Decolonize, Rewild, Recolonize

Here is a thought-provoking poem about the colonizing power of language by Maleeha Sattar. The irony of a native from India writing about the colonizing power of language in the language of the colonizer is not lost.  I think we could all identify easily with this.  Aren’t we all colonized by the language of our families?  What would it mean to be rewilded to our original languages?  Would that be a state of no language at all, the tabula rasa mind before words stole our beginner’s minds?  I am sure I don’t want to do that much work.  And Sattar neither.  What I want is to think my own thoughts in whatever way (language, mathematics, sculpture, song, algorithm, poem) I wish.  I could be happy writing and thinking in Hindi of whatever stripe as long it had not been foisted upon me.

It helps to read this poem aloud, a piece of advice I give to all my students when reading poems or something that strikes you as poetic.  Take, for example, Sattar’s repetition of “it” or “it escapes me” or “it threatens me”.  Reading this repetition aloud gives you a feel for the weight of colonization.  “It” is heavy, it weighs heavily.  Worst of all,

Amidst all this, I oscillate to and fro, from margins to near centre

Never making it to the centre!

This is a way more ominous invocation of Frost’s secret that sits in the middle and knows.  Sattar comes to the terrible conclusion that the secret of colonizing language is that it always marginalizes. You will never sit at the kool kidz table. Never.  Sattar exposes the ultimate cruelty of language colonization. Ultimately, it disempowers. That is its purpose.

I don’t think this is overstating the case, but rather acts as a trim tab for the colonized and the colonizer to remain aware that language can be an agent of control by simply existing.  Thank you, Maleeha, for pointing to this and to the larger idea that English can even colonize itself as it has in Appalachia where the mountain dialect is under threat and colonized by U. S. Midwestern dialect.

Read more poetry. It will provoke a powerful rewilding.

 

LIKE ANY OTHER language
by Maleeha Sattar

 

LIKE ANY OTHER language.

It is not a mere language.

It is the language of my former masters

Still used and cherished by my new rulers.

And I am an insufficiently Englishised subject of my English Sarkar1

Here, I am rendered powerless everyday as a ‘postcolonial being’ unfit ‘to carry colonial baggage’2

I have little encounters with English everyday

In form of words, it is everywhere around me; on billboards, on signposts

Unthreateningly, interspersed naturally in daily conversations to spice them up.

Yet it escapes me.

I get enamoured when I hear anyone speak it effortlessly.

It exudes class.

It makes people look educated, refined and cultured.

It threatens me only when my teacher scolds me for praising

English language in my mother tongue

And calls me ‘jahil’3 for doing so.

 

It threatens me when I talk in Punjabi and my cousins from English medium schools call me ‘paindu’4

It threatens me when those who can understand my language insist on talking to me in English only.

It threatens me when it enforces silence because I am required to speak in English only.

Why English only?

They say all things—opinions, learning, knowledge and emotions—become more effective and valuable when expressed in English.

Haven’t you seen how my native Bulleh, Waris Shah, Daman sound exotic in English?

Pains, sorrows and anguishes, expressed by Shiv Kumar Batalvi in my mother tongue, get more resonance with English subtitles.

Haven’t you seen how expletives sound cool when uttered in English?

In Punjabi, they sound so vulgar!

It has power.

For being so nonviolent, while it distributes power, it gets crowned by those who use it as a ‘neutral language’!

A neutral language that is subtly used by my English Sarkar to infringe on my fundamental and constitutional rights.

A neutral language used everywhere to hack away my dignity like Kafka’s vulture.

A neutral language that is used to crush a variety of flowers before they bloom.

For its unquestioned powers, everyone likes English!

Even those of us who get slighted every day for not knowing it enough.

Having internalised its status of bestowing statuses

I am also slowly imbibing English.

Immersing myself in it and yet when I miss its nuances those well

acquainted with it, judge me for being insufficiently Englishised,

Just like my village folks who deride me for being over-Englishised.

Amidst all this, I oscillate to and fro, from margins to near centre

Never making it to the centre!

Maleeha Sattar is Teaching Fellow at the Department of Governance and Global Studies, Information Technology University, Lahore. She has done a MPhil in Development Studies from PIDE, Islamabad. Her recent research work focuses on language-based marginalisation and critical discursive analysis of selected education policies and parliamentary debates.

Notes

1 Naveed Iftikhar, a public policy adviser, recently used this term in an article he wrote for Express Tribune, 17 March 2017 https://tribune.com.pk/story/1358289/the-english-sarkar/ Accessed on 31 May 2021

2 A professor at BNU, argued in this article that a ‘postcolonial being is bound to carry colonial baggage’ The News, 22 September 2019,

3 Illiterate. In one of my field visits, I overheard a teacher using this word to scold a student who was talking in Pihari (her mother tongue) to one of her friends

4 Literally a villager. This word is also used to taunt people for being uncultured and uncouth.

This poem was first published in: Sattar, Maleeha. 2021. “English as the Gatekeeper.” In Reforming School Education in Pakistan & The Language Dilemma, edited by Zubeida Mustafa, 162-177. Karachi: Paramount, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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