WE ARE NOT AT PEACEby HUMRA QURAISHI February 12 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins, 4 secs
Humra Quraishi discusses the position of the Urdu language in India, on International Mother Language Day – 21st February.
My grasp over my mother tongue, Urdu, is weak. And, to this day I feel rather sad about it. I blame the politics in India, and the bureaucracy as well, for depriving the children of the minority community their mother tongue. What also cannot be overlooked is the fact that Urdu is not taught in a majority of schools in India, and with that, the language is out of the imagination of school going Muslim children.
My parents tried their best so we didn’t miss out on learning the language and had even arranged for a maulvi sahib, who would come home to teach my siblings and me our mother tongue and also to read the Quran. And, although my siblings fared well, I couldn’t go beyond the basics.
Many years later, Khushwant Singh was somewhat shocked to know that I wasn’t fluent with my Urdu, and had insisted that I start re-learning it. But it was a bit too late. For I believe that what’s taught in school, is what remains.
Khushwant’s rationale was that without the knowledge of Urdu I will miss the rich expanse of Urdu poetry and literature. He realized the rough treatment meted to the language by successive governments and politicians of the country, which was along the narrow and communal strain. He minced no words, when talking about the slow death of the language: “Urdu is dying a slow death in the land where it was born and where it flourished. The number of students who take it as a subject in schools and colleges is dwindling. Apart from Kashmir, where Urdu is taught from the primary to the post-graduate levels, in the rest of India it is the second, third language. With the passing of years, it has come to be dubbed as the language of the Muslims, which is far from the truth.” Khushwant would recite these verses of Urdu poets Rashid and Khurshid Afsar Bisrani, focusing on this near-death of Urdu.
Rashid: Maangey Allah se bas itni dua hai Rashid/Main jo Urdu mein vaseeyat likhoon beta parh ley. (All Rashid asks of Allah is just one small gift/If I write my will in Urdu, may my son be able to read it.)
Khurshid Afsar Bisrani: Ab Urdu kya hai ek kothey kee tawaif hai/Mazaa har ek leta hai, mohabbat kaun karta hai. (What is Urdu now but a sex worker in a whorehouse/Whoever wants to, has fun with her, very few love her.)
Petty politics in India has near-killed this language. Urdu lies bypassed and deadened. It is ‘alive’ only for Bollywood’s commercial needs. Or, for poetry and shayari sessions. Otherwise, as a ‘connecting language’, Urdu lies crushed amid this communal and polarised atmosphere that surrounds us.
Around the year 2005, when I was visiting a professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, I met Valerio Pietrangelo, a researcher. He was pursuing advanced study of Urdu and Arabic from the University of Rome and had travelled to the school as a part of his research work on ‘Partition Literature in Urdu’ written by women. With that in the backdrop, I’d asked him to comment on the Indian Muslims he had met and also his observations on their mother tongue Urdu. Valerio was forthright, "As my main concern has always been the Urdu language and literature, my contact with the Muslim community in India has always been filtered by my perception of the language issue. My impression is that the Muslims are, in a certain sense, a backward community - at least many of them. As I met Muslims, I realized how dramatically they are shifting to Hindi and other Indian languages, since the government is not promoting the Urdu language and literature. I think language is an essential element of group identity, therefore, I feel that Muslim identity is threatened.”
In today’s India, Urdu stands reduced to such lows that the knowledge of language cannot ensure employment; nor basic means of survival. This is the treatment given to a language that cradles the power to heal and guide emotions. In fact, a detailed study conducted by the Lucknow based Centre for Biomedical Researches (CBMR) published in an edition of international journal ‘Neuroscience Letters’ states that reading Urdu script and couplets helps in brain development. This report, based on extensive research, goes to prove that learning and reading Urdu couplets help to control emotions, to cope with stress, and in delaying dementia. It could also be helpful for children with learning disabilities.
I can add here, with much confidence, that another advantage of Urdu couplets, dripping with romantic verse, is that they distract one from the dark realities of the day. Perhaps, this particular verse of Sahir Ludhianvi conveys the dark truth of the hypocrisy that layers the times we are living in: The same cities where once Ghalib’s voice resounded/Now have disavowed Urdu, made it homeless/The day that announced the arrival of freedom/Also declared Urdu a cursed and treacherous language/The same government that once crushed a living tongue/Now wishes to mourn and honour the dead//The man you call Ghalib was a poet of Urdu/Why praise Ghalib after suppressing his language?
Here it gets significant to tell you that I’m fluent in the Hindi language and my grasp of it is good. This is for two reasons. One, because it was taught at school, and at the intermediate level I had opted for Advanced Hindi, which meant Hindi with Sanskrit. And two, when the going was tough, my father engaged a Panditji who used to teach the language at Lucknow's Islamia Intermediate College.
Panditji taught me with so much patience and earnestness that I fell in love with the language! With paan (betel) tucked in his mouth, he would go on teaching for hours without looking at the time. He declined chai and paani offered to him, presumably because of the nonvegetarian food cooked in our Muslim household, but never made it apparent. I recall his way of declining: "Ab to paan kha liya hai,” (Now, I have paan in my mouth), he’d say.
He carried his paans, tucked away in a small cloth bag. Whilst teaching me, he would talk about the various factors connecting the Hindi language to Sanskrit and it made the lessons thorough and interesting. The mythological tales he would weave in were enchanting.
Those were the those good old days when both the communities, the Hindus and the Muslims, lived in harmony, without the Hindutva brigades hovering around, threatening, harassing, killing and lynching – ruining what we used to call togetherness.
I’m ending today’s piece with these lines of poet Moumita Alam from the verse ‘We Are At Peace’, published in the Amity Peace Poems (Hawakal Publishers): In the valley/the khakis are frisking for dissent/from breasts to toenails./Do they search their hearts too?