How I Studied Pakistan's Language Politics, Without Funding - III

How I Studied Pakistan's Language Politics, Without Funding - III

Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times.
Click here for part II

I had till then never lived in Lahore but I was familiar with it. Not only pages of literature but also my own periodic stays in Lahore in 1969 made it familiar to me. I remembered the red brick building of the old campus of the Punjab University where Professor Siraj taught us Shakespeare. And then, much later, was my own marriage in Lahore; in Aitchison itself. I began with the idea that this would be an easy language movement to investigate. After all I did not speak Sindhi and did not even understand the text without the help of translators. But Punjabi I could understand and speak, and this, I thought, would be a great advantage. It was… but only with the taxi-walas.  And even the taxi drivers had a vocabulary for policemen which cannot be translated because the readers might blush. The language of the Punjabi journals proved to be mostly incomprehensible for me till I spent a lot of time on it. My pied a terre were my wife’s aunt and uncle’s houses. From there I would make forays into the libraries of Lahore. But the libraries did not yield up their treasures so soon. The Punjab Public Library, the Quaid-e-Azam Library, the University Library, the Diyal Singh College Library etc. all had gems but the breakthrough came when I visited the Punjab archives. Those who look after the archives see to it that no scholar can somehow sneak in. In Lahore they are even better at hiding them than in Karachi as they have put them within the civil secretariat. Now if you have not dealt with the bureaucracy, especially the bureaucracy of Lahore, you would imagine that public servants are paid by the public to serve the citizens. However, you would be cured of such naïve notions when you actually try to enter the Punjab archives unless you are an American, European or a well-connected Pakistani. If you are like myself, a Pakistani scholar not connected with the powerful of the land, you will face a number of impediments. First, the thanedar’s boys at the gate will not let you in. You may be Einstein (they are blissfully unaware of Einstein anyway) but that has nothing to do with them. If someone does let you creep in, the archive chaps spit on their hands and set about their task of making your life difficult. After all they think their job is to see to it that you do not actually start peering into their precious documents. And, after a lifetime of saying no to everything, you can hardly expect seasoned bureaucrats to start saying ‘yes’ to all you ask for. But now, having got over my obsession with my rights as a citizen, I decided to do things the Pakistani way. So, I went in the company of an officer of the labour department of my wife’s uncle, Feroz Shah Khan. This officer sailed past the daunting line of armed police-walas. The formalities took ten minutes and I gladly paid what they asked for and the documents were mine to pore over. The letters of the British officers were especially valuable.

What happened to the Punjabi movement after the partition? For an answer I went to the Punjabi Adabi Board. The only thing I knew about it was that it was near the veterinary hospital i.e kora aspatal (horse hospital). So, this is what I told the rickshaw driver. The man was a proper Lahori. He thought up all kinds of abusive terms about poor horses when he lost his way. When reminded that our target was the Punjabi Adabi Board he was none too polite. He let Punjabi have it too. But just when Punjabi’s mother and sister had been proved to be no better than they should be, we found the place. It was a small house in a quiet lane—a very unlikely place for a language planning board. And the man who ran that institution was far from being the kind of person I had found heading institutions. He was wrapped up in a blanket, wore a much-worn cap and had a hookah under the table—not the Oxbridge don nor the would-be officer. Nor, indeed, was he like the officious head clerks, all vintage Mr. Bumble as Dicken’s would call them, whose main role in the Bumbledom is to make life difficult for researchers. This man can only be described as a rare and remarkable individual. His name was Asif Khan and he was one of those motivated intellectuals who keep writing despite all odds. I did not know how much he had written then but his humility and helpfulness impressed me. We talked in Punjabi which, in his case, was sometimes mixed up with the bubbling of the hookah, though he must have guessed that it was not my mother tongue. But it is a language I enjoy speaking and so the interview went well.

Every day I would visit the Punjabi Adabi Board and take out old issues of magazines like Punjabi and Punjabi Adab for photocopying. From the pages of these magazines and newspapers I would learn how some people—the activists of the Punjabi movement—had tried to get Punjabi accepted as a language of schooling, a language of the courts and lower-level administration. I also went to see Shafaqat Tanwir Mirza, one of the few Punjabi intellectuals who wrote in English, Urdu and Punjabi with equal ease. He was then the editor of the Urdu daily Imroze. Sadly, though, he was not enthusiastic about my research. Probably he did not quite trust my Western methods of interviewing and asking for written proof for every assertion. I also met Raja Rasalu, Najam Hussain Syed, Ilyas Ghumman, Fakhar Zaman, Saeed Kammi Farani, Iqbal Dhillon and Ahmad Saleem. But I did not meet all of them in that one visit nor even in Lahore. I kept coming to Lahore again and again and learned much from them in conversation. Like a bloodhound I also chased all documents they mentioned and got a fair idea of how the Punjabi intellectuals, or some of them, resented the Punjabi elite. In their view the Punjabi ruling elite—which predominated in the civil service and the army—denied them their language in order to keep ethnicity in check.

If at all some funding came one’s way, it came very much in the style of a bakhshish –a favour which the nawab or bureaucrat bestows upon you out of a sense of noblesse oblige

One thing which I found remarkable about the activists of the Punjabi language movement was that they worked against very heavy odds for reasons which could hardly be called instrumental. The leaders of the Bengali, Sindhi, Siraiki, Pashto and Balochi language movements could have gained power and a higher share in goods and services (jobs etc) if they had mobilized people as a pressure group. Thus, while not denying their love for their culture and language, it would also be plausible to argue that they were using language for tangible benefits for their ethnic group. However, the Punjabis were privileged as an ethnic group anyway and if the leaders of the Punjabi movement so desired, they could use the system to rise to eminence. Yet some of them had opposed the state and Ayub Khan’s government had persecuted them. This shows how for reasons rooted in emotion, self-respect for one’s community, one’s roots—basically extra-rational reasons—one can selflessly pursue a battle in which one stands to lose much. What the activists of the Punjabi movement wanted was respect for their mother tongue. They wanted the Punjabis to get rid of the culture shame which makes educated people speak Urdu before their children. They wanted their children to read the classic in Punjabi: Waris Shah (Heer), Qadiryar and Shah Hussain. They wanted to be proud of being Punjabis. It is an emotional demand and I do not see how anyone can call it wrong. I think it is justified. The Punjabi elite ignores this demand and does not even understand it; and yet it is not difficult to understand. Hussain Naqvi, who is Urdu-speaking, supported Punjabi and helped bring out the newspaper Sajjan. I myself, whose mother tongue is not Punjabi, understand the psychological necessity of being proud of this ignored language of our masses. That is why I enjoy Punjabi poetry and love to speak the language. So, with the Punjabi words for good-bye, Rab Rakha (God preserve you), to Asif Khan and others I left Lahore.

In 1993 the book had advanced beyond the stage of ideas and drafts. The chapters on the Siraiki, Punjabi and Urdu-English controversies in Pakistan were ready in rough form. The chapter on the Sindhi-Urdu controversy was still proving elusive. But now came a wall against which I knocked my head again and again. I found that I had very little material on the Hindi-Urdu controversy and the Bengali language movement. True, I had been under the dome of the British Museum reading room where Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf, to name only two, had created much of the work which changed the thoughts of human beings. True, I had dutifully followed all South Asian historians to the India Office Library. All this was true, but what was not true was that I had sufficient material on British language policies. For this I would have to go to Britain again.

Now this was not easy in those days when funding for personal projects of research was simply non-existent in Pakistani universities. If at all some funding came one’s way, it came very much in the style of a bakhshish –a favour which the nawab or bureaucrat bestows upon you out of a sense of noblesse oblige. Now I am pretty bad about going to durbars and never qualified for a largesse. This time, however, a colleague of mine at QAU called Mujawir Shah told me that Dr Kazi of the UGC (University Grants Commission) appreciated my writings and was keen to help me. I, therefore, paid him a visit.  And sure enough, Dr Kazi said I would get a ticket to London if only I wrote to him about my proposed book. His clerks, however, told me it was to be a one-way ticket, and the good doctor was mistaken or that I had not understood him. Perhaps one was expected to become such a nuisance at the airport when one wanted to come back that they would deport one. However, Dr Kazi proved to be as good as his word and, wonder of wonders, I was actually given a two-way ticket. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. One day a UGC officer, who shall remain nameless, rang me and said: ‘Dr Sahib you said you were going for research’.

‘Yes. So I am,’ I replied.

‘But this will be published as a book,’ he said.

‘I hope it is,’ I replied

‘You are writing it to be published as a book,’ went on Sherlock Holmes.

‘Of course, one does research to publish and this one will be a book. There may also be some journal article based on this research’.

‘In that case,’ said the voice with satisfaction, ‘our rules do not allow this funding. Funding is given for non-profit research projects and on books one gets a profit. Besides, books are not projects’

‘Well,’ I told him, ‘I hope you are right and I do get a profit but 10% royalty is hardly much of a profit. In any case, we academics write to publish, so that is that.’

He rang off and I thought I would have to stop thinking of research, at least that summer. But the UGC called again. This time I was told that all I would have to do is to call my visit a research trip for a project without talking about the book part of it. So, we started with that lie—or shall we call it mendacity or merely suppression of part of the truth-- staring me in the face.  I thought I would learn only about language in my research project but I was also being taught the fine art of survival through mendacity.

So here was a ticket to go to England and even to come back, but nobody gave me a penny to live there or travel or buy books. The idea was that if people were so stupid as to want to go to England for such a useless thing as research, they should be punished. However, I was quite prepared for this eventuality. I drew on the family’s meager pocket once again and raised a few hundred pounds. And then once again a windfall came my way in the hoary old colonial style. I was at a dinner when a British Council officer met me and learned about my proposed visit.

‘I will be working on British language policies too,’ I told him.

‘That means we might be able to arrange a grant-in-aid,’ he pondered.

Thus, by the time dessert was served, the British taxpayer was deprived of ₤ 400 (yes, four hundred pounds sterling) so that a foreigner would be enabled to pry into the none-too-secret documents of the British Indian empire.

The real headache began now because I was told that the Ministry of Education was supposed to give me a No Objection Certificate which had to be okayed by the Ministry of Finance too. Personally, I do not approve of NOCs in principle. I think they are ways of rubbing into everybody’s mind that power is still in the hands of the bureaucracy. But what can one do if one has to take an NOC? Well, I did nothing. Nothing at all beyond that which was required by the law. The date of departure came and had to be postponed—No NOC! In those days I met the Education Secretary, Mr. Usmani, several times in dinners etc. Once he talked to me about my articles saying that he liked them. But somehow, I could not bring myself to mention the NOC. I did not like to ask for it as if it were a favour. Moreover, I liked him and I thought bringing up business (as it were) would break up the relationship I had with him. So, the second date of departure also passed and no NOC. But then someone in the ministry discovered that I was the chap whose case had been okayed months back by the powers that be. Then the NOC was typed in a rush and I was free of the clutches of the bureaucracy.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now began the great telephone invasion of Britain. Who would I lodge with? In Sheffield I did have friends—old friends David Critchlow and his wife Billy—but London and Oxford libraries were what I was after. In London there was my father’s former student, Mr. Barni of the BCCI, but how could I become a parasite upon him? Then came a letter out of the blue telling me that my friend Chandramohan was now living in London. Eureka! I shouted. I would stay with him as he so warmly offered. Thus I marched on to the airport with éclat. On the other side, I knew, would be Chandramohan’s house. The plane took off on a clear summer morning and it was sunny British afternoon when I landed at the Gatwick airport. Another bit of telephoning and I was on my way through the familiar London underground to Chandramohan’s house which was not far from the airport. When the tube emerged on the surface, I was a bit surprised. I thought my friends Mohan’s house would be in some kind of a slum. But here we were moving in the beautiful green British countryside. The actual location of the house took my breath away! It was in Hanwell, just opposite a huge park where peacocks strutted about. A few steps away from the house was a cottage which seemed to me to have stepped out of Shakespearean England. And, incredibly enough, the peacocks sometimes came to roost right on Mohan’s roof. This was just the place to live, I thought.

Mohan was a family man now. His Sri Lankan wife, Shanti, and baby boy Shamyaka, were there to welcome me. And yet old Mohan could be discovered lurking beneath the mature family man façade. There were the same endless applications for jobs, papers, books and documents lying about. There were the same endless rounds of tea and coffee lasting well into the small hours of the morning. I enjoyed it all and would have been swamped by depressing loneliness had he not been there with his touching sincerity and friendliness.

‘You live in paradise itself,’ I remarked over the umpteenth cup of tea.

‘Yes. The peacocks left these feathers here.’ He showed me some. Then he said: ‘But the trouble is that London is far away. You have to get onto British rail, change at Waterloo and get on the bus. Or else there are two underground trains. But Blackfriars, where you have to go for the India Office Library, is really the other end of London.’

‘Good God,’ I said in desperation. ‘Hunting for language means making these daily trips to hell.’

Just then the BBC gave the chilling news that IRA agents were in London and had tried to plant a bomb somewhere in the city.

I clutched my head in agony.

‘This rules out the tube Mohan,’ I told him.

‘It is the quickest’, he replied. ‘But if you require a day to settle down don’t go tomorrow. Rest.’

I steeled myself, and looking out resolutely at the yellowish streetlights of Hanwell, said: ‘For me the pursuit of language is going to be like going out to the battlefield every day.’ And, so saying, I reached out for the tea which Mohan always had as an antidote.

‘Does the battle begin tomorrow?’ he asked me.

‘Of course. At six sharp.’

And with that I called it a day though Mohan thought it was a case for more talk and—of course—tea!

In addition to Mohan’s house, I also stayed at Uncle Barni’s house when Mohan was out of town. Moreover, when I went to Oxford, I stayed at Nuffield College where Dr Gauhar Rizvi, then a fellow there, arranged my stay. He had been approached for this favour by Dushka Syed, my friend and colleague from the history department of QAU, who was collecting material for her Ph. D thesis. Dr Zawwar Zaidi used to visit the IOL Reading Room to help her and I met him for the first time there. My routine was to study from the time the reading room opened till it closed with only a ten-minute break for lunch. In London Masood Zahid, my colleague at NIPS who was studying for his D. Phil at Oxford, invited me to his house for dinner. His wife, Riffat Masood, was in the foreign service and I and Dushka were both delighted with the dinner she gave us. At Oxford Dr Iftikhar Malik, also my colleague from QAU and now Pakistan Fellow at the University, invited me for a dinner where I met Ameena Saiyyid, the managing director of the Oxford University Press in Pakistan, for the first time. She encouraged me to submit my book to Oxford. But the book was proving difficult since research was so expensive. The archives at the India office were fascinating but I was at the end of all my money and had to tear myself away from there. When I came back from London, I had more material than I thought I would get in a brief visit.

I dipped into savings again to buy a computer and also hire an excellent programmer, Havaldar Khalid, to run it for me.  The last part of the year was spent in doing field work in Peshawar. As I had taught myself to read the Pashto script, I could read articles in that language though sometimes I had to ask for the meanings of obscure or learned words and at others I just guessed the overall gist of a paragraph without understanding all the words. I was also taken to Charsadda by Nasir Khattak and Dr Rajwali Khattak. Nasir had been one of my students in the English department of Peshawar University and Rajwali Khattak was the Director of the Pashto Academy. We went to Uthman Zai, the ancestral village of Khan Ghaffar Khan. Here, in a huge haveli (old fashioned mansion), I met Khan Ghani Khan, one of the three sons of Khan Ghaffar. I interviewed him and we drove back to Peshawar stopping only for a lunch of fried trout near the river. I also delivered a lecture at the University of Peshawar which was applauded so much by the faculty and students that I felt I had arrived – at least as far as the Pashto language movement was concerned. Thus ended 1993.


(to be continued)