Sweating. Sitting in the exam hall, on a vandalized piece of wood with the words ‘Metallic For Lyf’ etched most prominently into it. I was one amongst hundreds of other umeedwar, or ‘hopefuls’, as my father had articulately called the colorful crowd of drowsy teenagers this morning. We were on our third paper, Urdu, which followed right after ninety minutes of Mathematics and English each. It was a series of admission tests; my parents were moving back to Pakistan and I needed a school to attend for the three last years until graduation.
I already knew I’d aced my mathematics exam. It was so easy; a baby version of me could have done it. The great thing about math is that, apparently like Metallica, it is universal. Whether I’ve lived all my life in the Middle East, in the South East or the Far West, integration and differentiation will be the same for me wherever I go. As I stared at my Urdu composition, I wished that the written word had a language which, like numbers, transcended all cultures and all upbringings and gave us solid, indisputable theorems to tackle problems wherever we were.
Let’s just say, I wasn’t considering myself too much of an umeedwar as I read and reread the Urdu instructions. My pen, gripped between my fingers, yawned.
Earlier, I’d completed my English composition in thirty minutes, spending the remaining sixty allocated to it swinging back and forth on the wooden chair until one of the invigilators clicked her tongue at me. I’d written about the ‘Virtues of a Democratic Government’. I had neither chosen the topic nor had I the least bit of interest in it. Yet, in half an hour, it had materialized on the lined paper before me. My brother has always said I can ‘bullshit’ my way out of anything. And honestly, the three pages of discussion on the openness and accessibility of information, equitable elections, freedom of press and choice, apportionment of power, were a hell of a testament to it. I didn’t really like to think of it that way myself. Words weren’t a means to an end. I didn’t manipulate them; they were my partners in crime.
The Urdu composition was currently threatening to dissolve this partnership. The topic was ‘Advantages and Disadvantages of Early Marriages’, and so far the only thing I’d written, with those letters that go from right to left, was something close to ‘In this essay, I will talk about what an early marriage is’. They definitely already knew what an early marriage was, but unfortunately, nothing better spilt out of my Uni-Ball.
“This is supposed to be my mother-tongue, God damn it!” I remember thinking, kicking the table leg and attracting a glare from this Iqbal-type jotting away furiously on my right. “My own mother married at twenty!”
The problem wasn’t material. Even in my frustration, the ‘bullshit’ production wheel was turning. Through my exaggerated fears of how failing to get into a school might mean an early marriage of me, I was already noticing the trade-off between early marriages and higher education. The problem was that the material was monolingual. My mind’s WI-FI network was down and refusing to connect to Google-Translate.
I found myself blaming my parents for moving me to and fro countries, making me believe I had not one, but two first languages, when in fact, I had none. I even blamed English, my trusted partner in crime, for distracting me with its wiles and making me lose my grip on my mother-tongue. My locus of control was spinning outwards, out of control.
It took me eighty five minutes to get the required amount of words out. I didn’t bother proofreading. The only proof I would get from that reading would be of my partial illiteracy.
I handed in my last paper and carried out my pens and my epiphanies grudgingly with me. My brother was waiting outside by the car, and when he asked me how I’d done, all I said was, “What’s the Urdu word for bullshit?”
As both a student and a writer, the admissions test came as a blow to me, one I felt for years. My parents never moved to Pakistan, so my Urdu grade ended up being forgotten by everyone but me. I now not only looked at Urdu differently, but English as well. I began to believe that reconciling multiple cultures was a myth and that writers like Coleman Barks, who managed to translate Rumi’s poetry while preserving the quality that brought the ‘Ahhh’ to your lips, were simply ahead of me in the Darwinian process of evolution. How, I wondered, could they master two languages without having one tear at the other?
I remember feeling this way for a long time. Every time I got praise for an English essay in school, it would be tainted by the memory of my mental incompetence when it came to Urdu. I would watch my father watch Pakistani news on television sometimes and I would think of the teleprompter anchors read from and the person who types out the words for them and say to myself, “If you were that person, it would make Pakistani news all the more appalling.”
Then one day, out of the blue, my mother decided to read my grandmother’s Urdu poetry to me. My grandmother, or Zehra naani, as I call her, plays an active part in the Pakistani literary society and her work, although intimidating, always inspires me. She writes on anything that moves her, but she focuses on family and society.
This particular evening my mother chose to recite a simple observation my grandmother made standing at a window in her London apartment and spotting a girl—of questionable profession— standing by a lamppost under heavy rain, miserably drenched but going nowhere. I had to ask for the meaning of some words here and there, but as always, my grandmother’s art lay in the simplicity of the words she used- something, I learnt, only came with true mastery.
“I wish I had that power,” I remember saying to my mother.
“But you do,” my mother’s answer surprised me. “Your power just speaks a different language.”
And to prove it, she made me pull out a pen and paper. She would reread the poem for me and I would translate it in English. It took me about ten minutes to translate this stanza:
The kohl drained from her eyes, and the lamp shed light on her truth. She was not born into this world for this; she was born, like my children, to play in the rain.
It didn’t matter that it didn’t have her rhymes or her rhythm. It didn’t matter that when I said it out loud, I didn’t see a gathering of men and women, wrapped in the finest shawls, the shahtoosh, chewing on pan leaves, crying out in praise for me. My mother was smiling at me, because she knew I had figured something out. A consoling epiphany, for a change, three years after my admissions test. I was blaming all the wrong things all this time. Because it was a second language that had, in that moment, brought me closer to my first.