We are walking by the ferry stop in Jersey City, under gleaming apartments as overvalued as the ones across the water in New York. Evening grows and the windows throw out soft, seductive light, stacks of brilliant quadrangles emitting the domestic energies of young couples and savvy financiers. One such couple, a South Asian woman and her husband, ostensibly North Indian, walk by us. Their daughter, perhaps five, runs ahead of them, turning every now and then to yell, “Mommy!”

My husband looks at me, then laughs and keeps walking. “What?” I ask.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

Someone once told me I have a poker face. That someone is not the person I married. “You’re judging that woman for letting her daughter call her Mommy.”

I deny with an elaborate conviction, the kind used by married people and old friends to prolong conversations, to dance around old accusations in search of new language, a sparkling phrase that will then be repeated enough to become lore.

A few days later, we meet some friends for dinner. I express earnest indignation toward New York cab drivers who will not talk to me in Urdu. I can read their Pakistani names on the badges next to the payment screen. Usman. Faheem. Riaz. Sometimes, I can hear them on the phone with their wives, showing up on Caller ID as Rubina, Saima, Fazeela. Late into weekend nights, I will lean in from the back seat and jee, jee all over the place.

Shukriya. Khuda Hafiz. They respond in steely English.

A Georgian friend shrugs. “Why would they speak in Urdu to you?”

The question is frustrating because its answer, so clear in my mind, can only be vocalised as a watery plea to nationhood, immigrant solidarity.

That’s the language of their private sphere,” he says. “Why should they let you in?”

My husband isn’t wrong. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the tongues of my future children.

We live in America, the graveyard of languages.

There is deep-seated belief here, among large hearts that bleed blue, in the singularity of American diversity — as if no other place, neither the Tanzanian coast nor the island nation of Indonesia, has been home to tribes and clans that held their breath as they contemplated one another, spoke and discovered that their words were mere sounds to those other ears.

Meanwhile, thousands wake up every day in phantasmal suburbs and line up for the drill. Assimilate. Acculturate. Eradicate. Data shows that first-language attrition is common in America, particularly among children who don’t live in densely immigrant neighbourhoods or around first-generation family members, children who come from language groups vastly different from English, and children whose parents claim more than one mother tongue. I grew up in Urdu and Punjabi. My husband grew up in Portuguese and English.

Kids at school can be brutal. We know that from the smelly lunchbox stories that circulate now, missives of old trauma tinged with the scents of fermented fish and curry leaf, shame that has shaped a generation. Knowing a language is cool if you took it in high school and spent a summer in Madrid. If you learnt it because Ammi and Abbu spoke it at home, that’s too bad. Pretend you don’t know it, until you get to college and find others who are carrying around the same language like an invisible backpack. Get drunk. Speak in the language. Your tenses are a joke. Start inshallah-ing all over your Instagram. You’re discovering qawwali. You drink chai now. Or you always did, but now you talk about it.

The caricature is finely chiselled, both at home and abroad. The Gen 2 who arrives in Nikes, loves Nusrat, and speaks devastatingly poor Urdu. Will knowing all this make things different for my children and me? Unlike many immigrants from Pakistan, who had to repress their own tongues and their children’s, I have the privilege of knowing English and choosing to intermittently reject it, like an on-again off-again lover on speed dial. I strategise in my head, making mental lists of Urdu movies I might watch while pregnant. They say babies hear in the womb. Should ghazals play in the delivery room, Mehdi Hassan in crescendo to the anguish of labour?

I will save them, I tell myself firmly, swaying between conviction and disbelief.

Several months later, we are sitting in my parents’ bedroom in Rawalpindi. We arrived a week ago, intending to spend that winter in the isolation of the garrison town, so I can work on the novel and my husband can learn Urdu. The four of us are earnestly discussing how we can be a team and help him move toward fluency. Currently, he can give his bio data and whistle the theme song of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

In New York, we tried Skype lessons with a middle-aged woman from Lahore who claimed to have taught Urdu to several foreigners. She insisted on keeping her camera turned off whenever he talked to her, but I got blessed with a sighting once — bespectacled, frazzled, bored. For several weekends, he stared at the plump blue S on his screen and recited numbers after her, from sifar to sau — 100 unique words with a feeble pattern and several aberrations to the pattern.

She told us to wire her a heavy sum of money for specialised textbooks, which she would send via international courier. We received them a month later, in a worn-out envelope covered with Pakistan Post stamps. Inside were three thin booklets, blue-white garbage paper filled with illustrations for kids (alif se angoor, bay se billi) that sold for less than a dollar at Urdu Bazaar. After a stormy WhatsApp goodbye, we put aside dreams of transatlantic tutelage. To learn the language, I thought, he would have to be in the land of the Taj Mahal and the Badshahi masjid. Pindi was more proximate to the army chief and Gakhar Plaza, but it would have to do.

Now, we are discussing strategies over chai and I tell Ammi and Abbu they should speak only Urdu in front of my husband. Immersion waghaira. They nod.

“Of course,” says Ammi, as if it could not be more obvious.

Nahi, matlab, you can’t speak in Punjabi with one another.”

She is silent. Abbu is looking into the distance with his brows furrowed, as if I said that in a language that was neither Urdu nor Punjabi — none of the four or five that he understands.

As a child, I was taught in school that there were four discrete languages spoken in Pakistan, corresponding to four neat provinces — Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Balochi. Above them all sat Urdu, the language that few of our parents spoke, but one that our young nation had taken up as part of its identity. Urdu was at once the prize and compromise of nationhood. It was where we all met as equals (unless you spoke in English, and then you were more equal than others).

With roots in the Potohari Punjab, my family speaks the Shahpuri dialect, a marriage between Hindko and Siraiki. My parents speak Punjabi between themselves, although rarely with my brothers or me. As a child, I gleaned much of my knowledge of family politics and alignments by sitting in the back of the car, my ears perked as my parents spoke conspiratorially in their private language. I believe they knew I understood, but the glaze of Punjabi allowed for plausible deniability.

“We should try,” Ammi says now, turning to Abbu. “From now,” she begins in Urdu, “we’ll speak to each other like this.”

Halfway through, she begins to giggle, like a child caught repeating a deliciously obscene word.

Ee taan baun mushkil ay, bhayi,” she says. This is hard, man.

My parents have only ever known each other in Punjabi. To add Anglo-Indian seriousness to their discussion, they will insert an English phrase here and there. Ammi will use Urdu when imitating annoying co-workers from the office. ‘And then she said, “Kyun na hum meeting postpone karlein?”’ she will say, her mouth twisted, lips pouted, brows compressed. Abbu will speak in Urdu when narrating poetry forwarded to him on WhatsApp threads. Other people’s words, not his.

Language is a viable carry-on. Unlike festivals or elections, it can go with you wherever you go. I have brined myself in Urdu for enough years that it will not wash away, even in America.

While on vacation, I call my brother to discuss Abbu’s health, how he doesn’t go to the doctor as often as we’d like him to. At this point, my husband has been learning Urdu for a few months. We have started using it to gossip about Spanish tourists and discuss appropriate tips for waiters. Once, on a hike with a lacklustre guide and an uninterested German family, we talk almost exclusively in Urdu for two hours. My heart grudgingly makes way for hope. Is it possible that Urdu is becoming our private language in public? It will never be our private language in private.

I spend the rest of the day daydreaming about returning to America and continuing to speak Urdu, the country’s unfamiliarity with the language promising to be the biggest impetus. It amuses me that so many Americans feel uncomfortable being around an unknown language. The solace they are given is that the offender is most likely not talking about them. If you don’t understand Urdu and I am speaking it in front of you, it is very likely I’m discussing you.

To test my husband, I try to converse with my brother solely in Urdu, to see how much he can understand. I discover that every time I try to make a serious big-woman argument — “Why doesn’t anyone else see the urgency here?” — I slip into English. What is urgency in Urdu? I don’t know that. I have never known that, just as I have never known how to say acceleration or multiplication or graduation.

I know, however, that the wind can be called by many names in Urdu. It can be: saba, the cool morning breeze; naseem, the cool evening breeze; sarsar, a cold, wheezing gust; or samoom, a scorching desert wind. I can give you an Urdu expression that means, precisely, this: “the evening spent in the city of the beloved”.

I learnt of Faiz when I was 14. In an audio CD I picked up near Lahore’s Fort, I heard his crackly, tobacco-stained voice, his Punjab-stained Urdu. I was in the grip of a feeling I could not comprehend, one that I still struggle to. I whispered out loud his words to myself, Farsi and Arabic and high Urdu strung together in a diction that is solely, recognisably his. Dast-e-saba — the hand of the morning breeze. Dasht-e-tanhai — the wasteland of solitude. Ku-e-dilfigaran — the street of the broken-hearted. I was young and knew little of what he meant, but I didn’t need to. The rhythm of the verse carried me like a tide.

An entire generation in Pakistan, across many levels of class and education, can appreciate complex poetic constructs such as these. Rashq-e-qamar — a lover so beautiful she is the envy of the moon. Mehrab-e-dil — the direction the heart faces in prayer. Diaspora gets a bad rep, but we’re all pretty into the whole qawwali thing, swaying and clapping to intricate poetry packaged into market Sufism and agented by the holy trinity of God, lover and Coke Studio. But ask us to complete a job application or hold meaningful political debate in the national language, and we’re stumped. Emotionally, we’re fluent in Urdu — native proficiency. Technically, we haven’t shown up to class.

I wasn’t yet three when I was enrolled in Koran classes, my little dupatta dusting the floor as I walked over to the house next door, where the children of the neighbourhood congregated for lessons. The teacher, Qari Sahab, sought to ingrain in us the correct Arabic tajweed, forcing our soft consonants into the guttural sounds of a language we would never understand. If a young uvula mispronounced the qaaf, he produced a bunch of keys from his pocket. To this day, I associate the Koran with severity, the sting of cold metal hitting knuckles.

Muslims outside of the Arab world have an incoherent relationship with Arabic. The daily prayer is in the language, as is the holy book. Yet, few of us can tell the difference between an obscure Koranic verse and the lyrics to an Egyptian pop song. Whenever I fell ill as a child, elders in the family would prescribe to me a string of Arabic prayers, to be recited in a particular sequence and repeated in odd numbers. I would murmur them feverishly over a prayer mat, hoping that the words had some relevance to toothache.

Recently, there has been talk in Pakistan of decolonising Urdu expressions, of shrugging off the Arabic. It is the invader’s tongue, some say — one that seeks to turn monolithic our ancient, diverse land. Call it Ramzan, not Ramadan. Don’t say Allah Hafiz; it is Khuda Hafiz, which leaves you in the protection of a more universal God.

Delhi is to Urdu what Zanzibar is to Swahili — ground zero. The city once hosted the royal courts in which the language flourished under poets and patrons. In recent years, Urdu speakers in India have mourned the slow erasure of the language. Since British colonial times, it has held connotations — it was patronised by a Muslim empire, employed to create an Islamic nationalist identity, and remains the private language of Muslims living in Modi’s India. It is, some argue, the invader’s tongue.

Our languages are mutts, children of stray dogs that indiscriminately got in bed with one another. Urdu is an Indo-Aryan language with firm roots in Sanskrit, but so much of its enchantment comes from the Arabic loan words that have been ingested over centuries.

Without them, we would not know how to distinguish between the one who waits — muntazir — and the one who is awaited — muntazar, between the illusory — majazi — and the real — haqeeqi. Junoon — madness. Kamal — perfection. Wujood — existence.

At the end of our time in Pakistan, as the frigid cold hanging over Pindi begins to shed, the two of us travel to the north of the country. Cherry blossoms dot one of the world’s highest deserts, flanked by peaks that start off with green feet but quickly turn grey, barbed, menacing. I have seen the hills of Sri Lanka and Bali, charming and bucolic, with a beauty you can size up. These, however, are mountain mountains. Regal, haughty, textbook mountains.

They speak mellifluous Urdu here, but only to us. Among themselves, they speak Balti. As we travel east on the treacherous road between Skardu and Gilgit, a narrow single carriageway where trucks gingerly pass one another, Balti gives way to Shina, the main language of Gilgit. Near the snowy Shandur Pass, which opens for traffic at the beginning of May, they speak Khowar. In upper Hunza, they speak Wakhi. I think back to the four neat answers we chanted in school when asked, “What are the regional languages of Pakistan?”

We visit a primary school in Ghulkin, built in stone on top of a hill, from where you can see women in bright shalwar kameez working in the fields below. The headmaster takes us to each classroom, where students greet us in impeccable English. At the end, he beams with pride, telling us that the children are allowed to speak only English at school. My throat swells, then catches itself. What did I wish they would speak instead? Urdu, the language their grandmothers never spoke? Wakhi, the endangered language that will lose currency as soon as they step foot outside of paradise?

As much as I insist that Faiz cannot be translated, that he is Faiz only in Urdu, there is one translator who allowed English a glimpse, the way Moses was allowed a single, blistering sight of the Almighty at Sinai. The late Agha Shahid Ali translated several of Faiz’s poems after the latter sent permission from Lebanon, where he was exiled.

In one of his own poems, Shahid wrote:

A time / to recollect / every shadow, everything the earth was losing, a time to think of everything the earth / and I had lost, of all that I would lose, of all that I was losing.

Shahid was a Muslim from Kashmir who came of age in Delhi and chose home in America. I wonder if he counted language among his losses.

I did not see my father cry when his father died. Baba Jee was old and had spent several unconscious nights at PIMS Hospital in Islamabad. We left for the village an hour before dawn, the ambulance with his body trailing us as we sped through an empty cantonment, a three-lane highway, and country roads barely visible in cerulean light. We stopped at a small mosque as the call to Fajr rang. Someone from the village called Abbu’s phone, asking him how to phrase the announcement. Every time someone dies, the funeral is announced over the local mosque’s loudspeaker, so that people can know who died, whose father and son and uncle it was.

“Malik Ameer Khan, vald Malik Ahmed Khan Tarair Marhoom,” he narrated, tracing the line of fathers. Somewhere, his voice cracked and wandered away, lost. Then he finished the dictation and began to drive again.

My grandmother died three years before I was born. My father also took her back. When he looked at her upon arriving in the village, her lips had begun to turn violet. Years later, he recounted to me the verses, in Punjabi, that had visited him then.

Surkh gulaaban day mausam vich,

Phulaan de rang kaalay.

(“In the season of red roses, / These flowers are turning black.”)

Back in New York, my husband and I are watching a film at AMC 25, Manhattan’s undeclared patron of desi cinema. It is a gorgeous production, shadow-filled scenes set in artfully decrepit bungalows, dusty Sindhi daylight, lush-haired women wearing pashminas of a particular beige tone that signifies endless class in urban Pakistan. It is a tale of diaspora and longing, rich family dysfunction, sensitive feudal types. Sexy Pakistani themes.

At one point in the film, two daughters embrace their ageing father, locked in a slow waltz of grief. The mother’s death is imminent. The son — who has returned with his accented Pakistani-American wife, a draconian model for all that homeland thinks is wrong with diaspora — watches from the doorway, rendered outside the innermost circle. In the background, a Sindhi folk song begins to play.

Tiri pawanda tareeyen jadehen garha gul Tadehen milanda seen.

(“When the red roses blossom on branches Then you and I shall meet.”)

I call Abbu afterwards. He and Ammi went to see it that same weekend.

“Pathetic,” he says without hesitation. “What is this angst about home? If you miss home, visit home.”

I raise my eyebrows at my husband. We were rather in love with the angst.

“The only thing I liked,” he continues, “was the Sindhi song they played. It reminded me of my mother.”

I laugh and chide him for not appreciating contemporary Pakistani cinema. I don’t tell him that sitting in the theatre listening to the song play, I thought of the story he had told me. I thought of him and his mother too.

Later that year I am home, making falafel for Sunday lunch. We are trying to recreate the ones we had at Hashem’s in Amman last summer. Abbu joins me in the kitchen, tells me he’ll make the hummus dressing — a shiny algae concoction of green chillies, olives and lime that helps animate the fawn sameness of boiled chickpeas. I grab tufts of cilantro and mix them in the food processor with garlic and cardamom. Abbu’s back is turned to me as he grinds olives and hums:

Surkh gulaaban day mausam vich,

Phulaan de rang kaalay.

My hand stays still on the power button, not pressing. I hold my breath to not disturb the universe.

The winning entry

The winner of the seventh Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize is Dur e Aziz Amna, a 27-year-old writer based between Rawalpindi and Ann Arbor, for “Your Tongue Is Still Yours: Reflections On Language”. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan and is working on her first novel.

The runners-up are Thomas Graham for “The Sacrifice: How Bolivian miners extract their wealth”, and E.S. Batchelor, for “Highway Three: On the road through Burma’s opium fields”. All three essays are available as free ebooks.

This year’s prize was judged by FT contributing editor Simon Schama, the writer Helen Macdonald, literary agent Georgina Capel and Bodley Head publishing director Stuart Williams, with Alec Russell, editor of FT Weekend, as chair.

Read more about the prize at ft.com/bodley

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen and subscribe to Culture Call, a transatlantic conversation from the FT, at ft.com/culture-call or on Apple Podcasts

Letter in response to this article:

I am a different person in my native tongue / From Reiner Jaakson, Oakville, ON, Canada

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