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In November last year, during a session about literature and language at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, a graduate student of English Literature stood up in the audience and asked me: “I want to write stories, but my first language is Seraiki, Sindhi my second, Urdu my third and English is my academic subject. What language should I write in?”

“You should write in the language that chooses you,” I said, “in which you can tell your stories with ease. But I also favour the use of local languages.” (After all, most Pakistanis are, at the very least, bilingual.)

I recalled a conversation I’d had with Sindhi poet Amar Sindhu in a car on the way to Cafe Khanabadosh in Hyderabad, where she’d invited me to read and talk to local litterateurs. I expressed my desire for my stories to be translated into Sindhi. She responded: “Write more fiction in Urdu! You’ll easily reach people in Sindh.”

Later, Amar spontaneously read out some passages from ‘Zohra’, the first story I ever wrote in Urdu, to a capacity audience at the venue. It was inspired by a young friend, Hina Raza, who had poignantly written about the dilemma of being caught between languages. She had found a creative solution by interspersing verses of Urdu with English, before she died young.

As I heard Amar read the lines “Ab bola bhi nahin jata, na shairi na shikayat, khanabadosh hoon, wahan meri mehroomi azaadi ban jaeygi, ab apni zabaan mein nazm likhne ko dil chahta hai” [I cannot even speak anymore, neither poetry nor complaint, I am a nomad, where my dispossession becomes my freedom, now I want to write a poem in my own language], my words acquired an entirely new resonance. Here was a Seraiki speaker who had chosen to write poems in Sindhi, reading in Urdu about a woman caught between tongues. I had divested my story of specifics so that in the Urdu, neither countries nor languages were mentioned. But here the challenges and dilemmas of moving between languages, even in our native lands, acquired a new topicality: we are all wanderers between tongues, vagabonds who carry our languages on our backs.

That afternoon over lunch I’d been talking to Amar and fellow-Sindhi writer Arfana Mallah about language and place, and how I was often asked in Sindh what my caste was. My ancestors migrated to Sindh via Delhi and the Deccan in the era of the East India Company, settled in Shikarpur and married into Sindhi and Baloch families, but though assimilated, were generically termed Mughal. Several of my relatives speak Sindhi as a native language. I can’t. “But we’re Sindhi now, even those of us whose people may once have belonged elsewhere,” Amar said. “Mughal or Baloch or Pathan, we made Sindh our home long ago.”

At Khanabadosh on that September evening, discussing my English stories with Arfana Mallah, I spoke only in Urdu to the all-Sindhi audience. Our conversation ranged from poetry to politics, choices of subject matter and writerly obligations and, inevitably, the subject of translation from the many languages of Pakistan. The hall was packed, the audience was hospitably enthusiastic, the questions were free-flowing and ranged wide.

On my frequent travels to Pakistan I’m usually invited to speak at universities. The discussion often takes on an academic tone. But here, in Khanabadosh, the atmosphere was relaxed and intimate, composed of avid readers and writers of all ages, who were more interested in literary processes than in exile or domicile.

On my frequent travels to Pakistan I’m usually invited to speak at universities. The discussion often takes on an academic tone, revolving around diasporic issues and the international reputations of Pakistani English writers. But here, in Khanabadosh, the atmosphere was relaxed and intimate, composed of avid readers and writers of all ages, who were more interested in literary processes than in exile or domicile. (It’s obviously a venue in which all creative pursuits are privileged.)

As an urban Karachiite who has spent my adult years in England, I’d never acquired a strong sense of belonging to a region, but the evening brought back my father’s tales and memories of his ancestral region and his love for its poetry. I sat in the garden later, talking to a group that had stayed on to continue the conversation, with two ajraks draped around my shoulders in the evening breeze, when a man from Shikarpur came up and told me he knew my extended family there. I knew that this was a land that would always lay claim to me, its prodigal son, too.

Later that evening, we drove off to listen to midnight music at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, my lifelong dream fulfilled — though that’s a story for another time. I was leaving for Karachi the next morning; I promised to be back in Hyderabad for the Ayaz Melo in winter. But the death of poet Fahmida Riaz — another lover of Bhittai and Sindh — made me change my plans. I was in Karachi twice for commemorative events and, then after an accident, I was unable to return to Pakistan this year.

Now I hear that Khanabadosh is threatened with imminent closure. The flourishing of such cultural spaces is essential to our writers, intelligentsia and youth for the growth of our arts and literatures — we write in isolation, but the finished products need to be shared and budding artists encouraged to produce them. Open dialogue is still essential in a society in which orality is still prized and privileged. To see existing spaces shrink instead of flourish is nothing less than a tragedy.

But I’d like to end on a positive note. Ali Akbar, the budding writer in Islamabad who wanted to choose a language, regularly sends me new stories he’s written, in Urdu. Complete your book, I tell him, and soon you’ll be talking about your stories at Cafe Khanabadosh.

The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 21st, 2019