Twist of the Mother Tongue


The author jibes at his triple selves, in triplicate

By Mohammed Hanif

Mohammed Hanif
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Sometimes fellow writers and journalists ask me how I choose whether to write in Urdu or English or Punjabi. I usually start my answer with a self-deprecating remark: I can write badly in three-and-a-half languages. Like most self-deprecating remarks this one barely conceals a boast: I read and write Urdu; I can also borrow my ideas from ancient Punjabi, unlike you posh prats who rely entirely on English. But why would someone boast about their ability to read and write in their mother tongue (Punjabi, in my case) or express themselves in their national language?

I guess you show off because most people who write in English cannot pick up a newspaper in their local language to find out what yesterday’s riot was about. It’s not their fault. They went to good schools, sometimes schools so good that the main purpose of their education was to ensure their talents remained unpolluted by local languages and cultures.

When I was growing up in Pakistan, the complete inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility. Pakistan’s founding father — the self-made aristocrat Mohammed Ali Jinnah — could barely string a sentence together in Urdu, a language that he imposed on Pakistan as its national language with tragic consequences. The most influential Pakistani politician of our times, the late Benazir Bhutto, spoke no Urdu when she started her career but later delighted her followers by endlessly and recklessly improvising in that language. For a long time, to rule Pakistan it was almost necessary not to be able to speak any of its languages. Or to speak them like a well-meaning foreigner.

In my rural version of the state education system, the first thing they did was to try and save me from my mother tongue. Everyone spoke Punjabi in my household and like every five-year-old I had a vocabulary. I could name a goat, a donkey, a chicken. But since the medium of instruction in my school was Urdu, I had to learn alien names for familiar things. I must have spent the next 10 years learning in a language that I would be considered pretentious for speaking in my own street.

By the time I finished high school, I realised that there was no college physics in Urdu, forget mathematics, and if you were destined to study aviation, you might have had to wait for centuries while someone drew up navigation maps in Urdu. So I began to learn English and by the time I drifted into writing I had no idea what my own language was. I was more like, “How much are you paying?”

How one comes not to read and write in one’s mother tongue is as problematic as someone who can write in their own language but elects to write in another. But, as the kids say these days, why trap yourself in these binaries when you can write in both or even a third?

The same people who ask why you write in this or that language also insinuate that if you are writing in three languages, surely you are lying in three languages. You are peddling three different versions of the same story to three different sets of people. Sometimes I worry that they might be right but then I take solace in the fact that in their quest for a single truth, they are not likely to find out.

To answer the original question: when I write a novel, I think and plot and scribble in English for the simple reason that all the great novels I have read, even if they were originally written in Arabic, I read in English. And also because Graham Greene wrote his novels in English. When I write a political rant or a comment piece, I lean towards Urdu because there are all these ready-made historical references, street slang and wordplay bursting to be put to use. Recently, some friends asked me to write a song and it ended up a mixture of Urdu and Punjabi, no doubt the result of all the romantic songs that kept me awake through teenage nights. And when someone pisses me off, I am most likely to mutter something that I am not supposed to say in front of my mother. In her language.

Mohammed Hanif is a journalist and an award-winning author. He won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for his debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes


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