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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

From Urdu to Hindustani: Has the Former Sung the Latter’s Dying Dirge?

Sunday 29 December 2013

by Ather Farouqui

It is customary to extend one’s gratitude on receiving such a respected award and I have no intention of departing from this ritual. Besides my heartfelt thanks to the Sahitya Akademi, I also want to express my gratitude to the honourable members of the jury as well as Professor Gopi Chand Narang, whom I count among the most active and vibrant presidents of the Akademi. As its President he was instrumental in securing a place of prominence for Urdu in the Akademi, a no mean feat when Urdu has lost its erstwhile sheen and has become a scapegoat for religious and identity politics. In a way, I am pleased that I have bagged the award for translating a play into Urdu, which owing to its affiliation to the performing arts genre automatically lends itself to Gandhiji’s Hindustani rather than formal Urdu. Let me delve into the phenomenon of Hindustani a little later in detail. Choosing me for the award reflects out-of-the-box thinking on the part of the adjudicators, as my translation of a play that was performed before it was published is the first of its kind to have bagged an award in the category of creative work translated into Urdu. In canonised Urdu, plays are written mostly for publication and unfortunately not often for the stage. Although there are several factors responsible for this outside the purview of the writer notwith-standing the politico-socio-religious underpinnings of Urdu, most writers of Urdu plays cannot be technically termed as ‘playwrights’ as they often do not invest in acquiring knowledge of stagecraft and their works subsequently remain textual rather than becoming part of theatre, mainstream or otherwise. Therefore I am all the more grateful for being such an unconventional choice on part of the jury.

I believe that in India, contrary to the popular perception that it boasts an uninterrupted, conventional and clearly defined value system, there is a major lacuna in our perception of civilisation and our cultural ethos suffers from this ideological confusion which is reflected not only in the literatures of Indian languages but the overarching attitude of our society towards literature as a category reflecting its image. I can honestly claim not to subscribe to or belong to any such so-called ‘Indian tradition’—itself a controversial term with close associations with the Hindu Right-wing—and I am certainly not part of the ‘Urdu canon’ in the sense of the term fast becoming synonymous with Right-wing ‘Muslim’ sensibilities. Identities are not so simple and are often more complicated than linguistic chauvinists would have us believe who set store by such simplistic definitions as these fuel their agenda of belligerence based on clearly defined and narrow, exclusionist identities.

I was brought up in a society that had a strong sense of its Urdu tradition along with a broader and composite Ganga-Jamuni culture, and that was caught between two worlds as well. I am tempted to refer to the character of Uncle Hamid in Attia Hosain’s modern classic Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961)who was also torn in the same way, as was his wife Saira and their retinue of relations and servants. Their unease was evident from their wish to arrest the changes, both political and social, including reforms that covered the abolition of everything that represented a feudal way of life concurrent to the freedom movement gathering momentum.

I digress intentionally as I find that this novel is very topical even four decades after the abolition of privy purses as the last remnant of our feudal past. This lyrical novel is an useful text not just due to its subject matter but owing to its stylistic elements as well, particularly its use of the poetic cadences of Urdu and Persian which make it a unique document in Indian English fiction. It is based around the Taluqdars of Awadh or Oudh who could not come to terms with the fast-changing environment both prior to and post Independence and were bereft of the wherewithal to negotiate the ruthless march of time. Interestingly, they fought the elections after the Government of India Act 1935, but it was beyond their comprehension that the 1935 Act would eventually metamorphose into the Constitution of India soon after Independence and that everybody would have the right to vote, which was earlier just the prerogative of a select few who were part of the repressive feudal structure.

Our identities are as confused and inter-connected now as they were around the time of independence and the creation of a so-called Muslim state of Pakistan did nothing to resolve this as even the novel surmises when the characters reunite after the euphoria of independence has died down. Both sets of characters, those that leave the nation and those that remain, cannot find fulfilment in terms of their identities and the novel does not end in a note of resolution for any of them. This is true of India of course with its professed diversity and multiplicity but this remains true of Pakistan as well. Even under the rubric of an Islamic nation which many had hoped would lead to a singular unifying identity, the several cate-gories within the Muslim who inhabit the nation, not to mention the minorities, are all at logger-heads with each other with ethnic, sectarian, religious and linguistic violence increasing exponentially by the day.

To go back to my childhood, it was spent in a small, sleepy town of Uttar Pradesh on which the impact of partition was spectacular as it seemed deserted and ruined after this division of the nation. This was a time of hopelessness for families like ours that had strong associations with the erstwhile feudal system. And such was the case in most Muslim and Kayastha homes who had strong moorings in the old system. The large part of the former migrated to Pakistan and the latter was forced to migrate to other places in search of employment and one can still see the huge houses, particularly the sprawling buildings of the Kayasthas, but they now appear pathetically decrepit and just crumbling ruins of their former selves. The town became quite dusty even as the gift of democracy, the facility of running water was provided and clean cement roads constructed by the British were broken down to install the pipe lines.

After the passage of almost 40 years, the roads remain dug up and in a state of disrepair. These dusty roads accentuated the feeling of the sense of loss to those who could not face the onslaught, among other things, on Urdu by the state and sudden poverty increased the all-pervasive sense of doom which extended to
the rich culture of Urdu meeting a similar fate. A strong sense of its past did not help the erstwhile gentry to make this transition into modernity and democracy; in fact it rendered it strangely immobile and incapable of making any effort to save the language and culture that it claimed as its heritage.

This is the same story everywhere in north India which had to face two onslaughts: the abolition of Zamindari and formation of Pakistan—the latter affected north India the most. That Urdu was adopted by the enemy nation of Pakistan only added to its woes in India as this became reason enough for apathy towards it by the state. Without any patronage, Urdu eventually became easy prey to dini madaris which happily adopted it resulting in Urdu being now firmly identified with the brand of Islam that is promoted by these seedbeds of militancy. The confused state has done everything to promote this association between Urdu and radical Islam and has remained largely uncharitable in promoting the secular ethos of Urdu, naturally, for its vested interests.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that in a multilingual society like India one is routinely assailed by a variety of tongues and has to constantly make the transition from one register to another in order to make sense of the surrounding world. I, for my part, have been in the business of translation for the last 28 years, ever since I joined an Urdu weekly as a sub-editor. It is unfortunate that the current situation is such that for one language written in two scripts with the same cultural backdrop, we have to handle the redundant work of translating from Hindi to Urdu or vice-versa, with sometimes only a trivial change in script serving as a ‘translation’. The meaning of the bhasha or zabaan remains the same. As I hope people who have seen the performances of Babur ki Aulad will agree, it can easily be considered as being either in Hindi—of course by liberals and not Hindi chauvinists or protagonists of political Hindi in the name of modern Hindi—or in Urdu—as the Sahitya Akademi has done. Since the play is set in the pre-1857 period and is related to the last Mughal king, himself a prominent poet of Urdu, the language had to be the language of those times—Hindustani with lashings of Persian. Among many notions of perverted and constricted definitions of Urdu and Hindi by protagonists claiming themselves scholars of each category is a strange notion that merely the presence of Sanskrit vocabulary makes the language Hindi and the same language sans Sanskrit and with oodles of Persian words changes this language into Urdu. This is the common misnomer which completely ignores all grammatical aspects in the formation of language, particularly the category of the verb which in the case of both languages does not belong to either ‘language of origin’—Sanskrit or Persian. This misnomer about Urdu and Hindi presents us with the most bizarre scenario in the history of languages.

As a student of language politics, I am conversant with the convoluted psyche of both Urdu- and Hindi-wallahs, ‘khet mazdoors’ in the fields of hatred, but I chose to ignore their politics of hatred and when the play Babur ki Aulad was performed, I made it known that it was a ‘Hindustani’ version. Incidentally, Article 351 of the Indian Constitution very subtly tries to appropriate every Indian language included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution as Hindi describing ‘Hindustani’, for example, as a form of Hindi creating an unbelievable hostility for Hindi—both hidden and spectacular.

Babur ki Aulad is the title of my translation of Mr Salman Khurshid’s English play Sons of Babur. I published my translation in both the Devnagari and Urdu scripts, in an attempt to allow those who did not understand the composite language existing in pre-1857 Hindustan access to the play. However, the language of both the Urdu and Hindi versions, to my mind, was really ‘Hindustani’. The Devnagari version did not use the political Hindi or modern Hindi, which before its adoption by the RSS was brought into being by a confused Hindu nationalism. The ideological gurus of the RSS were concerned for an imaginary Hindi at that point in time in the 19th century as an integral part of Hindu identity at almost the same time as when the Muslim elite, under the leadership of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, was saying that Hindus and Muslims could not coexist. Interestingly, Sir Syed made this statement with regard to the so-called ‘Urdu’ which found refuge in Pakistan and was responsible for another partition of the subcontinent. More on that later. Political Hindi meanwhile is not only reflected in many forms of Hindu communalism today but had posed a great threat to the unity of India and made the consensus on a national language of India impossible with Hindi remaining merely the Official Language of the Union.

To give a proper backdrop to this forced formal creation of Hindi, it would be instructive to make another small digression. A very instructive comment on this can be found in Shahid Amin’s critique of Alok Rai’s Hindi Nationalism:

Coexisting with this (vernacular) brand of easy-going, frost-free Hindutva is the aggressive propagation of an artificial high-Hindi as the natural language of Hindustan: the sort that air hostesses mouth uncomfortably, and in which schoolchildren of Hindustani-speaking parents do uniformly badly...In this informed and impassioned polemic, Rai confronts this upper-caste, self-serving “Hindi” with its own history. “The suspect vehemence with which the Hindiwallah perceives the threat without—Urdu yesterday, English today—indicates,” writes Rai, “a neurotic need to escape from its intrinsic difficulties.”...Writing as a disappointed enthusiast, Rai provides an intelligent guide to the bitter and successful fight against a “feudal-foreign” Urdu which has been led by the UP élite on behalf of a linguistically-wronged Hindi/Hindu India. The success of the ‘20s Hindi élite was at the cost of making this language unrepresentative of popular speech. The status gained by official “Hindi” in independent India was scarred by the play of power politics. If Urdu from the days of the language controversy came to stand for the Gangetic Mussalman, the historical power of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” lay not only in its brevity. Concurrent with the census that for the first time enumerated a Hindu majority and a Muslim minority, it marked the immaculate conception of linguistic majoritarianism.1

Apart from its evident clarity of perception, this passage clearly designates the categories of Hindi, Urdu and Hindustani, the latter’s unique identity evident from “Hindustani-speaking parents”. More than Urdu, it is this Hindustani-speaking populace that has been subsumed by Hindi chauvinism, which has imposed a formal and contrived structure on Hindustani, the natural tongue of a vast majority of north Indians. When I was translating the play into Hindustani, I was all too aware that this language, which would have been the national language had Gandhiji had his way and which is the language of 80 per cent of Indians, has no official status. I was also aware—and I am saying this to remind all those who are in the politics of Urdu and Hindi—that in the long journey of what is now called Urdu, it was known for most part as ‘Hindi/Hindavi’. It was only towards the end of this journey that the name ‘Urdu’ was adopted.

According to one school of thought it is believed that translations should not be literal copies of the original, meaning that the language of translation should incorporate its own creative elements. The translated text then becomes an artefact in itself unique but not independent from the original text. Another prevalent perception, at least by the way translations are done willy-nilly these days, is that it is not necessary for the translator to have equal command over both the languages and their cultural nuances, history and other subtleties. Or to put it another way, it is not necessary that the translator should have command over both the languages—the language from which the translation is made and the language into which the translation is made—command over the latter being the perquisite condition.

There is yet another perception that the translation should be true to the original text and should look like a translation. It is also a fact that it is impossible to find a sufficient number of translators who have equal command over both the source and target languages. Even in the case of Indian languages, particularly those belonging to different language families, hardly any Indian translator has been able to capture the finer nuances and language register of the original text, except in rare cases of exceptionally good translations by eminent writers of their own writings. A case in point in Urdu is that of Ahmad Ali, whose Twilight in Delhi has been published under his wife’s name. People who have read Ahmad Ali’s writings in both Urdu and English could immediately fathom who the real translator was due to the common nuances and inimitable signature present in both texts. There is sadly hardly any competent translation of Urdu poetry. Despite two legendary Urdu poets, Faiz and Iqbal, having equal command over Urdu, English, Persian and Arabic, they never attempted translating their own poetry. A good translation has many other components besides language competence, the most important among these being the subject matter and the translator’s comfort with and clarity about it.

Babur ki Aulad is essentially a political play and deals with the issue of Indian identity rendered complex by the violent partition of the country and the great resistance to Hindu chauvinism put up by Nehru. To India’s great good fortune, Nehru had 17 years to implement the secular spirit of the Indian constitution. Sons of Babur was originally published in English and Urdu simultaneously, but owing to the way I prepared the text in Devnagari, the publisher took some time to agree to publish it in that script simply because the Hindustani language does not conform to the diktats of modern Hindi chauvinists. We announced the English and Hindustani performances simultaneously and booked the hall for two consecutive days, intending the performance on the first day to be in English as that was the language the play was originally written in. To our extreme surprise, patrons asked to see the Hindustani performance first. In fact, we were eventually forced to hold both the initial shows in Hindus-tani.

Interestingly—and to the disappointment of both Urdu and Hindi chauvinists—most of the characters in the play are non-Muslims, none of whom would recognise the Urdu alphabet and many perhaps even not Devnagari. As citizens of this digital age, the audience, a major section of which comprised youngsters, was hardly bothered about the script and as per prevalent practice the script for rehearsals was in Roman. Interestingly, the main character of Bahadur Shah Zafar was played by the legendary thespian, Tom Alter—a Protestant Christian whose father was a priest—whose command over Urdu is as good as, if not better than that of, many native Urdu speakers. Right from its very first show, the Hindustani version of Babur ki Aulad was a grand success and, as trite as it sounds, there was no looking back from there.

The play has had, among others, a much- applauded performance in London where those members of the audience that were of Indian origin included a vast contingent of Tamil and Gujarati speakers, all of whom enjoyed and could largely follow the performance in Hindustani. The director, Dr M. Sayeed Alam, spent six months on the rehearsals ensuring that the performances went without a glitch and remained with the audience even after they left the theatre. We staged 25 performances in Hindustani over the course of the next ten months besides a few in English and several play-reading sessions by the playwright in India and England (at the Universities of London and Oxford) which, too, were hugely successful. One English performance at the NCPA, Mumbai had an audience of 1410, every one of whom had purchased a ticket! A feat when theatregoers are a minority in this day and age of multiplexes and 100-crore blockbusters.

The theatrical genre certainly is all about emoting and the spoken word. Since both Urdu- and Hindi-wallahs insist that without a script these languages cannot be termed as languages, so from their parochial standpoint Urdu theatre or Hindi theatre does not exist in India—in most cases the plays that are performed are not the same as the ones that are published and out of a hundred-odd successful plays that are performed hardly 10 to 15 are even published in the Urdu or Devnagri scripts. It follows then, from the logic of theatre in Urdu and Hindi, that Babur Ki Aulad can best be termed as a Hindustani play in which the spirit of India exists.

The Sahitya Akademi, though it has the mandate for conferring awards in languages which are included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, has from the very beginning conferred awards on writers in English, a language that is not included in the Eighth Schedule. It comes as no surprise that there has been no award for writers in Hindustani despite the fact that the Hindustani Akademi and Hindustani Sabha both exist, needless to say against the wishes, designs and concerted efforts of the RSS and Hindi and Urdu chauvinists. Hindi, despite all the claims of the RSS brigade, is not the national language of the nation but is simply the Official Language of the Union, which represents a loss for Hindi and its great literature. Urdu chauvinists were marginalised with the formation of Pakistan, and Urdu, the ethos of which is secular, has suffered because of the propaganda that identified its script as the script of the Quran and the language as a language of only the Muslims.

In fact, the birth of Bangladesh was made possible after the sustained campaign of the Haroof ul Quran movement by Maulvi Abdul Haq and Maulana Syed Suleiman Nadwi, when the Bangla-speaking population of the then East Bengal refused to accept the proposition that Muslims of East and West Pakistan should unite simply because the national language of Pakistan, was written in the Quranic script. Urdu and Urdu alone would be the national language of Pakistan averred M. A. Jinnah immediately after partition and that too at a convocation at Dhaka University, paving the way for another partition of the subcontinent immediately after the first partition! All this goes to show that linguistic chauvinism is counter-productive in the long run but they do say human beings do not learn from their mistakes!

May I end with the humble suggestion that the Sahitya Akademi seriously consider recognising Hindustani as a language and confer awards in it as in any other Indian language? By defining its parameters thus in the changed language scenario, the Akademi would do a great service to Indian languages and pave the way towards forging a consensus on a truly ‘national language’. If this happens, after the RTI, it will be the second greatest achievement of independent India. 

[This is the text of the author’s acceptance speech for Sahitya Akademi Translation Award, August 23, 2013, Chennai]


  • Reproduced from the Outlook, February 12, 2001 in the Annual of Urdu Studies, Vol. 16, 2001, under “events, inquiries, news, notices, reports”.

The author is a pioneer scholar in the field of Urdu language and its education and has for long been arguing that instead of modernising dini madrasas, the government should provide Urdu education as part of the secular curriculum of school education. He has written his M.Phil and Ph.D dissertations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His book, Muslims and Media Images (OUP 2009), presents a frank and no-holds-barred discussion on an important theme that has become a victim of oversimplification. The paperback edition (2010) of the author’s book, Redefining Urdu Politics in India, with a new Introduction, argues how the once-secular Urdu language has now been relegated to only Muslims and confined within the realm of madrasas. It is a timely intervention in the wake of the Right to Education Act, 2010.He is currently the General Secretary of the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind). He can be contacted at e-mail: farouqui@yahoo.com

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