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Mainstream, VOL LX No 3, New Delhi, January 8, 2022

Hindi and Urdu | B S Chauhan

Friday 7 January 2022, by B. S. Chauhan

The politics in the country was not as divisive and toxic in the sixties, when I was a child in Dehradun, as it is now. Urdu, for we siblings, was a secular language and not associated with a community or religion. Could be because, being rooted firmly in Uttar Pradesh for generations, we were spared the horrors of partition.

Our father would write his notes and his shopping lists in Urdu only though he knew English and Hindi quite well. His Urdu jottings were beyond us. Father, born in a village on the Yamuna plains near Nakur tehsil of Saharanpur district, had studied Urdu and English at school. He learnt Hindi much later, after independence, when he was in a government job. To my eternal regret, I did not make a concerted effort to learn first-hand about his early life, his education and struggles, when he was alive. Whatever knowledge we have is based on our mother’s anecdotes and from bits and pieces of after-dinner conversations between father and visitors from his village, which we happened to overhear. He went to Nakur for his primary education and then to Roorkee for High school where he stayed with his relatives. For Intermediate, i.e. class 11th and 12th, he had to go as far as Agra, to the then Balwant Rajput College, as there were no Inter Colleges in Roorkee or Saharanpur. It must have been in 1930s. Since Urdu was the court language then, it could have been the preferred language for most of the students. Vakalat or legal practice was the profession most aspired to. Other professions like engineering and medical needed expensive education which was beyond the means of my father’s family. And, as people say, there was this bias too, in upper castes, against mitti — gara (earth and mortar) and cheer — phad (surgery) work. In fact, he funded his education through scholarships only. His education stopped when scholarships stopped. It was a mystery for us why he did not study beyond 12th. Our mother used to say that it was because he came under the influence of a saint, turned to spirituality and neglected his studies. He had always been a brilliant student but a poor result in 12th meant that he could not get the scholarship to pursue studies any further. It was much later, when I was in fifties that I came to know of the real reason. During a conversation with my father-in-law, father disclosed that he was influenced and drafted in by communists to their cause. They sure knew how to influence and attract young, bright and idealistic minds into their fold with their theories and ideology. I think his simplicity and inability to say no must have played no minor role though he had no stomach for politics. The volunteers like him were asked to work almost round the clock, to write, to operate cyclo-style machine and to distribute pamphlets. Not only that, but also to visit villages to promote their ideology. There was simply no time for studies in all this activism. When final examinations were near, father realised how unprepared he was. He applied all his efforts on covering up the two years’ worth of studies in just one month. He could scrape through the exam but not with distinction as had been the case in the past. His marks were just not good enough for winning a scholarship. He had to give up thoughts of studying any further.

The standard of education was certainly much better in his time. Though he studied only till 12th, his English was impeccable. But he would never flaunt his English language skills. Even when his colleagues would switch over to English to make an office work related point, he would still reply in Hindi. The only time I heard him speak English was when teaching us or in Bangalore when talking to some visitor who did not know Hindi. When it came to writing, he would write in precise and elegant prose. And his handwriting was simply outstanding. Every letter was well formed and of same size. None of we siblings came anywhere near him in the matter of handwriting or command over the language. Even his Hindi handwriting, which he learnt only after 1947, was impeccable. His Urdu handwriting was also neat looking though we were not able to make head or tail out of it. Like I said earlier, he would prefer to write his “To do” and shopping lists in Urdu only, making them totally indecipherable to us. His correspondence with some relatives of his age would also be, mostly, in Urdu. While we were able to read most of the letters to our mother when father was in the office, the Urdu letters had to wait. Only father would be able to read them and tell us what they were about.

Father used to get a “Jantri” every year. It was a kind of almanac having information about Hindu calendars, auspicious days, festivals and some astrological advice. I think the name Jantri came from Yantra (literal meaning “Instrument”). Yantras consist of astrological rituals and mantras, effective or not - I am not qualified to say, to mitigate a problem or to remove some roadblock and to ensure progress and happiness of the practitioner. For example, there are yantras to shield from someone’s buri-nazar (evil eye) or to cast a spell on someone. The Jantri used to be in Urdu. Perhaps the author was some pre-partition pandit who lived in west Punjab (now Pakistan). Only father could consult the Jantri and answer mother’s questions about Ekadashi, Amavasya, various festivals and auspicious days etc. Once he brought a Hindi edition of the Jantri. Perhaps the Urdu edition had been delayed or the shopkeeper did not get enough copies for the few Urdu knowing customers of his. Now we children could read the almanac and attempt answering mother’s questions. There were also some crosswords like yantras to tell reader’s future. It required closing one’s eyes and putting a finger on the crossword pattern. Based on which letter the finger rested on, there was a corresponding paragraph on what the future held for the person using the yantra. When father got to know of this affliction of ours, he scolded us for becoming fatalists and asked us not to waste time on such useless things. That was the last time he brought a Hindi Jantri. Later of course, the calendars like “Kaal Nirnay” took over.

I never expressed any desire to learn Urdu during his lifetime. After he was gone, unfortunately some three weeks before our first daughter’s wedding, I was going through some of his papers. With moist eyes, I looked at the last cheque he had written as a gift to his granddaughter. The familiar handwriting was so clear even in the last few days when the life was deserting him bit by bit. I did not encash the cheque. I treasure it in his sacred memory.

Sometime later, a thought started to form in my mind. I thought that I would not be able to read and treasure some of his papers as they were in Urdu. Around the same time, I chanced upon a blog while surfing. It was about the experiences of a foreigner trying to learn Hindi. While the blogger was impressed by the logic and scientific basis of classification of vowels and consonants in Devanagari, he decided to learn Urdu script also to “learn two languages for the effort of one”. Are not the two languages so similar? In their simple, everyday use form, the two are indistinguishable when spoken. They have the same structure. Take a simple sentence, put more Sanskrit words in it and you have Hindi. Replace Sanskrit words by Persian or Arabic words and voila, you have Urdu. Of course, so long as you do not write down and stick to the spoken version only. Or use the so-called Roman Urdu (written using Roman alphabets) or Roman Hindi and the two are again as close as first cousins should be. Use a glossary for tough Persian and Sanskrit words and you have a common North Indian language, covering the entire swath of North India and Pakistan. For Indians, it would be wrong to give up the ownership of Urdu. It developed here and is as Indian a language as any other. Did we give up ownership rights on Bengali when Bangladesh was formed?

I am glad that there is an effort now to reclaim Urdu as our own. The Rekhta Foundation, an initiative of Sanjiv Saraf, a 1980 engineering graduate of IIT Kharagpur and a successful entrepreneur (such a blow to the stereotypes?), is a laudable effort in that direction. It makes available Urdu’s literary offerings in Devanagari and Roman scripts too. It is such a welcome resource for many who like the Urdu poetry but are handicapped by their inability to read the Urdu script. I wish there were more such initiatives. There are lunatics on both sides of the religious divide and easy access to social media has given them virtually unlimited powers to do harm and indulge in mischiefs. It is much like the Hindustani saying “Bandar ke haath mein diyasalai” (matchstick in the hands of a monkey). Initiatives like Rekhta are needed where sane people from all communities can come together and appreciate all that is noble, aesthetic, humane and beautiful.

Spurred on by the realisation that all I needed to learn Urdu was a familiarity with the script as I knew the language already, I went about learning the script. The web resources were looked up as a first step. Post alif, be, pe, I tried to enlist the help of some of my Muslim colleagues. Surprisingly, they too did not know the script. In fact, one of them was proficient in Sanskrit and offered to help me with Sanskrit. So much for our prejudices and pre-conceived notions. But the Sanskrit knowing friend did get me an Urdu primer published by “National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language”. It was very useful. I can read a bit now, albeit haltingly, as a child attempting to read does. I do get confused between maatra “o” and sound “v”. I miss my father who would have helped me learn in no time. The script is complicated by the fact that a letter may have different shapes depending upon where it is placed in a word, at the beginning, middle or at the end. And handwritten Urdu tends to combine many letters. This complexity made it impossible to have Urdu typewriters. The books and newspapers were written in long hand by professional scribes or calligraphists (Katibs) and then printed by lithography. The advent of computer technology did wonders for Urdu. Now you can type and print Urdu documents. And there is a choice of many fonts too like in other languages. One can, in fact, even type using a Roman keyboard while the screen will show Urdu letters and words.

As for me, I am progressing by trying to read text on Urdu YouTube videos and some stories on the web. I hope to gain enough proficiency in a year or so to be able to read the papers left behind by my father.

29th December 2021

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