Language is the key to
knowledge and understanding, and the worst fate anyone can imagine is to see
their language gradually dying a natural death. Surprisingly, many languages
have managed to survive the ebb and flow of history without stagnating. And
that is just as true in the cultural and ethnic melting pot that is Karachi.
Karachi, divided along
ethnic lines through the years, is home to many diverse languages. The
appearance or dominance of some languages in the city is only as old as
Pakistan itself, while others have survived in the city for centuries and
continue to do so solely on the basis of the will of the people within that
particular community. Despite various pressures,
many are still going strong even after centuries.
The city is littered with
communities, both large and small, that continue to work hard to preserve
their languages at all costs.
Dr Rahimi Pohanyar Ferzaad,
an Afghan poet and educationist, saw to it that his language did not become
extinct in his adopted country. Being a refugee himself and living in Karachi
for the ‘longest time’ he took an initiative to start a magazine named
Irfan, meaning to impart knowledge, in 2005. Interestingly, his middle name
Pohanyar, means a ‘Persian who loves knowledge.’
Being a refugee himself,
Farzaad’s initiative, in the form of the Afghan Refugees Cultural
Association, has been quite active as well, and has become became the
catalyst for a magazine in Persian and Dari.
The magazine, apart from
voicing the issues faced by Afghan refugees, also speaks about strengthening
Pak-Afghan ties, “without being overly-political,” Farzaad adds politely.
Talking passionately about
the monthly magazine, Ferzaad says that, it is a labour of love, to promote
harmony, and speak about the “forgotten message of humanity in today’s
fast paced world”.
Speaking about Persian and
how relevant it will be in the coming 10 years, Ferzaad is pretty hopeful.
“Earlier people were scared of evolution and as a result lost touch with
changing times. My focus is not limited to publishing a magazine only, but
also to make it accessible to wherever it is understood the most,” he
informs. His association also invites various educationists from Pakistan and
abroad to speak to Afghan children and urge them to embrace modern
technologies and adapt to innovative way of thinking.
To go along with changing
times, a blog in the Persian language has also been created so that
independent writers from different countries can also contribute to Irfan
The main aim, apart from
promoting education in his community, is to promote his language as well.
Ferzaad believes that languages survive only when there is a strong will to
make it survive. “It is the only way to preserve it: to speak in it and to
teach our children to speak as well. Most importantly, it is by making the
language accessible to others as well, without any prejudice and bias.”
Agha Azam, a regular
contributor to Irfan magazine’s blog, is one man who loves Persian despite
not having any familial link with it. Already fluent in five languages apart
from Urdu and English, Azam says that it is the sweet politeness of the
language that attracted him to it.
Another person who says he
adapted and learned languages just because he found them easy to understand
is Dr Aziz Khan Tank, a veteran member of the Pakistan Medical and Dental
Council (PMDC). He can speak four languages, and can write Sanskrit and
Hindi. Although he modestly credits the environment for the languages he
knows, the fact is that the amalgamation of different communities living
together has helped many people learn languages they would not know
“I have books in Sanskrit
and Hindi that I read whenever I get the time. It is something very intimate,
like coming back home, whenever I read them quietly,” he says.
Keeping the flag up
Usman Sati took the reins
of the Gujarati newspaper, Daily Vatan, in his hands as soon as he got to
know that the earlier publishers are planning to shut it down for good.
Founded in 1942, Daily Vatan got associated with the Dawn Group of Newspapers
in 1947 after the independence of Pakistan. But it was in 1997 that it
finally became independent.
Ironically, a lack of
readership was cited as the reason to shut it down, yet it is still in
business today solely on the basis of the support it gets from businessmen in
particular and the Gujarati community in general.
Though Sati says he was
nervous to take on such a huge initiative, it has come through only on the
basis that the younger generation takes an interest in the language as well.
“You meet any Gujarati,
irrespective of the fact of where they live or were born and brought up, a
majority knows their mother tongue. And that is a huge help in every way,”
Agreeing with Sati, Rochi
Ram, a senior member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), says
that language is not only used to converse with one another but also to
emotionally influence each other as well.
Sharing one story that he
got to know from his father, Ram says that once during a meeting with British
officials about the partition of India, Mahatma Gandhi asked Jinnah to speak
in their common language Gujarati so that they can speak easily on the issue.
“Just to get his point of view across, he wanted to speak in the same
language as his. That’s the sort of influencing power language has.”
As for the reply from
Jinnah, he must have declined the offer, says Ram, “that’s why we are
living in Pakistan today,” he says lightly.
With 3.2 million Guajaratis
scattered across Pakistan, Sati believes that their language will be relevant
even years later. Counting, he says that the Daudi, Ismaili, Ishnashari,
Kathiawari and Katchhi, all are Gujarati speaking people. And the best part
is that they are persistent in their efforts to pass on the language to the
Holding onto the legacy
While Aslam Isaani, holds
the same reverence for his language, he does not share the same views as Sati
about the younger generation being interested in promoting and learning their
Working for Daily Millat,
another Gujarati newspaper founded in 1948, Isaani thinks that the reason
their newspaper went bilingual is because young people can no longer read and
“The paper is surviving
only because of the readership, but the fact is that many are holding on to
it to keep intact the legacy that their forefathers left behind,” he points
He says among 3.2 million
Guajaratis in Karachi, a majority has their children studying abroad as well,
due to which children eventually opt to converse in English or Urdu, rather
than giving time to understand their own language.
“Now they want to learn
French or Spanish, so changing times call for adaptability, which the young
people are apt to do, while the older generation is still doing what they do
best. Being resilient,” he smiles.
Although the Bengali
population in the city runs in the hundreds of thousands and the community
continues to fight and survive in Karachi, efforts to start a newspaper and
periodicals in their own language have unfortunately not been successful.
Two newspapers, Qaumi
Bandhan and Muktee, started with a lot of fanfare in the late ‘40s but
could not survive for long. Journalist Mushtar Ahmad says that not having
enough financial resources is the main reason for them to shut it down.
Though the newspapers had
mostly political and current affairs sections, it was the low readership that
took it down eventually.
Just like Isaani, Ahmad
reiterates the same point about children increasingly preferring to speak and
read in Urdu and English rather than material in their own language.
Being a Bengali himself,
Ahmad points out that the squalid conditions most people live in, along with
the daily grind, has sapped any effort to do anything about keeping the
But he says that language
is not something to be kept protected anywhere. “It is through speaking
that it survives, which is happening, so there is a silver lining
Karachi is not just limited
to these languages as there are many more that are spoken in various areas.
Apart from Sindhi, Saraiki, Punjabi and Pashto, Balochi is spoken in more
areas now than ever before as a result of frequent internal migration of
people from other provinces to Karachi.
Abid Brohi, an activist
residing in Lyari says that the only way to preserve a language is to have it
written in the form of a dictionary. “Though it sounds a bit sad, but
that’s the way it will come in handy to people after us.”
Karachi is a place where
dozens of languages are spoken by its diverse population. Yet the increasing
dominance of a handful of languages is threatening to swamp the smaller
linguistic pockets in the metropolis. Kolachi talks to individuals who are
determined to protect and preserve their language at all costs