Talk in English. I should not hear you talking in Urdu, is that understood?” said the teacher to the two laughing boys going in straight-line formation from their classroom to the playground, who stopped suddenly short. After the chiding, they did not resume their talk in English or in any other language. And what about that laugh, that playful youthful laugh, wherever did it go?

Was the laugh in English or in Urdu, or heaven forbid, did it perhaps have a slight intonation of Punjabi or Pashto? May be an inflection of Sindhi or Balochi? Better not laugh, till we perfect our English Laugh.

I stood and watched this interaction so oft repeated in our schools. I wanted the boys to resume their conversation, to laugh and above all to question; to respectfully question.

“Why ma’am?” I wish they had said. “I talk in Urdu because it is my language, my grandmother tells me stories in it, the street kids greet me in it, the milkman measures the milk and swears in it and says that the milk isn’t watery but the cows are leaner these days. In Urdu, my gardener tells me how seeds become trees, in Urdu the security guard, the baker, my Uncle and great Aunt, my mother and father speak to each other and people all around me speak in this forbidden tongue. But most of all, I talk in this language because it rolls easily off my tongue, my jokes sound better and I get more laughs, I communicate better, ma’am, in this language which is my own. That is why I talk in Urdu.”

“But teacher, why do you talk in English?

“Why do we talk in English?”

Why am I writing this piece in English?


Give it the name of expediency, necessity, or colonial legacy. Whatever the justification, nothing justifies promoting it at the cost of demoting Urdu, of using and abusing language, of exploiting language to exclude rather than include, of creating islands of solitude amidst a multitude.

Remember Al-Khwarizmi, the great Muslim mathematician and inventor, namesake of the algorithms, the very same algorithms that are the source of modern technology and computing, critical to software design. Considering his mental prowess, could he not have mastered any language? Then why did he bring books from faraway lands and ancient races and have them translated into his native tongue? Why did the Umayyad and Abbasids and the Seljuk build Houses of wisdom, knowledge and learning and commission scholars and scribes with the mammoth task of translating all works into their native tongue? Why was their work later translated into Latin and then into English? Is it not that the success of civilization, in fact the very existence of civilization is dependent on communication. And can communication be more effective and learning more enhanced by aping a foreign language?

Emboldened by his earlier point, I imagine my little friend continues questioning:

“Teacher, the choice of accent bears heavy on my mind and horror of horrors, I might get my tenses mixed up, use a double past or wrong present and not know my future at all. Why teacher, why do you lay such a heavy burden? Your stress on syntax so often gets me out of sync with my peers. Why teacher, do you get so incensed at that slight Punjabi inflection, a mere relic of my mother tongue now lost to me?”

Malcolm X once stated that his lowest point of self-abasement was when he used a concoction that burns the scalp to straighten his hair, a remedy used by many blacks to look more like the white man. Was it not only when he took pride in his black heritage that he achieved greatness? Why then, should our children be ashamed of their heritage, their mother tongue?

Why have our teachers divided our children; them and their native born friends? Do they not know that in the great madrassa of Mowaffak, a tentmaker by the name of Omar Khayyam of lowly birth and Hassan Ibn Sabbah a man of considerable wealth and reputable lineage, rubbed shoulders and studied from the same scholars, the same books, the same language? Why must our children be condemned not to parley with the Omar Khayyams of their time and why should the Omar Khayyams of their time never reach immortality because they are excluded from each other’s share of knowledge? Why can’t I learn from him and him from me? Is not wisdom and learning a shared human experience? When we don’t speak the same language and are mutually exclusive, how do we grow in knowledge and create collective wisdom?

Growing bolder by the minute, I imagine the schoolboy continues,

“I want to write, I want to write about my people but how will I know them if you don’t teach me to speak like them? I cannot pen my thoughts with ease; the language of my experience is Urdu and the language of my expression is English and this splits my quill and severs my thoughts. Let me hear, let me speak, let me express in Urdu, in Punjabi, in English, in Mandarin, in French, in sign language. Let language not be a hurdle, a barrier, the definer of status or stature, a divisive force; let language be amongst the finest of human inventions, the finest tool of communication, the hallmark of our civilization and the defining glory of our species. Teacher, let me and my friends talk and laugh. Our talk will be both in English and Urdu, and our laughter? Our laughter will be free.”