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Growing up with Urdu

By Sadia Hashmi

I, along with my siblings, had a wonderful time growing up with the Urdu language. My father, who was a teacher and had a PhD in Urdu, got a real knack for teaching the language and inculcating a literary taste. His conversations were laced with couplets, proverbs, anecdotes, and puzzles. As he had a tremendous sense of humor, he used to make witty remarks and crack jokes. He introduced us to the giants of Urdu literature, besides making us aware of great Russian and English writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Pushkin, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Rabindranath Tagore.

We read translated works of foreign authors in our secondary texts. We used to finish reading the Urdu book prescribed in our syllabus right at the outset of the session.

Maybe because Urdu was my mother tongue, I got a grasp of the language early in life. Urdu literature answered my innocent queries about life and made me sensitized to the issues of poverty, gender, sectarianism, partition and its aftermath, economic inequality, culture and identity. I can proudly say that Urdu literature taught me the lessons of equality, fraternity, generosity, and empathy. It also gave me an insight into human condition. We come across these issues in Premchand’s “Godan”, “Nirmala”, “Panch Parmeshwar”, “Eid gaah”; Pitras Bukhari’s “Kutte”; Rasheed Ahmad Siddique’s “Charpai”; Manto’s “Kali Shalwar”, “Ji Aaya Sahab”, “Toba Tek Singh”; Ismat Chughtai’s “Tedhi Lakeer”; Qurraitulain Hyder’s “Patjhad ki Awaz”, “Qalandar”; Sir Syed Ahmad’s “Guzra Hua Zamana”.

I vividly recall discussions about Ghalib, Mir, Faiz, Hasrat Mohani, Akbar Allahabadi, Iqbal, Premchand, Bedi, Manto, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and many more. We were encouraged to remember as many Urdu couplets as we could. During the dog days of summer, one of us would read Akbar Allahabadi’s sher:

Pad jaen aable Akbar ke badan mei
padh kar jo koi phunk de April, May, June

(The whole body of Akbar will break out in blisters
If somebody just spell out the names of months of April, May, June.)

While enjoying slices of a mango, we often had in our minds the words of the same Akbar, who once wrote to his friend requesting for mangoes:

naama na koī yaar  paiġhām bhejiye
 fasl meñ jo bhejiye bas aam bhejiye

aisā zarūr ho ki unheñ rakh ke khā saku
 agarche biis to das ḳhaam bhejiye

For festivals like Holi, Diwali, Eid, and Shabebarat, we used to amuse ourselves reciting relevant verses and sharing myths or stories led to the foundation of these celebrations.

I developed an interest in literature only through Urdu. Later, it helped me understand English literature and its various genres. Urdu literature enabled me appreciate literature of other languages, see things with clarity and relate it to the world around me. Urdu broadened my canvas.

Every literature has its own essence and beauty. Therefore, there is no point in pitting literature of one language to another. Remarkably, there are interesting parallels between Urdu and English poems. Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree” reminds me of Ghalib’s couplets:

rahiye ab aisī jagah chal kar jahāñ koī na ho
ham-sukhan koī na ho aur ham-nawa koī na ho
be-dar-o-dīvār sā ik ghar banāyā chāhiye

koī ham-sāya na ho, aur pāsbāñ koī na ho
padiye gar bīmār to koī na ho tīmārdār
aur agar mar jā.iye to nauha-khaāñ koī na ho

Robert Burns’ beautiful poem, “My love is like a red, red rose” brings back to me the appealing words of Mir:

Nazuki us ke lab ki kya kahiye
pankhudi ek gulaab ki si hai

Just as Sylvia Plath encapsulates the angst and frustration of women in her poem “Mirror”, while looking deep into the mirror, Zehra Nigaah also represents women’s feelings in the same way:

apnā har andāz āñkhoñ ko tar-o-tāza laga

kitne din ke mujh ko ā.īna achchhā lagā
saara ārā.ish kā sāmāñ mez par sotā rahā 

aur chehra jagmagātā jāgtā hañstā lagā
malgaje kapḌoñ pe us din kis ġhazab kī aab thī 

saare din kā kaam us din kis qadar halkā lagā
chaal par phir se numāyāñ thā dil-āvezī kā 

jis ko vāpas aate aate kis qadar arsa lagā
maiñ to apne aap ko us din bahut achchhī lagī 

vo jo thak kar der se aayā use kaisā lagā

Urdu language and literature have things for people of different age groups and communities. Urdu has the ability to really absorb so many different words and philosophies and styles from all over the world.

During leisure, we used to play baitbazi in school. Whenever we were asked, “Kitne roze rakhe?” (How many days did you fast?) during the month of Ramazan, we would respond in Ghalib’s words: “Ek na rakha” (which carried the dual meaning that either we did not keep one or we kept all but one). We used to watch a serial on Doordarshan about Ghalib’s life. The childhood memory is also encrypted with the puzzles we were often asked after reading children’s literary magazines like Umang, Payam-e-taleem, Noor, Batool. If we had something to convey secretly, we would use ashars (couplets) or proverbs. Manish Shukla is very apt when he writes:

baat krne ka hasin taur-tariqa sikha
ham ne Urdu ke bahane se saliqa sikha

(Urdu taught us good manners.)

Part of growing up with the Urdu language included listening to cassettes of Urdu ghazals, classical music, and exchange of letters with relatives and friends written in Urdu. In those days, there were some of the best soap operas based upon literary texts or historical figures such as Mulla Nasruddin, Alif laila, Noor Jahan, Tipu Sultan, etc.

After a decade or so, things have changed enormously and within a small time period I feel nostalgic for a language that was once a part of my daily commute. The decline of this language in daily usage has left me perplexed. Central universities like New Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) provide Urdu as a medium for teaching some of the subjects and students can even write their papers in this language. However, when I became part of JMI, I found that the students who chose Urdu as medium were not provided with better notes and lectures. Strangely enough, books in Urdu were not available in the market. The Urdu-speaking tradition has not only taught us the art of conversation but also gave us the morality to live our life in certain way. Previously in every household, women had handy books on basic tinkering, cooking, art and crafts in Urdu language. People were in the habit of reading popular Urdu novels (Ibn Safi was a household name) and monthly magazines like the Homa and the Pakiza Aanchal were permanent fixtures. A very popular fiction, Nath ka Bojh (literally, burden of a nose ring), by Pakistani writer, Wajida Tabassum, was circulated among my granny and her female friends.

In many households, people decorated their drawing rooms with calligraphy of Urdu quotations or couplets, or Arabic verses. As a part of tradition, women crocheted pillows and bed sheets emblazoned with Urdu sayings or couplets to give them to their daughter as trousseau. This tradition of reading and indulging in basic arts is on the wane. It is because of the decline of the Urdu language, owing to various political and social reasons.

With the passage of time, the charm of Urdu seems to have almost faded. The art of letter writing has gone with the wind. Some of the very fine literary magazines and newspapers stopped publication. A decade back, I remember even some of the less educated women could write and read in Urdu. However, speaking and writing this language has gone out of fashion. I feel heart-broken when Urdu is linked with Muslims and is directly attached to a particular religion.

The readers of Urdu language are few and far between. One of the major losses I feel with the decline of this language is lack of emotions and beauty in our conversations. However, I believe that this can be rejuvenated with a little effort. We need to encourage our friends, siblings, and relatives to read and write in Urdu. At least, once or twice a week, we can have an Urdu session at home in which we can listen to and read to our siblings or children. Shukriya!

Sadia Hashmi
graduated from Jamia Millia Islamia with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Recently she completed her master’s from Gaya College, Magadh University.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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