The Questioning

By Zerka Tahir

The Questioning




“Who was that? Why are you talking in Urdu? Talk in English! I should not hear you talk in Urdu, is that understood?”

Startled, the two boys who were babbling away, going in a straight-line from the classroom to the playground stopped short. Overcoming the blunt onslaught they resumed their walk but not their talk, neither in English nor in any other language. But what about that laugh? That playful, youthful laugh? Where did it go?

Was the laugh in English or in Urdu? Or, heavens forbid, did it have a slight intonation of Punjabi or Pashto? Maybe an inflection of Sindhi or Balochi? Better not laugh too till we perfect our English Laugh.

I stood and watched this interaction so often repeated in our schools. I wanted them to resume their conversation, to laugh and, above all, to question.

“Why Ma’am, I talk in Urdu because it is my language. My grandma told me stories in this language. My friends greet me in this language. Our milkman measures milk and swears in this language, that it is not water he’s selling, it’s just that the cows these days are lean. My gardener tells me how a seed becomes a tree, my security guard, my baker, my Uncle and great Aunt, my mom and dad when they speak to each other, they all use this language. All the people around me speak in this forbidden tongue. But most of all, I talk in this language because it rolls off easily from my tongue; my jokes sound better and I get more laughs. That is why I talk In Urdu, Ma’am.”

“But teacher, why do you talk in English?”

Why do we talk in English?

Why am I writing this piece in English?


Call it expediency, necessity, or our colonial legacy. Whatever the justification, nothing justifies promoting it at the cost of demoting Urdu, of using and abusing language for defining status quo, of exploiting language to exclude rather than include, of creating islands of solitude amid a multitude.

Becoming bold with the first question my young friend poses another one,

“Remember Al-Khwarizmi, the great Muslim mathematician and inventor, namesake of the Algorithms, the very same algorithms that is 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 in 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? Teacher, the choice of accent bears heavy on my mind, and horror of horrors if I 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 do you get so incensed at that slight Punjabi inflection, a mere relic of my mother tongue now lost to me?”

There is no stopping my little friend now….

“Why teacher, do you know of Malcolm X? A black African who 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 teacher should I be ashamed of my heritage, my mother tongue?”

Emboldened, this audacious young chap goes on and on….

“Why have you divided us, me and my native-born friends? Do you not know, teacher, 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, and the same language? Why must I be condemned not to parley with the Omar Khayyams of my time or why should the Omar Khayyams of my time never reach immortality because you exclude me from their share of knowledge and them from mine? Why can’t I learn from him and he 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 a collective wisdom?”

Growing bolder by the minute he 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 dichotomy when the language of my experience is Urdu and the language of my expression is English splits my quill and severs my thoughts.”

Concluding he says;

“Let me hear, let me speak, let me express in Urdu, in Punjabi, in English, in Mandarin, in French, in sign language, let me use smoke signals if need be. Let language not be a barrier, the definer of status or stature, a divisive force. Let language be among the finest of human inventions, the finest tool of communication, the hallmark of our civilization and the defining glory of our species. Now please teacher, let me and my friends talk and laugh. I promise our talk will be in English and Urdu both, and our laugh…well our laugh will be free.”




“Mom, I lit the Bulb.”

“But my dear son, Edison beat you to it by well over a hundred years”.

“No, Mom, you don’t understand. I actually lit the bulb in the science class. I made all the right circuit connections. I was the only one in class who could do it.”

Now that was a feat to be proud of, especially for us parents in a foreign land, aping a foreign tongue in a laboriously acquired foreign accent.

“That’s pretty smart, but where did you study all this stuff?”

“In Pakistan.”

See, I was right about schooling in Pakistan. In Pakistan schooling is much more advanced. Mind you not like the Public schools here with hardly any homework and a school bag you can lift with your little finger. In Pakistan this child was sent to a private school. It was very expensive but I knew it was the best. We affording parents cannot afford to send our children to a public school in Pakistan. Imagine a Public school where they say “arthor” instead of “author”. I know the French teacher said “otter” instead of author but he is French, you know, not Desi. In this really expensive school everyone talks in English. You are not allowed to talk in Urdu. And the bags are so heavy it is always a good idea to get the ones with wheels. But see, it paid off. My child was the only one who could light a bulb. I know what his gori teacher will tell me in the parent-teacher meeting, and it will make me so proud.

“But Mom, I did not learn it in the school you sent me to.”

“Then where did you learn it from?”

“Don’t you remember you took me to a club, an electronics club?”

The club was not some fancy High-Tec club, no Fulbright scholar was conducting the workshops, there were no expensive tools or equipment and there was no astronomical admission charge. This was the electronic hobby club of Alif Laila Society, an NGO, the teacher was a young chap, Mohammad Asif, the product of a public school Chak Number 4 Rasala, Zila Sheikhupura, who conducted the class in Urdu, the equipment was homespun with stuff recovered from garbage and broken toys, the charge was Rs.500.

This is a small price to pay for a child to be the only one to light a bulb to outshine and outclass a predominantly white class.  Also a small price to pay to bring home to us the fallacy, the shortcomings, the instability of an education system that has lost its mooring. I must remember when we go back to Pakistan to take him to that club again. The building is just around the corner from the Alif Laila red double-decker library that, after years of being the travelling book bus, found its mooring around the same time as we were losing ours.

The library gets children all charged up with leisure reading for a mere charge of Rs. 500 per annum. Public school kids if not free pay a meager sum of Rs. 50 for the same facility.  There it stands in the shade of trees adjacent to a park. Here, during one of the kinder moments of the authorities the Government gave this piece of public land and built a small circular building, the Alif Laila library, a haven for the children of the vicinity. Never forgetting its mobile character Alif Laila acquired a mobile bus and a rickshaw to carry its library to the children especially to the public schools of the adjoining area.

I have never seen so many worn out books, which is the true hallmark of a well-used library. New ones are constantly provided but soon become look-alike of their neighbors. The electronics club, the art and craft club in the nearby building that is the Alif Laila head office are delightful; the computer lab is reasonably well equipped. Yet the private school kids hardly venture here, such is the divide of our class system. It was in this small unassuming club that this child without the aid of language learnt to connect the right wires.

It just makes us wonder, when will we get our wiring right? When will we understand? When will we realize that language does not light up bulbs, enlightenment does.




“When will we sow the seeds, if ever?”

The words of the wayfarer did not fare well with the farmer bent double over his patch of dirt. The lowly farmer had been tilling away at a small piece of land. A bag of the most expensive seeds and high-grade fertilizer dumped beside him. Yet, he did not take a glance at the bags but continued to work away at the soil. Painstakingly, he would dig deep into each square inch of soil, till he reached the moist core. From there he worked his way up turning it over and over till the top layers were mixed with the bottom soft soil to form one homogeneous whole. Still not satisfied he turned this mix many times over, weeding out any particles he felt may stunt growth, leaving the organic waste to further strengthen the soil, sprinkling it with water to ensure the right mush.

He moved on to the next square inch repeating the same exercise, but every now and then going back to the ones he had already tilled, to make sure no dry patches were left. It was noon already but the scorching heat did not seem to bother him in the least. It did seem to bother the wayfarer as he passed by and saw this man bent double, clothes covered in dirt, hands plastered with mud, strands of stray weeds seeming to form a natural part of his sparsely covered scalp but he seemed to be completely oblivious to his strange appearance.

The wayfarer stared for a few moments at this strange apparition and went his way. His trip took him some distance but not being sure of his way, as is the case with most wayfarers, he retraced his steps back for fear of losing his way. Seeing the lowly farmer still working away, he decided to watch him for a bit resting against the fence. Soon impatience, the salient trait of wayfarers, got the better of him and addressing the lowly farmer he remarked,

“You there, you have been working at that soil since I passed you by and you are still working at it.”

The lowly farmer looked up only briefly and not willing to waste time in idle discussions and futile deliberations, smiled and went back to work.

“Should you not just plant the seeds?”

The lowly farmer, a man of few words yet realizing that an answer might rid him of this minor distraction replied,

Zameen Tiar karsi tey fasal hosi.” Roughly translated, “Prepare the earth then the crop will be.”

The wayfarer, same as the educator in me, fell silent. Are we not guilty of scattering the most expensive seeds and the best quality fertilizer on ground that has not been prepared and then whine and fret that the seeds do not germinate, do not take root and even if they do, at the hint of the slightest wind, even our stunted crop is uprooted.

In the mad rush for the 8 As, the top position, are we of the percentage age aging only in chronological terms and not in learning?

Do we not need to create the burrows and furrows that can encapsulate the seeds of learning, spread the roots to the deepest layers and thereby give our students the firm standing that is their right?




“Waris Shah,” I said.

“Waris who?” he asked.

“Waris Shah,” I replied.

“No mam I don’t think I have ever heard of him. Who is he?” he asked

“He wrote Heer. Beautiful poetry. You must have heard of Heer?” I asked.

“No mam I am afraid I have not,” he replied.

I wanted to tell him he need not be afraid. We should be.  Of course he does not know who Waris Shah is, he is an A level student in one of the most expensive private school of our country. I should not be complaining. We never taught him.

“Its alright, what were you saying?” I asked

“Oh mam I just wanted to thank you, I found the volume of Shakespeare that has Romeo and Juliet, thanks for ordering it mam,” said the student.

The irony hit me like Heer’s gaze must have pierced Ranjha all those pages ago. I was nearing the end of Heer Waris Shah. The order for Heer Waris Shah had been placed at the same time as Shakespeare. The beautifully printed book open in my hand I braved another attempt at engaging this young fellow.

“Waris Shah was called the Shakespeare of Punjabi Literature,” I said

It worked; he was enticed to lean forward for a closer look. But the look of detachment was quick in the coming.

“But Mam this is written in a different language,’ he said.

I remembered this student. I had just completed the paperwork for all A level students. All the students aspiring for foreign lands and admission in foreign universities. His domicile was from Punjab. I had met his parents. The Dad had been posted to Jhang. He was very happy about it too, said it was the birthplace of his ancestors.

“This may be a surprise for you but the language of this book is your mother tongue and the language you speak is a different language.”

He put his heavy burden of Shakespeare volumes on the table. The brightness of his eyes had dimmed, the smile was strained.

“This is Punjabi, is it not?” he ventured.

“Yes it is, do you know the language?” I queried back.

“I cannot speak, or write or read it,” he said with a sadness that surprised me, “But I can understand it when I hear it.”

There was a lift in his spirits as he said the last words, his eyes dreamily gazing into the past.

“In the village, that is my Dad’s village, he used to take us there when we were kids. It was a fun place. We would roll in the mud, wade in what they would call the water channel, Khala it was I think.”

The memories were coming fast,

“I was told not to jump into it. The water was dirty but I would always make an excuse, I would say I was bathing the buffalo and fell in. That reminds me when my swimming instructor asked from where I learnt to swim, and I promptly replied: same as my Dad, holding the tail of a big buffalo. Everyone laughed. After that this is the first time I have mentioned it. I told my Mom and she said next time say that you learnt swimming at the Gymkhana Club pool.

You know I came to believe that I had forgotten all about the fun we had with my floating Buffalo. I was also told not to wallow in the mud with the village kids; both the mud and kids were dirty. The foam floaters replaced the buffalo’s tail; the cricket and baseball bat replaced the gulli danda, I am surprised I still remember that name; I watched wrestling not kabadi; Nascar races took over the buffalo cart races I used to love watching perched on my Dad’s shoulder.

But I was telling you how I know this language. Baba ji would sit on a charpai under that old tree with roots hanging from the branches, on a threadbare charpai and tell all the village kids stories. Most of the kids would be bored; they had heard them so many times, but not me. Now I remember I do know Heer. In the village my Dad would call this musical group, well not a band just a man with a flute and a singer. Heer was the most popular demand. My Dad loved it. I did not understand a word but sitting on his lap I loved it too,” he suddenly fell quiet.

“Don’t you go to the village anymore?” I gently inquired.

“No. For one thing Dad’s promotions came fast and he was too busy to take us to the village. Also the school did not approve. They said every time I came back, my accent they had worked so hard on was ruined. Going to such an expensive school my English could not be less than perfect. That reminds me I am getting late for my English Class. You wont tell anyone what I told you all this, especially the buffalo?”

“ Your secret is safe but you have to promise me you will visit your village again. It will not ruin your accent now.”

“I cannot promise that. I went once, nothing was the same. The kids I played with call me Sahib. I used to run barefooted with them, now they are given my boots to polish. We used to ride the donkey, now they groom my horse and put the saddle on for me to ride. We used to take turns sipping from straw tunnels we made to reach in the cauldron of milk left to simmer, and get beaten up when caught. Now the cook has separate plates and glasses for them to eat and drink from, never to be mixed with the sahib’s. We used to do mock fights with the brooms, now they sweep the floor I walk on. It’s not fun anymore. I have to go. Don’t want to miss my class.”

He left and left me wondering had we missed our class?