Urdu, English, and our collective inferiority complex

Published: July 13, 2011
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You do not need to be physically captured to be a slave.Why is it that in Pakistan, Urdu has no value? DESIGN: NABEEL SAMAD

When I was eight years old, my family returned to Pakistan from the United States and a lot of things in the world suddenly changed for me.  

I remember (and my relatives won’t ever let me forget) that one of my very first statements was:

“Why is everything broken?”

I’m pretty sure I was referring to the buildings and streets at the time but today, I believe many other things are broken too.

I remember thinking about the prospects of going to Pakistan; a place my parents taught me was home. I remember being worried about whether I was going to be easily accepted. One thing I knew was that I had been raised, till now, in a very different environment than the one I was going to.

One thing that really troubled me was that I wouldn’t be able to speak the local language. English was all I knew. I wondered how I’d manage in Pakistan, as I was sure to have problems in interacting with people. I imagined myself struggling to utter words in broken Urdu and people thinking I was dumb.

But, in reality, society was adjusting to me instead of the other way round. Instead of me struggling to speak to others, I saw people trying to speak to me. I also got the whiff of the ‘show-off’ factor in people.

People desperately tried to speak in English. And I could see by their faces the difficulty many were going through. Personally, I felt embarrassed seeing everybody put all their efforts in trying to speak in such a broken way. And after each exhausting attempt at it, it was as though they asked through their facial expressions and body language:

“How was I?”

Some may not think this was awkward but for an eight-year-old, it was. And it should be ten times more so for a seventy-year-old. Just imagine yourself going to the US from Pakistan and seeing everyone around you work their tails off just to speak to you in Urdu. And not only this; you also notice that people are competing with each other to prove who is the better speaker of ‘your’ language.

I was taught to have pride for my country and was disturbed to see people looking down upon their own language. Soon I reacted by refusing to reply in English. Instead, I tried my best to answer in whatever broken Urdu I knew.

People were shocked at my behaviour. I think they found it equally awkward. My aunts often said that I was lucky that I was fluent in English as people looked up to those who were. I would always get the what-do-you-mean-isn’t-it-obvious look whenever I tried to know the reason behind it.

Why are people looked up to just because they know English? The reason is that knowing this language is considered a sign of superiority. It’s as if just knowing it makes us more smart and knowledgeable. We can suddenly speak with more authority. When we want to make a point, or an impression, we throw a sentence or two in English. As if doing so would make the content matter more than it would otherwise be.

It is because of this attitude that a particular class dominates our society. The reason: they could afford an English language education. And if you were to analyse more closely you would realise that this has caused chaos in the lives of ordinary Pakistanis.

And so my question is:

Why is there a dearth of opportunities for people who can’t speak a particular language which is not even native to them?

Why is it that in your own country, your own language has no value?

In my opinion it’s all because of our mental slavery. By admitting the West’s superiority, we give up our identity, our pride and our humanity.

In 1948 the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of the British emperor, came to Pakistan, and the British envoy requested the Quaid-e-Azam to receive him. Jinnah replied:

“If I do so then the British head of state (King) would have to reciprocate when my brother would visit London.”

Today our president feels no shame in carrying out a press conference with a third level US representative like Holbrooke. Today, our most senior ministers goes thorough body scans when entering US airports, whereas, US citizens are given visas with zero scrutiny.

Just recently, Senator and acting president of the ANP, Haji Adeel, was not allowed to enter the US embassy despite an official invitation. He was told by a guard that he needed a specific sticker on his car to get in or he could park outside.

You do not need to be physically captured to be a slave.

Was our land occupied when our authorities handed over our people to the US?

Were we not independent when Dr Aafia Siddiqui was taken to trial in the US?

No, we were a sovereign entity!

Or were we?

Saad Lakhani

Saad Lakhani

A motivated young writer and a student of Social Sciences from Karachi.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.