My mother tongue and other languages II

It was in 1983 that we went to Paris, for our honeymoon. It was 13 years since I had arrived in England from Kashmir, speaking only a little English, now nearly a graduate with a Bachelor of Education. 

Unlike me, the woman I had married had gone to a grammar school and had learnt some French. So, other than saying ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ during our time there I was able to hide behind her whenever it came time to communicate with the locals. 

During that visit we both fell in love with France and would return there for holidays every few years. Each time we went I felt embarrassed, almost ashamed, for my inability to speak French. 

Then about 20 years ago I took the radical step to eventually start to learn the language, with the help of a teacher friend. Every week I would have a half hour  lesson with him. Then, in between the lessons, I would get on with my normal life, in its English-speaking environment and forget any French words and phrases I had learnt. 

Then it suddenly dawned on me; here I was learning a new language and failing while at the same time I continued to forget the language(s) I did know once ie Urdu and Pahari. 

I then remembered the advice of a teacher when I first arrived in England. She had said: if you want to improve your English then read, read, read as much as you can. I thought to myself: if that works for English then it must work for any language. 

I decided to subscribe to the Urdu weekly paper, The Nation. In the 7 days before the next one arrived I used to read all of it – news of the politics in Pakistan and Kashmir, social matters in the UK, adverts including for marriage and anything and everything else that was there. In the early days I struggled but then I began to notice the improvement. Interestingly as I read Urdu it began to improve my spoken Pahari. 

After cancelling my newspaper subscription, I have continued to read regularly, a forever increasing list of well-written Urdu books and articles that have content that is of interest. Whereas before I would read and re-read old favourites; Kashmir udaas hai by Mahmood Hashmi, Shahaab Nama, book on the achievements of Muhammad Ajeeb by Yaqub Nizami and numerous Manto books. 

Then, thanks to a Facebook friend, I recently discovered a book by Syed Shabbir Ahmad: Observations and Impressions. What an excellent story teller; with a Manto-esque style of writing as well his selection of material. The detail he provides and the emotions he captures leaves one with the stories and their characters for days to come as if one had personally been there. 

My reading journey of his work began with Radio Bachpan. Here we learn about the arrival of the radio, in 1965, from his Vilayati (Blighty, England return) uncle. 

I remember the family would gather at teatime and listen to the covered in cloth radio given pride of place on the table. We children used to wonder how it was that a human being had gotten inside the machine to then talk and sing to us. 

We would go to school and brag about our prized possession. Upon return from school I would run straight to my uncles to enjoy this innovative piece of equipment. A few years later when my father bought our own radio I remember family members cautioned him that it might interfere with our education. 

It was very helpful to see included in the book a chapter on Mahmood Hashmi; a timely opportunity to have confirmed my existing knowledge (as well acquire some new detail) on him before I write a chapter on this man known as the Father of Urdu journalism in the UK. 

In the story where he promises his mother not to cry, my particular interest focused on sections that provide an insight into the daily routine of women and families. Recently I happened to have read Gupta’s ‘Embers the Beginning and Embers the End of Mirpur’ which described the horrors of Partition. So I welcomed the feel-good story of Muslims coming to the aid of Hindus. 

The writer also draws on his work as a taxi driver in a number of places. A few years ago I wanted to set up a project to gather Taxi Tales. It never came to fruition. I would encourage him to maybe write that book in order to share with us the world and insights of people in this trade which has working within it as many as 25 percent British Pakistani workers. 

There is ‘People who love are in the West too’. As someone who has only lived in the West, I can only agree. 

Although I have had knowledge of the British education for over 50 years (as a pupil, teacher, teacher trainer, schools adviser, parent, governor) it was nevertheless enjoyable reading this ‘outsider’ perspective in the chapter devoted to our education system. 

Last but not least, is the chapter: A girl is born. This took me back to my early days in Kashmir and then in England. Being the only son in a family of 6 and later an uncle to 4 girls, I learnt the appalling treatment of girls in our families. I am always keen to promote gender equality whenever I get a chance. We see the writer also challenging the ways of our community. He has written a couple of stories about daughters. In one he gives out mathaaee sweets. A colleague enquires what the occasion is to which he responds: birth of a daughter. The enquiry continues: the first? “No, the second” he says, leaving his colleague confused as such practice usually only happens at the birth of a son. Later, in the same story, when he said goodbye to his daughter at the hostel so she could attend medical college, it brought back tearful moments when we left our first-born at her university. In another story we learn about another’s daughter being allowed to marry the man of her choice. I could only wish her well and say to her parents: good on you to allow her to do so. 

I strongly urge you to read this gem of a book. 


I am sad I never mastered French. Occasionally we have talked about going to France on an extended holiday and immersing ourselves in their language. Dreams do become reality. One day!