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Strongest bond: religion or language?

July 02, 2011

The situation was somewhat annoying but in retrospect it seems a bit hilarious. There were four of us from as many countries, all judges at the Kish International Film Festival giving our individual judgments on the awards to feature films from different Asian countries, encountering linguistic difficulties in communicating our views and defending them.

While the Mumbai-based Bijaya Jena, a state prize winning filmmaker-cum-actor, and yours truly could communicate with each other in English and a language which is Urdu to me and Hindi to her (Mahatma Gandhi would have called it Hindustani), the other two judges, one an accomplished film director from Kish and the other a film critic from Azerbaijan, had to seek the help of interpreters. Bijaya and I conveyed our views to the fellow judges in English but not without the help of two interpreters. One of them, who spoke in Persian, was reasonably fluent, but his colleague was particularly week. He fumbled for words, particularly when translating from Azerbaijani (also called Azeri) to English and I had the nagging fear that he may not be communicating the ideas correctly, not deliberately, of course. The session which shouldn’t have lasted for more than half an hour, since our views were not divergent, prolonged for two hours. We parted with warm handshakes and exchanges of broad smiles, but that was the most we could convey without the help of interpreters.

Every time I have to wait for a flight at the departure lounges outside Pakistan, I look for someone who can speak English. Thus an American or a Brit or someone from the subcontinent would be my first choice. Once travelling on the Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Mumbai, I was in a compartment with an elderly Muslim from Kerala and a Hindu couple from North India with two daughters.

The Keralite was a pleasant gentleman and generous with his smiles but we could not communicate with each other. On the other hand, the Punjabi gentleman and his wife from the UP were ones with whom I had long conversations. When the husband used a Punjabi word in his conversation, the wife said “Dekhye hamari shadi ko dus saal hogaye hain lekin ye Hindi mein Punjabi mila dete hain.” (Look, we have been married for ten years but he still adds Punjabi words to Hindi). A bell rang in my mind and I recalled a similar ‘complain’ voiced by an Urdu-speaking Pakistani about his wife, whose mother tongue happened to be Punjabi. Both cases could best be described as sheer banter. There wasn’t anything serious about the ‘accusations’.

Back to my fellow passengers on board the Rajdhani, we had interesting baat cheet on a wide variety of subjects from music to mothers-in-law. They had never visited Pakistan so I had many queries to answer. They enjoyed PTV plays and remembered more titles than I did.

Another point to remember is that languages also reflect the culture of the people who speak those tongues. Example: a common prayer for one’s daughter in the northern part of the subcontinent is “Sada suhagan raho” (May you always have a husband to take care of you), whether the person expressing the wish be a Hindu, Muslim or a Sikh.

Many years ago at the film festival in Penang (Malaysia), two of us from Pakistan, me and Satish Anand, who is into films and television production, were constantly in the company of North Indian delegates, The leader of the Indian delegation was Sunil Dutt, a thorough gentleman. A member of the French delegation who saw us together for four days commented that while our armed forces were exchanging fire on the LoC every day, there we were a picture of camaraderie. “I can’t understand this,” he commented, to which Dutt said, “Nor can we for that matter.” Interestingly enough, while the North Indians bonded with us, their countrymen from the South were seen together in a separate group.

People who think of linguistic affinities being stronger than religious similarities argue that one doesn’t practice one’s religion all the time but one speaks a language all through one’s waking hours.

What do my readers have to say on this issue? As for me, all I have to say is that a person is born into a religion and also into a family which speaks a certain language. That’s where he or she has no choice.

Very rarely does one change one’s religion but very often one learns to speak, and often write, another language. Interestingly enough, a person may be bilingual or a trilingual but when it comes to religion he or she can belong to only one creed.

The writer, who jointly authored the bestselling ‘Tales of Two Cities’ with Kuldip Nayar and more recently compiled and created ‘Mehdi Hasan: The Man and his Music’ writes and lectures on art, literature and culture. He also pens travelogues and humorous pieces.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.