On Missing the 'Tradition' of Reading Urdu Books While Using Public Transportation

In an effort to tackle Urdu script phobias, a practice of reading Urdu script books in public spaces came to life only to be shelved during the pandemic.

It’s been more than three months since I stepped out of my apartment in Delhi, and I’m mildly surprised at myself for staying put for so long. Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought of being holed up for a week, let alone three months, without stepping out to meet people.

But the pandemic has made us discover facets of the self that were hitherto unexplored and unimaginable. What also surprises me is that I haven’t missed doing things I would normally do – like going to the Press Club to meet friends, window visiting book shops (my other favourite past time), relishing the bun-butter and tea at Naveen tea stall in Gole Market or the nihari, korma and biryani in different parts of Jamia Nagar and Purani Dilli.

But the one thing that I absolutely miss is being not able to continue with my practice of reading Urdu books while using public transportation.

Two years ago, I started a new silsila (practice/tradition) of reading Urdu in public transport. I’d take out an Urdu book, magazine or newspaper and start reading after boarding a bus or metro. I’d often take pictures of it and post them on my social media.

This encouraged some of my friends across India to start reading Urdu in public places, or while travelling via public transport. It would fill me with joy on seeing someone read a non-English book while travelling, for despite Delhi having a humongous non English/Hindi reading population, it would still be a rare sight to find someone doing so.

Hence, while starting with the silsila, I had posted on my social media accounts requesting people to read books, magazines, newspapers etc in their respective languages as well while using public transportation.

The idea wasn’t to flaunt my knowledge of the beautiful language or that I was multilingual, but to make public transport and public spaces more diverse and Urdu friendly. It’s not that people hate Urdu per se, but there is a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice afloat as far as the Urdu script is concerned.

The author reading an Urdu Magazine, Tilismati Duniya (World of Magic) in DTC bus. Photo: Mahtab Alam

In fact, this is gradually taking the shape of an ‘Urdu phobia’ of sorts, or at the very least, and ‘Urdu script phobia’. While the language is considered to be beautiful and people at large love listening to and conversing in it, as soon as the script comes into picture, some either feel that it is not important enough or argue against the use of a script which is ‘foreign’ or alien to the masses. Often the trope of “accessibility” is also deployed in order to argue that if one puts much emphasis on the script, then a lot of ‘Urdu lovers’ would not be able to access it.

Also read: Review: What the Best Urdu Stories Tell Us

While there is some truth to this argument, to take it as the ultimate reality would be a bit far-fetched. In any case, not having knowledge of the script excludes ‘Urdu lovers’ from access to a vast amount of literature which has not been translated or transliterated, and it is unlikely that they would be in the near future.

This could be because of several reasons. One, there is an acute lack of abled translators and translation is a thankless, low-paying job. Secondly, it is almost impossible to translate or convert them to non-Urdu languages.

For example, the English translation of one of the books of noted Urdu satirist Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi was made available recently. And despite the intentions and hard work put in by the translators, it appears to have been lost in translation.

Having read the translation, I share the feeling of a reviewer who had rightly pointed out that

“the English translation of Aab-e-Gum leaves you with a deep sense of loss — a sense of loss at the disconnect many native Urdu speakers have with Urdu literature. The book makes you wish desperately that your private school had not treated Urdu as an alien language, and the original writings of great authors like Yousufi were more accessible.”

Mind you, this is not just true of the English translation, but the one in Hindi as well. I was baffled to read the latter of Yousufi’s works.

In my understating, people develop script-phobia broadly because of two reasons. The lack of knowledge and appreciation for the script, as also the prejudice. While much of the prejudice is a result of deliberate and well-planned propaganda against Urdu, especially its script, a lack of knowledge and an appreciation for the script feeds into this. Hence, it becomes important to focus on the use and promotion of the script. My school mate Shiraz Husain, who is a visual artist and art educator, and founder of the popular initiative Khwaab Tanha Collective, makes some important observations in this regard. In an interview, he had said that the Rasm-ul-khat (script) is important for two reasons.

“Visually, it creates its own space, and if you know the meaning of the script, it creates a different sort of connect. So when I created the Jaun Eliya t-shirt, the text was clearly visible, for I wanted it to say that this is the Urdu script. There’s a phobia being created against the script, and by different sources. As a visual artist, what can I do to change it? So I’m thinking of creating t-shirts having only text. Like from ‘alif’ to ‘choti ye’, each letter with a word to it.”

Therefore, like me, he sometimes

“sit(s) with an Urdu book in the Metro. So that people get used to it, they don’t think it is an alien language, an enemy language.”

Shahzaman Haque, who is a lecturer in Urdu and assistant director of the Department of South Asia and Himalayas at the INALCO in Paris, adds another important aspect:

“To say further that Ghalib or Iqbal would have produced the same marvels in their writings with any other script, would be like providing them with another tool, which lacks the specificity of the sounds of the Urdu language – its hybrid, potent and varied tapestry – and lacks the same architecture of writing.”

Referring to Prof. Richard Salomon’s work, Haque writes that the script is lost mainly due to two factors: civilisation loss or decline, or change in dynasty. And he is right in saying that,

“(l)et us not enforce ‘civilisation loss’ on Urdu and, as for dynasties, they have changed multiple times in India, but Urdu has succeeded in carving out its own niche in this powerful hybrid society. To protect and value our democracy, it is equally important to value and preserve the scripts, as they are a part of our ecological system.”

Here, I am also reminded of veteran Urdu poet Gulzar Dehlvi (Pandit Anand Mohan Zutshi Gulzar Dehlvi), who passed away recently and was often referred as the “Imam e Urdu” (the leader of Urdu). He was a great proponent of Urdu education and instrumental in setting up Urdu schools across the country since 1970 and abroad in the later decades.

According to a report in the Indian Express, Dehlvi also fought to publish the government’s science magazine, Science Ki Duniya. As per the report,

“After independence, both Nehru and Maulana Azad (then education minister) would speak of inculcating scientific temper in their public speeches. I asked, ‘Maulana, how will this temper be developed if people don’t get scientific literature in their own language?’”

Let me end this with two points that I wanted to make. First, learning Urdu (the script) is not rocket science and there are enough platforms and opportunities to learn the language and the script, both offline and online — paid as well as free, or nominally charged. If you are a true Urdu Dost (friend of Urdu) or Mohibb-e-Urdu (Urdu lover), then you have nothing to lose but your inhibitions.

Secondly, my heart does not only beat for Urdu alone but for ‘other’ languages as well.

I was happy to see public transport authorities of London using multilingual (which included several Indian languages) posters recently to spread awareness.

I will wait for the day when Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and other public transport authorities take up such initiatives and not just use communication materials in English and Hindi. Of course, with correct spellings and translations.