Friday Review

The language of many tongues

The statue of Mirza Ghalib at Jamia Millia Islamia

The statue of Mirza Ghalib at Jamia Millia Islamia   | Photo Credit: Sandeep_Saxena

In many ways Urdu and Hindi are like the proverbial twins.

Urdu language in India is suspended in a web of contradictions. One of the most loved languages, its script remains inaccessible to most admirers. In “A Letter from Bara Banki”, C.M. Naim cites a verse by a young poet to indicate the destiny of Urdu in India: “They all love me, but none is mine / I exist in this country like Urdu.”

Urdu passed through a fascinatingly syncretic process in its formation and historically it shared its space equally amongst different communities, the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. The artificial cultural exclusivity imposed on it sometimes is inherently against its own identity. While also drawing on languages such as Turkish, Persian and Arabic, the Urdu language in fact evolved from several languages and dialects spoken in India.

Incidentally, the word “Urdu” means “the royal camp” in which many languages mingled. It came to be known as “Rekhta” meaning “mixed”. By 1857, Urdu had acquired a variety of styles that include predominantly, the Dilli and the Lukhnavi styles along with the Deccani variety widespread South of the Vindhyas. Deccani language demonstrates an active interaction between Urdu and many other languages local to that region, such as Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and others.

Urdu related with Hindi much more intimately and even problematically. As professed by many scholars, Urdu and Hindi could really be seen as twin languages. They were both referred to as Hindavi or Hindui around the time of Amir Khusrau in the 13th and 14th centuries. Interestingly, Ghalib in the 19th Century referred to his language as “Hindi”. Though the term “Urdu” was first used in 1780, the nomenclature was not popularly used. The eminent scholar Shams-ur-Rehman Faruqi enumerates the earlier names for the language now called Urdu, as Hindavi, Hindi, Dilhavi, Gujari, Dakkani and Rekhtah. He goes on to say, “Even in early 20th Century, the name Hindi was used to mean Urdu”. Till nearly as late as the early 20th Century, Hindi and Urdu could take each other’s place.

It was in 1803 that the differences between the two were in a way formulated through the British language policy. Two styles of Khariboli, ‘Urdu’ and ‘Hindi’ got established at Fort William College, pinning each one down to a specific script. Herein were sown the seeds of linguistic strife between the two, seeds that developed into a political battle for power later.

The following narrative of David Matthews is pertinent if only to demonstrate the interchangeability of the spoken Hindi and Urdu by the common man of India: “In a hotel in Madras, I called the waiter and ordered my tea in Urdu and asked him his name. The waiter looked very uncomfortable and declared that he disliked Hindi and that in Madras they spoke only Tamil. I told him at once: ‘But I am not speaking Hindi, I am actually talking to you in Urdu.’ He at once relaxed and said: ‘What a sweet language! Urdu is a beautiful language with such beautiful ghazals and poetry.”

The rich repository of knowledge and literature in Urdu is vibrantly alive even today. When we talk of the cherished heritage of Urdu, we must also include its rich oral traditions of daastangoi and kissagoi, long intricate tales told with a strong sense of drama and imagination. This matches with a very powerful tradition of fiction writing in Urdu.

In everyday conversation, as also in serious academic presentations, Urdu verses, of such poets as Ghalib, Mir, Faiz or Iqbal are lovingly and spontaneously recited even though most people are not able to read the Urdu script. The so-called ‘Hindi’ films too have kept Urdu alive. Why then should Urdu and its script not be taught in more schools along with Hindi? The oft-quoted argument has been, “Why confine Urdu only to the Persian script when it can be made accessible in Devnagari, which is taught all over the country?” But then, some linguists argue, isn’t the script inherent to the identity of a language? The script, they say, symbolizes the culture which it carries.

As Susham Bedi of Columbia University suggests, should we perhaps use a hyphenated term Hindi-Urdu and acknowledge their twin identity: let them survive and thrive in both the scripts so that the Ganga-Jamuni culture doesn’t get erased. The eminent scholar Abul Haq had rightly pointed out how Urdu was born from a cultural synthesis. Its conversation with Hindi must continue.

Ironically, the region referred to as the Hindi belt is the very region where there is a large concentration of people who read, write and speak Urdu!

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Printable version | Jul 9, 2020 11:18:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/the-language-of-many-tongues/article7612174.ece

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