Mo­hammed Hanif


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.

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