A Tongue Twisted

“Isn’t Urdu the language of Muslims?” An obstinate question, also a shallow one.

If this were true then why are so many non-Muslim poets and lyricists masters of the language and use it as tools of expression. Further more, why wouldn’t Muslims in Kerela call Urdu their mother tongue instead of Malayalam.

It is because the evolution of any language is always a cultural domain and never a religious one. When has a religion ever been responsible for the birth of a language? Urdu was born in India and so is an Indian tongue. To better understand the dynamics that shaped Urdu let us try and relocate it in history.

Urdu comes from the word Ordu meaning army camp. It was created with the amalgamation of Persian and vernacular Indian languages.

Mostly all languages are classified according to their development from a single parent language. Urdu belongs to Indo-European language family. The speakers of this language probably lived around the Black Sea. As they moved and migrated from there in every direction the language changed around the way. All major regional languages in India as well as English, French and German belong to this category.

Many a times different languages use similar writing systems. It might seem surprising but Urdu and Arabic come from two different language families, despite having similar scripts.

The Urdu patois that was a result of the cultural diffusion between the native North Indians and invading Muslims from Central Asia later spread towards the deccan and as far as Hyderabad. So, what began as an unsystematic hodgepodge language in the 12th century acquired a status of Lingua Franca by the turn of the 18th century. Even the Mughal courts and ministries switched over from Persian to Urdu. Traces of the use can be found in the present day Indian jurisdictions. Words like “dakhil kharij”, “ jurmana”, and “muqadma” are still a part of the legal jargon.

So we are looking at a language that has a glorious and admirable past. The reason for this was the immense popularity of the language amongst the masses. With heavy morphological borrowings from Persian and grammatical borrowings from Hindi developed a language intensely lyrical in nature and apt in style. A language that deeply resonated the North and Central Indian spirit and vivacity.

It is sad that such a powerful language is not embraced with open arms as it was in the gone by days. It is said that if you pigeon hole a concept it dies of suffocation. In other words, strictly categorizing a language is like placing it on the fast track to extinction. This is exactly what is happening to Urdu today.

It is true that Urdu is more tilted towards Islamic lines and let us not be apologetic about it.

One major reason for the decline in Urdu speakers and learners today is the partition. After 1947 majority of the Urdu speaking populace migrated across the Indian borders. Pakistan declaring Urdu and India declaring Hindi as their national languages left the speakers of Urdu in India totally perplexed. This lead Urdu to suddenly acquire no man’s language status in India.

The truth, however, remains that Urdu forms a rich and essential constituents of the chronicles of Indian culture. Anybody trying to undermine its importance will probably find only a half-baked linguistic history.

We have cut, dried and neatly labeled Urdu as either a bard’s or an illiterate’s language…and more recently the terrorist’s tongue. There are only a few people who promote its learning and fewer institutions, which patronize it. The poise, diction and articulation of Urdu stand unparalleled. To make this point clear and sum everything above that let me quote a famous Urdu couplet.

Maazi ka ehteraam zaruri hai aaj bhi,
Yeh aur baat hai ki zamaana badl gaya.

In other words it means that to respect history is important even today when the entire world has changed.

Poetry by Bahadur Shah Zafar on an Indian Postal stamp commemorating the centenary of the Emperor

Color Me Right

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The cognitive behind Indian racism is certainly enigmatic! For a country that has a history of being racially discriminated against Indians have certainly learned to manifest the beast in their lovely own ways. Not only that, they skillfully perpetuate it on others and even on themselves. The ugly footprints of the fiend can be traced in our daily lives. Sadly, the racist beast lurches in the Indian psyche and it is what makes fair North Indian make snide remarks about a slightly darker South Indian or fellow Gujarati call a Manipuri a “chink”.

Last month pictures of Shilpa Shetty, our very own Huckleberry Finn, were splashed all over tabloids and national dailies. When rude anti-racist remarks were hurled at her many Indian sentiments were hurt, TRP ratings went up, viewer ship increased and cash poured in the buck buckets of television networks. The point proved in the end was that, color of skin still remains to be a sensitive topic for Indians and one which must not be broached upon without caution.

Despite all this what surprises me is the hypocritical streak that marks Indian idiosyncrasy. We didn’t waste any time in crowning Shetty the new anti-racist icon. But, what happens when Indians themselves become racist. A Caucasian would always receive an extremely pleasant and even fawning response, while an African descendant would be entitled to no such luxury. A case of the tormented becoming the tormentor… who knows? One could find out only if one could delve into our collective mind scape, which of course is impenetrable. The only time a Korean friend of mine, living in London heard open remarks on the color of her skin were from a group of Indians there. Hold on, there is more…I can never forget how a Sudanese friend, who was in New Delhi last year on scholarship, could not walk the streets without receiving at least a few abrupt stares. And I can cite numerous incidents where Indians ridicule Indians on the basis of their skin color. It amuses me till no end to see fairness creams being lifted off the shelves from stores. Separate (of course) for men and women! Educated Indians would know that it is politically incorrect to call a black a black and would not shy away from openly abhorring apartheid but why do the statistics of Indian Matrimonial show that 98.8% of their customers make it a point to mention that they seek a “fair and “tall” spouse.

The real problem lies in our Anglo-American centric world view. Moreover our educational institutions don’t teach us enough about other societies. We all would know what Mark Twain wrote or what George Bush said in his last conference, know how and why Halloween is celebrated and just about any bright child can locate New York or London on the world map. But, how many of us know African literature or something about Brazilian politics or anything about Vietnamese tradition or even get close to spotting Tahiti on the world map (If they knew such a country existed).

Probably we should look towards the west for some sensible lessons to combat the racist brute, The new curriculum that is to be introduced in U K schools next year will dump traditional European biggies like WB Yeats, Foster and Pinter for works by Meera Syal. Moreover, British school children will now have the option to study non European Languages like Urdu, Chinese, Hindi and Arabic instead of just languages like French and German. This speaks volumes for U K’s multiculturalism. And if not the West we can look back to our own rich Indian tradition, where “sanvla” or dusky stands for beautiful. The popular Indian mythological God, Lord Krishna, was a dark skinned lad who is still known for his legendary beauty. Toady we talk of reverse colonization and how the colonized countries have now come into their own. With a global acceptance of people from such countries we can hope for a rational attitude towards them. Only greater awareness about their cultures can change attitudes and show us that the skin color really doesn’t matter. And if, as public memory has been said to be short, Indians have forgotten their own colonial history they should be reminded of it every time one of us discriminates just because the other is a shade darker than him.