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Saturday, 13 October 2012

Urdu vs Hindi

‘Willingness to communicate through the same language is quite a different thing from the mere ability to communicate.’ -- Paul Brass

Broadly speaking, the Hindiwallahs know what the Urduwallas mean, and vice versa. That mere ability does not translate into willingness is demonstrated by the frequent clashes over the use of words that, while perfectly intelligible to the ‘other’, are nevertheless not acceptable. The recent debate over the Hindi translation of Patrick French’s Liberty or Death as Azadi ya Maut is a case in point. Why ‘Azadi’? Why not ‘Swatantra’, or ‘Swadheenta’? Why ‘Maut’? Why not ‘Mrityu’? If someone were to add their two-paisa worth to the debate that is currently raging in cyber space, one might well ask: Why even ‘ya’? Why not ‘athwa’? Other isntances of tricky translations have been Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter aur Rehasyamai Tahkhana, with ‘Tahkhana’ being an Urdu word in sharp contrast to the Hindi ‘Rahasyamai’), or Zeg Zeglar’s See You at the Top (Shikhar par Milenge).

Frankly, the word ‘debate’ too is not suitable for use in the case of Patrick French’s controversy which is currently raging among the twitterati; I would prefer the word ‘divide’ for any controversy that involves Hindi and Urdu. The baggage of history is so oppressing and the two sides so inimical and vehemently opposed to the merest suggestion of finding common ground that debate or discussion seems futile. Some literary historians trace the roots of this discord to an artificial divide, along the lines of the colonial divide-and-rule policy that first linked the script to religion, thus making Urdu written in farsi rasmul khat, the language of Muslims, and Hindi, written in Nagri, the language of Hindus. The seeds of discontent can be traced to Lord Ripon and the introduction of so-called reforms during his tenure as the Viceroy of India from 1880-84. The decision to replace Persian with Urdu as the official language of the colonial administrative machinery added fuel to the fire of the language chauvinists who believed Hindi, written in Nagri, should have got that status as it was identified with the Hindu majority of Upper India. Lord Curzon’s educational reforms, initiated from 1901 onwards, crystallised the two language groups into opposing camps; soon, Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University emerged as clamourous citadels of protest for their ‘respective’ languages.

By the turn of turn of the last century, two groups had emerged: one led by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya at the vanguard of the movement for Hindi, and the other by Viqar-ul Mulk heading the demand to allow Urdu to remain the official language. In the face of mounting outrage from both sides, the colonial government caved in and declared both languages as having equal status. Ironically, this seemingly pacifist decision stoked the fire instead of quelling it from spreading. From 1900 onwards, a bitter battle raged for supremacy. Deploring the growing divide, Gandhi ji urged the rabble-rousers to seek a common space: Hindustani. However, such was the madness of the times that this voice of sanity was lost in the clamour of regional politics.

In 1950, the government of free India bought peace by officially declaring Hindi as the national language; Urdu fell by the wayside and shrank in importance. But it is not dead; far from it, in fact, recent years have seen it rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of its dead past. While it is no longer linked to employment and therefore its commercial capital has no doubt declined, its cultural capital has increased. One hears of more and more young people – and I am happy to report non-Muslims – learning Urdu either through correspondence courses or home tutors; they do so not to garner jobs but simply out of the love for the language and to better understand the mellifluous Urdu poetry. The Hindi film industry, popular ghazal singers, cultural organisation that propagate Hindustani programmes – each have done much to negate the bitterness of the language debate and allow people to enjoy the richness of their linguistic legacy.

While it would be simplistic to view the story of Urdu and Hindi as the story of one language with two names and two different scripts, perhaps a more realistic way would be to view Urdu and Hindi as two sister languages that grew from common stock. Having borrowed its grammar and syntax substantially from khari boli, Urdu (commonly understood to be a ‘camp language’, one that travelled with the troops till it found its way to the courts and became the language of literary expression and came to be called Urdu-e-Moalla, or the exalted language by the late eighteenth century.

In the present context, it might be useful to view Urdu and Hindi as two intersecting circles with a substantial common space instead of the taking the bipolar view commonly adopted by the hardliners who prefer to see ‘their’ respective literatures as inviolate sacrosanct territories. For far too long, votaries, defenders, critics, polemicists and publicists of both languages have stressed the differences rather than the similarities, advocated exclusion rather than inclusion, quibbled over what belongs to whom. Instead, had they tended the common space they would have allowed an incredibly lush, organic garden to sprout, one that could have given shade and fruit for generations to come. It is still not too late, provided of course we steer clear of jingoistic machinations.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Ah Ambursar!

Once there were wells of fresh sweet water. The scent of wildflowers wafted from the fields and meadows that ringed the city. Plentiful fish were found in its crystal clear streams and rivulets. Its air was like no other, nor its water, nor its people. Its men were more handsome, its women more beautiful than anywhere else. Those who left it lived to regret it, their mind circling round and round – like bees around nectar – its evocatively-named chowks , mohallas and bazars. For this was no ordinary city. It is of Amritsar that I speak, or Ambursar as its people have always called it, people such as A. Hameed and the Amritsar School of writers and intellectuals who crossed the bare 30 km from Amritsar to find a new home in Lahore but lived to rue all that was forever lost.

On a recent visit to this historic city, the spiritual centre of Sikhism and one of the largest cities in the Punjab, I had occasion to take stock and reflect. Invited to speak at a seminar on ‘History, Literature and Punjabi Society’ organised by the Guru Nanak Dev University, I found myself thinking of A Hameed’s words: ‘For me Amritsar is my lost Jerusalem and I am its wailing wall. I do not remember anything about Amritsar; for, he remembers who forgets. Amritsar circulates in my blood. I go to sleep after looking at Amritsar and it is the first thing I see it after waking up in the morning.’ Sadly, the Amritsar of A. Hameed’s imagination is long gone along with the Company Gardens and the wide tree-lined streets. The fabled wells of fresh sweet water have vanished along with the wildflowers and bubbling streams.  The tall, good looking people remain but then – to my untutored eye -- they appear to be no more or no less than tall, good looking people anywhere in the Punjab.

While it is inevitable that the forces of urban renewal have changed the cityscape of most historic cities across the sub-continent, what is worrying is the erasure and obliteration that has occurred in our mental landscapes. When buildings are pulled down, renovated, refashioned, must all traces of their past be lost? Is forgetfulness a necessary prerequisite for building afresh? When compulsions of modern living force city-planners to introduce changes, must we do away with the past with such methodical thoroughness? Is brutal disregard for the stories and memories associated with places and things essential for moving on? Try as I might I could find no trace of the Ambursar of A. Hameed’s memoirs or Manto’s stories. I went looking for the landmarks that I had encountered in the literature of the Ambursar School of writers: Secretary Gardens, Town Hall, Fareed Chowki, Karma Deorhi; I was met with a walls of blank faces. With some assistance, we found the M. A. O. College where Faiz taught, where Mahmuduzzafar served as Vice-principal and M. D. Taseer as Principal. Owned by Kashmiri merchants, the college moved during partition; only its building remained which was sold in auction to the DAV College in 1955. We met its present administrators who seemed blithely disinterested and unmoved by our narration of the people who once taught there.

Yes, there is the Golden Temple, as serene as ever in its pool of clear water, its ravaged buildings (destroyed in the infamous Operation Blue Star of June 1984) once again restored to its former glory. Always a delight to visitors regardless of faith and practice, I find peace and tranquillity and certain timelessness in its immaculately clean premises. The Jallianwala Bagh nearby, in contrast, fails to evoke the hair-raising horror it ought to possibly because it has been transformed into a manicured landscaped park. Had the City Elders allowed it to retain its shabby, unkempt look, it might have better served as a testimonial to the bloodiest chapter in the history of the Indian national movement. The bullet marks in a wall of Lahori bricks, the well in which countless people jumped in a futile attempt to save their lives, the exact point at which General Dyers’s forces gathered and began shooting, first in the air and then under the General’s express orders to ‘Fire low!’ straight into the crowds where it was thickest – all this is there. My only regret is that the park has been so ‘touched up’ as to be almost cosmetic in its attention to detail.

However, the one place in the entire city where I could find no fault was in its food, especially in the old city famous for its tiny shacks each specialising in lassi, kulcha-chana, aloo-puri, kadhi-chawal, as well as some selling only dozens of different kinds of bari and papad. Kesar da dhaba, deep in the heart of the old city, often has a waiting time of hours as customers hover impatiently to occupy the wooden benches and savour its famous thali brought by bearers who have perfected the art of balancing a pile of trays on their hands. Bhravan da Dhaba, located at the mouth of the road leading to the Golden Temple and therefore more accessible, offered us a memorable repast: lachchedar paranthas slathered in butter, spicy chanas cooked with cubes of paneer, raita made from the most incredible creamy yoghurt and the famous kaali daal that had been simmered over a slow fire to produce its thick, sauce-like consistency. Rounded off with phirni served in kullars, this is soul food at its best. Our host, the young research scholar Dr Jasbir who was kindly taking us around, told us about the many eateries in the city, about the Amritsaris love for eating out, the abundance of milk and milk products be it in the form of butter, desi ghee, curd, butter milk in the cuisine as well as how incredibly inexpensive it still is to eat large, wholesome, freshly prepared meals at the many big and small dhabas that dot the city. His wife added how Amritsaris often prefer to eat out or take home rather than cook from scratch, especially the much-loved kulchas that come in a mind-boggling variety of stuffings.

Coming back, as I mull over this over-riding interest in food in the face of a glaring erasure of history, I wonder if this is the Ambursaris way of coping with memories of a past that is still too painful to recall in its entirety. Possibly, this talk of food, food and more food is one way of keeping at bay other, more insidious, memories.