Monday, April 11, 2005

Urdu and Me

This piece has been prompted by a fragment of Urdu poetry on a friend's website. My relationship with Urdu has been fragile at the best of times. I was born into an age of post colonial inferiority. Although I recall speaking some form of Urdu at a fairly early age, the really interesting things seem to be happening in English. I was actually given an English nanny, though she seems to have faded away pretty quickly. Urdu was a prosaic footnote on a very English page.

Just as I was settling into this vaguely uncomfortable bilingualism, I was taken to Dacca (as it was then spelt) where Bengali entered my life. I am told I had a passable speaking knowledge of the language. I cannot remember a word of it. Then it was on to London as an eight year old, where English rooted itself firmly in my soul. So firmly, that it would be impossible to uproot it. Like acid on an etching. I entered the world of Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton and Beano comics with a vengeance. English was here to stay.

Then it was back to Karachi. That's where it all began. I discovered to my horror that while I could speak some form of Urdu, I had no idea what the kids were writing. Worse still, the books opened the wrong way round. I will never forget the shame of being handed out a qaeda (primer) while all the other pupils sniggered. They were reading text. I was reading alphabet. The horror. The horror. In those days Urdu books were printed on blotting paper. Black text on smudgy newsprint. The content was even less inspiring. Pithy essays on personal hygiene, the Mughal Emperors and the horrors of masturbation. (Kidding.) Concurrently, my English books were opening up new worlds for me.

Crisis point was reached when I discovered I needed to pass my Urdu 'O' level (or whatever they call it now) in order to get my certificate. Having barely passed every Urdu exam, I knew that action was called for. I bought my first Urdu dictionary. I tried reading Munshi Prem Chand. Halfway through I discovered I was really reading Hindi. Ooops. I switched to the essays of Patras. This was easier.. For the next year I slept with the dictionary. I would learn three new words a day and endeavour to use them. I got through the exam. With a straight A .My Urdu teacher was apoplectic. Hey, this wasn't beginning to look so bad after all.

Fast forward. I have since tried reading (and have immensely enjoyed) bits of Ghalib and Iqbal. It is all very slow and tedious. I have to understand each word. Somehow, the enjoyment of it all is enhanced with this effort- when one savours every word. Unlike English, where the image of the word enters one's consciousness surreptitiously, through the scullery - Urdu knocks politely on the front door.

Cut to Delhi. I am part of a delegation milling around the stunningly impressive Presidency. Suddenly a compact man emerges, puts his arm around my waist and engages me in conversation in the most flawless Urdu imaginable. I gulped. I was talking to I.K Gujral. The Prime Minister. Deep breath. I think I did a fairly good job. Nowhere near him in fluency and diction. Still not bad.

Today I speak Urdu with a level of unease. It's not as bad as it was. Sometimes the words come exactly the way I want them to. Other days, I struggle and resort to English equivalents. Urdu and I seem to have made our peace.


Blogger livinghigh said...

Urdu and u sounds like Bengali and me!!! lol. Am soooo out of practice now with the language, but no, my Hindi's actually worse!!!

PS: come by the new blog sometime.

2:17 pm  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

The new site looks cool! I will learn how to jazz mine up. In the meanwhile life is filling up visa forms, getting airline tickets and getting ready to depart. Horraaaayyy.

3:52 pm  
Blogger s said...

stop by my city, uberhomme!!! i'll take you to all the hot spots with the hot men! we can be lecherous together.

oh and my urdu is TERRIBLE (i can speak fine, but writing it is another matter). in my last year of school, i got a 17 out of a 100 in the mock exam and my teacher begged me to try and pass the finals so that i don't come back to torture her for another year.

and i don't even have your excuse, because i was born and brought up in karachi!

7:43 pm  
Blogger Sin said...

You know, I did something very similar with my Urdu O-levels (I think we may well have had the same teachers in school), only in my case, I had the father from Lucknow pleading with me to preserve his dignity.

Oddly enough, my Urdu improved dramatically once I was in college. I think it was because I needed to speak in it frequently in order to keep things private while my roommate did his poor best to eavesdrop.

Punjabi however is a different ballgame altogether.

8:27 pm  

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