Sing like the Birds

Maliha Abani
Faculty Instructor: Sophie Bell

I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think


I love Rumi’s words. Not only is he the greatest poet ever to live in my opinion, but also I can relate to them. I don’t exactly want to sing because I am so terrible at it, but I want to be able to speak my native tongue without worrying about who hears and what they think. Language, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of one’s culture and identity. It’s as though we are just clay, and language gently and carefully molds us to become the people we are. To me, language is a master key that unlocks more than one door.

Language is the way I connect to “home”; not my house on 3505 Margie Street in Oceanside, New York, but rather my home in 501 Shirin Manzil St.Mary’s Road Mazgaon, Mumbai, India. The very home in which my dad grew up. The home where my cousins meet every Saturday and set up their hookah with their favorite watermelon flavor — although I like double apple better. The home where my grandparents yearn for my yearly visit and watch the door in anticipation. Language is my key to all those relationships.

To those who speak one language, language is a means of communication; to me, language is much more than that. It is more than conveying a message or even voicing my opinion. Language is how I keep in touch with my heritage; it is how I keep connected to my family. It is how I assure my parents I have not forgotten who I am, and where I came from. And of course I cannot forget that it is the way I can keep in touch with my obsession for Bollywood. My mother tongue is not English; it is Urdu. It is a dialect that originates in Pakistan, but many Muslims in India speak as well. The city I live in is Mumbai, and Mumbai is like the New York of India. It is the melting pot of various Indian cultures, such as Gujarat, Kerala, Punjab, and Calcutta. It consists of a lot of diversity and integration of culture, clothing, food, traditions and of course the most important language, thus making the language I speak a bit more “slang” Urdu. Slang Urdu, more specifically, is Urdu that has different types of alterations to it. Words that are not exactly Urdu because of the influence of the other languages. For example, the original Urdu word for watermelon is “tarbooz,” but because my Urdu is slang, the word I use is “Kalinger.” This is just one example; my Urdu vocabulary consists of many more such alterations.

Remembering Urdu and being able to speak it fluently was on the top of my parents’ agenda. They did not want me to forget Urdu, and so they made a rule: in the house me and my sisters were only allowed to speak Urdu, with my parents and with each other.

“Urdu me baat karo, warna bhul jaoge!” (Speak in Urdu; otherwise you will forget it.) I remember my mother yelling this at us. Waving around that famous silver spatula she always had in her hand making rotis. It was always hard to focus on what she was saying because the food smelled so good. The sight of those warm and fresh rotis was so inviting that she seemed to be almost invisible. I believe I heard this warning on a daily basis and that is why this particular phrase is embedded in my mind. English had become so common because of the environment we were in most of the day, which was school and work, that Urdu was starting to fade away in the background; it had become just another language to me. My parents were certainly not okay with that, so they worked extra hard to keep the language alive in our home.

So I grew up bilingual. Being able to speak more than one language is truly a blessing in disguise. When I was younger, I was embarrassed to speak anything but English in public. I felt like if I spoke another language people looked at me weirdly. If in a grocery store my mom ever asked me to get three apples in Urdu, I’d look at her with anger in my eyes. I’d question why she would do something like that to me. And her innocent eyes would look back at me apologetically and filled with regret not understanding what she had done to upset me so much and that only me feel worse. I’ve seen Chinese people speak their language proudly in public, I’ve seen Latino people do it too, so then why couldn’t I? The question haunted me.

As I got older and I understood that language was nothing to be ashamed of but rather it is something to be proud of, it became a lot easier. When my friends and I go to the mall, and we want to say something which we know we cannot in English, we say it in Urdu. It is like our “personal code.” And no, we do not use this only to make fun of innocent bystanders. I remember this one time when I was at the mall with my best friend Kainat. She is not Indian; she is Pakistani and specifically Punjabi, but that does not change the fact that we both speak the same language. We were in H&M and she liked this skirt for fifty-five dollars. It was a beautiful silky blue maxi skirt with a brown belt, very cute but definitely not worth fifty-five dollars. Lucky for her I had seen the same exact skirt in Forever 21 for twenty dollars. I couldn’t tell her in English because the sales person was standing right there cleverly using her skills to convince us to buy it. “Kainat yaha se mat lo, dusri dukaan me zyada sasta hai.” (Kainat, don’t get it from here; it is cheaper in another store), I said. I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined that I could use Urdu to save money and eat food. Because with the money she saved, we ate amazing Afghani food for dinner. Thank God for Urdu.

Urdu is not the only language I speak besides English; I also speak my “parents’” English, in other words Urdu and English. Often when speaking to my parents I use both languages at one time.

For instance, my mom asks me, “Bhuk lagi hai?” (Are you hungry?) when I come home after a long day.

I respond, “Nahi mama, I’m not hungry kyu ke I ate in school dost ke saat.” (No mom, I’m not hungry because I ate in school with friends.) And she understood it perfectly fine, adding just a few words of Urdu makes all the difference. Had I said the same thing in just English not only would I have to repeat myself three to four times, I also would have gotten in trouble for speaking in English. Mixing the two languages is my third fluent language. Doing it so regularly with my parents, I realize how common it has become where I do this with my friends too, just randomly switching dialects like that in one sentence. It is like the “norm” for me.  In fact, I text in a similar manner as well. In a text if I want to say “why?” I reply saying “kyu?” instead.

I think being able to speak more than one language has contributed to shaping my perspective in a peculiar way. For instance, Bollywood is famous for its dramatic stories, its cinematography, and needless to say, the singing and dancing behind trees. Because I speak Urdu and I can follow along with Bollywood movies even when there are no subtitles I have become so obsessed with Bollywood–the movies, the actors and of course the songs. I can say that Bollywood has played a major role in shaping my view of love. Whether it be a positive or negative thing, it is the truth. I hope that someday I am running to catch a train and a guy like Salman Khan reaches out (although this is usually something Shahrukh Khan does), grabs my hand and pulls me in, then my father objects to this relationship (because that is just how the story goes) and in anger takes me back home thousands of miles away, and so the guy travels the seven seas to prove his love to me, and then my father says, “Jaa jee le apni zindagi” (Go live your life) in the most dramatic tone possible, and we live happily ever after. Basically I get to live the story of my favorite Indian movie “Dilwale Dulhaniya Leh Jayenge.” I have Urdu to blame for this ridiculous fantasy.

I love being able to speak more than one language because although it completely ruined my perception of love by making me dream of a scenario that may never happen, it has made me more confident as a person. It has made me more accepting of different cultures, it has broadened my horizon for opportunities, and most importantly it is the bridge that connects me to my family back home. Every Saturday my father calls my family in India, and I am able to talk to them because I can speak Urdu. I can understand them because my parents have instilled the language in me. My parents’ hard work paid off, and I realize this when I can share a relationship with my family back home. I love hearing the enthusiasm in my grandparents’ voices when I say “Aap kaise ho?” (How are you?) And the interesting stories my cousins tell me about the new restaurants, and the cute new guy/girl at school. My language made me a Bollywood fanatic and a Salman Khan fan. My language has played a huge role in my life. Urdu is a part of my identity. My language is who I am, it is what makes me– me. And today I can very proudly say that I speak more than one language. “Bas yeh hi, kahani khatam.”