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A neglected language

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Dr Manzur Ejaz


Given the overall environment of that era, Faiz and his generation of Muslim intellectuals had cursory knowledge of Punjabi classics. Faiz, like many in his generation, was well versed in English, Urdu, Persian and even Arabic, but not Punjabi Reporting on Mr Izzat Majeed's speech at The Middle East Institute in Washington, my colleague Khalid Hasan referred to a controversy in which Majeed issued an 'aggressive' comment in Viewpoint about the late Faiz Ahmad Faiz. It was one of the rare occasions when Faiz felt obliged to respond.

Viewpoint had reported that Faiz, in a private setting, made some negative remarks about the Punjabi language. Faiz said that if Punjabi was such a great language, deserving of being the official language of the province, why did Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, ruler of Punjab, not adopt it at his court. Izzat Majeed wrote a powerful but provocative response to it and Faiz felt obligated to further his argument.

I also wrote a long piece in reference to this debate in the Pakistan Progressive — a journal that was published by left-oriented intellectuals from the US. I argued that all sides taking part in the debate had scant knowledge of the political history of the Punjabi language.

I pointed out that Faiz's portrayal was deficient on two points. First, as pointed out by many historians, Ranjeet Singh had tried to educate the masses, at least Sikh women, through Punjabi. Second, every ruler of that era, from Bengal to Punjab, used a bureaucracy trained in Persian to run the business of the state. It was not only Ranjeet Singh who did not enforce Punjabi in Punjab. Neither did the rulers of Delhi — Bahadur Shah Zafar and his predecessors — adopt Urdu as the official language of the Mughal Empire.

It was the British who developed Urdu and Hindi at Fort William College and made it the official language of North India. Somehow, the British also standardised Sindhi and enforced it as the official language of Sindh. Despite the fact that the Punjabi language was fully developed with literature much broader and deeper than other North Indian languages, the British neglected it due to political reasons which are beyond the scope of this column.

Faiz and his generation, including Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs, were groomed in Urdu at the expense of Punjabi. As a matter of fact, for a long time, Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs writers dominated the Urdu literary world. However, from the 1930s onwards, Urdu became part of the Muslim identity in Punjab and the United Provinces. Eventually, from the communists to the mullahs, most Muslim intellectuals of this area were wedded to the use of Urdu and stopped using their mother tongues.

Given the overall environment of that era, Faiz and his generation of Muslim intellectuals had cursory knowledge of Punjabi classics. Faiz, like many of his generation, was well versed in English, Urdu, Persian and even Arabic, but not Punjabi.

Consequently, by the time the movement for the restoration of the Punjabi language picked up some steam during the late 1960s, it was too late for Faiz's generation to catch up. Therefore, they had to stick to Urdu because that was the language they had used to gain their esteemed positions in the world of literature.

To Faiz's credit, he tried to contribute by writing some Punjabi poems and getting parts of his work translated into Punjabi. But Faiz knew his deficiencies in this regard; he was not proud of neglecting Punjabi. This is why he could not ignore Izzat Majeed's comments and had to issue a rebuttal.
In another encounter on a TV programme Panjnad, which I used to host under Mushtaq Soofi's producership, Faiz was very defensive on the issue: I asked him why he did not write in his own mother tongue. Faiz, in his unique style, said, "Urdu became part of our national identity."

He was right to a great extent, but the question remained: being a leading progressive intellectual, why could he not set himself apart from the crowd?
Faiz gave a very interesting response that has been quoted by many since then. When he read Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah, Faiz felt that he could never reach those heights with his own work. However, he was confident that, with hard work, he could attain a high level in Urdu classical poetry.

This was a rare acknowledgement that showed how honest and apologetic Faiz was about neglecting his mother tongue. Izzat Majeed may have been a bit over enthusiastic in his argument but he had successfully touched Faiz's raw nerves.
Ironically, my nephews and nieces, coming from a typical remote village, have no such raw nerves. They unapologetically speak broken Urdu and do not permit their children to speak Punjabi. Is it going from bad to worse for the Punjabi language?

Curtsey:Daily Times : May 21, 2008
The writer can be reached at manzurejaz@yahoo.com




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