Urdu is Greek to me

A peculiarity of the Washington D.C. area is that many of taxi-drivers are South Asian immigrants, mostly of Pakistani origin. I don’t know if it is the shared first-generation immigrant experience or the sense that you can tell another brown person in a language you share, things you wouldn’t otherwise share with complete strangers, but I’ve had some interesting conversations on taxi-rides of various durations.The introduction phase as I enter the cab usually follows a pattern. The cabdriver takes a quick look at me and asks, “Where are you from?” to which I answer “India”. The next question directed to me is, “do you speak Urdu?” to which I reply, “Hindi”. The taxi driver then dismissingly responds, “Ah, ek hi baat hai… It’s the same thing.” And then we proceed to converse in a completely intelligible language.

Of course, after I find out the cab-driver is a Pakistani who speaks Urdu to my Indian Hindi, I unconsciously search for differences in our languages. More often than not, the speaker uses the (aap) aao/baitho verbs that I typically associate with Punjab/Haryana, instead of the aayen/baithen of formal airline announcements or the daily-use North Indian aiye/baithiye. In other words, my Urdu-speaking cab-driver in North Virginia usually sounds like a Punjabi Hindi-speaking cab-driver in Delhi. How disappointing!

So what exactly is Urdu?

Of course there are volumes written on this topic, and I’m sure all of them are right. But I’ve realized that I never really thought of this question in a meaningful personal way.

I learned rudimentary Hindi after I had already picked up Bangla quite well. As such, like many non-native speakers of the language, I searched for similarities with Bangla. My first exposure with very Sanskritized Hindi was in watching the hugely popular Mahabharat (scripted by the late Dr. Rahi Masoom Raza). I was elated. Here was a Hindi with kintu/evam (instead of the more common magar/aur) that sounded very much like an educated man’s Bangla. I’d argue that because of mutual intelligibility with other Indic languages through copious use of Sanskrit, Ramayan and Mahabharat immediately made Hindi approachable to non-native speakers at a scale that even Bollywood had not achieved.

A few years later The Sword of Tipu Sultan aired on national television. Probably, by most measures, it could be called Urdu or Urdu-influenced. It introduced me to qaum and watan-parasti. But, ironically, as I think back to those days now, I never considered it Urdu either.

So what did I think was Urdu back then?

Urdu was always the other language, the one I didn’t understand. Anything I understood was Hindi. Regardless of whether it was a kavita or shayari or geet or ghazal, if I could make sense of nearly all the words, it was Hindi. There was no empiric formula: zindagi was as much Hindi as jivan was. Of course if Mahadevi Verma had been written in Nastaliq it would be Urdu to me. Faiz was always Urdu to me, but I’m sure Greek to many people who do claim to understand Urdu.  

But the important point that I’ve come to realize only now is that Urdu was always defined in my mind as an exclusionary construct- the other language, the one I couldn’t make sense of in script or speech. It was the language that other people who lived elsewhere, particularly in Pakistan knew. I’m not sure how this otherisation developed in my mind, but definitely the difference in script played a major part.

Of course by virtue of living in the United States, I’ve got plenty of friends and coworkers both Pakistani and Indian. When we speak, we shift back and forth seamlessly between English and Hindi or Urdu or whatever the mutually intelligible language is. Sometimes, they insert words that I’m not exactly sure I know the meaning of, and I’m sure I do the same. But the structure of the common language is the same. And, through the process of coming in touch with new words originating from Persian or Arabic or Sanskrit, to the ones I know, I’m increasing my stock of synonyms. I think both our languages are better for it.



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