20 Nov The Changing World of Urdu
By Anjum Altaf
‘Urdu has changed from the Urdu of Mir and Ghalib but that simply proves it is a living language.’
That was one of the comments I received on earlier posts (here and here) about the past and future of the language. At one level, it is a statement of the obvious – nothing ever stays the same. At another, it invites a host of questions: What is the nature of the change? Who owns the language now? What functions is it serving?
Such questions could be answered by survey of Urdu speakers. A canvassing of urban centers would suffice in Pakistan since Urdu is not a regional language and hence not spoken widely in rural areas. (The situation might differ in India.) An organization like the National Language Authority could design the exercise but is unlikely to do so for any number of reasons. The best we can do for the moment is to rely on personal knowledge to generate longitudinal case studies going back almost a hundred years.
Longitudinal case studies do have some advantages since one can control for variations of class, ethnicity, education, etc. They can show how the engagement with language has changed for a typical family over an extended period of time. Based on further interaction with other families one can suggest plausible hypotheses for discussion. In the process it might become possible to generate a rich conversation that could lead us in unexpected directions.
The first case study, a story narrated by a person born in the 1940s, spans the lives of his grandfather (born 1880s), his mother (born 1920s) and his daughter (born 1970s). The genesis of the story was accidental – it just so happened that for a summer the narrator and a friend, a leading literary critic, had lunch every day at the former’s home where they were joined by the rest of the narrator’s family – his mother, wife and daughter.
A few days into the summer, the critic brought to the attention of the daughter the fact that her great-grandfather was a noted Urdu poet in UP; her grandmother knew thousands of couplets by heart; her father knew hundreds including the bahr-e taweel that probably only a handful of Urdu speakers can claim to know now. She, however, could not recite a single couplet.
Much handwringing ensued at this precipitous decline in familiarity with the heritage of Urdu literature and the critic proposed a remedial program: Every day he would discuss one couplet so that by the end of the summer the daughter would have a repertoire of the best of Urdu verse and be motivated and able to continue on her own. The proposal met with all round approval. It was agreed that the critic would recite a couplet, the daughter would clarify the meaning of any words unfamiliar to her, and the explication and commentary would follow.
The exercise was launched with the critic reciting the following couplet:
Mir in neem-baaz aankhon meN
saari mastii sharaab kii sii hai
It was the daughter’s turn to ask for the meaning of any of the words she had not understood. She thought for a while and said: “I understand all the words but what is the meaning of Mir?”
The critic, in turn, thought for a considerable time before deciding it would be wise to abandon the project. The foundation on which the edifice of knowledge was to be built had crumbled beyond repair. The lunch however was excellent UP cuisine that had lost none of its delicacy.
The second story evolved from a passing remark. A grandmother (born 1920s) at the dinner table asked whatever had happened to bayt baazi. The son (born 1940s) ventured that since few young people knew any Urdu poetry, it had gone out of fashion. Not surprisingly, attention was drawn to the granddaughter (born 1980s). Surely, she knew one couplet at least. Many minutes passed in attempts at memory recall before the following line was offered:
mujh se pehlii sii mohabbat merey mahbuub na maang
No one had the heart to mention that this was not a line from a ghazal. That, no doubt, yielded the granddaughter a great deal of confidence. At this point the grandfather, whose memory had faded to the extent that he did not know who was sitting around the table, said:
Ghalib-e khasta ke baghair kaun se kaam band haiN
roiiye zaar zaar kyaa kiijiiye haay haay kyuuN
The granddaughter, unbidden, attributed the couplet to Faiz. Attention shifted, once again, to the excellence of the dinner on the table.
The point of these stories is not that the generation born in the 1970s and 1980s is bereft of culture. Many of them are writing poetry themselves but that poetry is in English or in a reincarnation of rekhta having a few Urdu words thrown into a composition in a foreign language. Interaction with families belonging to the ahle-zabaan, those who claim Urdu as their mother tongue, suggests that these stories reflect a widespread phenomenon. The new generation of upwardly-mobile native Urdu speakers has little connection with Urdu as a literary language. They use it to communicate with their grandmothers or with others unfamiliar with English; they know a large number of Bollywood film songs (Antakshari has replaced bayt baazi) and are quite familiar with the language of StarPlus soap operas. The birthday cake of the granddaughter of the second story, served up a few days later, had the following inscription in English, iced under the chocolate face of Shahrukh Khan:
Janam din kii shubhkamna Munni
The point is not to lament this change, just to record it and reflect on its implications. The old cultural elite for whom Urdu was the medium of literary exchange has over the better part of a hundred years transitioned to English with Urdu serving to communicate with mothers-in-law and servants or to add local color to conversations in a foreign language. Other cultural functions are being filled by Bollywood and StarPlus Hindi.
The research we need is to determine if there is another segment in society, perhaps unrelated to the ahle-zabaan, emerging to claim Urdu as a literary language. My guess, admittedly without hard evidence, is there is not. When I look at Hafiz Mahmood Shirani’s Sarmaaya-e Urdu that was a text for high school students till the 1950s, I have serious doubts if present-day college students could fathom either its language or its allusions.
Urdu is indeed a living language and it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon but its functions could be radically at odds with what it had become famous for:
Urdu hai jis ka naam hamiiN jante haiN Dagh
saare jahaN maiN dhuum hamaarii zabaaN kii hai
Literature continues to be produced in Urdu as well but is it the manifestation of a dwindling legacy? Without new generations acquiring the familiarity needed to sustain a literary language, is classical Urdu living on borrowed time? Urdu emerged as the language of the bazaar and flourished as a literary language when it was adopted by a declining elite sandwiched between the demise of Persian and the rise of English. Was this just a peculiar interregnum? Is it headed back to being a language of the bazaar, a medium of interaction for those whose native languages are mutually incomprehensible?
It can justifiably be said without exaggeration that Urdu to the Subcontinent is not what Persian is to Iran or what English is to England. Does that have a bearing on the evolution of the language?
I would appreciate if readers can contribute their personal experiences as comments either in support or contradiction of those narrated above.