I have just finished rereading a book titled “Eats Shoots and Leaves”. This fascinating piece of writing was presented to me by a dear friend some years ago in the hope that I may understand the English language and the intricacies of its punctuation marks, a little better. The title of the book says it all, for the insertion of the lowly comma after the word “eats”, turns on the magic.

Language is one of God’s greatest gift to the living world, without which our very existence would have been colourless. In the fitness of things, therefore, I am dedicating this week’s column to the art of conveying things.

Letter writing and oral storytelling were two practices perfected to a pin by oriental races, including those inhabiting the subcontinent. Regretfully, the letter and the stories have been all, but been devoured by e-mail and the television.

Letters of yore were often long, containing news and narration of events related to families and many people found it difficult where to begin. So someone thoughtfully invented a standard starting template, which began as follows: “Azizi......., Baad salaam ke maaloom ho ke yahan par sab khairiat hai aur aap ki khairiat Khudawand Karim se nek matloob hai. Deegar ahwal ankay.......(and so on).”

Storytelling came in two packages. The first lay in the domain of the professional ‘daastan go’, who was hired to paint vivid images of kings, wizards and dragons, using ‘word magic’. The second type of storytelling was practiced by mothers and grandmothers, as their brood gathered around them on cold winter evenings or warm summer nights.

We too were privileged to have a professional storyteller in our household. Islamuddin or Baray Mian was reported to have arrived in my great grandfather’s home as an orphan child and lived out his ninety plus years in the family’s service. His job description was simple - he was our official teller of tall tales and the ‘keeper of the swing’.

Islamuddin’s stories always began with the prelude: “Eik dafa ka zikar hai ke eik tha Badshah. Hamara tumhara Khuda Badshah, Khuda ne banaya Rasul Badshah. Aankhon ki dekhi kehtay nahin, kanon ki suni kehtay hain. Soway sansaar, jaagay pak parwardigaar, nehin Uski qudrat ka koi shumar.”

Two hundred years of British colonial rule in the subcontinent had a profound effect on the lives of the ‘natives’. One of these effects manifested itself on both the written and the spoken word. Some of these words became part of common usage even amongst educated families, in spite of the fact that their pronunciation was morphed by local dialect. “Lat Sahib” was actually “Lord Sahib” and thus the “Governor’s House” in Lahore was referred to as “Lat Sahib ki Kothi”. The word “Cornice” became “Karness” and the horse-drawn “Phaeton” was often called “Fitton”. 

It is a sad fact that languages die in their entirety, in parts or mutate over time. It is, indeed, sad to note that many words in our own Urdu appear to have disappeared. Here are a few examples: The word “Ganjeena” was used to denote an upstanding wooden frame enclosed in wire gauze and having shelves. This piece of furniture was used for overnight storage of leftover food. The “Gharonchi” was another wooden frame structure used to place earthen water jars for drinking purposes. The “Aaftaaba” was a metal utensil with a curved spout used for washing hands.

I was thrilled the other day, when a colleague of mine pronounced the word “Beera” (and not “Bera”) in the oft ‘misspoken’ phrase “Beera Uthana”. What was surprising was the fact that this gentleman speaks ‘Pushto’ and hails from Mardan, proving the point that an understanding of languages and their delivery is not an exclusive domain, but a universal medium of communication that can be mastered by anyone with the will and intellect to do so.

The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City.  His forte is the study of History.