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Urdu, a victim of partition

Thursday, October 21, 2010 10:43:34 PM, Aijaz Zaka Syed

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I am not much of a talker — never been one. And my wife never lets an opportunity pass to rub it in. While I read or endlessly flip television channels, her reproving glances drill holes in my whole being, for both not talking and not paying attention to whatever she’s saying. Lately, her focus has shifted to the kids. She thinks even they have locked her out of their universe, babble as they all the time do in that “stupid, firangi language.”

She keeps “shush”ing them, imploring them to speak in Urdu, their mother tongue. They reluctantly start off in the Deccani flavored Urdu but trail off soon, unconsciously switching to Queen’s English once again. It seems to come naturally to them. She keeps lamenting the fact that our children cannot read, write or even speak in the language that we are so proud of. I couldn’t agree with her more although we seldom find ourselves on the same page on most of life’s absurdities.

In fact, it’s an issue that has had me worried for years now. As a student of literature and linguistics, I know that a language is not just a language. Like one’s beliefs, it defines one’s culture, identity and consciousness. It defines how we think, communicate and express ourselves.

Considering Urdu’s blood ties to the Arabic and Persian and the fact that most South Asian Muslims have come to know Islam by way of Urdu, the kids’ alienation from the language that connects them to the heritage of their parents and grandparents is disturbing. My children’s disconnect with Urdu is all the more painful because my own love for the language has been inherited from my father, an accomplished poet and author of numerous collections of short stories. I grew up attending “mushairas” (poetry sessions) with my father and singing gazals with my uncles and cousins.

Defying the prevailing social trend, my father didn’t send me to a convent but a seedy government “Urdu medium” school in the neighborhood. There were few teachers available to “manage” a class of over a hundred students. Prolific in both Urdu and English and a translator of Shelley’s poetry, my dad believed that you’ve got to know your mother tongue well if you are to master any other language. By the same logic, when you approach a subject in the language you grew up speaking at home, you learn it well.

Even though my “experiment” with Urdu education had to be abandoned midway thanks to the appalling condition of my school and I somehow ended up doing masters in English literature, my heart still beats for the language that is easily one of the finest and richest on the planet. For all my pretence to master an alien language and make a living out of it, I am still hopelessly besotted with Urdu. Yes, I love the language of Shakespeare, Keats and Dickens and I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t studied literature at university and taken to journalism. There are times though when I feel as if I’ve betrayed my first love, the language of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz.

This sense of betrayal only deepens when one sees the condition of Urdu in the subcontinent and around the world. Abandoned by its own and denied its rightful place by successive governments, the language is dying in the land of its birth. One of the many unintended consequences of the partition has been the total marginalization of Urdu in India. The language that was born in South Asia as a result of the extraordinary encounter between Islam and Indian civilization has few takers today in the land that was/is its home. Once the universal appeal of Urdu stemmed from the fact that it was an ethereal and earthy blend of Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Turkic — all rich, ancient languages — and the Prakrit or khadi boli, the folksy dialect spoken and understood across much of the undivided subcontinent.

Evolving as a spontaneous mode of communication between the Muslim armies and native population (“Urdu” is derived from Turkish word “Ordu” meaning army), it soon became the lingua franca of the empire. As against more elitist Persian and archaic Sanskrit, Urdu became the democratic choice of the people from Afghanistan to Burma. Since the partition though it has come to be associated with, rightly or wrongly, and condemned as the language of Muslims even though vast majorities of all faiths spoke and wrote it until the British left India. It’s nobody’s baby today. People quickly dumped it for the more rewarding English and Hindi, actively patronized by independent India’s rulers, over the years.

Even Muslims are turning their back on Urdu. You can’t blame them considering the fact it gets them no jobs or social standing. Even if some parents, weighed down by a sense of guilt, want their offspring to learn it for identity’s sake, there are few opportunities available. If there are schools that offer Urdu as a second language, there are no teachers. Where teachers are available, there are no students. As a result, the language that had been the language of power and a symbol of prestige across the vastness of South Asia, today finds itself limited to madrassas, mosques and the Bollywood. (Even the Bollywood insists on calling it Hindi!)

Today, Urdu has been confined to pockets and cities like old Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad etc. I am not trying to take undue advantage of my position but if Urdu still remains a source of pride for both Hindus and Muslims anywhere in India today, it’s in Hyderabad. Home to three of nation’s largest circulated Urdu dailies and first Urdu university, the city remains faithful to the memory of its founder, Quli Qutub Shah, who was also Urdu’s first poet with an anthology to his credit. In the north, it finds itself increasingly unwelcome in cities that had once been the citadels of Urdu and culture that gave birth to it. It’s sobering to see north Indian Muslims trying hard to erase all signs of their association with the language that was once their identity. They’re more at home with the heavily Sanskritized Hindi than the language that gave the subcontinent the heart-warming “Sare Jahan Se Achcha” and slogans like “Inquilab Zindabad” (long live, revolution!) that shook the British Empire.

Urdu is missing from signboards even in predominantly Muslim cities and towns and popular Urdu fiction is now published in Hindi or Devanagari script. While one could reassure oneself that official apathy cannot kill a living and vibrant language like Urdu, government patronage, or lack of it, plays a crucial role in promoting or undermining it. If English has become the global lingua franca, it’s because of British colonial rule. People speak the language of power, literally! And bereft of power and sans association with bread and butter, Urdu finds itself increasingly spurned by its own people.

Ironically, it’s not better off in Pakistan either. While Urdu is the national language, it hasn’t exactly proved to be the glue that it was supposed to be. Rather, it has ended up being identified as the language of the Mohajirs, the people who arrived from UP and Bihar. So what does the future has in store for this magical language? Well, I am no clairvoyant. But if it has a future, it lies in our hands. Maybe we could learn a lesson or two in this respect from the Jews. They wandered all over the world for nearly 3,000 years but never allowed their ancient language to die, power or no power. They passed down the language, generation after generation, regardless of their circumstances, teaching their children to imbibe it still in their cradle. Not an easy act to follow, I know. But there’s no other way to keep Urdu alive.

Courtesy Arab News

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based commentator.

Write to him at



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