Reflecting on a world we are fast losing

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn,Nov 24, 2013

One often wonders whether the old tales that one picked up from our grandparents are now being passed onto our children. In this age of smart phones, small families, English-medium teaching and independent living, do we really listen to our elders?

This thought came to mind when my better half returned from England after visiting our daughter, and expressed amazement that one day while playing with her two-year-old son – la brat – she was singing to him a nursery rhyme in Punjabi which went like this: “Tootayaa, mann mooytayaa, uss gali naa jaa, uss gali daay Jat burray lainday phayian paa”. (Oh parrot, you pearl of a lad, never to that lane go, for the Jats there are no good and might trap you). Now in faraway Cambridge why would she be singing this rhyme to a child born there and will, in all probability, never live in Lahore. I do recollect my mother-in-law, and a few times even my wife, singing this to her when she was a toddler. These innocent moments are culturally of immense importance, for they pass on to the young mind centuries of experience and tradition.

My wife recollects learning this from her grandmother who surely heard this from her mother and grandmother. Over the centuries these rhymes have evolved and have been passed on to our children. I remember being taught a game by my grandmother who belonged to Kucha Chabaksawaran inside Mochi Gate, which went like this. On her fingers she would say: “Yassu, Pannju, Haar, Kabooter, Dooli”, and would hide her hand behind her back. We would have to guess which finger was open. But this game was played in other formats by my sisters, and I recollect my own daughters playing this among themselves.They had picked this up from their grandmother who had learnt it from her elders, and so over the centuries this game was passed on to the present generation. You by now might be thinking just why I am harping on this subject? The answer is that as we evolve in large cities, we see our villages being ignored and roots from which our culture evolved, the root that supplies us our very food, being stifled. Colonialism played its role in degrading our very language and culture, and the offspring of our colonial masters, the present-day rulers, continue to play that very role, only with greater vehemence.

As Lahore sees its English-medium educational system expanding, the joint-family system almost disappearing, the educated youngsters of small families mostly wanting to migrate, and with electronic devices being the mode of learning and the elderly virtually having little time with their families, the question is do the grandparents have that access and influence over the new generation that we experienced. Most people would think not, though I have my reservations that the umbilical cord that joins our past with the present can be entirely cut. To test this I carried out a little experiment. I visited a school in the old walled city of Lahore, and, as a counter-weight, visited a school in the Defence Housing Authority. I interviewed just ten children each in a structured manner. Mind you, and I do not want to advertise this fact, that I do know a thing or two of research and methodology, that being my doctoral subject.

I picked five old rhymes in Punjabi and asked the children whether they had heard them before. In the old walled city all the ten subject children had heard them before. Where did they pick it up from? All said they learnt it from their parents. All had grandparents living with them or nearby. I expanded my canvas and asked about children


. To my utter surprise they knew them all. By the end it was such a giggle for the children surely thought I was some sort of nut who did not know these simple things.

I then tried a little trick. I recited two Urdu rhymes and only four had heard of them. I then tried on them an old Punjabi rhyme, which went: “Kaalian ittan kallay rore”, and before I could finish all the children completed the entire poem. Amazing. But for scientific veracity I tried another very naughty one, which went: “ABC, too khittay gae see”, and to my utter shock all the children shouted: “Headmaster marr gaya, pittan gaye see”. By this time the schoolteacher thought I was some sort of crazy analyst and recommended that I stop lest the entire school started singing this song. But I was happy with the result. There is hope yet.

Now off to the DHA I went to a posh English-medium school. After convincing the head teacher I selected, at random, ten children from a class of a compatible age to the last group in the walled city, and took them to a separate room. There I repeated the entire experiment. On the first run only three out of ten had heard the Punjabi rhymes. I asked them where their grandparents came from. The answer was from villages. The children who had never heard these rhymes all lived alone, with their grandparents visiting occasionally. I asked them about games associated with Punjabi rhymes and the very same three knew what I was talking about.

I then switched to the Urdu rhymes and to my surprise six had heard them from their mothers. Then I went into reciting the two selected Punjabi rhymes and, except for one girl from Jhang who had heard the first one but not the second, the others had not heard of them. The giggles that I experienced in the walled city were missing here. Off to their classes they marched in silence. I was left thinking about the massive difference in these two set of children.

My mind wanders to my grandson who was being subjected to all the Punjabi rhymes my wife had passed on to her daughters. No wonder when they come home they want to collect around us and listen to all the stories of days gone by. I kept thinking of the immensely good work that the late Shafqat Tanvir Mirza had initiated, and on the fact that learning in one’s mother tongue is now a United Nations basic human right.

As our villages become a less friendly place to live, and the old walled city and its historic monuments are being knocked down by virtually illiterate traders backed by our trader-rulers, and our large cities become massive unmanageable concrete jungles, do we ever stop to think of the immense human damage being inflicted on our next generation. I suppose what we are facing today is what we have sown ourselves. Our misplaced piety is extracting its cost. It is as simple as that.




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