Is this the death of the Urdu language?

Published: October 3, 2013
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The way our young generation has distanced itself from Urdu, especially Urdu literature, is something to lament over. PHOTO: AFP

After reading Raza Rumi’s ‘Delhi by Heart’, I came across a touching phrase by Khurshid Afsar Bisrani,

“Ab urdu kya hai, ek kothay ki tawaif hai, mazaa har ek leta hai, mohabbat kam kartey hain.”

(What is Urdu, but a prostitute of a brothel, everyone takes advantage, but only few truly love her.)

This prompted me to pen down my feelings regarding the state of Urdu in daily life.

The way our young generation has distanced itself from Urdu, especially Urdu literature, is something to lament. Thanks to my upbringing, with both my parents being fond of reading Urdu, I have lived in an environment where quality reading has always been appreciated. Having seen books of Ashfaq AhmadBano QudsiaSaadat Hassan Manto, and others in my house, classical Urdu has always inspired me.

But what I see in my school (Lahore Grammar School) and university (LUMS) is pitiful.

During my high school years, most of the students in my class were unable to read even the most basic headlines from Urdu newspapers. O- Level Urdu, being a compulsory subject for further studies in Pakistan, was being offered in two different categories; Urdu as a first language (usually referred to as Urdu A) and Urdu as a second language (Urdu B). Around 80% of students in my school opted for Urdu B even though it was technically their first language, except for the few who had spent their early years abroad.

Those of us who were taking Urdu A were shifted to a small cabin with a few chairs encircled around our teacher, while the Urdu B group was taught in a normal classroom due to the necessity of larger space.

At LUMS, where I am currently a sophomore doing a Bachelors in Economics, the situation is no different. In this semester, I enrolled for the course ‘Iqbal’s Urdu poetry’. When I attended the first class, I was shocked to see that there were only about 20 students in a class that had an enrollment cap of more than 60.

The depressing part is that when I told my friends that I had taken this course as an elective, the reaction some of them gave me varied from shocked to sympathetic.

‘Hain? Kyun yar? Koi aur course nahi mila?’ 

(Huh? Why dude? Could you not find any other course?)

 ‘Ye bhi koi parhney wali cheez hai?’

(Is this even something worth studying?)

‘Urdu? Astaghfirullah!’

This exemplifies the value our current generation gives to Urdu, and what proportion of students enjoy attending such classes. Just to share another experience, during my first semester at the university, the Urdu department invited Dr Javed Iqbal (Allama Iqbal’s son) and Ataul Haq Qasmi (renowned columnist) at two different occasions.

In a university with over 4,000 students, both the events had less than 50 attendees. This was highly depressing.

By skipping out on Urdu, our children are unable to understand some of the greatest works in Urdu literature, such as that of Iqbal or Amir Khusro. What we see is people quoting English translations of Iqbal’s poetry, which often takes away its essence. The following verse, though initially written for Europe, beautifully explains my whole argument.

“Tumhari tehzeeb apney khanjar se aap hi khudkushi karey gi
Jo shakh-e-nazuk pe aashiyana baney ga, na paidaar ho ga”
-Iqbal

(Your culture will destruct itself with its own dagger,

A nest built on a fragile branch shall never be stable)

No nation has ever progressed by working in someone else’s language. When we complain that our universities are not producing genuine scholars who make real breakthroughs in their respective fields, I believe that one of the reasons may be our detachment with our native language. As columnist and writer Orya Maqbool Jan says:

“You can learn in someone else’s language, but you cannot be creative in someone else’s language.”

I do not aim to downplay the importance of English in any sense. I only wish to point out that detaching ourselves from Urdu has cost us heavily. Studies on education systems have repeatedly shown that primary education of all subjects must be given in the mother tongue as the child is best able to absorb it at that age. However, because we have not done so, due to our inferiority complex, we have failed to develop even a liking for Urdu among our current generation.

Other than that, Urdu is the insignia of our culture. The unfortunate dilemma is that we find it ‘cool’ or trendy to dissociate ourselves from it. If we compare ourselves to other non-English speaking nations, such as Germany, France, China, and Japan etc, we can easily identify a deep sense of belonging instilled in them — one that we lack today because we are so confused.

Universities in these countries make sure that their courses are taught in their national language, with very few exceptions even up to the level of a PhD. Scholars from these countries are accepted, credited and appreciated all around the world.

Parents and our schooling system that encourage students to speak in English at all times are the reason our kids find it difficult to cope with the demands of the Urdu language. They develop a sense of loathing towards it, distance themselves from it and anyone who does in fact enjoy Urdu is looked down upon.

In a study on colonial education in the subcontinent, Under the Shadow of the Raj (2006), one of the respondents commented on Urdu saying,

“Yes, on reflection I do feel there were a lot of gaps, a whole chunk of Urdu language went missing! Unfortunately not having made a base in early schooling years one has never recovered, a major regret. Well, what to expect when one is fined for speaking Urdu! Yes, no trace of our history too. In fact a whole culture gone from our lives where our roots are embedded… very sad and almost lethal invasion of human minds.”

Lastly, the culture of reading in general, irrespective of language, has sharply declined. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to even go ahead and say that the habit of reading never truly blossomed in Pakistan. Students are loaded with course text books, leaving them both with less time and intellectual capacity to absorb any thing else. In this case, Urdu isn’t even a reading option for many kids out there.

Unless we start to take some pride in our national language, and derive a sense of belonging and unity from it, we will always be a confused nation on the brink of success, but never really there.

And if we continue as we are today, Urdu, along with our identity may eventually cease to exist.

osama.sajid

Osama Sajid

An undergraduate student at LUMS who is pursuing Economics, he is interested in reading and researching Pakistan's cultural and political issues.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.