ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Salvaging Urdu from Degradation

The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature, Poetry and Prose Miscellany edited by Mehr Afshan Farooqi;

language that helps it to grow and find

Salvaging Urdu from Degradation

new meaning, and enrich its literature in turn. Only then the language of a literature can be used for the purpose of Ather Farouqui any social change – or one may call it

ontrary to the common perception and wishes of the leaders of Urdu and Hindi literary historiography, or the aspirations of pan-Islamic mobilisation and Hindi nationalism at the service of Hindu majoritarian aspirations, Urdu and Hindi are two names of one language. Hindi is the old name of Urdu, and not a language of ancient origin as it is commonly believed. It is also wrong to believe that in the 19th century Hindi or Hindvi became Urdu. Linguistically, the word Hindi itself is Persian and means the language of Hind(ustan). As far as the history of the word “Urdu” (as the name of the language) is concerned, it started gaining currency as “the language of the exalted court or city of Shahjahanabad” or Zaban-e Urdu-e Mualla-e Shahjahanabad around the end of the 18th centurty. Shahjahanabad was and is Delhi (or Dilli as its old name, still in currency). Later, it became Zaban-e Urdu-e Mualla, deleting the word Shahjahanabad. Gradually, the word was further shortened as Zaban-e Urdu.

The word Urdu has nothing to do with army or camp. Amongst the various names of Urdu in different periods of history, the word Urdu was used in the very last phase. Hindi, Hindvi, etc, are the earlier names of the languages that finally got known by the name of Urdu, which became a decisive tool of Muslim-Hindu politics in the 19th century; after the creation of Pakistan, it became the national language of Pakistan.

Language Politics

In free India, official support was extended to Hindi and Hindi suppressed all Indian languages, particularly of north India, declaring them as styles of Hindi. Hindu atavistic forces gave rise to the perception that Urdu as the language of Muslims and of Pakistan should have no place in the state school curriculum. And this idea of Urdu being a Muslim language was cleverly fuelled to such an extent that it resulted in Urdu being

Economic & Political Weekly

may 3, 2008

book review

The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature, Poetry and Prose Miscellany edited by Mehr Afshan Farooqi; Two Volumes, Oxford University Press, New Delhi; 325+Liii and Fiction 349 + XXXiii.

completely marginalised in north India. Thus, it ended up being largely confined to madrasas and Muslim ghettos. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, too, only one city, Karachi, can claim Urdu as its language.

While hybrid Urdu, a weapon of elite politics, can be considered the language of the elite migrants of urban north India (the common migrants speaking in the regional languages – not dialects as imperialist trained Asian linguists and they are confusing all over – of north India), somehow, except for Karachi, Urdu had no place in the rest of Pakistan. In fact, the first major attempt to impose Urdu on all its citizens came to the fore just after the formation of the country, when at a convocation ceremony in Dhaka University in 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah announced that Urdu and Urdu alone would be the national language of Pakistan.

However, the then east Pakistan, now Bangladesh, had no cultural affinity with north India or west Pakistan or its language Urdu. Thus, Urdu and the attempt to impose it on an absolutely divergent culture played a major role in the formation of Bangladesh. The argument of Pakistani ulema, puppets in the hands of the political establishment, that the alphabet of Urdu and the Quran are the same did not serve to unite the Muslims of east and west Pakistan. In any event the story of Urdu in Pakistan is altogether different from that in India where Urdu had become a synonym of Urdu literature.

This was a soft option for national leadership and the Urdu elite who could discuss literature blissfully ignoring the fact that literature alone does not keep a language alive; it is the everyday use of revolution.

But one has to live with the reality and the reality of independent India is that secular Urdu is limited to literature. Urdu literature, co-published in Devnagari and in translations in English, has a wide appeal among non-Muslims. It may even inspire the odd non-Urdu speaking reader to learn the language and read the works in the original. This simple solution to reach the readership of other languages has worked for marginal European languages like Basque, Gaelic and Czech and as a result, works in these languages have gained readership over the years but their political situation was completely different from Urdu. The most powerful part of Muslim sensibility resulted in communalism, separatist tendencies giving birth to Pakistan and now the main tool of Muslim militancy.

Under One Roof

In her work The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature, Poetry and Prose Miscellany, Mehr Afshan Farooqi has documented the gradual development of modern Urdu literature (as per her definition) by presenting several noteworthy works of Urdu writers. She has given a fair representation to the writers of her choice with superb translations, giving us the persuasive sense of the writer’s work to the extent of what we can call revealing about Urdu literature. In her task, Farooqi has tried to break the preconceived image of Urdu literature as only surviving and being cooked in the cauldron of some sort of romantic perversion.

Farooqi believes that taking a cue from western influences, proponents of Urdu literature formed two groups or schools – namely, the progressives and the modernists. She has elaborated on the concept of modernism in Urdu with erudition and articulates the difference between modernity of Urdu literature as totally different from western ideals,


because in the popular conception modernity and western ideals are confused as one. As far as Urdu was concerned, its literature did not cut off all ties with tradition but instead brought modernity to the tradition it followed. In short, Urdu is a synthesis of old values with new ideas. In no way should this be confused with the dictum of old wine in new bottle.

An editor has the liberty to include the writers of her/his own choice and their works and so is the case with this anthology which is worthy of praise as it brings together every brick and mason of Urdu literature under one roof. This anthology has shaken the preconceived idea of Urdu literature only being uttered through paan-stained mouths and being limited within the harems of purblind Muslim communal forces as a language of the Muslims, for the Muslims, by the Muslims.

Keeping in view the contents of the anthology, I have taken the liberty of mentioning a few authors who have helped enrich the anthology: from the Poetry and Prose Miscellany, mention may be made of Makhdoom Muhiuddin, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, AkhtarulIman, Ali Sardar Jafri, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Akhtar Husain Raipuri, Josh Malihabadi and (Maulana) Abul Kalam Azad.

This anthology is Farooqi’s love’s labour and will be read by common readers and lovers of Urdu. The anthology has incisive introductory notes and a commentary on every author. That is what makes it a cut above the rest. It is also comprehensive inasmuch as it can be within the limits imposed by the size of the work. It has a very useful bibliography. Both volumes have separate introductions. As far as the get-up of the volumes is concerned, the covers are striking, the layout is pleasing.

The translation of the originals by Mehr Afshan Farooqi is simply superb. Overall, the two-part anthology is worthy of collection and merits kudos for Farooqi who has tried to salvage the language and its literature from degradation and tried to establish the great contribution of Urdu towards the enrichment of literature in the subcontinent.


may 3, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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