I spent a most edifying day in Faisalabad this weekend at the Faisalabad Literary Festival. It is the fifth year of the festival, and full marks to the organisers for bringing literature and the arts to the city—after all, creative endeavour is fostered by dialogue, discussion and interaction. My own panel was on Pakistani creative writing in English and it is always interesting to notice different crowds’ response when one is talking about English. One frequently encounters a certain resistance to the idea of English literary efforts, across the board. There seems to be a certain conflict between the idea of reading and writing in English and staying ‘true’ to perceived notions of culture and identity. For an older generation, closer to our colonial past, language may have been a much more loaded and political choice; English was, after all, the language of power and oppression. But three or four generations on, with distance from that power dynamic, where do we stand?

We find ourselves at the helm of a different world, one where English has an undeniable influence. Like it or not, fluency in English is now a social marker, a pathway to upwards mobility—better grades, better jobs. In sports, team captains routinely speak their native languages and a translator translates, but Inzamam-ul-Haq preferred to go with “thanks be to God, the boys played well”, much to the merriment of all. He could easily have chosen to speak in Urdu, but he didn’t. One does not judge, but the example does belie our attitude to the language. There is a reason our famous actress Meera learned to speak English, or a salesperson in a fashionable store will die before calling a shirt a kameez. English means something, and that value is indelible now. It is here to stay, and the sooner we realize this the better it will be for everyone—because, ironically, in that realisation is the saving of our local languages.

There needn’t be such guilt associated with the choice of language. It’s a sign of the times, and it is what it is. Writing poems in English doesn’t mean that now one has closed the door on poetry in Urdu or Seraiki or Punjabi or any other language. Speaking Urdu or any regional language one does at home doesn’t mean that your child will never be fluent in English either. It’s high time we understood that one language does not have to be pitted against the other; in fact, as naturally bi- or tri-lingual speakers, we are in a position of great privilege. We are poised to read and write in different languages, to be able to explore the imagination and discourse of so many minds and enjoy the musicality of different languages. When we can stop feeling guilty and conflicted about it all the time, we can actually just get on with following one’s nose for beauty. There are so many words in Urdu that don’t really have a counterpart in English, and the aesthetic of any creative is enriched by that knowledge. Is “gloaming” the same as “dusk”? Is “runj” the same as “grief”? Is “uljhan” the same as “irritation”? Not entirely. But how wonderful for me to have access to these vocabularies and to a deeper understanding of the range of emotion they convey, so that when I create a character, my imagination is informed by two languages. Where is the conflict there? To my mind, at least, having a command over several languages is enriching, not obscuring.

When we are able to reconcile the idea of culture with language, we can arrive at a place where we can work towards balance. It is needlessly limiting to suggest that Pakistani culture is defined by the use of a handful of languages, thereby any activity outside the ambit of those languages must negate one’s culture. Culture is not a box in which only certain things can be fitted, or are allowed to fit. To suggest this is not helpful to younger people either. Our younger generations are growing up surrounded by English—on television, at school, on social media. They are finding ways to be desi that include the use of English and many ideas that older people would probably define as “western”. But that’s the beauty of change—we are making what was formerly “foreign” our own, and creating something new. South Asian writing in English has a particular idiom and voice that has developed over time, with writers experimenting and re-moulding the language into something that fits the requirements of their particular imaginations. The same goes for music—you can make a guitar sound remarkably like a sitar sometimes, but to do that you need to know what both instruments sound like. The same is true for language, and how you use it. When we are proudly fluent in Urdu and English and whatever other language we might speak at home, that is when our minds will truly have the platform for flight. It’s not competition. It’s teamwork.


The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.