, the language of 14 per cent of Pakistanis, is less than 1 per cent. Urdu unquestionably dominates the space, with nearly 75 per cent of all writings.

It would have been nice to know the prose-poetry proportion. As far as Urdu is concerned, I am sure poetry is considered more effective. And, there may have been no harm in documenting the public transport buses, popularly known as lorries until Partition. Also, I believe, free verse is not very popular among drivers. You will never come across an NM Raashed poem on a truck or a bus. Ghazal and lyric poetry is the clear preference. Iqbal is the favourite, but let me go no further.

Shall we also talk about rickshaws? Maybe we should. But from trucks Dr Rahman has moved on to movies. No wonder, of course, since movies, particularly Bollywood movies, do go a long way.

According to Dr Rahman they are seen in Afghanistan, Britain, America, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Fiji. They were called Hindustani until Partition, likely to get around the Hindi-Urdu debate. The term died out in 1947. Bombay then started describing its movies as Hindi, even if they were called something like Mughale Azam. Sahir, Shakeel and Majrooh’s lyrics thus became Hindi geet. In fact, if Lata Mangeshkar sang a ghazal by Ghalib, it too, became a ‘Hindi geet’. When Pakistani filmmakers used the same they called it Urdu but how far does a Pakistani film go? So who would take that description seriously?

The book discusses many such linguistic tangles. Just let me finish reading it.

*Translated from Urdu

Intezar Hussain

Intezaar Hussain

An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.

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