Work took me to the Northern part of India last year, where I came to a town in Uttarakhand. The town boasts a population of Hindi and Urdu-speaking people and like many towns is connected by rail. Many of these railway stations have names written in Urdu denoting that there is a reading population in Urdu in that area. Recently, the reigning intelligentsia of the day proposed a reform in the name of the ‘nation’, to replace the Urdu names with Sanskrit names, to the signboards. This bore an enigma for the boards would then become home to two scripts written in across three languages, Devnagri for Hindi and Sanskrit and Roman for English. This made me recall how the Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai dealt with her characters and situations. On seeing such a proposal, I wondered, what would Chughtai have to say about changes such as these? Known as a satirist, Chughtai’s stories sometimes ridiculed similar strategies developed by authorities in their bid to benefit a section of the people.
Urdu as a language was born and nurtured in the Indian subcontinent, and it literally means ‘camp’. It can come to be understood as that space which allows the coexistence of more than one language – Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Hindi. Urdu literature in India was fashioned within a classical milieu and a progressive one as well.
I would like to steer the reader’s attention to the progressive milieu that flourished in the Indian subcontinent, before and after independence. Some of the writers claimed that it was through the utilisation of language that many of the concerns of a particular region could be voiced. Herein I would like to state the non-committal status Urdu has had with any community, it is more of a relationship with a region that the language can lay its claim on rather than to any religious or caste-based grouping. Perhaps the decline in Urdu speakers can be attributed to the fact that most in India these days choose to learn how to read and write and speak in English rather than in any other mother tongue.
The decline in Urdu literary productions however may be attributed to the problems associated in pedagogy and language training programs rather than anything else. Noting that the language flourished in the 19th century and came to a certain fruition in the 20th century, we can look to writers like Ghalib, Meer Taqi Meer, Ibn-e-Insha, Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander, Dr. Iqbal, Parveen Shakir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Shamshur Rahman Faruqi to consider a kind of a timeline of the canonical kinds. Of all the writers some have been able to utilise the sharpness that is prevalent in the language while composing their works while some adhered to the sweetness and melody to create bitter attacks critiquing everything from state machinery to communal affairs.
Rekhti was also a form of humor ascribed to the language technicalities and themes related to women’s conversations. ‘Tanz’ means to ‘ridicule’, in Arabic, and was used in Persian to mean ‘innuendo’. The Generic names hazl and hajv were used for all writing in the satiric mode, earlier mostly poetry, later also prose. Noting the changes that have occurred in Urdu Satire across time, one needs to keep track of how satire has come to find a place in the present-day Indian Subcontinent. A study through time suggests that subject matter was of import and many writers chose to ridicule or lampoon established figures. Many a time writers delve into the subject matter at hand to bring to light the ridiculousness of the matter. Noted writer Mujtaba Hussain once said in a conference that the state of Urdu in India is hopeless. His story ‘Dimakon ki mallika se ek mulaqat’ (A meeting with the Queen of Termites) is about the queen of termites who happened to live in the old and forgotten Urdu books of a library and having quenched her thirst by consuming some of the most noteworthy Urdu writers’ collections, she had come to acquire a taste of Urdu literature. The narrator realises that it is only termites nowadays which still have some connection with this language. The connection one would think is not just on one hand becoming a part of collective amnesia but has led to bringing up a cultural resistance.
The resistance in Urdu and the resistance to Urdu are two phases that have emerged in the current day Indian scenario. Where one finds resistance taking form by revisiting the poems written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib during the protests against the CAA in India, and the resistance to Urdu taking place in the same context where universities are now reprimanding readers and students for using Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ as protest poetry.
The rise of any language is related to the kind of productivity that takes place in that language. In the case of Urdu, it must be considered that the language rose to its greatest height with the works of Ghalib, and then was at a steady pace during the Progressive Writers’ Movement. After the Partition and Independence writers took to cultivating the language as it is spoken in their geopolitical spaces, with it becoming more Arabicized in Pakistan, and with it flourishing alongside other Indian languages in India. However, the concept of mahfils and soirées soon became a thing of the past, the exception being the continuous endeavours taken up by the Rekhta foundation. On today’s date one may say that more literary creations, and more utilisation of Urdu dialogues in Bollywood may lead the language to a better state of affairs, rather than its distillation in tepid classrooms. Literature offers a breathing space for most languages in India which are today not spoken by an elite majority perhaps but a humble minority. In Chughtai’s writing, for example one is able to hear not just one kind of Urdu but a plurality of Urdu being brought into the narrative, the voices of the working class, academics, washermen, children and women. Chughtai’s writings declare the apathetic way in which the partition was conducted and questions what belonging means to an individual.
It is not that Urdu is on the decline but perhaps that we have forgotten the art of listening and speaking it.