This Labor Day weekend found me in New York at my mother’s cousin’s wedding. I came away with some new snippets of family history that appeal wonderfully to a romantic like me — particularly one of a great-great uncle, or so I suppose is his relation. He came to America in 1904 and ended up studying in Ann Arbor. Then he rose in ranks at General Motors, and later he went back home to India.
I’ve been told that he came to Ann Arbor to see the world. The world happens to be a 40-minute drive from West Bloomfield and the halls of Detroit Country Day School — places far more diverse than the Diag. With apologies to marketers, that whole “diversity” line doesn’t work anymore because, well, the world is quickly becoming the world.
My mother was born in Pakistan. I hadn’t been there for years until I visited again last summer for a wedding. The groom’s brother, a cousin of mine, took his whole day to show us around Karachi, the nation’s largest city. His tour unfortunately confirmed my ill judgment of Pakistani pop culture. Today, Pakistani culture is simply a shameless attempt to be American. He took us to a mall where the national language of Urdu was effectively banned. He showed us a Texas-themed restaurant where you had to act rowdy and throw peanut husks on the floor to prove how Texan you were. I think I was supposed to have been impressed by how open and forward Pakistan is.
Even my parents don’t seem to understand. I always beg my father not to answer my Urdu with English. I don’t do it because I need to know Urdu — just watch any Bollywood movie and you’ll know what I mean. I want to be the man that tradition would have made me if globalization hadn’t gotten in the way. So I brought two pairs of shalwar kurtas to my dorm to wear to the Union for Friday prayer. It was a matter of concern for my friends, who wondered why I was trying so hard to be Pakistani. But my long, flowing, salmon-pink shirt didn’t stand out as much as it would have in that Karachi mall.
I went to Ghana two summers ago with Unite for Sight, a blindness-prevention NGO. There, anyone who’s anyone speaks English, and there was no real need to speak the native Twi. Still I learned it, and I impressed upon the locals that an obruni who would only be with them for some days had learned their tongue, and that their language was a treasure to hold.
Here, we celebrate diversity in good American spirit. Yet we don’t consider that the more we “celebrate” diversity, the more we lose it. Indian student organizations walk around with shirts bearing words, in English, that look like Devanagari but are only mimicries of those soon-to-be lost letters. Russell Peters once joked, “300 hundred years from now … everybody’s gonna be beige.” I defer to Russell and mourn, too, at words that herald a global language called English that sounds like a computer manual, a far cry from the rustic echoes on England’s greenest hills.
The world moves too fast to hold the yoke of modernity, to ever beget again the beautiful traditions that evolved and ripened over ages of natural change and migration. So, in three hundred years when we are this inevitable hodgepodge of beige, will anyone ever feel the thrill of hearing a tongue wholly new, a people read only in books? Will ever another man have a journey like my great-great uncle? No.
So your hopeless sentimentalist resigns and lies down, and closes his eyes to the melody of a band of qawwals, singing the poetry of Amir Khusro, the Sufi saint, and only then can he be true for a while.
Omar Mahmood is an LSA freshman.