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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Urdu: My Grandmother Tongue

People look at me and assume that Urdu is my mother tongue. It is not. It is my grandmother tongue. It is the language I used to communicate with both my Nani and my Dadi. Both tried to improve my command of their mother tongue. Both failed. I am a dim wit.
  My Nani made me read Urdu novels and taught me how to count, but she eventually gave up after her terminal cancer diagnosis. There wasn't enough time. I was a quiet child and the "no English" rule only made me even quieter in her presence.
  Nani would often demand that I tell her stories, while she napped. A habit which I found incredibly irritating. I would start the story and she would start snoring. When woken up, she would insist that she had been listening all along.
  My first book, a collection of short stories was just released. I like to imagine that it would have pleased Nani. I picture her saying, see I knew all along what you did not: I knew you had stories in you.
  How I wish the stories were in Urdu, then my Dadi too, would have been able to rejoice and giggle over the naughty bits, with a sparkle in her eyes and the knowing look of a woman who bore ten children.
  I wish I had better command of my grandmother tongue. But too many years of wandering the planet and reading in a language that was not theirs, has made me the worst kind of fool; the kind that speaks in a tongue, not anchored securely to the place where her thoughts are born.
   When I have to express complex thoughts in Urdu, I translate from English. I think in English. I dream in English. And yet, Ghalib and Faiz, Urdu poets, produce a longing in me, which I can not express with my English words.
   I have heard of phantom limbs. An ache in place of a limb. I have a phantom tongue. An ache where a tongue should have been. A longing instead of the language.
   My children do not know this longing. They have no access to Ghalib. No comprehension of Faiz. They are complete. There is no need for Urdu. No pining for its absence. I envy them their completeness. I pity their loss.