Unlearning the language I was taught

August 16, 2015

I discovered a new ‘form’ of English, upon my arrival in the remote suburbs of KPK

Unlearning the language I was taught

English is obviously an acquired skill; a foreign language which no matter how hard we try to master, we’ll always fall short of being masters of. Probably, this has something to do with the fact that we were ruled by the people who spoke this language, or if it is correctly recorded by the biased sub-continental historians, apparently English was the only tool that the British needed to subdue us. Hence, the slavish appropriation of the same language; and none of us can become the Shakespeare of our Age!

Having said that, we cannot overlook the importance of English in our daily lives -- it is our ‘only’ yardstick to determine who among us is the most ‘hip’ socially and most influential. The more English one speaks, the more assertive one is and people are easily swayed.

With this apparently irrelevant background established, I shall now embark upon a saga that shall unravel my introduction to the New English! Well, just as Columbus was amazed to find the New Lands and the Red Indians, I was amazed to hear the new ‘form’ of English upon my arrival in the remote suburbs of KPK.

Whatever I had learnt in the 20-odd years of my life so far seemed to undergo a radical change in the very first hour of landing in the city. When I was asked to let go of my accent I was, like, "Really? Do I have an accent?"

All this time I had believed that I had a very Lahori/Pakistani accent (which I believed to be an acceptable one, sans provincial lilts) if at all I had an accent. Anyway, I later realised that the poor souls didn’t know the difference between speaking English and sputtering words of English in a random sequence.

But from that day onwards, the process of unlearning the English Language had begun for me.

The next day, when we were taken to fill various forms, when one organiser came in to welcome us in not-so-flattering words; and all of a sudden he shouted, "Listen me!" Jumping in my seat because I was almost dozing off as he could speak in monotone.

Anyway, I was shocked, and almost on the verge of saying "It’s listen TO me, sir!" when I fortunately bit my tongue and saved myself from a faux pas. Golden rule: One does not correct another English speaker unless one wants to be corrected as well; and who wants to be corrected, anyway? Even my students take offence if I correct them often.

Similarly, once on a social call at a senior’s place, another facet of English unfolded itself to our bewilderment. Having stayed for around three quarters of an hour with no refreshments, we decided to save ourselves as well as the hosts of any embarrassment. The moment we begged leave, the host got flustered and said, "No wait, wait! Your bhabi is making water for you!" Whoa, before this water could be ‘made’ and served, we scurried out.

Talk about verbatim translation of Urdu into English!

As I found out, KPK offers its own linguistic diversity. The land of hospitality has one unsaid yet strictly followed rule: Only if Thee speak Pashto, Thou are Welcome! The rest can fend for themselves!

However, being a woman has its perks in such a state. Women cover their faces up so that their ethnicity is disguised, and so you’re considered a local; or you can pour dollops of fairness creams on your face before stepping out and you shall pass for a Pathan.

Once, at a Daewoo terminal in Mardan, a man came up to me and jabbered something. I am sure I would have looked as dumbstruck as the word dumbstruck implies, because he relented and said, "Shakal se tou Pathani lagti ho, Pashto nai aati?!"

It’s been three years now. The same people have adopted me as a long-lost-to-Punjab sister. The language meets a different lilt in KPK, where ‘P’ and ‘F’ are interchangeably used (Pakistan can be called Fakistan, with no offence intended) and the oft-mentioned gender confusion.

Having been an English teacher for almost seven years now, it’s a challenge for me every day to keep my mouth shut, bite my tongue and ignore English as spoken by people around me! Where the most derogatory word that can be used for a woman is ‘sissy’ and boys yell the phish words at each other in its superlative form with no regard to reality or practicality, I have to hold my peace and let English be.

Just like I am a linguistic pariah in the far-flung suburbs of my own land, English is a pariah in a land that facilitated its supremacy over the rest of the world.

Unlearning the language I was taught