x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

As the role of Urdu declines the loss is more than word

If Urdu has a future, it lies in our hands - both those living in India and those of us living abroad.

My wife keeps lamenting the fact that our children cannot read, write or even speak in the language of which we are so proud, Urdu. I couldn't agree with her more. In fact, it's an issue that has worried me for years now. As a student of literature, I know that a language is not merely words. Like beliefs, it defines and shapes one's culture, identity and consciousness. It determines how we think, communicate and express ourselves.

Considering Urdu's blood ties to Arabic and Persian, and the fact that most South Asians have come to know Islam by way of Urdu, our children's alienation from the language that binds them to the heritage of their parents and grandparents is concerning.

My children's disconnect is all the more painful because my own love for Urdu has been inherited from my father, an accomplished poet and author. I grew up attending poetry sessions with him and singing ghazals with my uncles and cousins. Defying the prevailing social trend, my father didn't send me to a convent but a seedy government "Urdu medium" school in our neighbourhood. Few teachers were available to run a class of over a hundred students. Prolific in both Urdu and English, my dad believed that you needed to know your mother tongue well if you are to master any other language. By the same logic, when you approach a subject in the language you grew up speaking at home, you are more likely to excel in it.

My "experiment" with Urdu education had to be abandoned thanks to the appalling condition of my school. And I somehow ended up doing a masters in English literature, and my heart still beats for the language that is one of the finest and most versatile on the planet.

But for all my pretence to master, and make a living out of the language that was Macaulay's gift to the Raj, I remain hopelessly besotted with Urdu. Yes, I love Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens, Frost and Hemingway, and I've no idea what I would have done if I hadn't studied literature and taken up journalism. There are times though when I feel I've betrayed my first love, the language of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz.

But it's not just listening to Indian children growing up in the UAE where one has reason to feel a sense of loss. That feeling deepens when one sees Urdu's state in the subcontinent. Abandoned by its own and denied its rightful place by successive governments, the language is dying in the land of its birth.

Once, the universal appeal of Urdu stemmed from the fact that it was a heady blend of Arabic, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkic and Prakrit or Khari Boli, the earthy dialect spoken and understood across much of the undivided subcontinent.

Evolving as a spontaneous mode of communication between the Muslim armies and native population ("Urdu" is derived from Turkish word 'Ordu' meaning army) it soon became the lingua franca of the empire. Up against the more elitist Persian and archaic Sanskrit, Urdu became the language of choice for peoples from Afghanistan to Burma.

However, one of the many unintended consequences of the partition has been the total marginalisation of Urdu in India. The language that was born in South Asia as a result of the extraordinary encounter between Islam and Indian civilisation, finds few takers today.

It has come to be associated with Muslims, even though the vast majorities of all faiths spoke and wrote it until the British left India. It's nobody's baby today, as it got dumped for the more rewarding English over the years.

Even Muslims are turning their back on Urdu. You can't blame them, considering that mastery of the language provides them no additional opportunities. Even if some of these Indians, weighed down by a sense of guilt perhaps, want their offspring to learn it, there are few avenues available. Schools that offer Urdu as a second language are chronically short on teachers. And where you have enough teachers, there are no students.

As a result, the language that had been the symbol of power and prestige across the vastness of South Asia now finds itself limited to madrassas, mosques, and sometimes, in Bollywood.

While one could reassure oneself that official apathy cannot kill a living and vibrant language, government patronage - or lack of it - does play a critical role in its survival. People speak the language of power. No wonder that, bereft of power and dissociated with bread and butter, Urdu finds itself increasingly spurned by its own.

What does the future have in store for this magical language? Well, I can't look into the future. But if Urdu has a future, it lies in our hands - both those living in India and those of us living abroad.


Aijaz Zaka Sayed is a Dubai-based writer who has written extensively on the Middle East and the Muslim world