If you read only Urdu in Pakistan; you are expected to possess a world-view distinct from someone who reads only English. Urdu carries more domestic news and concentrates more on affairs that affect the nation. English concentrates more on affairs that affect the running of the state. Urdu is still struggling with the fast-changing specialised vocabulary of economics. It resists the unfamiliar discourse of philosophy and psychology because that would require new and unfamiliar coinage.
The Urdu press in Pakistan is fighting against complexities of expression threatening the reader with ´difficult´ words. At the same time, it is struggling to include specialised discussion of the annual budget without expanding the fund of specialised terms. Urdu comment is mostly ´popular´ and non-expert, which means it will condemn inflation even if it occurs as a result of low interest rates aimed at spurring growth. Most readers take ifrat-e-zar literally to mean ´lots of money´ instead of ´inflation´. The Urdu journalist will not dive deep into modern economic terminology for fear of losing his audience.
It is easy for the Urdu press to explain the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as institutions which extend the West´s hegemony. It is much more difficult for the English-language press to do this because the term ´conditionalities´ can be easily understood in English and argued expertly. Lack of information about the international system among Urdu journalists stems from the restricted area of Urdu´s discourse.
In Pakistan, the IMF has been held responsible for changing textbooks in the province of Balochistan. The Urdu press was convinced that IMF somehow got the Quetta bureaucracy to remove hamd (Islamic prayer) from the new school primer. The English dailies did not print the news.
Urdu is the language of poetry, but in the last 50 years Pakistan has seen a proliferation of Urdu newspapers that contain nothing but prose. More Urdu prose has been written in these 50 years than in all the centuries that passed since the birth of Urdu as an idiom. What is the nature of this prose? If usage establishes discourse, then why has Urdu´s discourse not conformed to the same criterion as that of English, which is logical and sequential? Why is the discourse of Urdu still non-linear if linearity is the hallmark of functional prose?
Urdu expresses Pakistani nationalism more effectively than English even as it copes badly with the national economy. One reason is that nationalism in the region is expressed more through emotion than reason. The economy undermines nationalism through the compulsion of its external linkages. Therefore, in Urdu, it is quite possible to look at international trade as a violation of nationalism and state sovereignty. Since nationalism in all forms has a strong xenophobic underpinning, Urdu is also efficient in xenophobic formulations. It is permissible to write ´to be drunk with the wine of nation-worship´ in Urdu and describe the enemy as Yuhud-o-Hunud (Jews and Hindus). Qaum-parasti looks good, but its translation ´nation-worship´ is not permissible in English.
The compulsion to keep Urdu easy, and to maintain the popular intellectual distance from the sciences, has hardened Urdu against expanded discourse. Enthusiasts who enjoy Khalifa Abdul Hakim´s translation of an English history of philosophy come across at least 50 new coinages on a page; even the less difficult translation of Plato´s Republic by Dr Zakir Hussain is tough on an average reader of Urdu.
English absorbed a heavy dose of Greek and Latin at the hands of scientists looking for new names; today words like ´xenophobic´, ´catharsis´, ´masochism´, ´mithridatic´, etc, are commonly understood in educated English discourse. In the 1930s, when Maulana Zafar Ali Khan of daily Zamindar tried to introduce Arabic maqateya-e-jui for hunger strike and isian-e-madani for civil disobedience, the terms were rejected by readers in favour of hybrids like bhook hartal and civil nafarmani.
The same trend continues today, which stands in the way of terms that would carry the logical message of economics. Arabicised terms contained in the Urdu textbooks of economics are not allowed to enter journalism under an editorial fiat. Arabic itself is limited in ready-made terms. It is strong in chemistry because Muslims in medieval times had been introduced to alchemy; but in the new sciences, an Urdu scholar has to invent new words with the help of Arabic´s unlimited word-making capacity.
When Urdu came to be dominated by progressive thought after the 1930s, the discourse changed from religious to secular-humanist. But Marx was carefully sifted to avoid the complete metamorphosis of the idiom; instead, socialism´s economic message was remoulded and made subservient to emotion in the communication of which Urdu was already proficient. Nonetheless, rationality did creep into its discourse, which means that the left-wing prose writers (of whom there are very few left) still partially resist the onslaught of non-linearity in Urdu journalistic idiom.
Pakistan´s steady progression towards ideology has reversed the trend towards linearity. A Lahore Urdu daily printed the news that in a village on the border of Sindh and Balochistan people saw the words “La Ilaha llallah Muhammad-ur-Rasul Allah” (there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet) spelled out on the sky, and that this miracle went on for a month. Another item reported that a woman who had desecrated the Holy Quran was miraculously turned into a she-ass, and that people in her locality had gone into a period of penitence. The English press didn´t carry these news items.
There was a time when Muslim scholars tried to ´rationalise´ the message of the Quran. The 19th-century Muslim reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, for instance, believed that Prophet Muhammad´s miracle of breaking the moon into two was a symbolic Quranic verse. After 1947, another scholar Ghulam Ahmad Parvez also gave a similar rationalist explanation of ´shaqq-ul-qamar´ (breaking of the moon). Today both are condemned as heretics.
Since Urdu journalism is dominated by youth educated in Urdu under the influence of the orthodox religious parties, newspapers express a world-view at times not supported by their editors.
Meanwhile, the progressive mind has erred by adopting a bastard form of ´Urdinglish´ to signal its freedom from religious conservatism. The English-medium person´s speech and writing are so blatantly a mixture of Urdu and English (like the ´Hinglish´ that pours out of Zee TV these days) that he becomes unfit for employment as an Urdu journalist. For instance, when a progressive Urdu writer was interviewed on TV, he said: ´Men kreative pracess par soshal environment ka assar unavoidable hai´´, a sentence in which only the prepositions are in Urdu.
A new two-nation theory based on idiom is ripe for the plucking in Pakistan. Politicians and intellectuals do not speak ´complete´ Urdu, and therefore their discourse does not permeate the consciousness of the common man. Meanwhile, the clerics of the ulema speak Urdu, and their discourse leads to full communication with the common man. The absence of progressives from the community of practitioners of Urdu journalism has created a nation apart, and the gulf between Urdu and English journalism has widened over the years.
On issues of “national consensus” there is no variation in Urdu, while English continues to introduce these variations in the discussion of national issues. For instance, Urdu does not express divergent points of view on Kashmir and Pakistan´s nuclear programme, while the English-language press regularly publishes ´alternative´ solutions gleaned from the vast range of international opinion on the subject.
For instance, a recent lecture by former Pakistani Finance Minister Mahbub-ul-Haq at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in New Delhi which called for reducing tensions between the two countries was roundly condemned in the Urdu press while it found supporters in the English dailies. The ´national consensus´ is more the stuff of the Urdu press than its English counterpart. The state agencies which ´guard´ this ´consensus´ operate more efficiently among Urdu journalists than the English ones.
The ´nation´ that reads Urdu is 99 percent of the population, and guarding it against the pollution of English is the concern of the state. An Urdu editorial on the national budget is untranslatable in English. It is too emotive for English to express convincingly; there may even be couplets from poetry, apart from passionately argued justifications for patently uneconomic measures (an increased military budget, for instance).
However, whenever the Urdu discourse is carried intact into English, it hurts the writer more than the intended victim. When the Inter-Services Intelligence´s retired brigadier Mr Tirmizi wrote up his exploits in English, mostly concerning the wives of Indian diplomats in Islamabad he had subjected to sexual entrapments by hired studs, the book harmed Mr Tirmizi and the image of his organisation.
Dhobi to Laundry
There are interesting compromises the two nations often make, mostly in the form of transliteration of English into Urdu. The world of advertising is mainly responsible for this compromise, and it was the result of Urdu dailies with large circulation realising that ads come mostly in English. This reinforces the persuasion that policy-makers in Pakistan may be scared of the Urdu press, but they heed only the logically argued advice of the English publication.
The advertisements have a psychology that no one is yet prepared to confront honestly. The English slogan carries with it the promise of a work ethic absent in Pakistan´s increasingly ideological environment. An English ad would mean that the product being promoted possesses quality, and consistency of standards. For instance, a local ice-cream brand will carry an English trade name that transliterates into Urdu, but the best space for its placement would be in an English publication read by the upwardly mobile classes.
Meanwhile, English written in Urdu comes to the rescue of those hurt by the tacit caste system in Pakistan. A dhobi (washerman) will not call his kiosk “dhobi shop” (in Urdu) but London Laundry Shop which he will then write on his signboard in Urdu as “Lundun Laandry Shaap”; a seller of sweets (halwai) or a hairdresser (nai) will avoid his pejorative caste-name by adopting “Amritsar Sweet Corner” or “Paris Hair-Cutting Saloon”, written in Urdu. Here again the transliterated English message seems to assure the consumer of a work ethic while securing the seller against the opprobrium of a caste-name. The result is that few signboards written in Urdu in Pakistan actually have Urdu contents.
The nature of discourse in Pakistan has set up two nations. Urdu is by far the more powerful medium of discourse because it also knits together different regional and ethnic identities. The nation of Urdu dominates the mind of Pakistan because the vocabulary of nationalism and nation-building is Urdu. English-medium politicians and generals soon learn to ape this discourse, which accounts for the rampant hypocrisy and double-speak in the ruling classes. The population is insulated in its thinking by Urdu, and since the regional nationalities, unlike India (in the case of Hindi), all comprehend Urdu, the mind of Pakistan is an Urdu mind.
The other side of the coin is the English-medium personality. It proliferates because schools in the private sector after the denationalisation of education are exclusively English-medium with books mostly published abroad. It would seem that the two nations are either balanced or promise to reach an equilibrium of power in a free-market future. But the future of the English-medium community is complicated by the fact that it is inarticulate. It doesn´t speak a pure idiom, its discourse loses its effect because of the process of bastardisation constantly going on in the English-medium mind. The cleric is the only speaker in Pakistan who achieves complete communication, and that is probably why even the non-clerical speakers borrow his vocabulary to become intimate with the common man.
Language of Isolation
Nation-building is an act of insulation of one people from surrounding identities. Ideology consolidates this insulation, and nothing helps in this process more than language. Russian helped in the insulation of the Soviet masses from the rest of the world and became non-creative as a result. Urdu, too, insulates an incomplete ideological state of Pakistan moving gradually towards the Iranian model, becoming uncreative in the process.
All ideas couched in Urdu are isolationist, be it international politics or the national economy. English interrupts this process and introduces the logical-sequential discourse in a non-linear mental environment. This produces violent reactions among advocates of Urdu who then recommend the ouster of English, leaning on the constitutional promise that Urdu will become the language of official discourse.
In this environment, the English-medium person—and journalist—is deeply insecure and feels guilty about offending the emotion of nationalism and the process of nation-building with the information and data that he does have the ability to access through English.