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.



On moving

I had to pause before I turned the key for the last time. Nearly every day over the past five years, I had been at this very door.

For this was the place we called “home”. Inside those walls, was the room that our newborn son slept in the day we brought him home from the hospital. There was the window where I rocked him as he gazed at the moon and stars. These were the walls from which we hung decorations for his first and second birthdays. There was the carpet on which he first learned to walk. There was the balcony from which he first saw the sun, clouds, rain, and snow.

Then, a few days ago, we packed large boxes with the objects that had occupied the spaces within those walls. We took the furniture and the boxes out of that home and placed them inside another enclosure of walls. We left that address permanently.

During the cleaning and boxing process, I found many knickknacks I had either lost or had forgotten acquiring. As a final act of jealous defiance, the rooms also coughed up loose change and dust by the handful. And then once it had been stripped of all of our possessions, the rooms looked small and naked. How had we ever fit so many things in here? How had we found the space for so many footsteps and voices and emotions? How had we filled these rooms with so many days and nights and thoughts and memories?

All of us need the concept of a home as a reference point as we crisscross the earth. But our homes are not only spatial constructs, they are locked in time and memory. Notions of homes change faster than recollections of years spent in them. Until one day, we cannot stay any longer.

Galaxies and stars move: our planet is in constant motion. Like them, we are restless wanderers who flit from one place to another: we are always in motion. Our motion has an added dimension in that it is conscious.

I have changed residences many times in my life. I moved away from the soil of my ancestors. Moving is never easy, but it is essential. Only when you are exiled from the place you call home, can you think of creating another one for yourself.

It is necessary to be separated from a home to gain an awareness of it and to cherish the notion of it. But there is pain in exile. A line from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” sums up the emotion: “You will have to abandon everything you love most tenderly, and that is the arrow that the bow of exile first lets fly.”

As I locked the door of my home for the last time that day, I knew that place would soon become home for another family, who would have their own stories to tell. We would also have a home of our very own, at least for sometime, until it would be time to move again. For wandering is the only option in life.

“Moving” is taking objects from one small enclosure we call home, to another. Moving is the process of finding a resting place for physical objects we have amassed, not for us.

(Written April 23, 2014).


Is the world becoming a more intolerant place? Of course, I can’t answer that question objectively, but it certainly feels that way these days. What seem to me to be in short supply are empathy and humility. So many people I come across seem to have all the right answers, so much that they are even unwilling to entertain alternate viewpoints.

When I was younger, I seemed more certain about things. With age has come uncertainty, for which I am truly grateful. Uncertainty has added more hues to my mental palette. 

I wish I was better at listening, though. Even if my intentions are good, there are a wide array of experiences I can never have, and I need to accept that and just listen more. For example, I will never know what it is like to face misogyny. 

So much misogyny, casual racism, class discrimination, language prejudice, homophobia, and bigotry gets dismissed offhand by those who never know what it is like to face these injustices on a daily basis. Telling people that their concerns are unwarranted does nothing to make anyone feel bigger or more welcome. It serves no purpose whatsoever. 

Why can’t we all accept that we don’t get to decide how other people feel? Maybe we all need to listen more when others talk about why they hurt instead. 

The end of childhood.

When does childhood end? Is there a specific predetermined age? Or is there a vague defining moment in life when the essence of childhood is lost forever?

I think one hallmark of reaching adulthood is coming to a stage in life when problems genuinely don’t go away by themselves, you can’t pass on your own worries to others, and you have to make your own decisions by yourself. It dawns on you that you’re on your own. You have one life and very little control over it. The problems of childhood pale in comparison: a child has elders that can be turned to for guidance and comfort. A child is not out there alone, facing the true nature of the world.

In addition to children and adults, there is a third category of people– quasi-adults. These people look like adults, but they’ve never quite grown up. Due to serious developmental deficiencies they expect an omniscient, omnipotent being to listen to and answer their prayers whenever they face problems in their lives. They can’t deal with their flawed impermanence. They can’t accept that as they cling to wreckage in the whirlwind of their lives, help is not on the way from some celestial chopper.

On cooking

It may come as a surprise that I love to cook. Since I left the laboratory environment nearly a decade ago, cooking has been an outlet for me to experiment with materials and methods in a small way. It is cause and effect in a contained environment. It is chemistry at the interface of biology and physics. And most importantly, it has the tangible outcome of a (usually edible) meal that can be shared, critiqued, and improved. 

But in my case, the similarities between cooking and science are not perfect. While I trained in science for many years, I have no formal training in cooking. In science, everything has to be measured precisely: protocols have to be followed exactly until you are confident enough to make one change at a time to optimize your experiment. When I cook, I try to understand ingredients and procedures as much as I can– often through trial-and-error– but I don’t follow exact recipes. I substitute ingredients quite often: I also try to replicate what I’ve eaten and enjoyed based on a personal sense of taste. 

Maybe a better comparison can be made in my case between music and cooking. I was never taught how to play a culinary instrument, but I know what is music and what is not. Similarly, it took me years to recognize good food. It possesses an economy of seasoning: it is not loud or overbearing, but balanced. Like a jazz musician, my own style consists of improvisation, but I also know my limitations. I can play for friends in an informal setting, but I’m never going to perform a solo concerto for a paying audience. And, because my cooking is freestyle, by and large, I avoid the exact art of baking.

For the trip back

My son is no stranger to flying. Added up, he’s racked up miles close to half the distance from the earth to the moon. Of course, the longest of his many flights, in terms of distance, have been the ones taken during his four visits to India. Each time it has progressively been harder for him to come back.

This time, he cried most of the way back. Ever since his return on Friday, he has guarded the suitcases that came back with him. He will not let us unpack them. He wants to take a a red cab to go back to the airport, and take the “bigger plane” back to India.

I vaguely remember the same feeling. When I first moved to America, I was my son’s age. It was very difficult for me to leave the extended family I had grown up with up until that time. For the first few months, in our Brooklyn apartment, I hid pieces of chocolate and other goodies behind the sofa for the trip back when I would give them to my grandmother. One time, I had safeguarded a banana, which was discovered when it had rotted to a black pulp.

Those memories had been hidden for decades until my son unlocked them.

Walls are never finished

When we moved, the walls were a blank canvas of white. We had them painted over so we could add a touch of our own warmth. A house is never a home until it reminds you of who you were with and where you had been. Adding images of life to virtual walls on social media is easy– there is no geometry, the photos do not look back and hear your conversations. The corners of real walls, paradoxically. may be jagged, but they can be navigated when light is like clay– soft and malleable.

The poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote that rooms are never finished. I think it is true because walls are never finished. Some walls need to be painted and repainted, because the color is never right. Some walls need to be empty. Some walls need to capture emotions inside frames. Some walls have images within images. Some walls need to scream, “I exist. Here I am. Remember me until I crumble into dust.”