Putting Pakistan on the Digital Map


A couple of days ago, Mohsen Ali of the Stranger’s Words blog presented this rather neat idea of assimilating Pakistani literature (particularly in Urdu and the regional languages) and works of performing arts (films, television shows, etc). His proposal wasn’t just to gather and store this magnanimous data into storage spaces, but to produce meta information for those works. I will explain the term ‘meta information’ later, first let’s analyse the problem.

So, What’s the Problem?

Imagine you’re watching a rather interesting Urdu drama serial or reading a vividly wrought piece of literary fiction by Bano Qudsia. You would certainly enjoy these amazing works of literature and arts but you would only be amongst the 6.23% of the entire population of the world that could understand the Urdu language, or perhaps the 33.89% of the total population of Urdu speakers that can actually read Urdu. Thus, here’s the problem that we’re faced with – even when there’s Pakistani literature and arts in abundance, there’s very little information present about these works.

Ashfaq Ahmed is perhaps one of the most widely read Urdu fiction novelists of the last decade
Ashfaq Ahmed is perhaps one of the most widely read Urdu fiction novelists of the last decade

Urdu is Dying

The Urdu language (alongside with other languages of Pakistan) are dying. I hated Urdu as a subject when I was at school, perhaps only because I took it for granted. But, the calligraphic scribbles on my school notebooks are a dying breed now. Literature written in Urdu by some of the language’s most renowned poets and novelists have lost their penetrability – no longer are they accessible to the masses.

Even if I loathed Urdu as a schoolboy, I certainly don’t hate it any more. I now realise what beauty the language actually holds. Sadly, to the rest of the 94-something percent of the world, they’d never realise what they are missing up on. They don’t have time to learn a new language, but why should they be kept away from the brilliant content that is created on a daily basis in Pakistan. If there’s one thing that the Urdu poets and novelists need, it’s the penetrability of their works to different countries and continents.

Differences in Languages Make Pakistan

Everyone knows that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan; and just as Urdu stands to be the identity of a singular Pakistan, a more vibrant and colourful definition emerges of a diverse and multicultural Pakistan when literature and arts are studied in the other regional languages. I may have read a few things in Punjabi and Sindhi, but I may not be the only person who is denied the pleasure of reading literature in Balochi and Pashto languages  just because we aren’t well-versed with them (or at least I am not). The Baloch and Pashtun folk songs are perhaps the only cultural exposure I have to the arts and literature of these wonderful people.

Mohsen’s Suggestion: Digitize Pakistan

I might not know some languages of Pakistan, and there might be others that don’t know the languages in Pakistan that I know of. Here’s where Mohsen’s suggestion differed from others I had ever heard before. He suggests that we should all contribute towards translating works of literature in Pakistan’s indigenous languages and performing arts (e.g., through subtitles) in order to add more penetrability and accessibility into these works.

The Imran series is perhaps the most-widely read detective novels in Pakistan
The Imran series is perhaps the most-widely read detective novels in Pakistan. I am doing my bid to digitize and translate these adventures of Pakistan’s own James Bond.

Understanding Meta Information

I am a computer science student, and this was one of the very first things I was taught – when you make sense of pieces of data, it becomes information. But when information still doesn’t make sense enough, you need to add more information about information (or meta information). Literature, itself is a beautiful thing. When you have no inkling about a particular piece of work, e.g., a television programme in an unknown language, you tend to move towards the next best alternative – meta information, in this case subtitles (in a language you understand).

You tend to look for translations for works such as the Latin masterpiece Dante’s Inferno or Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but why should you not look for translations for works by authors like Ashfaq Ahmed or Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Don’t we, as Pakistanis, have this duty to preserve this wonderful body of work that would eventually be lost to time otherwise.

Prepare your Tools

There are many things that we can do to save Pakistani literature and art from being buried in the sands of time. I promised Mohsen I would produce a glossary and reference-list for tools that could help anyone in this mission. There are various ways in which you can help:

  1. Write articles on Wikipedia…
    1. ..about authors of Pakistani or Indo-Pak sub-continental origin (see an example)
    2. ..with summaries and outlines for books (see an example)
    3. ..containing synopsis of television shows (see an example)
  2. Do it the other way around:
    1. Write original articles on the Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi and Sindhi Wikipedia, instead of translating into English from these Wikipedia.
    2. Petition and gather support for a Balochi Wikipedia.
  3. Write individual entries on your own blogs…
    1. ..about famous people in Pakistan, i.e., literati and artists. On our blog, we write about sportspeople in Pakistan. You could write about novelists or even businessmen.
    2. ..about important dates and events in Pakistan’s history
    3. ..with non-watermarked photographs from wherever you go (I say non-watermarked photographs because it is only such photographs that are permitted to be used on free resources like Wikipedia – by adding your own watermarks, there is no point in sharing them).
  4. Sharing is caring
    1. Highlight your peers and give credit
    2. All your effort goes to waste if you do not comment on other Pakistani blogs
    3. If you are too uptight to give credit to other Pakistanis, then you do not deserve to be called a Pakistani.

Tell Mohsen what you think of his suggestions by leaving a comment on his blog entry. Meanwhile, I will be regularly updating this blog entry with more information about various tools that could be used to further such novel efforts. Tell us if you are also interested in digitizing Pakistan yourself.

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