Shehryar Sheikh, our new columnist, reflects on his experiences with the postcolonial inferiority complex in Pakistan. The title of his column refers to the Margalla hills near his home in Pakistan.
Miss Seema wore a red sari.
That will always be my second best recollection of the woman who taught English at Froebel’s in 2006. However, my best recollection is her reducing the whole class to a fit of hysterical laughter as she pointed out how ‘’silly’’ our native pronunciations of English words were. ‘’Bowl, not Bo-wel!’’ she thundered, setting us on the path of British or American tinged accents that define middle/upper class Pakistani English speakers.
You would be wrong to think she was the first person to imply there was something inferior about my accent or language. I recall being about 5 and crying because my parents wanted me to speak English, which I was quite poor at and subsequently falling behind at school. Like any middle class Pakistani, I was sent to an English medium private school with a British curriculum, encouraged and sometimes forced to desert my native language in the classroom and playground to the point of becoming a second language speaker in my own mother tongue.
The British never left Pakistan. Somewhere I can see Lord Bentick, who foisted English on India in 1835, smiling in his grave at the irony that a child born 50 years after the end of British colonialism can’t read books in Urdu/Punjabi by his own grandfather. Instead of removing the socio-linguistic stains of colonialism, we in Pakistan have faithfully reproduced and strengthened them, equating them with ‘’modernity.’’
Today I am probably better at English than most native speakers. This isn’t hubris, it’s actually quite sad. The culture that reinforces English supremacy has birthed a sort of grey zone where many in my generation feel too Western to be properly Pakistani, but upon emigrating realise they have nothing much in common with the West either.
When I was in Pakistan this winter, a lovely woman my parents are friends with pointed out I had an ‘’American’’ tinged accent and asked if I could even read Urdu. This has happened to me far too many times to count. Whilst before I would feel offended, I now see this in a different light.
It was people of her generation, and generations before her, who maintained English and Western norms of dressing/culture that I grew up surrounded by. I didn’t choose to learn English. I was forced to. I am not proud of my ability to speak this language. What Pakistanis fail to grasp is that there is nothing tangible linking English or shirts/trousers to development or wealth. The British reduced our self image to the point where we see expressions of native culture as inherently backward.
Instead of recognising and changing this, Pakistan is happily walking in the opposite direction. The government of one of our four provinces, Pakhtunkhwa, recently introduced English as the medium of primary education. Children barely out of kindergarten in one of the poorest places in Pakistan made to learn in a Germanic language, probably taught by teachers just as bad at English as the children themselves. On the article I read announcing this, there was only one reader who commented criticising the measure, saying countries all over the globe used their native languages for instruction. There was a telling reply to the comment:
‘’All those countries have not been British colonies and their entire system is not based on English laws and practices. Where would you leave your children without english?? jobless, becoming terrorists and blowing themselves up??? For heaven’s sake appreciate what is right.’’ (PS I had to edit this for very poor spelling and grammar…irony levels=Pakistani)
So basically…learn English to get a job, or don’t and become unemployed, even a terrorist. When I was volunteering with orphans in Rawalpindi, I helped some with their homework. The government of Punjab had recently made English the language of instruction. The kids couldn’t make heads or tails of their new science books. Worse, I felt like shit because I could, reinforcing English as a marker of wealth and privilege in a society that hates itself. ‘’Density kya hoti hai bhai?’’ rings in my ears.I wish I could turn to those people who made fun of or criticised me, first for not speaking English and later for speaking just English. They don’t know how robbed I feel. I stare at my grandparents’ massive collection of Urdu and Punjabi books, the intricate Nastaliq font on their covers, and know I will probably never read them. I know what I would tell those people.
Don’t force me to lose my culture because of your insecurities and then criticise me for it. Do what I am trying to do. Kick the colonial inferiority complex out of your minds, your tongues, your clothes, out of Pakistan.
Images courtesy of Pixabay