This is the story of a young Pakistani man, let’s call him Reza. Reza spent his early years in what was then East-Pakistan and what is today a different country, Bangladesh. Reza’s family were Muslims from Bihar, who at the time of Indian partition in 1947 had to leave their ancestral home in Bihar and moved to neighboring East-Pakistan. In contrast to the majority of East-Pakistanis who spoke Bangla, Reza’s family were, like most Biharis, Urdu speakers. Consequently, in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War the Biharis sided with West-Pakistan. However, when (West-)Pakistan lost the war and had to withdraw from East-Pakistan, now Bangladesh, they abandoned the Biharis, and to this day an estimated number of 250,000 Biharis live as stateless persons without citizenship rights in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Reza’s family, too, got caught up in the turmoil. When he was four, Reza witnessed his uncle being killed for being a Bihari – in the eyes of many Bangladeshis, an exponent of Pakistani domination. However, unlike other Biharis, who have come to be known as “stranded Pakistanis,” Reza’s family managed to flee to Pakistan in 1971.
In Bangladesh, Urdu-speakers such as the Biharis were living symbols of Pakistani domination. In Pakistan, their Bihari-accented Urdu marked them as unwelcome refugees from the East. One of Reza’s earliest memories is of his family being outsiders because they were Urdu speakers in East-Pakistan. However, his outsider status did not change after their move to West-Pakistan.When he started school in Karachi, his peers would often make fun of him and his Bihari accent. To be called a “Bihari” became a daily insult. To this day, Reza remembers running home crying after being teased as “Bihari.” This linguistic bullying had a devastating effect on Reza. He began to avoid socializing and internalized the belief that he and his family were inferior while the speakers of “good” or “unaccented” Urdu were superior. As a Bihari it seemed there was no place to be – unwelcome and abused both in the East and the West.
Soon, Reza transformed himself into a speaker of “unaccented” Urdu, who spoke the same as everyone else in Karachi. As a matter of fact, this dominant accent of Urdu is a mix of the accents of Punjabi, Pashto, Balochi and Sindhi. It was a different story with Reza’s parents. They never quite managed to acquire this new accent, which was far removed from the Urdu spoken in India, where they had grown up. In order to hide his Bihari identity, Reza avoided introducing his parents to others and started to keep a distance from his family.
Reza soon learnt that an even more effective way to gain respect was to transform himself not only into a Karachi-accented speaker of Urdu but an English speaker. He went to an English-medium school and Reza idolized his teachers, who seemed to speak English fluently. Reza, like everyone else, thought those English speakers were educated, enlightened and modern. They were real human beings, and those who could not speak English somehow seemed less than human. Eventually, Reza completed a Bachelor’s degree in English followed by a Master’s degree in English Literature and English Linguistics. By now he had thoroughly escaped his Bihari identity and was “making it” in the world. He pretended to be so in love with English that he spoke it all the time, and he finally got the respect that he had been denied in his childhood.
Even so, and despite all his qualifications, achievements and upward social mobility, he is haunted by the fear that a trace of that Bihari accent might suddenly surface in his speech and expose him as a fraud. He never tells anyone that he was born in East-Pakistan and he makes every effort to keep his children away from the Bihari community. He has deliberately left many good people behind only because of the fact that his association with them would expose him as a Bihari. Above all, he cannot afford to lose any more family members by becoming a member of minority speakers in Pakistan. Despite the massive bloodshed stemming initially from the partition of India and later the creation of Bangladesh, the state of Pakistan still promotes monolingualism in multilingual Pakistan.
Reza’s linguistic trajectory is deeply enmeshed with the upheavals of the 20th century. A question that bothers him most often is this: Can people do nothing more than strive to escape the prison of their language or is there a way to tear down the prison walls?