While going through an exercise in my English textbook, I came across a question: “Can you think of a song or a poem in your language that talks of homecoming?”
I was unable to find an answer.
All I had to do was copy a poem or song on homecoming, that was clear and simple enough. But what left me grasping in the dark was my failure to claim a language as mine.
Like most Muslims based in North India, Urdu is documented as my mother tongue.
And though my pre-school years were devoted to learning to read and write Urdu, I was never particularly enchanted by it and nor did I bother to improve upon my lessons in basic Urdu.
I saw no use in doing so.
The books in Urdu that my family owned were mostly about scriptures and other bland, incomprehensible subjects that the older generation perused.
To the then five-year-old me who gained knowledge by reading tales of animals, fairies, magic and princesses, aging seemed nearly impossible. And by aging, I mean feeling the need to go through those old, dusty, picture-less books that my parents revered.
The result: I barely acknowledged Urdu, except when I would fill it as my mother tongue in application forms that I submitted to my class-teacher at the beginning of every school year.
Being enrolled in a convent school gave me more reasons to neglect Urdu. All my textbooks were written in English, except of course the two books for Hindi – my second language in school. As I was progressively introduced to Mary Had a Little Lamb, Cinderella, Snow White, The Famous Five and Harry Potter, I started forgetting Urdu.
English literature satisfied my reading appetite. I discovered that I had a flair in English and was mesmerised by every word the language offered. From Victorian romanticism to Ayn Rand’s objectivism, I learnt almost everything in English. Soon, I found myself thinking in that language and, most importantly, wanting to read more in it.
Despite my infatuation with English, it was in Hindi – sprinkled with occasional Urdu – that I lived my day-to-day life. And I continue to do so.
While joking with friends or conversing with family or while dealing with strangers, using English feels unnecessary – way too formal and even foreign.
At home, my family insists that we speak Urdu rather than Hindi. I often get scolded by older relatives for using the word ichha to express my wish instead of khwahish, or for complimenting someone as looking sundar instead of khoobsurat.
Also read: Why Urdu Isn’t Just a ‘Muslim’ Language
However, I stubbornly turned away from Urdu at an early age and knew and recognised too little of this language that I inherited from my ancestors.
For me, the language was nothing more than an imprint, a photograph of a long-deceased grandparent who held me when I was born but departed the world – my world before I could remember his part.
I write Hindi much more frequently than Urdu, yet I fail to have enough grasp over the language to convey my thoughts without interspersing each sentence with English words. However, I never bothered perfecting my Hindi.
That leaves me with English.
But despite mastering its use and grammar with ease, I cannot even dare to call it mine as it is a relic left from two centuries of slavery – a curse that infiltrated our homes and gagged our ancestors only to muzzle their words of wisdom.
With time, I have to come to regret the wilful neglect I treated Urdu with.
Failing to find a claim to these three languages that I learnt with varying degrees of resentment, indifference and interest, I find it even harder to renounce any of them as a stranger. The satisfaction I get after reading a children’s story written in Urdu with painstaking concentration thrills me as no other contentment can.
Hindi is the common language that connects everyone in this region when they laugh, share, complain, sigh and cry. After all, Hindi and Urdu are brothers. Someone with more in-depth knowledge might easily be able to tell one from another, but to my ignorant self, the two sound alike while conversing. And English liberated not only my mind to wondrous possibilities but also awakened the entire country to its darkness and enabled it to reach out to the world as an independent power.
To give up any of these languages would be like giving away a large part of myself.
Though each of these three languages stem from different points in time and space, my present and subsequent history thrives on the banks nourished by their confluence.
Perhaps, the closest I shall ever get to finding my home will be in those swift moments when the current that I drift along with touches the water of two other rivers before flowing on. But I always find myself trying to maintain my balance while switching between three different currents, all of which seem to be drifting further apart.
Amna Tasneem gave her 10th boards exam this year and she hopes to get into Harvard one day. She loves cats.
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