Friday, 8 February 2013

Not so lost in translation

As medical students, our basic interaction with patients begins in Year III, where we commence our clinical years. Essentially, we are taught the basics of communications – mostly pertaining to history-taking from the patient. A lot of emphasis is put on avoiding the excessive use of medical jargon. Communicating in Pashto, not riddled with Urdu and/or English words, was a linguistic shock for me even though I am a Pashtun. In the first week, I realized I spoke terrible Pashto that most patients didn’t even understand. Further, until now, I have never been able to read or write it either; all the more reason to be ashamed about not having a perfect grip over my mother tongue. It has been almost four years and I have yet to speak my language with the comfortable fluency that most locals do, but I am getting there.

Like me, the younger Pashtun generation, or most of it, has trouble reading and writing Pashto. Yet, have you noticed when two Pashtuns speak to each other, they only speak Pashto and no other language irrespective of where or who they are with, much to the chagrin of people who do not understand Pashto? While we take Pashto very seriously, ergo the unavoidable need to converse in it; however, if we analyze it from an evolutionary perspective, Pashto has nothing to offer when it comes to vibrant modern literature.

One very important aspect of the diminishing trend in reading and writing Pashto is that our generation, and the one before us, failed to realize the legacy of eminent Pashto authors and poets like Khushal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba and Ghani Khan. Khushal Khan Khattak is mostly misrepresented as a warrior while in reality he was a physician, a philosopher, and an educationist. Rahman Baba was a Sufi poet and a philosopher and Ghani Khan, in his own league, a revolutionist. Unfortunately, their larger than life philosophy seems to be lost and forgotten under piles of dust at Qissa Khwani Bazaar.
While I was growing up, I was introduced to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Patras Bukhari, and bits and pieces of Allama Iqbal but nothing in Pashto. I believe if our elders had made the effort to recognize the relevancy and concept behind their poetry and made it accessible to us, it would have made a considerable difference in our attitude towards Pashto literature. While Pashto used to be part of the syllabus in most schools in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, that is not the case anymore; this evidently is an important factor to consider.

Since the last 40 years, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has seen an obvious dearth of contemporary literature which could entice the youngsters into reading and writing in their native language. Literature seems to pass from generation to generation, largely through oral medium, subject to the whims of popular musicians. Many great stories and verses get lost or otherwise forgotten. There are only a handful of modern publications in native languages, and reading a language is such an essential part of learning it.
It's no coincidence that our language classes in English and Urdu put much emphasis on reading stories and answering comprehension questions. Literature is both the offshoot and vanguard of a language. Pashto speakers, or any language that is largely divorced from text, now find it incredibly hard to reconcile the dialects and eccentricities that creep into an informal system of language preservation. Literature codifies these things. In many ways, we are the unfortunate generation that are estranged from the language we speak, by virtue of the fact that its literature has been kept away from us. With all the idioms, proverbs, phrases, connotations, literature acts as a linguistic compendium. Moreover, the interesting narratives motivate the reader to exert some effort in learning these things.
Indeed, there is no greater teacher of language than a good story.

- 13 is a practicing Doctor at a major teaching hospital in Peshawar