19 November 1999

Pressing on with write and wrong

19 November 1999
The Times of India

Pressing on with write and wrong

By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

KARACHI: Three things distinguish Pakistan's English language dailies
from their Indian counterparts: High price, low circulation, and
marvellously slipshod but inventive prose. At Rs 13 a copy and a print
run of only 60,000, Dawn, Karachi's flagship daily, suffers from the
first and second problems but not the third. Others too charge double-
digit prices, but inflict some truly atrocious language on their

Of course, Indian newspapers also publish priceless English from time
to time, but few could match the following gem, quoted in extenso, on
an Islamabad jewellery exhibition carried in The Nation recently:
``Bridal set assuming lustful and prancing looks were wooing
inquisitive looking lasses ready to be imprisoned into wedlock to
enable them to strike their best at the threshold of ambition packed
life. Life to come will ring with paltry delights but we want to
immortalise every moment...whispered a smart looking lady rolling her
eyes enthralled with the spell of the stone. This portends good luck
only when it is worn with hole drilled into it otherwise it will sound
ominous, interrupted another girl in a bid to help make right choice
for averting leery looks of some foreboding at the outset of days
bordering on tumult and vibrancy.''

``Diamonds decorated jewellery, which was majestically stirring tremors
of sweetness and pleasantries deep down in the realms of future brides
seemed to have been transformed into storms of unabated
passions...Thrust of foreign ladies was showing unbound curiosity and
eagerness with which they were capturing every glimpse of glittering
the magic of the jewellery and imprisoning mesmerising power of these
sets of ornaments.''

It is not as if all news here is written like this. Far from it.
Pakistani sub-editors may have an aversion to the definite and
indefinite articles but most stories do conform to minimum acceptable
standards. However, bloomers, malapropisms and just plain bad writing
occur frequently enough to suggest a pattern. ``Hilariously bubbling
festivities, upbeat delights emerging on frolicsome faces, blazing
firework, blaring fanfares and bustling marriages,'' The News reported
recently, ``have revived pre-ban Walimas' era with eliciting mixed
response from the public.''

A government employee is then paraphrased: ``With three daughters
reaching marriageable age, I was demented to think how to manage their
marriage parties...This state of affairs had been haunting our minds
like a freak, which had so perturbed my wife that she became hysterical
and insomniac, while persistently making her mind hostage to frenzied
thoughts of securing suitable matches for daughters, he added.''

Or consider another report in The Nation from Rawalpindi under the
headline ``Bunni market gives miserable look'': ``The whole area
plunges into murky darkness with the fall of night and the isolated
nooks, corners and turns become heaven for romance and love explorers.
They are seen ruling over the whole scene in complicity with darkness
and rotting the market with flinging indecent remarks or displaying
prohibited gestures and thrills of their bodies.''

Ardeshir Cowasjee, Dawn's acerbic columnist, was characteristically
blunt when asked about this problem. ``You have three English
newspapers. There just aren't enough qualified people to go around. And
then you have the overall deterioration in society as well. This takes
its toll.'' Abid Ali Syed, chief sub-editor of the Business Recorder,
recalled the last set of interviews he had conducted for new recruits.
``We had a tough time getting people who could write five clear
sentences.'' Imran Aslam, senior editor of The News in Karachi, joked
that several years of dealing with sub-standard copy had turned him
prematurely grey. ``Finally, I had to tell these guys, `Just get me the
facts. I'll write the story'.''

The irony, of course, is that the deterioration in linguistic skills
has occurred despite the proliferation of journalism and mass
communication courses throughout Pakistan. At a recent media conference
in Karachi, a young woman who had studied journalism at Kinnaird
College, one of Lahore's elite institutions, brandished her exam paper
angrily. Students were only asked three questions: (1) What are the
different types of journalism? (2) Compare and contrast the different
types of journalism (3) How would you categorise different types of
journalism? ``If this is the kind of exam we had, you can imagine what
we were taught,'' she said.

According to Qazi Ashraf Shah, editor of the Sindhi daily Kawish, it is
not just the English language press which is having a tough time
finding quality people. ``In the old days, the joke was that a
journalist is somebody who can write a lot about things he knows
nothing about. Nowadays, many of the younger journalists do not even
know how to write!''

Mahmood Sham, editor of the Jang, Pakistan's leading Urdu daily, rues
the day `mass communication' became a university subject. ``In the old
days, the Urdu press attracted people with a literary bent --poets,
writers, cultural personalities. Now we get journalism students who can
write Urdu alright but they have no flair. Their vocabulary is limited
and there is an acute poverty of expression.''

At another level, the biggest problem the press faces is illiteracy
because that affects both the quality and quantity of the media's
output. Nobody here believes the Pakistani government's claims of close
to 40 per cent literacy. Journalists and educationists put the figure
at around 25 per cent and that does not seem improbably low. In big
cities like Lahore, most auto drivers cannot even read street signs,
let alone newspapers and magazines. Even though the leading Urdu
dailies sell two or three million copies nationwide --and hence are
monitored more closely by the authorities than the English dailies --
their circulation is very low when set against what it should be in a
nation of 140 million. India, of course, has no reason to be enthralled
by upbeat delights and frenzied thoughts of gloating in the depths of
its realms. If the Pakistani vernacular circulation figures give
miserable look, Indian ones are not very much less ominous and
bordering on vibrancy, either. Period.

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