A few days back, I read Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s fascinating article about the manuscripts in Indo-Pak subcontinent and how they prove to be the ‘broken links’ as they are unreadable to younger generation from both sides of the border.
She provides an evocative example in the form of Huma Mulji’s artwork titled ‘Mera Ghar’ (My home) which showcases 17 different scripts, representing the written forms of Karachi’s various languages including Gujarati, Kutchi, Sindhi, and Urdu.
Apart from their visual effects, Kabir discusses psychological and emotional impacts of written scripts on people’ minds and how they are manipulated as divisive ideologies by the post-colonial nation-states. She goes on to explain ‘scripts in South Asia have borne the weight of post-colonial hierarchies, colonial modernization, anti-colonial identity politics and post-colonial struggles over that layered inheritance’.
The argument becomes relevant for the socio-political implications of ‘partitioning’ the scripts along religious and national lines. The two scripts used for the same language render all the literature and other texts produced in one, virtually unreadable for the people literate in the other and vice versa. It also attests to the divisive politics ‘the idea of the script as a charged site where language and religion, those all-powerful vectors of identity politics of South Asia, intersect’. Therefore, relegating scripts to ‘Hindu-Muslim’ boxes, the post-independence states also tried to severe the centuries-old ties of sharing and reading literature by the speakers of the same language.
It brings to my mind all the broken links that I observed during my fieldwork related to pre-partition buildings in Sindh and Punjab. Born into an ethnic Punjabi family in Sindh, I am familiar with both Punjabi and Sindhi but what confronted me during the fieldwork was something that I didn’t expect.
Punjabi, though, is the mother tongue of all Punjabis across the globe, however, in Pakistan, the Punjabi itself is considered ‘a legacy of Sikhs’, a coarse, peasant language and is shunned from educational institutions. Punjabi has had two scripts; Gurmukhi which was devised by the second Sikh Guru Angad (1563-1606) and is used by Sikhs around the globe. The script used by Muslim Sufi poets is Shah Mukhi based on Perso-Arabic letters. Until Partition, both scripts were commonly used, but afterward, Gurmukhi became Indian Punjabi and language of the Sikhs while Shah Mukhi was consecrated as the new script to be used for Punjabi writings in Pakistan.
It resulted in the mutual illegibility of everything that was written in East Punjab and vice versa. Most of the pre-partition buildings in Punjab have inscriptions in Punjabi written in Gurmukhi script that I can’t read. So, every time I spot any such writing, I keep staring at it, trying to fathom the meaning of ‘strange hieroglyphs’ that is my mother tongue but still look so unfamiliar to me. For translation purposes, I ask my friends from Indian Punjab to help me decipher it.
The Sindhi language underwent a slightly different but equally poignant story. Before partition, Sindhi was written both in Perso-Arabic script mainly used by Muslims and in Khudawadi or Vaniki which was used by Hindu money lenders and merchants. However, after the British annexed Sindh (1843), they made Arabic script the official language. But, even after that, Khudawadi was being used for education and publishing religious texts. When Sindhi Hindus left for India during partition, they didn’t abandon the Sindhi language and continued teaching it to their children, writing books and composing poetry in it.
But gradually, they realised that the children learn Devnagri script in schools and are more into learning the local languages, so it is difficult for them to learn Arabic manuscript. So, some of the Sindhi Hindu educationists are trying to teach the language in Devnagri script which the children can easily pick and learn. However, this suggestion is being received with skepticism as it will result into an alienation because of which Indian Sindhis won’t be able to read Sindhi literature produced in Pakistan and it will break the socio-historical link between the speakers of two Sindhis.
The Khudawadi-Vaniki legacy is still found in Sindh because most of the old temples bear inscriptions in Vaniki script. Here, I can read Sindhi in its Arabic but am totally unable to read the Vaniki script. However, unfortunately, in this case, I haven’t been able to find anyone to translate it for me. It is because, Vaniki and Khudawadi are now ‘casualties of partition’, totally out of use and are no longer taught anywhere. Therefore, it is entirely wiped out of the linguistic maps of Pakistan.
When I look at these and other related issues, it brings to my mind the term ‘long partition’ used by Vazira Fazila in her book. It proves that partition was not a moment in history, rather it was and still is, a long-drawn process which continues to haunt us in the form of broken links, unreadable scripts and de-attachment from our centuries-old roots.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.