Urdu Writing in India and Pakistan

By Waqas Khwaja

In his post, Waqas Khwaja takes us through the development and current landscape of Urdu writing in India and Pakistan. Make sure to read through our issues of Pakistani writing and Urdu Fiction from India in the archives. Editors

If, as Oscar Wilde (or was it Bernard Shaw?) once declared, “England and America are separated by a common language,” then India and Pakistan are surely separated by their own common language: Urdu. Despite Urdu’s prevalence in Northern India in pre-Partition days as a kind of “link language,” Urdu did not originate in any part of what is today Pakistan. It is also true that India has twenty-two official languages besides Urdu, not to mention the hundreds of unofficial languages that are spoken across its length and breadth. So to claim, simply, that Urdu is a uniting factor for people from different religious and ethnic groups, is to disregard the linguistic politics and metropolitan imperialism that assigned it to that position, and diminish the importance of the many languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent that possess their own flourishing literary traditions. Urdu is virtually non-existent in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka; it is spoken by only a small minority in Bengal; and it is not the favored language in Maharashtra, Assam, Goa, or even in East Punjab, to name some major areas of modern India.

Even so, Urdu iswidely spoken in India, Pakistan, and in diaspora communities scattered throughout the Western world. For those who speak it, it is one of the most beautiful languages of the world. Yet, the religious and sectarian politics of the pre-Partition years caused Urdu to be seen as a language exclusive to Muslims, to the extent that it was deployed as an argument for the separate nationhood of Indian Muslims in the struggle that led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Thus, whatever the origins of Urdu, it became the language of disaffection and division in the battle against British imperialism. Because of this history, it was only natural in post-Partition years that Urdu should be officially shunned in India but actively promoted in Pakistan. In the sixty-three years since the partition, the results of this rift have been sobering and evident to all observers. Resistance against the imposition of Urdu sparked the movement for Bengali independence in East Bengal, a former Pakistani territory that is now Bangladesh, while opposition to Urdu’s linguistic hegemony continues to fuel the struggles for provincial autonomy in Sindh and Baluchistan and, to a lesser extent, in the frontier province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa today.

In India, where Urdu retained its status as an official Indian language, there was at first no interest in the preservation and promotion of the Urdu language. However matters came to be regarded in a more temperate manner over time, so that now there is little active discouragement of Urdu as a language, and its use is officially recognized in the areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh.

The one factor that has kept Urdu alive and thriving in India has been its continued use by the people who speak it natively, largely Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and the former state of Hyderabad (now absorbed in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra). Urdu also owes more than a little of its mass appeal and prominence to Bollywood, which at one time produced hundreds of Urdu movies every year, although the Mumbai-based film industry has shifted to Hindi in the last twenty years or so. In Pakistan, on the other hand, Urdu owes its survival to the large influx of mohajirs (immigrants) from Urdu-speaking parts of India and to a determined official patronage. The pre-Partition tradition among Punjabis, and even some Pathans, of using Urdu for literary expression has continued in Pakistan after Partition, though it may still be rare to find Baluchi and Sindhi writers who use it as a medium for their creative work.

The evolution of Urdu has had advantages and setbacks in both India and Pakistan. Understandably, these have manifested themselves differently in the two countries. The impediments are real as well as perceptual. In India, Urdu has been confined mostly to regions where it is spoken natively, and it continues to be associated mostly with Muslims, although it may be widely used by other groups as well—whereas in Pakistan, it faces strong resistance from provincial interests that have a tendency to politicize its use and see it as an impediment to the growth of the indigenous languages. In Pakistan, Urdu also suffers from the disadvantages that come with official patronage, making it difficult for writers to challenge the very agency that supports their literary efforts. Additionally, Pakistani users of Urdu must constantly contend with a stiff and awkward “official-ese” that pervades the airwaves and the communications of government-controlled media to the disregard and detriment of the spoken idiom.

The socio-political conditions that have given their distinctive impetus to the development of Urdu in the two countries are equally distinct. In India, for instance, Urdu writers may feel freer to focus on political and social issues, and their roots in a multi-religious and multi-cultural environment leave them less prone to taking any extreme view on religious matters. Thus, their work is able to accommodate difference and diversity far more naturally than that of their peers across the border. In Pakistan, on the other hand, Urdu has been adopted by writers in a variety of ethnic and cultural settings, which has led to the enrichment of the language through close interactions with Punjabi, Pashtun, Sindhi, and Baluch elements. This diversity of backgrounds and interweaving cultural contexts has also enlarged the allusive field for Urdu writers to reflect influences of oral and written traditions from the major regional languages of Pakistan.

The Urdu language and its corresponding literature have thus developed differently in both countries, and this is as it should be. These differing trajectories of growth indicate the resilience and possibilities of growth for the language—something that lovers of Urdu on both sides of the border, and indeed around the world, should be willing to celebrate.

Through all the political and social developments of the last sixty-three years, the ghazal (a short poem in couplets of recurring rhyme) and the afsana (short story) remain the predominant genres of Urdu literature. Certainly, the nazm (a term used in Urdu for both a free verse poem and one in strict meter and rhyme) has been widely adopted in Pakistan, and significantly longer fiction has been written on both sides of the border, but when one thinks of Urdu literature, it is overwhelmingly the ghazal and the afsana that come to mind. That Words without Borders chose to dedicate its September issue to Urdu short fiction from India is, therefore, especially noteworthy. Outstanding practitioners of the genre are represented in the selections made (and mostly translated) by the venerable Muhammad Umar Memon, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Memon is a highly respected scholar in the field of Urdu Studies and an untiring crusader for the cause of Urdu. Since 1993, he has steadfastly and meticulously edited the Annual of Urdu Studies, founded by Professor C. M. Naim in 1981, which is perhaps the only high-quality journal in English that publishes scholarly articles and reviews on Urdu writers and their works. This accomplishment has earned him the gratitude of scholars and readers of Urdu, South-Asian, and comparative literature everywhere. Readers of Words without Borders are fortunate that a person of Memon’s standing and caliber has culled for them the best of Indian short fiction in Urdu. It is a rare treat.


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