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I spent two years studying Urdu.  It was by turns tiring, fascinating, and tedious, but the result of those two years of study is that I can converse with more or less anyone across Pakistan about more or less any topic that comes up.  It was worthwhile, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Yet modern Urdu is a flexible beast and has taken on a great deal of English vocabulary.  Many Pakistanis will, in the course of conversation, flick English words into the mix – even words they don’t actually understand themselves: “actually”, “safety point of view”, “sincere”.  Some even flick back and forth between English and Urdu at dizzying speed, one sentence in each language, like some linguistic version of alternating current.

The other day I was trying to explain to our electrician that I wanted to install mosquito lights in our new house.  I took a deep breath and explained, in flawless Urdu:

“You see, dear brother, they are lights which are attached to the ceiling and which give out a strange sort of blue light.  When mosquitoes and other flying insects see this light they are attracted to it, and when they fly into the light they are killed, and our home is protected so that my children can sleep soundly at night.  Tell me, what are they called?”.

He thought for a moment and nodded.

“Ah yes” he said in Urdu, and then, in English:

“Mosquito lights”.

Why did I bother?

Every morning a chap on a bicycle wobbles over to our house and passes a newspaper through the front gate.  Though a daily newspaper is something of a luxury, we like to be informed of what is going on, and reading a Pakistani newspaper gives us a good insight into the inner workings of this marvellous and baffling place.

If you don’t have a Pakistani newspaper to hand (and if you’re not in Pakistan, that’s quite likely to be the case) then I’ll save you the trouble by providing you with a summary of what it will inevitably contain:

  • Political leaders giving sweeping assurances on the state of the country.
  • A report on the current power issues plaguing the country, including phrases like “loadshedding”, “bill arrears”, and sweeping assurances from political leaders that the power problems will be resolved within 12 months (they repeat this statement, on average, every 12 months).
  • Heartbreaking news about the number of polio cases in remote parts of the country.
  • Political leaders requesting the Supreme Court to take “suo moto” notice of some problem or other (I have no idea what this means).
  • Advertisements for luxury cars that 99.9% of the population of Pakistan could never dream of being able to afford.
  • Updates on the recent travails of the Pakistani cricket team.

Reading the paper is made significantly more charming by the quaintness of the English that the journalists employ.  Pakistani newspaper journalists seem to be stuck in a time-warp, using antiquated language and syntax that probably stemmed from some 19th century manual on sentence construction.  Some of their sentences are of epic length:

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Some columnists use a friendly, informal style which I find immensely appealing.  Take, for example, this person lamenting the lack of garbage disposal facilities in Islamabad:

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Here’s that suo moto thing I mentioned.  I’d be surprised if anyone outside the Supreme Court actually knew what it meant:

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Then we have the letters section, invariably full of lengthy, impassioned pleas for the betterment of Pakistan.  Generally these will contain a call for revolution, but not much detail about how it will be achieved:

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 The best thing I ever read in a Pakistani newspaper was an article about terrorism which described terrorists as “miscreants”.  Miscreants!  A group of murderous barbarians described using a word which is normally employed when referring to misbehaving schoolchildren.  Somehow things don’t look quite so dark when viewed through the majestic prose of the Pakistani journalist.  Long may it all continue.