A session on Punjabi literature at the Urdu conference on Saturday.—White Star
A session on Punjabi literature at the Urdu conference on Saturday.—White Star

KARACHI: It was Punjabi that clearly ruled the third day of the 12th International Urdu Conference here on Saturday, with Mohammed Hanif and Naeem Bukhari sharing the honours in an even split.

Indeed, there were many a cerebral session during the day, like, for instance, those on Contemporary Urdu Fiction and Critical Overview of Pakistani Culture, but the mood started to swing with the book launch of the complete works of Suroor Barabankvi where the panellists opted for a more conversationalist tone that was appreciated a bit more by the large audience.

By the time moderator Asma Shirazi and guests Sarwat Mohiuddin and Hanif got started in unspoiled Punjabi — with all its colours, shades and hues in abundance — the audience was ready to lap it all up, with roars of laughter and applause dotting the ambience.

Without going heavy on what is scholarly referred to as ‘linguistic imperialism’, Hanif sprinkled his wit on the subject, stressing that the language was actually surviving “because of the semi-literate and illiterate of Punjab as the educated lot swiftly switched over to Urdu”.

When Shirazi raised the rather verbose notion of perhaps the Punjabis having got lost in a maze of identity crisis, Hanif had a simple retort: “Being lost has its advantages.” He went on to explain — with his characteristic dry humour in absolute glory — that it was “more a case of compromise than crisis”.

To be strong, a country, he said, needs to have two things going; a powerful army and an effective language. “Pakistan Army and Urdu are doing great for the country,” he remarked. Political leaders do not find Punjabi language good enough, he argued, and then threw a gem into the equation that needed no elaboration. “Nawaz Sharif sometimes did speak in Punjabi, but, see, he is sick these days!”

The session was followed by a talk with Bukhari, the famed lawyer and television personality. It started off on a high pitch owing to the wonderful chemistry between him and moderator Arshad Mahmud, with the two taking the audience on a journey that many would remember for a long time.

What won the day for the duo was, again, sparkling wit on the part of Bukhari, and the willingness to play second fiddle on the part of Mahmud. Anecdote after anecdote, the pitch kept getting louder by the minute, with Punjabi accent, idioms and poetry flowing all through the session.

Bukhari talked about his long associations with several Lahore-based characters, including, among others, Munnu Bhai, Munir Niazi, Shoaib Hashmi and Ejaz Batalvi. He did have a few less-than-kind words about Ahmed Faraz and Ashfaq Ahmed, but by the time he did that, he had already earned the trust of the audience that he was simply being frank, and had no malice towards anyone.

In any case, it was mentioned at the outset by Mahmud that the talk was going to be about things that “generally remain unsaid”. And that, indeed, was the case, which reminded one of what Hanif had said in the preceding session: “The Punjabis feel embarrassed by their language, but not by their acts of omission and commission!”

Tailpiece: Running parallel to the sessions on Punjabi, there were two events during the day dedicated to the Sindhi language; one on Modern Sindhi Literature, and the other being a talk with Amar Jaleel. Both sessions had their own fun amid a large audience.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2019