April issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

As children in the 1950s, we were brought up on stories of the freedom movement and partition. The nostalgia and pathos with which the stories of friendship among Hindu and Muslim families were recounted, created ever so vividly a world of harmony and togetherness in which members of the two communities shared traditions of language and culture. These stories hold no relevance for young people today; to them we are just two countries, two very different peoples almost always at war with each other. In such an atmosphere, Tariq Rahman’s book, From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History, serves as a welcome reminder of a shared tradition of language that is now called by the distinct names of Hindi and Urdu. Over 450 pages long, it is beyond any doubt one of the most carefully researched and systematically documented narratives of a fractured tradition. This book must be read by all those who are interested in linguistically constituted sites of identity formations because it is one of the most potent interfaces between language and politics, and a stark reminder of a history where people sleep with one nation and one language and wake up the following morning with two nations and two languages. It should also, once and for all, put an end to the theory of Urdu being born in army camps.

Even today, in spite of the rather crudely crafted efforts at linguistic engineering by the governments of India and Pakistan to construct mutually incomprehensible Sanskritised Hindi and Persianised Urdu, the two varieties remain identical, structurally, with minor phonological differences (with, of course, also a linguistically inconsequential emphasis on writing from left to right in Devanagari or writing right to left in Persian-Arabic). And it is not at all surprising that what remains the most popular in Pakistan are Bollywood films and in India Pakistan’s TV serials. In fact, Indian producers try in vain to imitate Pakistani plays! More seriously, are Faiz’s ‘Yeh Dhoop Kinara’ or Dushyant Kumar’s ‘Kahan To Tay Thaa Chiraghaan’ poems of different languages?

According to Rahman, there was ‘a certain Indian language stretching all the way from Peshawar to the border of the Bengal before the Turkish invasion of the subcontinent in the eleventh century’ (p. 389). it came to be called Hindvi and the variety spoken around Delhi assimilated a large number of words and expressions not only from soldiers but also merchants, religious figures, mystics and mendicants who came from a variety of linguistic backgrounds. Mutual respect for each other ensured a multilinguality that lasted till the end of the 18th century. Then the nobility of Delhi started patronising that sociolect of Hindvi that was highly Persianised, which ‘they called Zubaan-ee-Urduu-ee-Muallaa — the language of the Exalted City, i.e. Delhi. In time, this long descriptive phrase shrunk to Urdu’ (p. 390). As Ayesha Kidwai says: ‘In this elision of a multilingual past, this city is far from unusual, as all places with rulers, courts and durbars are much the same, because in the acknowledgement of multilingualism lies democracy.’ Rahman quotes Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) as saying that it is Hindi, since ancient times, which is used ordinarily for all kinds of conversation, in spite of the enormous linguistic variability across the subcontinent and from the 13th till the end of the 18th century the name of the language we now call Urdu was mostly Hindi (p. 1). During these two centuries, the language of the subcontinent was given different names: Hindi, Dehlvi, Hindvi, Gujri, Dakkani, Indostan, Moors, Rekhta and Urdu.

When it comes to asserting separate identities for new nation-states, nothing works as effectively as religious fundamentalism and linguistic chauvinism. Icons like national flags, birds, fruits, anthems etc. remain, at best, symbolic. Islamic fundamentalism and Persianised Urdu, on the one hand, and dogmatic Hinduism/Brahminism and Sanskritised Hindi, on the other, conclusively de-link you from a shared linguistic and cultural tradition. Both India and Pakistan would lose no time in establishing institutions and academies that would ensure ‘pure’ languages and religions. It would become the social, moral and legal duty of each nation to erase the shared Persian/Arabic and Sanskritic lexicons from their respective styles of Hindustani.

Rahman quotes from Amir Khusrau, Sheikh Bajan, Shirani, Sheikh Burhanuddin Janum, Khub Mohammad Chisti, Mohammad Qutab among others to substantiate his point. It was only the British who did not appreciate the historicity and dignity of a composite culture and helped establish distinct identities of Hindi and Urdu. “In short, the British perception of the distinct identities of Hindus and Muslims helped to associate language with religion, weakening the perception that a composite language could be shared between the two communities’ (p. 37).

The first steps were perhaps taken by the Urdu elite, during the 18th and early 19th century, to purge Hindustani of its Sanskrit and Prakrit expressions, replacing them with stylised borrowings from Persian and Arabic. It was inevitable that this would draw a political reaction from the Hindus who pull the same language in the direction of extreme Sanskritisation. “These language-planning processes led to the splitting of a language (Hindi-Urdu) into modern Persianised and Arabicised Urdu at one extreme and modern Sanskritised Hindi at the other. Between the two ends is a continuum which veers towards one end or the other according to the speaker, the occasion and the environment” (p. 99). Rahman shows the emergence of elitist Urdu with an exaggerated focus on a certain idiom and pronunciation. Azad, in his history of Urdu, completely ignored Hindu writers and for Acharya Ramchandra Shukla (1883—1941) “Hindi and Urdu are two very different languages. The Hindus of this country speak Hindi, while Muslims and those Hindus who have studied Persian speak Urdu.” Languages flourish in each other’s company; they suffocate in isolation. Politically motivated language-engineering alienates native speakers and, as Alok Rai tells us, makes the idiom incapable of engaging in any serious discourse.

The tolerant sufi religious and cultural traditions shared by Hindus and Muslims also suffered a major setback. The Deobandi interpretation of Islam, which is strict and puritanical, goes against the tolerant and folk Islam of ordinary Indian Muslims. Urdu soon became the dominant language of Islam and started playing a central role in religious education. It was deliberately taken away from the mainstream Indian life, including education and the mass media.

Rahman, unfortunately, feels that Urdu poetry is typically associated with love, romance and eroticism. In my view, the poetry of Sauda, Dard, Mir, Nasir, Momin and Ghalib, among many others, is not just romantic; it is often fundamentally philosophical and addresses the most primordial human emotions and aspirations.

The technical words frequently used in the book, irrespective of whether they are from Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic or Punjabi, have been glossed carefully. Any researcher would find the glossary, bibliography with five sections and the Index provided by Rahman extremely useful.

The five sections of the bibliography include reports, official documents and unpublished theses, manuscripts, and letters, books and articles in oriental languages, books and articles in western languages and interviews, websites, personal communications and internet sites. The copy editors and the publishers must be commended for a near flawless production.

This book review was originally published in the April issue of Newsline under the headline “Fractured Tradition.”