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International Urdu Conference



By Sumera S. Naqvi

 Welcome to the age of information technology when an email text should put the message across, even if it lacks any grammatical sense. By that, I mean the brutal use of syllables and words that damages the essence of a language, but transports the meaning is transmitted. How else would you describe the phrase “hope u r fi9 2day”?

Does this situation ensure the preservation of the ‘purity’ of languages today, most particularly the Urdu language? Perhaps this very issue alone would have kept the participants busy for more than a week of discussions and counter-arguments at the International Urdu Conference held recently in Islamabad. Though the organizers kept policing sessions to keep them under schedule and control, much was left unsaid about the burning issues Urdu is facing today. This is not to belittle the efforts of the organizers to hold such a fine event, but the question arises, how many more conferences need to be held before we will start taking practical steps to address these issues?

In one session, Dr Gopi Chand Narang quoted Mir Taqi Mir, who was asked once as to how should one understand his poetry. “To understand my poetry,” he said, “one will have to climb up the stairs of the Jamia Masjid.” The fact is that the nuances of the Urdu language — or any language for that matter — have much to do with the local idiom and syntax which is, and has been, embedded in the cultural milieu of the place where it is spoken. When the British landed on South Asian soil, they conquered the people but could not win their hearts and minds due to the unfamiliarity of the language. It led to the realization that in order to rule over the subcontinent they would have to learn the native languages.

Urdu, which initially meant a city while the language itself was referred to as either Hindi or Hindvi, has always meant to serve as a link language all over the subcontinent as it absorbed many foreign influences. Most critics trace its roots to the first poet, said to be Wali Deccani. But Dr Shamsur Rahman Faruqi researched the origins of Urdu in his short and succinct book, Urdu ka Ibtidai Zamana, which many critics consider one of the most authentic pieces of research today. The fact remains that Urdu has over the years absorbed many cultural influences that have nurtured and enriched the language. This has been the nature of the language, as discussed in the sessions during the conference. Nevertheless, the Urdu wallas seem to have lost faith in the flexibility of the language which is gravely needed to rescue not only the language but a heritage that is slipping through our hands as globalization and the universality of the dominant languages take over.

Dr Saleem Akhtar said in a session that a healthy combination of language and culture speaks of a healthy society, which unfortunately enough, we seem to lack. With the emergence of the drug and kalashnikov culture, today’s language is that of weapons and materialism. Macworld — McDonald, Mackintosh and MIT — as pointed out by Dr Mohammad Ali Siddiqui, is the reality outside the window, which severely impinges upon the purity of the language. The concept of the nation state is under threat today in the name of the global village. Will we therefore, be able to sustain our identity in the long run or stop in time for lack of flexibility?

In discussing the situation of the Urdu media in the West, Khalid Hasan made a detailed survey of how many Urdu newspapers were once published in the US and how Urdu-speaking communities were more and more being facilitated by the emergence of the Urdu channels today. But a major drawback in this regard, as is also the situation in our society today, is that proper teaching of Urdu is not emphasized, as Dr Shamsur Rahman Faruqi pointed out. “The language spoken at home and outside are totally different,” he said. Many immigrants in the West have resorted to letting their children use the Roman script which largely resolves issues of communication and a link with their culture, but many Urdu critics have a problem with that. The script of the language, they say, cannot be compromised.

Iftikhar Arif and Agha Nasir remembered the good old times when broadcast media used to be inundated with learned writers, authors and journalists. They would emphasize the proper accent and the correct use of the language during broadcasts. The All India Radio and Radio Pakistan were once breeding grounds for writers who later became big names. This doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. There are no ideological newspapers now as everything seems to be swept away with the harrowing tides of commercialization.

Amidst heated arguments (that are inevitable when Urdu writers get together), Dr David Matthews (formerly senior lecturer in Urdu and Nepali at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London) was hounded by people who kept inquiring whether they could get admission to the SOAS. Whether they were genuinely seeking admission or were seeking a way to sneak out of the country, Dr Matthews seemed visibly agitated. His parting speech was only about the nature of admissions and courses at the SOAS (he left a day before the end of the conference) which hardly reflected his views on the burning issues of Urdu. Dr Christina Oesterheld from Germany, who participated in the session on feminism and Urdu literature, has been researching areas in Urdu literature that have remained on the fringe like naqliyat, lataif, qissas etc. During a heated discussion on feminist literature in Urdu, she said that it has been hard hitting and propagandist because of the nature of the oppressed women in South Asia. Women have to go a long way in their fight for legal and cultural rights and literature is a reflection of that.

Though Islamabad was a dull venue for such a vibrant and core issue, the participants were entertained with lavish food and cultural evenings that included a dance performance by Nighat Chaudhry, ghazal singing by Tarannum Naz, a recital by Zia Moheyuddin and a fashion show. I overheard someone asking as to why Urdu was being promoted through dance and music in the event. My vehement answer to such cynics is that these contradictions in our society have led us to what we are. As Bano Qudsia said in her closing remarks in a session, “Don’t be afraid of diversity.” This is the order of the day as far as the Urdu language is concerned.
















A Club of Urdu Writers



Mohammad Hameed Shahid

Mohammad Hameed Shahid