Urdu in the time of Plagues

Museindia’s July- Aug issue has a focus on contemporary Indian Urdu literature. The selection of the poetry is lackadaisical, certainly, I believe, because of the laboured translation into English. Some of the short stories are good, like this one by Joginder Paul:


What could I really do?

We need a few new faces for our latest feature film, and our producer Appa sahib had said, “You can cast any one for any role, but the hero will be my man.”

The man Appa sahib had chosen to be the hero, was by nature a villain. Perhaps I was still in search of a hero or who knows what, I cast someone as the villain, who actually appeared to me as sensitive, innocent, and well-intentioned, just like my hero.

“But …. I …..” the young man said hesitantly.

“What do you mean by that? Who is going to accept you as a hero unless you have made a complete villain of yourself.”

The essay “The Situation of the Urdu Writer” by CM Naim, written in 1994 is still as relevant as it is scathing. Reading it, I recalled my own sisyphean endeavours at learning Urdu via a distance education program of the Jamia Milia Islamia University. I used to receive lessons by post and was supposed to complete exercises within a fortnight. The initial ones were duly examined and marked by an anonymous mentor. After the third or fourth instalment, the mentor apparently lost interest and I stopped getting the responses back. When I told this to a friend, a writer and playwright who had himself switched from writing in Urdu to Hindi, he commented wryly “Your mentor must be thinking why lead this young enthusiast astray? What has he himself achieved by learning Urdu?”

Naim echoes the frustrations, like that of my friend’s, of writing in Urdu today, and yet, why it needs to be written.

If, however, you are not in with the ignorant bureaucrats or their imbecilic advisors from academia, you have no choice but to publish the book yourself. Average first edition: 400 to 1,000 copies.

Congratulations!  You now have a book out, but will it sell?  A lucky first edition sells in two or four yeas. That is the end of your book, unless someone brings out a pirated edition in Pakistan. In fact, you secretly long that someone will. How else will you reach that other audience of yours?

Of course, while all this was going on, you were also trying to find and hold a job, to raise a family. Then one day your daughter comes home from school and tearfully shows you her Hindi or history textbook.  It says that the Muslims were aliens in India, that they only destroyed temples and persecuted the Hindus and made no positive contribution; that they must be ‘brought back into the main stream of Indian life’. Or your son tells you how he was taunted by some boys who called him a ‘Babur’s son.’ (Babur was the Central Asian prince who conquered parts of northern India in 1526 and laid the foundation for what later came to be known as Mughal dynasty.)  What do you say to them?  Or perhaps you have the experience yourself when you go to the corner store and find written on its wall in crude letters: ‘Babur’s  children / Go to your graves or to Pakistan!’. Should you then not find it amusing that even the ugly slogan aimed at you was written in Hindi while, conversely, it used a jingle form that imitated Urdu?  Perhaps not.  Hashimpura, Maliana, Bhagalpur, Meerut, Bhiwandi, Baroda, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bombay, Surat, Bhopal – what happened in these and many other places was far from amusing.

So, you return home and write a story, in Urdu. For writing in Urdu in India is now definitely a political act. It may not empower you much, but it still lets you assert the fact of your existence. You authorise yourself. In a time of plagues, that is enough.

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Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

2 thoughts on “Urdu in the time of Plagues”

  1. bohat khuub. waqai frustrating hai.

    Regarding Muse India, the selection is fairly good but they could have also reproduced the original Urdu poetry, at least in Roman script, along with the translation, one can’t appreciate the poetry.

  2. Enjoyed the post very much. Such clarity on the current situation…

    The essay by Naim was very moving. Writing in Urdu or supporting it in other ways is needed, but is certainly not part of the prevailing institutional structure, and should therefore expect no rewards from it…it is an act of social service, institutional entrepreneurship, or just intrinsic satisfaction, however one wants to look at it…

    You’re right on about the Museindia issue…it’s still a challenge how to introduce those with less familiarity with Urdu, to the vast treasures of Urdu poetry…

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