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Between two tongues: Falling at the speed of light

To be torn between two languages, discovers H. MASUD TAJ, is to drown soul-deep in the present.


URDU is my mother tongue and my foster-mother tongue is English. I grew up in both. My mother is a creative writer in Urdu who often rewrites the endings of novels she reads and sometimes even replaces the author's version with her own. Her daily speech is sprinkled with metaphors and witty turns of phrase. My father, for one unforgettable year, was an inspired poet in Urdu and turned our staid house into a spontaneous tavern of Ghazal-guzzlers. My grandmother never tired of reminding me that I was the descendant of her grandfather the classical Urdu poet Hazrat Ameer Meenai.

I did my schooling far away from my poetry-laden home in a school high up in mist-laden mountains of India where I grew up in English. Both the school Head Master and its most influential teacher were wannabee-poets who unleashed their compositions on unsympathetic ears. Their passion for English though was infectious and the disease incurable.

I learnt to write Urdu from right to left, and English left to right. One direction cancelling the other and soon my scripts were going where no script had gone before. Poetry led to calligraphy in both the scripts and explorations of calligraphic space led to architecture (each time the poet, calligrapher, architect paused to catch his breath he received a new label). I still tend to browse publications backwards which sometimes means, in bilingual Canada, encountering undecipherable French before reverse-engineered English (Da Vinci would have approved).

Both English and Urdu are symmetrical; two conditions of the same bipolar disorder. Both tongues are immigrants in alien grammars (Latin and Sanskrit respectively), both have a similar strategy for overcoming their weakness: a voracious appetite for foreign words. Like the monster software AutoCAD and indeed life itself (both versions at 2004) they make up as they go along, disguising their formal inelegance with awesome number-crunching, memory and vocabulary respectively. Both English and Urdu are tongue colonisers with their dictionaries metamorphosing into thesauruses (Webster and Roget face off as John Travolta and Nick Cage once did in an exciting Woo classic). Both languages also colonise lands, English the world and Urdu the Indian subcontinent and the Indian diasporas spread out in the world. They have an evangelical fervour that turns speakers into born-agains, again and again.

With such mother tongues, the opening scene of "Genghis Khan" when his father is torn between two horses was destined to freeze and Papa Khan become, with a healthy dose of multicultural misreading and mixed metaphors, Janus forever. For the mirror symmetry of the two tongues, borders on the uncanny.

One language has no past tense and the other, no future.

In Urdu, words have suffixes for future tense but none for the past. Bol ("to say") becomes boloonga for the future. But for the past Urdu takes the present form into past time (bol raha tha). Likewise in English, words have suffixes for the past tense but none for the future. "I say" becomes "I said". But for the future English takes the present form into future time ("I will say"). The past tense in one and the future tense in the other are both aliens in disguise forever deceiving the native speakers. Born between two tongues is to not belong to both, to remain outside and in-between twin towers with the knowledge of both unfounded foundations and excess baggage in the sky.

Born between two tenses, one tends to mistrust the past and the future, sceptical of both histories and prophesies, and rely on the ever-present present, the only tense at hand. A fleeting moment that is forever both hyper transient and everlasting (you only experienced, experience, will experience the present). It is akin to dwelling in Visces Pisces, an ancient term for the fish-shaped area between two overlapping circles; the only area of the Venn diagram that is in touch with the generative centres of both circles. To dwell in the present is to dwell in the interface, keeping the barbarians of tongues and times at bay.

At the interface speech turns speechless and time, timeless. Both inadvertently.

The only way to enlarge the interface is for both the circles to follow the opposing directions of contrary scripts until they completely overlap each other. Past and future then coalesce into present. When that happens, as Einstein pointed, you are moving at the speed of light while all along remaining motionless. Because then there is no past to travel from and no future to travel to. There is only the present tense: speechless, timeless, motionless.

Author's note: Urdu does have a past tense (kaha). Only in some fleeting instances is it devoid of it and this essay is situated in those moments. English though, remains permanently handicapped (sans dedicated verb-form for the future tense, it yet communicates futurity). Hence the symmetry of lacking tenses is only a part-time truth, and this essay is a hybrid of fact and fiction. Urdu's not having a past tense is fictitious; the genealogies of the tongues are suspect; everything else is true.

H. Masud Taj is a poet, architect and architecture theorist.

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