school was Urdu, I had to learn alien names for familiar things. I must have spent the next 10 years learning in a language that I would be considered pretentious for speaking in my own street.
By the time I finished high school, I realised that there was no college physics in Urdu, forget mathematics, and if you were destined to study aviation, you might have had to wait for centuries while someone drew up navigation maps in Urdu. So I began to learn English and by the time I drifted into writing I had no idea what my own language was. I was more like, “How much are you paying?”
How one comes not to read and write in one’s mother tongue is as problematic as someone who can write in their own language but elects to write in another. But, as the kids say these days, why trap yourself in these binaries when you can write in both or even a third?
The same people who ask why you write in this or that language also insinuate that if you are writing in three languages, surely you are lying in three languages. You are peddling three different versions of the same story to three different sets of people. Sometimes I worry that they might be right but then I take solace in the fact that in their quest for a single truth, they are not likely to find out. To answer the original question: when I write a novel, I think and plot and scribble in English for the simple reason that all the great novels I have read, even if they were originally written in Arabic, I read in English. And also because Graham Greene wrote his novels in English. When I write a political rant or a comment piece, I lean towards Urdu because there are all these ready-made historical references, street slang and wordplay bursting to be put to use. Recently, some friends asked me to write a song and it ended up a mixture of Urdu and Punjabi, no doubt the result of all the romantic songs that kept me awake through teenage nights. And when someone pisses me off, I am most likely to mutter something that I am not supposed to say in front of my mother. In her language.