The unmaking of paradise: literacy as Trojan Horse-I

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The unmaking of paradise: literacy as Trojan Horse


You are entering a valley, a valley blooming with flowers of all colours, lush green forests, birds: flying, singing, dancing in the skies. Skies with a beautiful sun, perhaps a couple of clouds, even a rainbow or a double rainbow, if you like. As you walk into the valley, news of your arrival spreads quick.

The wind, the birds, the animals, the insects, the flowers, the river, the people, and everything else stops and looks at you with a welcoming curiosity. As you walk, there’s a spring in your gait. A freshness in your breath. Soon, you become part of this valley.

Anyone else entering the valley at this point would not be able to identify you. You are part of the rhythm of the valley, its colours, its aromas, its life

Slide 1: The first part of an animation, بولی (boli), that I would like to create.


This first part of the animation, بولی (boli), is a metaphor for South Asia at time of first colonial contact. South Asia, before European colonisation, was a rainbow of dynamic systems, inclusive of all forms of living and non-living things.

A host of local boli were used across the region. Boli was only spoken. Boli was a non-count noun. Boli was not traditionally named. We spoke several boli and understood even more (we had receptive multilingualism). Boli did not mark identity; it reflected relationship. Boli symbolised our relationships with others. Boli varied when one related with different people, beings, and non-living things; relationship to living things and relationship to places/locations. We referred to boli by the relationship(s) they construed, e.g., ‘nani ki boli’ (maternal grandmother’s boli), ‘susral ki boli’ (in-laws boli); or, ‘Lucknow ki boli’, ‘Swat ki boli’ (there could be more than one boli associated with a location). There was widespread receptive multilingualism. And, everything was considered to have boli: living and non-living things.

These practices are still preserved in some of our boli. For example, in my parents’ boli, who were born in different parts of British India and migrated with their parents to Karachi soon after the British created their first ‘country’, Pakistan [Pakistan is the first British experiment in the formation of country, along with India, followed by other ‘post-colonial’ countries], we assign gender to everything. In our boli, everything is interconnected and living, even the lakes and the rivers and the mountains. This is noticeable in, for example, how my boli marks gender on everything – living and non-living. Assigning gender to non-living things is a type of personification: it represents life.

When the colonisers first started settling in South Asia, our ancestors were inclusive and lived in prosperity (not based on cash (money)). For example, Akbar was married to a ‘Hindu’ and practiced ‘Deen-e-Ilahi’.

Deen-e-Ilahi means ‘one God’ and recognises that people have different ways of representing and paying homage to God. And that all of them are welcome. Akbar encouraged diversity of practices and celebrated them. This is one reason why Akbar’s period is seen as one of prosperity and integration. Deen-e-Ilahi was lost when Aurengzeb defeated his elders and took over the Mughal throne. This happened after the colonial traders were already established in South Asia and had started exerting their social, political and military interventions.

Deen-e-Ilahi is grounded in some of the boli of South Asia. For example, in my boli, we make a three-way distinction between deen, iman, and muzhab. Deen is our diety, it can be anything or nothing. Iman is our belief that we are all part of the same universe (all living and non-living things). Muzhab are our individual and local ways of celebrating our deen and iman. Muzhab, by definition, recognizes and respects diversity. Akbar’s conception of Deen-e-Ilahi can be understood as one way in which these distinctions (encoded in local boli) were used to develop an inclusive, diverse, and prosperous peoples.

This three- way distinction shows how our own boli is built on understandings of inclusivity and respect. [Not peace; peace is only an absence of war; and, not tolerance; tolerance is only an absence of aggression.] This harmony, which is represented in Slide 1 above, began to change when the three distinct ideas about deen, iman, and muzhab were reduced and translated into a single English word, ‘religion’.

There are a number of other observations that suggest that Akbar’s period was one of harmony. Akbar abolished the jizya tax for non-Muslims. His advisors included people of all beliefs, gender, and language. Akbar’s key advisors included people of science and arts – of all backgrounds. Akbar himself was an artist, a poet, a philosopher, and a writer. These histories are, however, lost to us. Instead, we are taught a past of violence, conflict, and exploitation based on colonial myths and documented in the work and publications of colonial and colonial-era authors. It is these publications which form the basis of most of the common knowledge about South Asia. An understanding of this question leads to many questions, such as: Do we need to unlearn colonial myths and learn from our own heritage and boli? If so, how? [I will consider some options in a later part of this essay.]

Like other socio-biological life forms, our ancestors had their share of conflict as well. But, this was nothing of the scale of today. Empires and kingdoms in South Asia included diverse peoples, were grounded on relationships (and intermarriages), and were inclusive.

It was in this era of inclusivity, harmony, and prosperity that the colonials first started “trading” with South Asians. With them, they brought their languages, beliefs, money, practices, and – most importantly – the printing press.

It is the printing press and the practices of literacy that are necessary for the press to operate that led to the unmaking of paradise.

As the colonials took over lands, they destroyed local knowledges and replaced them by colonial knowledge. They did so because they believed that theirs was the best and only way for a civilisation to develop. We see evidence of how the colonising groups within Europe first colonised their own peoples and lands, wiped out numerous Indigenous languages and traditions, replaced them by ‘national’ languages – languages tied to national identity, and used cash/money to trap the farmers and other disadvantaged people into working for the industrialists and elites. This brought money (seen as wealth) and power (experienced as exploitation) to some people and made others poor. Any questioning of power was suppressed through force.

As these people with insatiable greed became more powerful, they set out to make more riches across the seas. As part of this expansion, they wrote, sponsored, and published books on the lands and the peoples that they dominated. They used their printing presses to make copies of it and introduced it into education. Today, we have almost no access to Indigenous histories in many parts of the world and are dependent on colonial era for any information/knowledge about our own pasts.

In South Asia, the colonials made sure that all copies of key Mughal literature, for example, Babarnama and Akbarnama (chronicles of the two of the greatest Mughal emperors) were destroyed or removed from South Asia. The writings of two Mughal emperors who are best known for their inclusivity are not available for study and to learn from. All access to our own literary traditions are/were controlled by the colonials.

As far as I have been able to trace, all copies of Baburnama (written in Chagatai) have been destroyed. There appears to be one copy of Akbarnama (written in Farsi) in a European library. No copies/images of these original texts are available to the public or to scholars. Access to these texts are now through their translations in English or translations sponsored by the colonials into local languages. It needs to be noted that Babur wrote in Chagtai (using a Persian script), not Arabic. The Mughals traced their roots back to Chagatai and the Mongols, not to the Arabs. They were most likely multilingual in Chagtai, Persian, and other dialects/varieties of Turkic and Persian languages.

With the originals destroyed or missing, the colonial-era translated texts have now replaced the originals and become the foundational knowledge today and is taught and learnt through educational institutions and media world-wide.

Through this, we lost our own histories. To compensate us, our Masters wrote new histories for us. It is these histories that were the unmaking of our paradise.

The world has known many empires in history. However, none like the western European colonial powers. The western colonials, in addition to trade and warfare, used the printing press and literacy to create an ‘empire of the language’. An empire that continues to enslave a large proportion of the world’s population to economic, social, and political models that are embedded in the vocabularies and grammars of a few western European languages. It is this literacy that has led to a continuing enslavement of peoples around the globe. This is what I mean by ‘Literacy is a Trojan Horse’, as I will elaborate on in the next part of this essay.


(to be continued)

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