Tuesday 27 May 2008

Our Languages of Love

As someone who loves to write and to read, a love of language and words seems to fit naturally. My family is of Punjabi origin, hailing from Jhelum, and therefore speaks a Patwari dialect of Punjabi. Growing up I spoke this with my mother and grandparents, this was the language they scolded us with (dangar!! – animals!) and loved us in (rani thi – princess child). The dialect they used is exactly the one they brought with them from Pakistan forty years ago. This being the case, they have passed it on to me and my brother and sisters in its preserved form. We had guests recently from Pakistan who could not get over my and Little Lady’s Patwari. Their own children had moved to the cities and only spoke Urdu and their own Patwari was somewhat diluted. Our Patwari had been picked up in a vacuum of sorts and not evolved. They couldn’t believe that we had been born in England and spoke like their old people. For me this has become the language of motherhood, family past and the stories of our elders.

At the same time, my dad and uncles spoke to us in English, the language of our schooling and our favourite kids TV (the era of the A-Team, Punky Brewster and the Smurfs). This became our dominant language, the one we used to engage with the world, to learn and to dream about the future in. This is also the language I love for opening the doors to the wide world through its literature.

My better half is from Lahore and in contrast to our gentle Patwari, speaks the traditional Punjabi spoken in central Pakistan and Indian Punjab. To me this is a purer and more assertive Punjabi, passionate, bawdy and blunt; the language of Lahore’s wide-boys and sassy girls. Funnily enough, it reminds me of cockney English (one of my brother-in-laws’ friends saw me and asked who I was, he said "My brothers old lady" – I was 20!). When I try to speak it I can hear myself getting louder.

As a teenager my dad taught me to read and write some Urdu, I also overdosed on Indian films and so became fluent in speaking Urdu, the national language of Pakistan spoken by the "educated" people. People are surprised by my Urdu as an English person and praise my dad at his good teaching. I avoid owning up to the fact that the films taught me a lot more.

Because of our different dialects of Punjabi and because of our nerves as newly-weds, we ended up speaking Urdu which feels more formal than Punjabi. Urdu is a very polite language, even arguments are lined with convoluted equivalents of "kind sir" and "pray explain". It is also the language of romance and poetry. My husband is the corniest man ever and so I love his terrible flattery and bad couplets. When I speak this, I can feel myself becoming haughtier and I can hear my voice getting softer.

They say that a person’s true language emerges when they are angry. My aunty lives in Karachi where everyone speaks Urdu, everyone thought her a native Karachi-ite until one day she lost her temper at her son and picked up her shoe to chase him around their apartment. The neighbour’s were shocked to hear all manner of Punjabi swear words exploding off the walls.

For myself, I call upon the words to suit the situation: English at work and with my sisters, Urdu with my husband and guests and Punjabi with my mum and gran. I have often thought that Punjabi is the language of my heart and English of my head. My truest expression of feeling or deepest communication is achieved with a mixture of all three. There are words in one: serendipity, ji ayan noo (a very sweet Punjabi greeting), kaash (a longing for something in Urdu) which don’t exist in another. The problem was that I was the only one who spoke this mix of the people I knew. My sisters don’t speak good Urdu and English is not my husband’s strongest language. Not long ago though I found another speaker of this language of my heart – a certain Little Lady. My daughter speaks Patwari Punjabi with my mum, Urdu with my husband and English with my sisters. And so I can speak to my own rani thi in a language that can truly convey what I want to say.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous05 June, 2008

    Wow, thats so beautiful! So you go marrie at a young age too? me too!
    dont you hink that when your younger you can get away with a lot more than when your older?

    I dont know what my kids are going to speak as i speak broken urdu/punjabi/english to my mother in law and english with my husband. But my husbad and his sister both speak in punjabi with thier mother and father unawares of urdu.
    I want my children to pick up urdu rather than punjabu, my best bet is to stick it out in pakistn for a while right and pick up urdu myself!