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  • Why the language you speak matters

    Posted On January 21, 2002

    By Karan Thapar

    I’m aware what I am about to write may seem flippant but I still want you to think seriously about it. Sometimes there is truth in a casual comment. Not everything that makes sense has to be weighty.

    Did you notice how General Musharraf lacked fluency in urdu? Not that he was embarrassed by it – why should he be – but his sentences were peppered with english phrases. Often it was the urdu words that sounded as if they were interrupting the english. How much his non-english speaking countrymen could follow of this decidedly bilingual speech is anyone’s guess. At times they probably got the gist rather than the precise meaning.

    But that is not my main point. Just a resting place en route to what I want to say. As the General spoke my attention moved beyond his use of language to its content. The man is decidedly secular, unencumbered by the shackles of narrow religious beliefs, forthright, outspoken and carefully able to distinguish between the precepts of his faith and the manner in which practice has come to pervert them. So striking was this that it did not take long to ask myself a further question. What enables the General to rise above the sectarianism, fundamentalism and obscurantism that surrounds him?

    This is the question I want to answer today and, believe it or not, it’s linked to the General’s poor urdu. This is also the point at which you may think I’m pulling your leg so read carefully and then, if you have a moment, think about it.

    It’s because the General cannot speak fluent urdu that he is neither a prisoner of the fundamentalist aspects of his faith nor of the traditional hold that mullahs, madrasas and masjids exercise over an Islamic society. How could he be? Religion and tradition are understood through language. You can’t be a fundamentalist or a tradionalist if you can’t understand – or, perhaps, don’t even know of – the fundamentals of your faith or your customs. And if you don’t know the language you can’t know these.

    But that’s not all. His language – by which I mean his lack of urdu and his dependence on english – has given him a modern, western, individualist outlook. Not consciously perhaps – although, to be honest, I don’t know – but certainly by virtue of the language he speaks he is a liberal, against the hold of irrational tradition or narrow religious beliefs. How can I say this? Because it’s also true that just as much as lack of fluency in urdu or arabic can preclude fundamentalist islam so too, but inversely, the language you speak reflects the culture it carries inherent within it. And those who rely on english as their main language have a western weltanschaung which tends to be liberal.

    My point therefore is simple. Because General Musharraf cannot speak proper urdu he is free of sectarian bias and can defy traditional power centres. He doesn’t understand them. He is, in fact, averse to them. More importantly, he doesn’t know how to use them or co-opt them to his advantage. But let me go further. Because he does not understand them they are challenges to his authority. They regard him as an outsider, perhaps even as a threat. In turn he sees them as inimical to his world view.

    Now compare him to General Zia, the man responsible for Pakistan’s islamisation. Zia not only spoke fluent urdu, he thought, lived, breathed and was perhaps a creature of the language. When he had to speak to his nation he did not fall back on english to do so. Urdu – and perhaps it’s most fluent variety – would have gushed from his lips. Of course, what he would have said would have been entirely different. But that is my point.

    Incidentally, General Musharraf is not the only example I have to illustrate my theory. In India Rajiv Gandhi was an equally good one. The hindi he spoke was sufficient for the servants. After all, what other need did he have of it? At home the Gandhis (and J. Nehru before them) not only spoke english but thought in it and lived it. That may seem an odd thing to say but what I mean is that english and the values it carries defined them.

    In his time, we heard Rajiv struggle in hindi. We used to mock him. ‘Baba Log’ was the nickname coined to capture the type of misfit we thought he was. And, to be fair, he often lived up to it. I remember the rally he addressed in Delhi near INA Market. He was speaking of his commitment to the people of India. This, he proclaimed, would continue “chahe hum jeetein ya chahe hum losein”.

    What we did not realise is that because he could not speak hindi Rajiv also did not understand caste, religion or feudal traditions. Consequently he could not politically misuse them – or whenever he tried he fell flat on his face. And this is why whatever else he may have been – and I grant that many consider him to have been incompetent, weak, inconsistent, changeable, naive, even stupid – he was not castist, communal or a creature of feudal habits. Rajiv was western in his outlook, liberal in his thinking, broad-minded in his approach and truly pan-Indian in his responses. He may or may not have been a good prime minister but he could never have ushered in mandal or attempted the rath yatra.

    He would not have known how to. He would not have understood their power or symbolism. On the few occasions he tried to politically use the influence or appeal of caste and religion he came a cropper. It was out of character. It made him dependent on those he distrusted or despised. Ultimately, it destroyed his image.

    That image – of a modern, forward-looking, secular, clear-thinking young man – was a product of the language he spoke. It was free of all taint of caste and communalism. But this was because it wasn’t proper hindi. That’s why it broke free of and rose above the narrow limitations of the down side of India’s culture.

    It’s odd that I should end up comparing Musharraf and Rajiv. One would think they are in everyway poles apart. But where they are the same is in their ability to identify and struggle against the age old sectarian and communal poison of their cultures. In the end Rajiv was not man enough for the job. It vanquished him. Let’s hope the Musharraf story ends differently.

    But the next time you start laughing at an Indian who can’t speak hindi properly stop and ask yourself whether that really is something to mock or whether instead you should be grateful for the pidgin vernacular you are hearing? Let us be ruled by men (or women) who can’t speak fluent hindi (or tamil, or bengali, or oriya or whatever) and I suspect things will change for the better faster than you realise. Remember, I am only half joking!

    When is a kiss not a source of pleasure but a cause of embarrassment? When Abdul Sattar kisses Colin Powell live on television. To be honest, it was no light peck on the cheek but a resounding smooch. You could practically hear his lips smack as he got into action.

    I’m not sure what the American General made of this gesture but his Embassy in Delhi was definitely not impressed. Perhaps they feared that the Indian papers would plaster pictures of this indelicacy all over the front pages. May be they could hear Indians sniggering into their early morning cups of tea. So, late on wednesday night, friends in the fourth estate were telephoned and asked to desist. It worked.

    However it’s the moral of this story that I find amusing. It’s one thing to show the Pakistani High Commissioner’s daughter being kissed by Khushwant Singh but quite another to reveal the American Secretary of State under attack from that Pakistani Foreign Minister.

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