The Urdu Debate: Languages Die Not By Aggression of Enemies But Neglect of Friends
Languages die because they no longer have the words to express what people want to say
A language, any language, is not simply sounds and script characters which represent thoughts. A language is the soul of the people.
It is the vehicle which connects their past to their present, their present to their dreams. It is the means by which one generation leaves its legacy for the next.
In my view the single most significant event in human development is the evolution of languages. It was this process that enabled human beings to preserve their thoughts, teach others, learn from history and talk to generations yet unborn. Language is the elixir of eternal life. Or as close to it as we are likely to come.
Among the many strange developments in our country is a resurgence of hostility against poor Urdu, which is wrongfully alleged to be the language of Muslims. And since Muslims are people non-grata their language is language non-grata. No matter that it has nothing to do with Muslims in the first place. It is seen as that and so it must become unseen.
While I lament the completely undeserved hostility to Urdu, which is in the nature of cutting your nose to spite your face; I must say that nobody and no government can kill a language that people want to use. The very birth and rise of Urdu is testimony to that.
Farsi was the official language of the time. Yet Urdu eventually supplanted it without any official support, simply because the people wanted to speak it, wrote in it, transacted business in it and so on. When you read the history of the development of Urdu literature and poetry you can’t help being struck by the enormous vitality of the language, its ease of expression, it beauty of turn of phrase, which thanks mainly to the fact that it was understood by the masses, gradually and then rapidly supplanted Farsi.
English was repressed in South Africa during the rule of Afrikaners and Afrikaans was strongly propagated to the extent that even today most South African people speak Afrikaans. Yet we know that Afrikaans is dying and will die, and English is alive and well and growing.
The same is true of English in this country which has seen its share of hostility yet all the Hindutva and other chauvinists, send their children to English medium schools for one reason only; because without it they will not have access to the global culture.
Languages must cater to the aspirations of people. What happened with Urdu as well as with almost every other Indian language, is that they didn’t keep up with scientific development. Indeed, Urdu has some of the most beautiful poetry, especially love poetry in existence.
As an Urdu speaker, I can’t tell you how it has the power to move me to tears. English poetry on the other hand leaves me cold. There is no other word to describe that. However, when I need to work, think, write my thoughts to an audience that spans borders, it is English that enables me to do so. When I am explaining any concept in science, psychology, sociology or politics, it is English that has the words to describe precisely what I need to say. With Urdu (or Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu) I find myself translating the English to create cumbersome and ungainly expressions that make little sense.
Call it my lack of expertise in the Indian languages compared to my mastery of English, the fact remains that this is my experience. Talk to a million others like me and you will find that there are rather a lot of us around. Take that forward and ask how many like me are likely to teach Urdu to our children and you have the perfect diagnosis of the fatal ailment that besets Urdu.
I was teaching a leadership course to a group of senior Muslim scholars in Urdu, simultaneously translating my material from English to Urdu when I realized, very painfully, this fact, that Urdu simply doesn’t have the words to translate the concepts I was talking about. I did my best and by explaining where I would have used a single word, I managed to do my job, but the fact was clear; Urdu no longer speaks to the modern person. It is like Arabic in a way that has more than twenty words for horse and camel, but not a single one for DNA, corpuscle, neuron or clavicle. Ask yourself, which is more important?
There are many Indian languages which have died over the years, not because someone actively prohibited them, punished those who spoke them and burnt all their literature and poetry, but simply because the people who spoke them, chose not to do so any more. Not a single one of them was spoken by Muslims. Not a single one of them was the target of any Governmental hostility.
Yet they all died. Languages die because they no longer have words to express what people want to say. This doesn’t happen overnight but is a gradual process, where they fall into disuse. This is what is happening to Urdu. It simply doesn’t have the words to cater to our modern world or way of life. The world today has little value for the arts, for sublime thoughts or lofty ideals. It speaks in the language of the present, material, prosaic but real.
Gul o Bulbul kay fasanay hain bahut khoob magar
(Stories of the flower and Bulbul are beautiful but)
Roti tho kamana hi paday ga is mehfil kay baad
(I still have to earn my bread after this gathering)
This is the harsh reality of our life today. No matter how brutal or crass that sounds, language must be utilitarian first. Urdu seems to have lost that race. Incidentally I wrote that couplet just now to illustrate the dilemma of Urdu.
Today Urdu is dying in India, mainly because traditionally Urdu speaking people, Muslims and Hindus, have stopped speaking it. This is the inconvenient truth that those who complain about the impending death of Urdu choose not to face. Ask how many of those who talk of the need to protect Urdu, subscribe to Urdu newspapers?
Ask how many children in their homes can read or write Urdu? Ask how many can quote, or even read or memorize Urdu poetry? I am not talking about Islam at all. The language of Islam is Arabic. Not Urdu. I am talking about Urdu literature and poetry; how many can read it, understand it or quote it? The answer is clear and visible before our eyes. But we like to blame the Government when we must look at ourselves first. The fact that Urdu is not the medium of instruction in schools or that it is not an ‘official’ language, is neither here nor there.
Urdu’s history is witness that it was not the medium of instruction in schools nor was it the official language yet it supplanted Farsi which was both. It did that without governmental support and despite governmental neglect. It did that for one reason only; because people decided they wanted to use Urdu and not Farsi.
Languages die, not because of the aggression of enemies but the neglect of friends. Aggression may actually help a language which will go underground and remain alive and gain strength thanks to the dangers it faces above ground.
This is how Arabic remained alive and well and was taught in secret to Muslim children to enable them to read the Qur’an during the more than eighty years of brutal repression of Islam and all its symbols in erstwhile Soviet Russia. Soviet Russia then became erstwhile. Not Islam or Arabic or the Qur’an.
The situation is not hopeless. Far from it. But the solution doesn’t lie in the hands of the Government. It lies in the hands of people. Our hands. The hands of those who claim to love Urdu. Start speaking it yourself. Subscribe to Urdu newspapers. Teach Urdu to your children at home, if schools don’t teach it. Listen to Urdu poetry and support Urdu poets. Read Urdu books and write in Urdu.
No power on earth can stop you from doing any of this. You don’t need any money or time or resources to do any of these. Just the will do get up and do something instead of complaining and blaming the Government. This Government has much it must be held accountable for. But neglect of Urdu is the responsibility of Urdu speaking people. Not the Government.
Yes, the Government of India must support Urdu because it is a truly Indian language. It was born in India, is spoken my millions in India and is a part of the history of India. But before that, Urdu speaking people must support it. If people do it, what the Government does or doesn't do, will not matter.
If people don't support it, no Government can keep any language alive. Sanskrit is the example to illustrate that. Politicians taking oaths of office in Sanskrit proves nothing. Ask how many speak Sanskrit at home or read Sanskrit papers. Much like Usha Utup singing Hindi songs.