A composite education

Published February 10, 2014

MANY years ago, at a gathering of friends, I met a well-known Urdu writer. At some point during the conversation, he told us that while he wrote in Urdu, his first language was Gujarati.

It was a pleasant surprise for everyone, and while we were still remarking on it, he spoke up again, quite vehemently, about how much he hated Gujarati as a language, and how ugly it sounded to him. For a writer to denigrate any language, but especially one’s mother tongue, was an unconscionable thing to do, and we all sat in stunned silence during this completely gratuitous tirade.

I had particular occasion to recall the incident again almost a decade later, when, researching the history of the Urdu language, I read about the poet Sheikh Khub Muhammad Chishti (d. 1614 CE), and other scholars from Gujarat, who had fused the local Gujarati language with terms and concepts borrowed from Persian and Arabic mystical texts, to create a new literary idiom, that later came to be known as ‘Gujari Urdu’.

Chishti’s masnavi, Khub Tarang (1578 CE), written in Gujari Urdu, is considered one of the pivotal texts in the history of Urdu language. The Gujarati language and its beautiful rhythms lie at the foundations of Urdu.

A similar case can be made for all the languages spoken in our region. We are heirs to a composite linguistic identity. No one language is disconnected from the rest. We disregard and play favourites with languages at our own peril.

Recently, it was time again to recall all this. During the last few months, I have been visiting schools to introduce the titles from my newly launched publishing house Kitab through interactive storytelling from these books.

As the books are aimed at a readership from age groups five to 16-plus, I get to interact with various age groups, from very young children to teenagers. I now do the storytelling entirely in Urdu, even from the books which I have written originally in English, as I have witnessed that the children connect with storytelling in Urdu far better than they do when the same story is told them in English. As a storyteller, too, I enjoy it more.

During these visits I have also had an opportunity to discuss the concerns the teachers and educationists have about developing literacy and good reading habits. Every single school teacher and educationist I have spoken to is keen to see the children develop literacy and proficiency in both English and Urdu.

They are enthusiastic and devoted to their students, and it has been an education for me personally to meet these highly motivated individuals in a society which in recent times has not put too high a value on the institution of the teacher.

The encounters with the parents have been less uniform, unfortunately. There are numerous dedicated parents who invest not only their financial resources, but also personal time, in helping develop literacy in their children, and in making sure that they do not become alienated from the languages spoken around them.

But there is a large enough number of parents who wish to see the schools prioritise English language literacy above any other language. They do not care if their children get bad grades in Urdu, as long as they get good grades in English.

I have myself witnessed such parents snatch away Urdu-language storybooks, which their children had themselves chosen to read, and thrust English-language storybooks into their hands. I have seen them challenge their children to read the Urdu books they have chosen, and mock them when they stumble at a single word, using it as an excuse to take it from their hands and make them choose an English-language book instead.

And I have seen the devastated and incomprehensible look on the faces of children too young to understand what had just happened.

Such hostility from parents towards a particular language not only adversely affects a child’s relationship with that language alone, it impacts his or her relationship with all languages, because it is not a hostile act against one particular language, but one against language.

While our educationists need to assert themselves more in designing policies that are not swayed by the destructive preferences and prejudices of some parents, it would help them neutralise the misguided obsession with one language, if they begin introducing works from our rich classical literature through the curriculum.

Our classical works, such as the Heer Ranjha of Waris Shah, and the Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, are repositories of our linguistic heritage, and vibrant with the rhythms of the regions.

As the children become engaged with these works, they will become engaged with the languages which have fashioned them. It will make them familiar with geography in a new way, through literary references, and it will eliminate the sense of alienation with their surroundings.

It is very likely that the sense of attachment for languages, which stories inevitably create, will slowly give way to interest in locally spoken languages, and they may one day become curious to learn the language in which a tale they loved was first written.

I for one would have blind faith in any education policy which that generation of children will create for their own.

The writer is an author, translator and the publisher at www.kitab.com.pk

www.mafarooqi.com

Twitter:@microMAF

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