‘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.