Scripting a Future for Urdu
By Tabish Khair
Sometime back, Annie Zaidi, a talented Indian English writer from an Urdu-speaking background, asked me if I would agree to be one of the judges of a prize she was establishing: the Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation. Named after her (late) grandfather, the prize is to be given to a story translated from Urdu to English.
I thought it was an excellent initiative, but I confessed that my ability to read the Urdu script is minimal. She was surprised: But you have transcreated Ghalib into English, she emailed back. Yes I had, I explained, but I read Urdu poetry in the Devnagari script.
Luckily, a small handful of the main Urdu poets – Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz – can now be obtained in the Devnagari script. It is merely a drop from the rich and varied ocean of Urdu literature, but it enables people like me – who grew up speaking Urdu but did not ever learn to read the script fluently – to assuage their thirst.
I come from an Urdu-speaking family with long memories. Persian was the language of culture in my family centuries ago. It was slowly replaced by Urdu. All members of my parents’ generation – and a few of mine – read Urdu fluently. But I am one of those who cannot.
There were various reasons for this. I went to a convent school that did not teach Urdu – we were taught English, Hindi, and Sanskrit. I was taught Urdu at home, but by a series of mullahs whose pedagogic skills and intellect were seriously limited. They spoiled Urdu for me. One of the Hindi teachers in school did something similar: she under-marked me throughout the years for not writing ‘chaste Hindi.’ What I spoke and wrote as Hindi was basically Hindustani – which, one can argue, is the mixed spoken language that both ‘chaste Hindi’ and ‘chaste Urdu’ merge into in real life. Between them, such teachers made me dislike both Urdu and Hindi for years, and I overcame my dislike only in college: I sometimes suspect that my choice of English as my language of creativity has a lot to do with the fact that English was neutral territory for me. It had not been booby-trapped by politics and religion.
Of course, even a cursory glance at history discloses that, to a large extent, the division between Urdu and Hindi is a 19th and 20th century political creation. Gandhiji wanted the national language of India to be ‘Hindustani,’ written in both the scripts, probably because he was vaguely aware of what had been happening.
What had been happening was the creation of a political divide between Hindus and Muslims as segregated, exclusive communities. Now, no one has ever argued that Muslims and Hindus lived in total amity before the British inserted their two-nation theories into middle class Indian minds. But it was seldom that Muslims and Hindus fought as exclusive communities, and their cultural and even religious practices – except in the top classes (and often not even there, as was the case with many Mughal and Rajput families) – were not exclusive either. But by the 19th century, educated discourse in India – on all sides – had started slipping away from a proper recognition of our mixed heritages.
Perhaps the best illustration of this slippage from a mixed culture to separate ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ demarcations in India is provided by the fate of Urdu, now considered the language of Muslims, if not that of Pakistan, a country in whose geographical space it was never indigenously spoken before Muslim refugees brought it there in 1947-48. Instead, as Alok Rai (2007) illustrates, Urdu was a language that grew up in India: there is an argument that the word ‘Urdu’, derived from the Turkish word for ‘camp’ (which gave us ‘hordes’ in English), denotes a creole language that grew up in Indian army camps, through a mixture of Indian languages with Persian, various Turkic dialects and Arabic. Later, it moved to some Indian courts (both Hindu and Muslim) and became a language of culture. Rai illustrates how the late 19th and early 20th century division between Muslim-Urdu and Hindu-Hindi stranded communities (Hindu and Muslim), and erased at least one script, that did not fit into this evolving binarism.
Another revealing anecdote is provided by Harish Trivedi, when he discusses why Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the major modernist poet of Hindi, needed to use Scott Fitzgerald’s English transcreation of Omar Khayyam’s Persian long poem, Rubaiyat, in order to translate the latter into Hindi. Bachchan came from a Hindu caste that was fluent in Urdu, as was he himself, and both his grandfathers knew Persian; the family copies of Ramacharitamanas existed in Persian. Despite this, within a generation, by the first half of the 20th century, families like Bachchan’s had lost what came to be seen as exclusively ‘Muslim’ elements – and Bachchan had to take recourse to a creative English translation of a text written in a language known to his family (Trivedi, 1995: 37-9).
I was born at the end of this long and sad bout of mutual amnesia. Just as Bachchan had to read Rubaiyat in English translation, I had to read Ghalib in Devnagari script. Not a translation though; I still spoke and understood large chunks of ‘chaste Urdu’ too. But Devnagari was my second script (Roman/English being the first), because I had taken many exams in it, despite the discouraging grades given by my Hindi teacher.
I do not rehearse this imbrication of cultural and personal history to lament or accuse. I do so in order to point out that we have an option in front of us: Read Urdu in the Devnagari script. This suggestion is anathema to some Urdu purists, usually religious ones. But it is not that radical: Urdu sounds can far more easily be recreated in Devnagari than in the Roman script, and both Urdu and Hindi are rooted in not just spoken Hindustani but also the Indo-European family of languages. Persian, which forms the main ‘foreign’ element in Urdu, is an Indo-European language, like Sanskrit. The grammar of Urdu descends from the Indo-European tree, which includes Persian and Sanskrit as early branches, not from Arabic or Semitic languages. Its sounds are easily replicable in Devnagari.
Take these immortal lines by Faiz Ahmed Faiz:
‘ये दाग़ दाग़ उजाला, ये शब-गज़ीदा सहर
वो इन्तज़ार था जिस का, ये वो सहर तो नहीं’
Simply transcribing such lines enables them to be read by people who cannot read the ‘traditional’ Arabic-Urdu script, and much better than this version, for instance: ‘Ye daagh daagh ujaala, ye shab-gazeeda sahar…’ In the case of a poet like Ghalib, an occasional footnote will be required (and is required for most contemporary Urdu readers too, in any case), but that is all. Basically a change of script will make most of Urdu literature accessible to around seventy percent of literate India, keeping in mind the fact that more literate Indians can read Devnagari than ordinary Indians can speak Hindi.
The transcription of Urdu literature into Devnagari will build on the great interest that many non-Urdu readers have in Urdu literature, particularly its poetry. It has been one of the oversights of Urdu speakers in India to fail to build on this interest, which once totally dominated the lyric world of Bombay films, and is still quite strong – as the immense popularity of Urdu poets like Gulzar and Javed Akhtar indicates.
To transcribe Urdu into Devnagari will give a new lease of life to its literature. The major Urdu writer, Abdus Samad, once told me, when asked about the readership of contemporary Urdu fiction in India, that perhaps the only serious readers left are those who write fiction in Urdu themselves. I am sure this sad situation would change if Urdu literature was made available in Devnagari.
There will also be other effects: the narrow saffronization of Hindi/Hindu culture and the narrow Arabisation of Urdu/Muslim cultures would be resisted too. We know from history – especially in India – that languages and scripts are not wedded for ever. Languages have jumped scripts and vice versa. The Bhagvadgita talks of souls as immortal: they merely discard one body for another, just as we change garments. I do not know about souls, but I do know a bit about languages. It is time for Urdu in India to discard the body of its script. It needs to put on the garment of the Devnagari script to get another lease of life.
Rai, Alok (2007). Hindi Nationalism. Delhi: Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd.
Trivedi, Harish (1995). Colonial Transactions: English Literature and India. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Tabish Khair was born and educated in Gaya, a small town in Bihar, India. He is the author of various acclaimed books, including the studies, Babu Fictions and The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness, the novels, The Bus Stopped, Filming: A Love Story, The Thing About Thugs and How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, and the poetry collections, Where Parallel Lines Meet and Man of Glass. He has also edited or co-edited some major anthologies, such as Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing. In 2016, he published a study, The New Xenophobia and a new novel, Jihadi Jane (available as Just Another Jihadi Jane outside India) to critical acclaim. He is currently an associate professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, and a Leverhulme guest professor at the School of English, Leeds University, UK. He has won the All India Poetry Prize. His novels have been shortlisted for major prizes and translated into six languages.
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