When I began teaching, which was in the fall of 1983, and at a college in Connecticut, I first encountered the young undergraduate, fresh out of high school, uninitiated in the ways of academic life, unprepared for what college, this new place of almost absolute freedom from the constraints of both family life and the restrictions of school supervision, would offer. I was to teach them Comp and Lit and Prose Writing.
It soon became clear that the students had arrived in my classes with little or no knowledge of the world beyond the borders of their small parochial, suburban towns. Many did not know of the country called Pakistan where I had come from. I quickly realized that in order to write well and do research, they must first read about the world. This is where I learned the first lesson of teaching: literature is the window to true education. I selected stories that disturbed the stagnant waters of their experience. I will never forget the effect Cynthia Ozick’s story “The Shawl” had on the students, many of whom had never heard of the Holocaust. Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” perturbed them, Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible” produced question-marks, and John Updike’s “A&P,” led to a re-examination of the much admired uniformity that was America. Reading the world became intertwined with writing in the classroom.
In 2001 I shifted gears, the story of the shift for another day, and I found myself teaching Urdu, my first language and one of the many languages of South Asia, to undergraduates at NYU. The process remained the same. Language, as Franz Fanon points out, is a means of gaining access to a culture, in my case the literary and social culture of Urdu. My students were for the most part “heritage” students, a term for learners who have a cultural connection to the Urdu language via their families, and they were eager to gain the access Fanon describes.
The practices of language teaching are familiar to all. My emphasis, additionally, has been literacy. The Urdu script, straddling Persian and Arabic fonts, rich with the history and art of calligraphy, is introduced first; students are reading and writing by the end of the semester; grammar is taught in context. In the second semester authentic materials are used to examine issues of social justice and culture. The students finally begin to discover their “heritage” through the Urdu language which is theirs and yet is not, and which they can now own.
For my Advanced Urdu course, retitled “Readings in Urdu Literature,” I have also been able to draw students from the pool of Pakistanis at NYU, for whom an introduction to Urdu literature and things Pakistani becomes an unexpected and valuable addition to their education at NYU. We are able to undertake research projects since the proficiency level is high. Students are encouraged to use more complex literary texts and topics for writing papers or making presentations. A recent research project involving a close reading of two Urdu poems written by Pakistani poets was followed by analysis of the use of these anthems by the protesting crowds in Modi’s India at this critical juncture in its history. An examination of Manto’s story “Open It”, accompanied by Das’s biopic on Manto, encouraged students to “read” Partition.
As the poet Iqbal has said,
“Do not be content with this world of color and fragrance There are still other gardens and abodes to explore.”