Personal Note

I have always felt a bit of heartache for the Urdu language. Urdu is not my mother tongue. I don’t know if I have “a” mother tongue. It seems to me that each time my family migrated from one part of the Indo-Pak subcontinent to another, they somehow left behind them a part of their linguistic inheritance. What I inherited from birth were linguistic left overs – bits and pieces of Gujarati, Bengali, Urdu and English.

My grandmother did have a mother language. She experienced all her life had to offer, love, passion, faith, distress and even nearness to death, mediated through her tongue, through poetry in her mother language, Gujarati. She is not acquainted with Gujarati literature as such but she has committed to memory and copied in her handwriting in several pocket notebooks hundreds and hundreds of Gujarati poems – mostly premodern didactic and religious poems – but poems nonetheless. The image of hers most prominent in my mind is her sitting in a corner of a room at times singing softly and at times reading silently from her poetry notebooks. My mother could not find the kind of consolation my grandmother sought in Gujarati poetry. Amidst two partitions and two migrations, the circumstances of her education left her with the ability to only communicate in Gujarati. Its poetry, I think, if not entirely alien, failed to make an original impression upon her. She learnt Bengali and English in one part of the subcontinent and struggled with Urdu in another. When I came, she spoke to me in Urdu, sent me to an English medium school and left me with grandmother to pick up Gujarati. That is why it seems to me that I do not have “a” mother tongue. But I do have a “first” language – a language in which for the very first time I realized that where I emotionally stand – in words of Freud – a poet has been there before me. Among other Urdu poets it is Faiz Ahmad Faiz who has left in me an ever-lasting impression.

The social and economic factors which conditioned my education were not much different than those in my mother’s time. The educational environment in which I grew up favoured understanding of language as a utility, a mere tool for communication. And as a utility, a language’s literature – be it Urdu, English or Gujarati – takes a marginal place. We were of course taught English and Urdu literature in schools, but the thinking that literature is only important as long as you get good grades, if not made explicit, was unconsciously there. To consider literature and especially poetry as an indispensable and a necessary part of life, just as it is for my grandmother, did not enter my consciousness until very late. Not inappropriately did Azad call his history of Urdu poetry “aab-e-hayaat” (The water [sustainer] of life, 1880).

Judging from the preferences and general attitude of my siblings and their friends towards literature, I can say that the situation, particularly with education in the the Urdu language and its literature has not just deteriorated, but also become – a phenomenon too easily observable in the cities – “unfashionable”. The literature of the only language which they could call their very own is slowly becoming incomprehensible to them. Unfortunately, Faiz, or any other Urdu poet, cannot speak to these bright and youthful ones. Faiz-e-Zabaan is a small contribution towards making Urdu language and its literature a little comprehensible for those who have inherited Urdu but have not yet been able to make it truly their own.

Ray Alif

December 11, 2011