KARACHI, Pakistan — My family doesn't speak much Urdu. Unlike most of Karachi's residents, none of my grandparents or great grandparents grew up on the subcontinent. It wasn't until after partition, when India and Pakistan had split into two separate countries, that they decided to move to Karachi from East Africa in the early 1970s.
Originally from the state of Gujurat in India, my grandparents’ grandparents spoke fluent Gujurati. Though they spent decades in British Tanzania, and picked up quite a bit of the country's Swahili, it wasn't until my grandfather moved to Karachi that anyone in my family learned to speak Pakistan's national language.
I was never a good student of Urdu. But I know enough to recognize that the language I struggled with in elementary school isn't what I hear on the streets of Karachi today. The pidgin language here has always reflected its polyglot origins, changing with the times and the culture.
I was born in Karachi, but moved to the United States when I was 11. Before that move, I was failing almost every Urdu class I took. I was lucky enough to go to a school where the majority of classes were taught in English. "Religion" and "Urdu Language and Literature," however, were not. On the streets I'd understand most spoken Urdu just fine, but those weren't the words that showed up in my vocabulary books. I'd take my homework assignments to my mother, who barely read the language but would help me decipher the text.
I'd heard that Karachiites' modern usage of Urdu was more similar to Mumbai's Hindi than the Farsi-influenced language Pakistan's traditional poetry was written in during the country's founding in the 1940s.
But even that modern version has evolved greatly in the past decade.
I hardly ever spoke Urdu while living in the United States, which is probably why I didn't notice how much Karachi's Urdu had changed when I first moved back to Pakistan. For example, it took me about a month to realize that almost no one responded to my “hello” and “goodbye” the way that they used to.
I'd grown up stringing together the polite Arabic greeting common in most Muslim countries, "assalam alaikum," as though it were one long, fluid word. But that style now draws glares; responding to me, people instead enunciate each syllable distinctly.
It's even worse with “goodbye,” for which the Urdu — at least the Urdu I'd known — is the same as Gujarati. For years, I'd headed out the door yelling "khuda hafiz" over my shoulder. Khuda, the Urdu word for God, is an all-encompassing term that can apply to a god of any faith.
But apparently no one uses it anymore. Instead, they say "Allah hafiz," specifying the god of Islam.
The greetings aren't the only examples, although they were the first that I noticed. The Urdu word for “scales” has fallen out of favor, for example. More people use the Arabic word for the instrument now, likely because preachers promote the Arabic in sermons on justice and fairness. Indic-Sanskrit words, like those for various types of love, were purged from vocabulary books in the last 20 years where they had originally been included. One Urdu teacher at a local high school told me earlier this year that the approved list of Urdu words has gradually evolved to include far more Arabic words than ever before.
As I spent more time in Karachi talking to people, I realized that I could substitute many English words for Urdu ones, and most people would understand me. Outside of the city, on the other hand, I'd need to know specific Urdu words.
Friends I spoke to laughed when I said I was worried that Urdu, a beautiful — in my opinion, a poetic language that sounds like music when spoken properly — was getting dilluted. They reminded me that the language grew out of necessity in the first place. From the late 1500s to 1797, much of the Indian subcontinent was ruled by the Mughals, an empire that ranged from Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia through India. Because the empire covered so many different ethnicities and spoken languages, the soldiers in the multiple camps set up around the subcontinent needed to find a common means to communicate. Now, as Islamization grows in Karachi, it makes sense that Arabic words are substituted for those with Sanskrit or Persian origins, and in a city as large as Karachi that English words would work as well.
But the language's evolution has been hard for me, a girl who's only recently been repatriated to the city.