Have cell phone, will sms

Updated April 13, 2014

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Illustration by Abro.
Illustration by Abro.

If Pakistan is mostly illiterate, then how on earth do people send all these text messages?

Numbers can be pretty misleading. Take this one for example: 56 per cent: That’s the percentage of the Pakistani population who are said to be ‘literate’, a definition that includes those who can only read or write their names. Based on this we (or rather the UN) came up with another number, ranking Pakistan at the 113th position in global literacy rates out of a total 120 countries.

Now that’s pretty embarrassing, but it really doesn’t paint the complete picture. So let me toss another few numbers at you and tell you that our tele-density ration is 73pc. This means that there are around 129 million mobile phone subscribers in Pakistan, almost all of whom, we can safely assume, are busily texting away.

Considering this, the UN must revise the definition of literacy to reflect the number of people who can construct short messages in (broken) English or roman Urdu using their mobile phone keypads.

The people who had never been to school and were never formally taught phonetics or the Urdu alphabet (let alone English) are now writing poetry, forwarding jokes and writing romantic and cheesy messages. The driver is having a steamy affair with the neighbour’s ‘Kaam wali’ while they exchange cheesy sms every one hour.

To facilitate this segment even more, mobile phones now have Urdu alphabets imprinted on them. Not only this, text messaging software supporting Urdu characters have been launched in the market and are being readily used by scores of people. Even Romanised Urdu is very popular — though the use of ‘creative’ spellings means you may struggle at first to decipher what’s being written. Can these people then be termed illiterate? Doesn’t quite seem to add up!

It is baffling to see that my maid carries two phones, the driver sports three of them, whereas the cook and other domestic staff each have more than one mobile phone at least. Their knowledge in terms of the functions of each phone, its specs and what technical features it has, is remarkable — probably I wouldn’t know so much about my own phone as much as they would on how to fix a bug in my contraption!

Not only this, their information on particular cellular packages is amazing. They have updates about the rates of various companies, including the unique selling points of each provider. With their extensive research, they can brief you in a moment as to which network to use for a cost effective call depending on your location.

Karachi is a multicultural city, home to a large amount of migrants. When these people make a call to their ‘mulak’ (hometown), especially whilst conversing with the family in the northern parts of the country, they use mobile phones at length. They no longer go to those shabby and dingy PCOs once in six months, where they had to stand in queues to make a measly three-minute call to their families, yelling on top of their lungs, loud enough for the whole market place to know about Gul Khan’s goats not mating in the breeding season. Today this segment of the population speaks to their loved ones almost daily and at very affordable prices.

The ‘illiterate’ carpenter runs his entire business based on his cellular skills. He has a ‘mobile office’ and he sets appointments via his mobile phone. He will text you the time at which he will visit your place. If he runs late, you will get a text message saying ‘soory- m late 1 ar’ — at least you don’t have to rot in wait cursing him and you can run your errands for another one hour! The uneducated tailor will also text the womenfolk, confirming if they asked for a blue lace or a pink one for the chiffon kurta — at least he is taking a proactive measures to prevent a massive blunder and all because he’s now text-savvy.

My driver, who also falls in the ‘untaught’ category, punches in the destination where we have to drive to, and lo and behold we get there without having to ask for directions bang in front of the gate. Not having been exposed to books and classrooms, how does he know how to key in the street name and the address in the device? Can he still be classed as illiterate?

Perhaps the UN should think of revising the literacy ratio to 73pc from 56pc.