Pakistanis and Cliches: Communication is Power! Or is it?

Posted on March 26, 2009
Filed Under >Mast Qalandar, Humor, Society
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Aziz Akhmad

Yes, communication is power, that is, if you observe certain rules. Three, among several others, are, and they are pretty basic: Avoid clichés; choose words carefully; and, in oral communication, use measured and appropriate gestures to reinforce your point.

A cliché is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought, and thus loses meaning and credibility.

We, Pakistanis, love to talk in clichés.

Turn on the TV, and you will have one or the other politician, an anchorperson, or a panelist touting his personal opinion as mandate or consensus of the solah crore awaam — meaning 160 million people of Pakistan. We have been hearing this 16 crore bit for several years now, not realizing that population of Pakistan, in the meanwhile, has been galloping at the robust rate of 2 percent a year and has passed the 17 crore mark by now.

“Foolproof security” is another cliché that has entered our lexicon in the past few years. We frequently hear of a demand for or a promise of “foolproof security” to be provided on certain occasions or for certain individual (s). Foolproof, by definition, means incapable of going wrong or being misused. One could talk of providing high security or maximum security, but providing “foolproof” security to anyone in today’s Pakistan, when suicide-bomber has become a household word, is virtually impossible, unless, that is, you confine the person in a lead-walled container with no doors or windows, in which case the person would die of suffocation, anyway.

Talking of lead walls reminds one of another cliché that has been haunting us for as long as one can remember: Seesa pilaayee hooi dewaar — meaning standing up to enemy like a solid lead wall. Today, when new materials and alloys — far stronger and far more able to withstand stress — have replaced the old-fashioned lead, which has been found to be poisonous to the user, it’s about time we replace lead with some other material in our expressions.

Another beaten and bureaucratic phrase that appears regularly in the media is sakhti say notice lay liya or simply notice lay liya — meaning someone in authority has taken a strict notice of some incident. This expression is used whenever a disastrous incident occurs in the country — and they seem to occur all too frequently. For example, a couple of months ago, a news headline screamed that the president had taken a “very strict notice” of the fire at the Gakhar plaza in Rawalpindi.

One wonders, if there is a scale of “strictness” being used for such notices, such as moderately strict, strict, very strict etc., and what are the consequences that follow each level of strictness of notice. Perhaps, to make things simpler, we should devise a color code for such “notices”: Green, blue, yellow, orange, and red, like they have for terror threats in the US. The Gakhar Plaza headline could then read: So-and-so took Red notice of the fire in Rawalpindi. This would also make the consequences of the notice, both for the perpetrators and the victims of the incident, more predictable and quantifiable.

I am not sure if it is the Urdu language that lends itself easily to clichés or it is our love for exaggeration or embellishment of speech, but we tend to use clichés excessively.

While use of clichés undermines the seriousness and credibility of a speech or a report, poor choice of words can produce unintended results — comical or offense.

Here is how a ranked investigative journalist of a widely read English daily described a former Bangladeshi army officer whom he had interviewed a couple of months ago: “A 65-year old, strongly built and tall, unlike normal Bengalis … “ The journalist should have known that “Normal” as well as “Abnormal” Bengalis wouldn’t be pleased with this adjective. And, by the way, Bangladeshis don’t like to be called Bengalis.

Another headline, dated August 9, 2008, by a journalist with a byline, reads: “Will Musharraf make Zardari chew in his own juices?” It was not a typo because the same phrase was elaborately repeated in the text of the report. While “stew in his own juice” is a common metaphor and brings to mind an image of someone boiling in anger and unable to do anything about it, it is difficult, however, to picture someone chewing in his own juices.

Here is another news report from one of the oldest and leading Karachi dailies. It was curiously titled, “A shaking act”. It read:

“SIALKOT, Sept 13: A laborer was sexually assaulted after being abducted from his house by four influential vagabonds late on Wednesday night in Akalgarh village.”

“Reports said that the accused barged into the house of Muhammad Aslam (45), father of three minor children, and kidnapped him at gunpoint to settle an old score. The outlaws took him to their haveli and forcibly shaved his head, eyebrows and moustache. Later, they subjected him to severe torture and sexually assaulted him. They used iron rods, hockey sticks and butts of guns [for the purpose]. In a stark naked state and critical condition, the victim was later thrown near his house by the accused.”

“On being informed of the nasty incident, a heavy police contingent hastened to the spot and shifted the victim to the DHQ Hospital where his condition was said to be critical.”

Some nasty incident!

After reading the report one realized why it was titled “A shaking act”. It leaves the reader shaking in anger — and with laughter.

Appropriate gestures compliment and reinforce an effective presentation. But one has to be careful. Gestures can be interpreted differently in different cultures.

A couple of days before the Long March, Mr. Rehman Malik, the interior adviser, was speaking to the press. Switching over from Urdu to English, possibly for the benefit of the Western audience, he forcefully tried to dispel the perception in the media of a possible divide between President Zardari and Prime Minister Gillani. He said there was no divide between the two and, as if to emphasize his point, he showed two joined fingers to the cameras! Having spent considerable time in England, Mr. Malik should have known that, in the Western culture, showing a finger is bad enough. Showing two fingers is asking for trouble.

Note: This article also appears in the daily News

22 responses to “Pakistanis and Cliches: Communication is Power! Or is it?”

  1. Umar Shah says:

    My favorite is, ‘Nobody will be allowed to challenge the writ of the government’. What writ? Are we talking about the ‘muqaddas ‘and ‘pur waqar’ land of Pakistan? where anyone can enter and create havoc in our society, I thought there was ‘no admission without permission’?

  2. Lal Salaam says:

    Welcome back MQ. We missed you.

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