IN FIRST PERSON
Urdu and I
Noted filmmaker MAHESH BHATT makes an impassioned plea to save Urdu from extinction.
Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash
Man is memory, and memory is sound. The first sound that resonates in my heart is the Urdu word “Shireen”, meaning sweet; the name of my mother, who was by birth a Shia Muslim and remained one till the end of her days.
Shadowing that sweet memory is a bitter one. My mother couldn’t marry my Hindu father because my father couldn’t go against the wishes of his staunch Brahmin family in post-Partition India. She concealed her Muslim identity in the predominantly Hindu area of Mumbai’s Shivaji Park where we lived because, in spite of the Nehruvian vision of India as a plural and diverse nation, the rising Hindu fundamentalist movement looked upon the minority Muslim community as the enemy within. So, to arm herself from a possible Hindu backlash, she tried her best to fit in by submerging her true identity. “Do not call me by my Muslim name,” she would caution us in private. “I do not want the world to know about my Muslim identity.”
Those were the days when Urdu was looked upon as the language of those who partitioned India. The Indian Muslim’s loyalty was always suspect; he had to regularly re-affirm his Indianness and patriotism to quell the nationalist anxieties of the majority, whose Partition-inflicted wounds had not healed.
Is it any wonder then that this Shia woman who was ‘living in sin’ with a Brahmin filmmaker gave all her children Hindu names, hurled us into Christian Schools run by Italian priests where we learned good English and absurd nursery rhymes and brought us up as Hindus?
At the same time, this same Shia woman who masqueraded as a Hindu, ushered me into the magical world of the Hindu mythology of Shiva, Ganesh and Parvati, Ram, Sita and Hanuman, as well as the great epic of the Mahabharata. “You are the son of a nagar Brahmin… you belong to the Bhargav gotra” she would say. And in the next breath, in chaste Urdu, give me a Kalma while telling me to chant “Ya Ali Maddat” if confronted with an adversary ! What a paradox !
A memory bubble bursts... The year is 1958. I am barely nine years old. The atmosphere in our house is sombre. One of the finest flowers of Indian renaissance, Maulana Azad, is dead. My mother is listening to a live relay of his funeral procession on the All India Radio Urdu service. Suddenly my father, who is equally upset by the death of this great nationalist, storms into the house. On hearing the Urdu relay, he angrily says, “Put this Radio Pakistan off! I want to hear this news in Hindi, not in Urdu!” My mother meekly does so, but I can see that she is deeply hurt.
Personal is political
They say the personal is the political. This incident explains the tremendous odds that lay in the path of Urdu, just as the first decade of Independent India was coming to an end. My father, who was a secular Brahmin, taught me a lesson through that action. That ‘tolerance’ implies superiority... where the majority community, very condescendingly, ‘ puts up’ with the very existence of the minority. But it is always ‘thus far and no further…’ an implied limit on their so-called tolerance.
My mother’s language was dying, and there was nothing that I could do as a child to keep it alive! As the years deepened, the only place I heard Urdu being spoken was on the sets of my father’s films. My father used to make enchanting Muslim fantasy movies like “The Thief of Baghdad” or “Sinbad the Sailor”. Or during secret visits with my mother to the Majlis during Moharram, where the blood-soaked history of Karbala was enacted with passion. Or, in the dark comfort of the cinema hall, watching “Mughal-e-Azam” or “Chaudvin Ka Chand”... and at the home of my actress aunt Poornima who, unlike my mother, was a successful actress. Poornima Aunty felt no need to hide her Muslim identity. And I loved her for being brave and audaciously speaking Urdu.
By the time I became a teenager, I realised that Urdu was the language of the ‘other’; and it also dawned on me that, in spite of all her attempts, my Muslim mother continued to remain an outsider in her own homeland. She would shoot down my rebellious attempts to unveil her real identity by saying, “It’s their country, and we have to get along with them.” But I could never seem to see it her way.
I felt Urdu and Islam were a part of my heritage and, as the years went by, I felt this burning surge within me to express who I really was. I couldn’t be myself by denying a part of me. My consciousness resonated with the chants of Hassan Hussain during Moharram; the bells of Mangal Murti Mauriya during the Ganesh Utsav, and the memories of Ave Maria of my Christian school. The only language that could give expression to a paradox like me was Urdu. And though I do not have an arsenal of words in my vocabulary, the emotional syntax of Urdu is my inner melody.
After the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution of India, the right of Urdu speakers to obtain education in their mother tongue has to be recognised as a fundamental right. Therefore to promote the teaching and learning of Urdu at the primary and secondary levels of education is the responsibility of the State. I feel that all Urdu lovers must compel the state to act with a sense of urgency and make this fundamental right a reality.
I wonder when it will dawn on our nation that Urdu is the language of India. I wonder what will it take for those who oppose Urdu to see that this fight to preserve Urdu is a fight for India!
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