The language of Hindostan

Even till the late 19th century, Hindi and Urdu were one language, differentiated only by their scripts

Updated - November 07, 2021 09:33 pm IST

Published - November 05, 2021 12:28 pm IST

A man reads an Urdu newspaper in Karachi ‘Hindustani’ rendered in Devanagari and Nastaliq. & Wiki Commons

A man reads an Urdu newspaper in Karachi ‘Hindustani’ rendered in Devanagari and Nastaliq. & Wiki Commons

The viral images of Virat Kohli and Babar Azam embracing each other after Pakistan’s victory in the opening India-Pakistan match of the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2021 speak volumes. The two captains presumably talk to each other in the shared language that one calls Hindi and the other Urdu. The different names alter neither the mutual intelligibility nor the bonhomie of their common tongue.

Most contemporary writers of Hindi-Urdu are well aware of the underlying commonalities between their officially bifurcated tongues. Urmilesh of Badayun (1951-2005), a poet and professor of Hindi, wrote: ham na urdu meñ na hindī meñ ġhazal kahte haiñ/ ham to bas aap kī bolī meñ ġhazal kahte haiñ (“We write ghazals in neither Hindi nor Urdu/ We write ghazals only in your common tongue”).

This common tongue developed during the Sultanate and Mughal periods around Delhi in North India and in the Deccan. With its grammar based on the Khari Boli dialect and its vocabulary largely derived

from Sanskrit mixed with words from Persian and Arabic, the new creole acquired different names over its evolution: Hindvi, Daccani, Gujri, Rekhta, Urdu, and Hindi. The word ‘Urdu’ is known to have been used for the first time as recently as 1780, by the poet Mushafi (1751-1844). The greatest poet of the 18th century, Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810), never used it, and we know that Ghalib (1797-1869) disliked the word ‘Urdu’, preferring Rekhta: rekhte ke tumhīñ ustād nahīñ ho ghālib/ kahte haiñ agle zamāne meñ koī ‘mīr’ bhī thā (“You are not the sole master of Rekhta, Ghalib,/ They say there was a Mir in the last age”).

Link language

‘Urdu’, meaning ‘camp’ in Turkish, referred to Delhi in the Mughal period. Zubān-e-urdu-e-mu’alla-e-shahjehanabad — “The language of the exalted camp of Delhi” — initially meant Persian, the court language, and only later, by the time of Shah Alam II, came to represent the hybrid dialect we understand as Urdu today. It became immensely popular and increasingly worked as the link language across the subcontinent. The poet Dagh Dehlvi (1831-1905) declared emphatically: urdu hai jis kā naam hamīñ jānte haiñ ‘dāġh’/ hindostāñ meñ dhuum hamārī zabāñ kī hai (“That which is Urdu, only we know, Dagh,/ All Hindostan knows the fame of our tongue”).

Yet, till the late 19th century, people were hardly aware of Urdu and Hindi as being two distinct languages. The standardised urban language was increasingly being referred to as Urdu and written in the Arabic script, while North India spoke other dialects such as Awadhi, Braj, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Bundeli, and so on. Alok Rai (among others) has described in detail how one language came to be divided into two.

The word ‘Hindustani’ rendered in Devanagari and Nastaliq scripts.

The word ‘Hindustani’ rendered in Devanagari and Nastaliq scripts.

The divide into modern Hindi and Urdu may be said to begin at Fort William College, the institute of Oriental studies in Calcutta, set up by the British to undertake translations from classical Indian languages into modern Indian tongues and English. They prepared separate language primers and translated Persian and Sanskrit texts into Urdu and Hindi, differentiated primarily by the script. This sowed the seeds of division, as Urdu and Hindi gradually came to be attached to two religions.

Ramlila in Urdu

The British further aided the division when the Lt. Governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (present-day Uttar Pradesh), Antony MacDonnell, accepted the legal requirement of Hindi and Urdu as two separate languages for government jobs in 1900, in what Rai calls the MacDonell moment. Subsequently, the bifurcation was supported by the Nagari Pracharini Sabha (NPS), founded in 1893 to promote the Nagari script; the Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, founded in response to the NPS in 1903; and the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, founded in 1910. Though there was lack of clarity over the differentiating features of the two languages, except in their scripts, the movements picked up steam and contributed in no small measure to the idea of Partition.

Progressive writers ridiculed these political stratagems. Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921), the wittiest of humorists, poked fun at such distinctions: hum urdu ko arabi kyoñ na kareiñ hindi ko wo bhāshā kyoñ na kareiñ/ jhagde ke liye akhbāroñ meiñ mazmūn tarāshā kyoñ na kareiñ/ apas meiñ adāwat kuchh bhi nahiñ lekin ek akhāda qāim hai/ jab is se falak kā dil bahle ham log tamāshā kyoñ na karein — “Why shouldn’t we turn Urdu into Arabic and Hindi into Bhasha [Sanskrit]?/ Why shouldn’t we write divisive articles in newspapers to fuel the fight?/ There is no mutual animosity but an arena is prepared:/ Why shouldn’t we make a scene, when this cheers the heart of the heavens?” (translated by David Lunn).

The tendency to provoke people over the Urdu-Hindi divide continues in independent India. Its recent instance is the controversy that erupted over Fabindia featuring a Diwali collection called ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’. Politician Tejaswi Surya, among others, objected to it, terming the campaign an “Abrahamisation” of the festival. Perhaps Surya needs to be told about the many Urdu Ramlilas performed in India, such as the one in Faridabad that has been running since 1947 under the aegis of Pandit Vishwabandhu Sharma, whom we recently lost to COVID 19. It is another matter that Fabindia also (wrongly) hyper-corrected riwaaj to riwaaz in its attempt to be more Urdu than Urdu.

I leave you with a poem of mine on the nature of Urdu:

The letters begin from Arabic,

Aleph, the first, aa,

(title later of Borges’s stories),

Bey, the second, a Turkish title,

by Pe, the third,

we have left the land of Bebsi, and Bizza,

having traversed through Persia,

with Fe we have brought, the fun or skill,

to differentiate the phal from the f ruit,

to Hindostan, now India,

where they germinated,

took root,

gone are Persian aspirations,

Jeem and Jhe are two distinct sounds,

Jute is what you may be wrapped in, to your grave,

Jhoot ’s the lie that surrounds,

which causes living death.

Jogi from Sanskrit is Urdu,

One that may bless you,

Train, from English, Urdu too,

from which Raj hangs out,

pleads: love is mohabbat , ishq , uns , dosti,

main tumse pyar karta hun .

The writer’s poetry collection, Ghazalnama, was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar (English) 2020.

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