By Emily Hauze
On a bright November morning during my most recent stay in Sindh, my buddies (Inam and Naz) took me to a place I had long been wanting to visit: the Sindhi Language Authority in Hyderabad. And soon I will describe all the interesting things I found there. But I also hope to convey here some sense of what I find so extraordinary about the Sindhi language, and by extension, about the Sindhi people. I am still very far away from my goal of being a true speaker of Sindhi, but I am beginning to make progress. And as I gradually learn to navigate the landscape of the language, more of the inner character and spirit of Sindh is revealing itself to me.
I have been learning about Sindh for only four years, but noticed the unusually intense love among Sindhis for their language very early in that time. When I began to respond to my online friends using even the most basic Sindhi phrases of greeting or farewell, I was amazed at the fireworks of appreciation I received in return. Previously, when trying out a few Urdu phrases, I had also been greeted with surprise and joy — but there was something different and deeper-felt in the reactions to my attempts at Sindhi. And if that was true for my online interactions, how much more emotional and delighted were the responses when I came to utter some of my practiced phrases in Sindh, in person!
This can be partly explained by the rarity of the situation, since it almost never happens that any non-Sindhi (especially a white Anglo type like myself) learns Sindhi in the first place. It is also unusual for a foreigner to learn Urdu, but not nearly so astonishing, because Hindi-Urdu after all is the language of Bollywood, which is enjoyed around the world. Meanwhile, the cultural treasures of the Sindhi language have not (yet) learned to export themselves so widely. Therefore it is rare a foreigner to encounter the language by chance, and to be drawn into it enough to learn even a phrase or two.
And yet, that is precisely what has happened to me–a chance encounter with a language and a culture, which has resulted in a lasting connection. I am not the first of these rare and lucky souls who discover Sindhi — the beloved Elsa Qazi and others have already blazed the trail — but perhaps I can help open the door for others who may similarly be enriched by it. The Sindhi love of the native language is, I believe, a contagious kind of joy, and the gentle, rolling sound of spoken Sindhi could bring a smile to even the least comprehending face.
Smiling at the sounds is not enough, of course. But learning to comprehend is no easy matter. The challenge is especially great for a non-Asian like myself, who must learn the entirety of the language from the beginning, having nearly no earlier contact with any aspect of its grammar, its alphabet, its phrase structure, its vocabulary, etc.
Learning Sindhi presents many challenges, to be sure, and not only to non-Pakistanis. Sindhi is one of dozens of languages spoken in Pakistan, and like other regional languages it must be tended and cared for in order to maintain its vibrancy and relevance. And the city that is most especially devoted to this care and maintenance of Sindhi is Hyderabad, along with its neighboring Jamshoro.
For the sake of any non-Sindhi readers of this blog, allow me to share a few statistics to explain the way the Sindhi language currently fits into its landscape, and why Hyderabad is so important in this regard. It is a complex situation, because Sindh is an official province in the federal republic of Pakistan, but political and governmental realities do not always reflect the cultural identity of a place. The governmental capital city of Sindh is the colossal port city of Karachi, which is not only the largest city in all of Pakistan, but one of the largest in the world. Greater Karachi’s population is estimated around 24 million; and although Hyderabad is the second largest city of Sindh, its population of 3.5 million feels genuinely tiny compared to Karachi’s.
But the differences between Sindh’s “first” and “second” cities are more significant than just their differing population size. Culturally, they are different worlds. Cosmopolitan Karachi is composed largely of transplanted communities who migrated there after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. It is not surprising, therefore, to find a substantial percentage of Urdu speakers in Karachi–roughly half of the population, according to the 1998 census*. The more surprising figure, to my mind, is that Sindhi speakers do not comprise the second-largest group in Karachi, and not even the third. Punjabi is the second largest language community in Karachi, and the third is Pashto — the language brought to the region by immigrants from the distant northern regions Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Sindhi language, in the official capital of Sindh, is spoken by less than 8 percent of the population. This statistic in itself cracks open a window of insight on the broader issue of a sense of marginalization that the Sindhi community has felt ever since Partition.
While Karachi has been rapidly expanding and transforming itself into a pan-Pakistani mega-city over the past century or so, Sindh’s second-largest city stands in greater continuity with the history of Sindh. It is not populated exclusively by Sindhi speakers, but Sindhi is by far the majority language. Hyderabad is, in essence, the cultural capital of Sindh. It is the home of the Language Authority as well as the Sindh Museum, among other things. And the cultural and intellectual nervous system of Hyderabad is further stimulated by the very close proximity of the town of Jamshoro, where the University of Sindh and the Institute of Sindhology are located. Hyderabad and Jamshoro lie facing one another on either side of the Indus, in a key position through which travelers always pass when headed either seaward towards Karachi or north towards most other parts of the country, so it is a natural hub for cultural activity.
The institutions of Jamshoro and and the cultural centers in the heart of Hyderabad are separate institutions (to the best of my knowledge, at least), but they share a few features in common. They are all significant, but none of them is ancient: they were founded after the formation of Pakistan. Any Sindhi person can tell you that the history of Sindh stretches back not merely fifty years, nor five hundred, but 5,000 years into the past. The challenge for the founders of Pakistan (and for its governors still today) was to find a way to link and unite a vast array of communities and cultures and languages under one flag; and a correlating challenge arose for those individual communities to maintain their own sense of self despite federation. That is a challenge faced not only by Sindhis, of course, but by most or perhaps all of those individual communities, whether they were indigenous or Mohajjir (migrated after the Partition). It would no doubt be fascinating to look at each one of those communities in depth. But Sindh is my adoptive homeland, so I am looking at this ‘identity crisis,’ as best I can, from a Sindhi perspective.
And if I were asked to try to point to one central concept at the heart of Sindhi culture, I would say it has to do with connectedness to the living and breathing land of Sindh itself. The Sindhi language and the valley of Sindhu (the River Indus), the language and the soil, are all of one piece with the Sindhi people. The words Indus, Sindh, Hindu, Hindustan, and India all originally derive from the same root word, which is the name for the river and its valley. Though these words have grown and evolved in different directions over the centuries, I find that Sindh, Sindhu, and Sindhi all remain inextricably bound with one another as a singular concept: a place, a people, a language, an identity.
To keep the language alive and vibrant is thus equal to, or at least inextricable from, the preservation of Sindhi identity. And this is the daunting challenge that has been undertaken by the Sindhi Language Authority (which I will now abbreviate as SLA). The delicate diplomacy of the task is evident in the first lines of the SLA’s constitution, which place the SLA firmly in the context of the Pakistani republic:
“WHEREAS, Article 251(3) of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973 lays down that:
“Without prejudice to the status of the National language, a Provincial Assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in addition to the national language.”So, therefore in deference to and in compliance with Article of the Constitution […] the Government of Sindh may constitute and set up Boards, Academies, Authority and make effective arrangements and rules inter alia for progressive use of Sindhi Language in the province as envisaged in the Act.”
(I have added the bold face for emphasis; the whole document can be read here: http://www.sindhila.org/Index.php?dflt=Constitution
Having thus situated itself legally in the framework of the country, the SLA’s constitution then sets itself a mammoth list of duties (which can also be seen at the link above — I will not quote them all), including the preparation and publication of reference works, oversight of the use of Sindhi in the media and periodicals, and the advancement of Sindhi computational technology. Reading through the list of responsibilities in the constitution, I was once again struck by the broad-minded role of the organization in its broader federal context. The very first item in the multi-part list of “functions” refers to promoting Sindhi in such a way as to achieve “better understanding, harmonious linguistic development, national cohesion and integration.” Further down the list, item (j) proposes arranging translations of major Sindhi works into languages such as Urdu, Pashto, and Balochi in order to “bring the National language and other Pakistani languages closer.” It is an admirable approach: the promoting one’s own (Sindhi) identity does not need to create barriers, but rather can be used to strengthen ties between groups.
The next item (k) sets the SLA’s sights yet higher: “To undertake translations of major Sindhi works of scholars and writers into English for international understanding, goodwill and appreciation.” This is the function by which I am most particularly indebted to the SLA, since I am still not competent enough in Sindhi to approach the literature in its original version. These translations (especially dual and triple language editions) are an invaluable tool for me in my learning. I hope that some day my Sindhi comprehension will be strong enough that I can contribute some translations of my own towards the cause of spreading the goodwill of Sindh around the world.
But now I am getting far ahead of myself. It is time to return to the story of my visit.
I arrived along with my two most intrepid buddies, Inam and Naz, in the late morning. I don’t think that anyone had called ahead to alert the people of the SLA of our visit, but for people such as Inam and Naz, that kind of formality is rarely necessary. They are both well-known to all the relevant people in any place we might visit, and our hosts on these visits always feel honored to see them. And, to my great delight, I am also beginning to be a known quantity when arriving at these places — for which I do not credit myself at all, but rather that same curiosity of Sindhi people which has sparked so much otherwise inexplicable interest in me.
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