Urdu Kay Muhallay

Posted by sepoy on April 02, 2009 · 6 mins read

DK recently sent an email to some of us detailing her experiences in buying Urdu instructional materials in Delhi. It's a wonderfully funny email and I asked her permission to reproduce it here. But before I get to that, I wanted to revisit my own trip(s) to Urdu Bazaar in Lahore, a few weeks ago, and set the scene for you.

Urdu Bazaar lies adjacent to the Old City and is easily one of the most congested parts of the city. At the one end is Punjab University's Old Campus:
Oriental College

And it's slew of street vendors of archaic shastras and sutras (WINDOWs to Kama).
Street Smart

And on the other end lies the outerwalls of the Old City:
Butting Heads

Urdu Bazaar bleeds into a number of other markets - from Surgical instruments to Fish to Optical. And, as befitting for such a medley, is utterly jam-packed. Here, for example, is one of the streets leading in to the market:
No Entrance

And here is the one of the exit streets. On a given day:
No Exit

The beauty is, of course, the sheer diversity of transportation since large quantities of raw materials (reams upon reams of paper, glue, cardboard) and scholarly output (beautifully bounded volumes) are struggling to find space with cars, scooters, motorcycles and rickshaws.

Burden of Knowledge

The chaos on the streets and alleyways is almost a welcome distraction as compared to the chaos of hundreds of small bookstores and publishing houses which take up residence in Urdu Bazaar. My favorite, however, provides this nice view:

I was looking for something specific in my few trips there. And having absolutely no luck. A few booksellers, after gazing at my incredulous face (registering the fact that they did not carry one of the central Urdu writer of the early twentieth century), told me to go to one or two particular booksellers. Why them? Because "they carry Indian maal (merchandise)". And so they did. I discovered an entire underground network of booksellers who sell "Indian" books are, subsequently, considered unholy by many. Not only that, I discovered that the majority of Urdu historical or literary critical work was available "only in imports" since "No one in Pakistan does Urdu, bhai. It is all over there. Kids here don't even read the newspaper in Urdu."

Now, having read this really long preamble, read DK's email and then laugh at the worlds we inhabit:

So, I decided that I was going to take an intro Urdu class this fall, and went to the Urdu bazaar yesterday opposite the Jama masjid to pick up some books that the instructor told me to look for, published by the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language. I am there to pick up some kids' books, for reading practice once I have learnt the basics of the script. So I ask a bunch of shopkeepers, explain what I want. First of all, they all send me to various other shops, saying *that one* will surely have what I want. Nobody admits to having any NCPUL publications. One guy actually publishes kids' books himself, so I ask him about them. He rubbishes my desire to buy some books even before my lessons have begun. Why? he says. Wait till you've begun, then come back. I tell him I don't live in Delhi, and my teacher said... Never mind the teacher, he says. Come back in a few months. This carries on for a while before I say, you're right. I will come back in a few months.

The shopkeeper next door insists I go back to this fellow, and when I tell him that he doesn't want to sell me his books, says, "Bewaqoof. Madam, woh aisaa hi hai." But he doesn't show me any kids' storybooks either. Like I'm asking for some Urdu softporn. Sends me off to the Anjuman-e-taraqqi-e-Urdu shop, which is shocked that I'm asking them about NCPUL. I persist; insist on not leaving unless they show me some storybooks. He throws me a few. I ask him about any Hindi-se-Urdu, Urdu-through-English guides. After several hems and haws, he says, dekhta hoon. shaayad kuchh hoga. A resentful trickle slowly turns into gentle flow - CM Naim's Urdu I and II; Gopi Chand Narang's Urdu readers, workbooks, etc etc - all NCPUL publications!!!! After hotly denying that any such thing exists, let alone that he should carry any of it, the man is stocked to the gills with NCPUL. I buy 5 story books, two readers; the whole thing costs me less than 300 Rs.

I file a prayer in the direction of the masjid, come back and eat two samosas and have a chai, with a beedi.

Am excited about learning Urdu!


Qalandar | April 02, 2009

Superb. Man I've spent a lot of time getting frustrated trying to find Urdu books in Bhopal ("only religious books; go to Delhi; they read literature there"). This is clearly akin to Freud's account of "displacement" and deferral as essential to the process of dreaming...

Conrad Barwa | April 02, 2009

Not only that, I discovered that the majority of Urdu historical or literary critical work was available “only in imports” since “No one in Pakistan does Urdu, bhai. It is all over there. Kids here don't even read the newspaper in Urdu.” This is depressing considering the the state of Urdu in India is pretty bad. Hindi isn't much better, everybody is crazy for English these days; we need more stuff in translation that goes both ways. Linguistic apartheid really will be the bane of our society. Some of the best things I have seen written on Godhra, terrorism and caste have been in Hindi.

Qalandar | April 02, 2009

Some of that "no one in pakistan does Urdu" is an exaggeration -- not to downplay the seriousness of it, but just that "Oh, Urdu is lost" is itself a hallowed trope of Urdu-speakers :-) And, there is no doubt that it is easier to find Indian writers in Urdu, in Pakistan than in India -- for instance, the likes of Qurratulain Hyder's novels are way more likely to have been published in Pakistan than India. The reason is that with the increasing confinement of Urdu to madrassas post-1947, Urdu has become not just a language culturally associated with Muslims, but a religious symbol. Thus, most of those who DO read Urdu in India tend to read only religious texts, duas, etc. in it (and use Hindi or another language for daily life); those in the social classes most likely to patronize the arts tend to read in English. [The newspaper is perhaps the Urdu-mode that transcends social barriers, but perhaps only in Hyderabad will "English Medium"-types be reading Siasat. Interestingly, I do find that the highest quality Indian Urdu newspapers -- Inquilab, Siasat, and the Rashtriya Sahara -- offer better quality than their Pakistani Urdu counterparts, at least if my assumption that Jang is the most prominent one is on the money.] In recent years, there are some very very slight hopeful signs, that might yet lead to a better future for Urdu in India than exists today: the Delhi government conferred the status of a 2nd official language on Urdu in 2002 (about time! in U.P. too, I think it was the Samajwadi party that conferred 2nd lang status on Urdu, in 1991 or so), which has contributed to a mini-upsurge in textbooks, etc., coming back into print, and even new ones being printed (and the incongruity of seeing Urdu used in new street signs (in areas where no-one can read it :-), and hardly any Urdu where one might expect people to actually be able to read it!). Obviously U.P.'s numbers cannot be matched by Delhi, but the combination of greater visibility for the national capital, relative prosperity (including an influx of wealthy Kashmiris following 1989), and a state government that has done more than most on this front , lead me to believe that Delhi is playing a lead role in this respect, at least in the North. In 2006 Penguin Books for the first time actually published an Urdu novel in India (a massive work called "Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan", set in the Delhi of the Mughal twilight, but also later in into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries); then in recent years the media group Rashtriya Sahara launched an Urdu paper from Delhi, with pretty good production values, color photos, etc.

Qalandar | April 02, 2009

PS-- on that Rashtriya Sahara newspaper, I was quite pleased to see it occupy its place with other Delhi-based newspapers in the lounges of Delhi airport. [Might seem odd or overblown to some, but in my defense I offer the fact that the sorts of Urdu newspapers one sees in (e.g.) Aurangabad, etc., are so poor, in both content and production value, it is thrilling to see "real" newspapers. And yet, Urdu being Urdu, even the serious Siasat, in its entertainment section, is not above referring to Aishwariya Rai as "billori aankhon waali haseena-e-azam Aishwariya Rai..." Indeed.]

Qalandar | April 02, 2009

Aside: while the role of the state in marginalizing Urdu afer 1947 is well-known and documented, the indifference of even Muslim elites is quite shocking. Far too many well-educated Muslim Indians of my acquaintance, inclined to complain that the state is neglecting Urdu etc., have taken no steps to educate their children in the language. Thus Bhopal, with a very sizable prosperous Muslim middle-class and affluent class, just has a lot fewer people who know Urdu than one might expect (not just talking about young people, but even their parents). Heck I remember Shabana Azmi sheepishly recounting a story on TV of how Faiz Ahmed Faiz was shocked when he met her and realized that she couldn't read Urdu! In an era when (if media reports are to be believed) the likes of Ms. Billori Aankhon Waali Haseena-e-Azam and Aamir Khan have hired tutors to learn the script in recent years, what's her excuse?

Indscribe | April 02, 2009

Tashakkur Sepoy Sahib Qalandar Bhai, See the problem in India is that cities are now divided into Muslim ghettoes [Old Cities] and New Parts. Bhopal does have a strong Muslim population and a clear Muslim character than most of the State capitals. But it was like a cultural island. No major Muslim or Urdu-speaking urban agglomeration was around. That's why Urdu lost here. However, you have good libraries of Urdu and some shops also. On the contrary when you are in Lucknow, you have not just the Lucknow populace but a town like Barabanki nearby, Kanpur jut 1-1/2 hrs and towns like Shahjehanpur, Sitapur and others nearby. Further qasbas like Daryadbad, Mahmoodabad, Kakori in Lucknow and Barabanki alone provide the push. Mostly Urdu bookshops exist in such narrow bylanes that not everybody can find them. Unless you know that right person in that place to guide you. Similar is the situation in Hyderabad and Mumbai. See a post on my blog about one, Khurshid Book Depot in Lucknow's Aminabad that looks like a Kabadi ki Dukaan at first sight, and not many aware about it. http://www.anindianmuslim.com/2007/06/unique-book-shop-in-lucknow.html

Indscribe | April 02, 2009

I would like to add a few more points. 1. If you go to a city, the impression the place has on you is because of the initial 5-6 people who you meet and it is pure luck. On my first visit to Hyderabad Deccan, I had received a jolt because incidentally I met the class that mostly had relatives in US and are too affluent. They referred to Urdu as Hindi. On my return, I wrote a marsiya of Hyderabad and sent the sms about the City of Quli and Makhdoom turning into a grave of Urdu. However, in later visits, I found middle-class and lower middle class guys. Many of whom read Siasat, Munsif and discussed not just Ghalib and Iqbal but also Zafar Iqbal and others. So I suddenly felt energised. 2. Chhattisgarh is the tribal dominated state in India. It had just 1.8% Muslims in the last census. But even there when I visited a very small town Rajnandgaon, the birth place of the first lady MBBS doctor of undividied India, I asked a vendor whether he had Urdu books. He immediately quipped, 'Ibn-e-Safi!'....I was on the moon. That guy in his 30s, non-Muslim, knew Ibn-e-Safi and had it in his go-down...wow....So it all depends on luck and chance. 3. Bhopal has over 5 lakh Muslims but go to the 'lost' town Sironj at some distance from Bhopal [it has no railway line connection] that has a population of just 25,000 that is 1/20th of Bhopal but you will get a culture shock. Urdu in the streets, Urdu in the homes and Urdu everywhere.

Conrad Barwa | April 02, 2009

billori aankhon waali haseena-e-azam Aishwariya Rai PMSL @ this!!!!! The problem is that the Hindi press can be really tabloidy and communal; I used to choke on my breakfast reading Dainik Jagran and Aaj Tak lot - but this was in UP and I think they bring out different editions in different regions. Certainly these papers took a really one-sided view of communal rioting and a ridiculously pro-BJP line on a lot of issues. One recent work on Hindi that outlines important social differentiation in the Muslim community in North India and which impressed me was Masawat ki Jung; I think it might be available in an English translation now. There is an explosion in Hindi writing slowly taking place; it would be good if Urdu writing broke out of the confines of places like Lucknow and got some encouragement. Generally the book market is still so small, writers and publishers need a lot of support to survive. Still, this is one time I would thank the fact that shudh Hindi isn't spoken and the influence of Urdu on film and TV ensures a famaliarity with spoken Urdu, even if written Urdu is falling behind.

sav | April 02, 2009

Urdu posts at CM are my fave :o) The pictures from the book market are lovely. Thanks sepoy! I've been able to procure both Indian (yep, they're from Delhi) and Pakistani (Punjab Textbook Board!) beginner readers for Urdu. The Urdu and Hindi university courses here really like the "Teach Yourself" series, I've found them pretty helpful too. Don't know much about real books though, I've found the internet helps alot. Another really good place are public library book sales, the ones I go to have large "ethnic" collections that are always being revamped with newer stuff, so I ended up with a *perfect* copy of "Anarkali" by Imtiaz Ali Taj (the one with the classic painting by Chughtai on the cover) for just 1$ Re Qalandar on post #5 - Ralph Russell also thought so too. At least that's what he wrote in 'How not to write the history of Urdu Literature'.

Qalandar | April 02, 2009

Indscribe, thanks for these comments, very useful! I had not heard of Sironj, but I'll be pestering my cousin to take me there on my next trip to Bhopal for sure!

Qalandar | April 02, 2009

Re: sav's point: I've got NCERT Urdu books from the 5th or 6th grade up to the 11th/12th grade level. This bookseller from delhi mailed them to me, but charged me an arm and a leg (the website is for Global Media Publications, in case anyone needs 'em)...

DK | April 03, 2009

The pictures of the traffic and narrow lanes are straight out of Daryaganj in Delhi! I must say I am very pleased with my collection of story books, even though I cannot really read a single word right now. I see that they all have ads on the back covers, with a surprisingly large number for marriage halls... @Conrad: care to recommend some specific titles you have liked in Hindi on caste?

Qalandar | April 03, 2009

DK: btw, could I trouble you for the details about the place where you got your books etc. from (name/address, etc.)? If you want you can email me offline (sepoy has that address)...

karuna44 | April 03, 2009

Thanks for the tour . . . What are those fantastic Trojan horses in the roundabout? The traffic reminds me of Kolkata, College Street area, and the Little Magazine Library - a veritable treasue trove of choto patrika (and the proprietor is incredibly helpful). "Urdu Bazaar bleeds into a number of other markets - from Surgical instruments . . . " (Nice.) "Like I'm asking for some Urdu softporn." (Laughed out loud. )

Indscribe | April 04, 2009

The Hindi press has been extremely communal in Uttar Pradesh. Papers like Jagran, Amar Ujala and others whipped up sentiments in the late 80s and 90s during the Babri Masjid-Temple dispute. When six persons had died in Ayodhya, the number of kar sewaks was inflated to 500 by these papers. However, this is not the case in other states where Hindi is the state language. Qalandar bhai. On the next trip to Bhopal, just alert me I'll receive you :)

Qalandar | April 04, 2009

Didn't know you were Bhopal-based, where in the city do you stay? (My cousin is in Chowki Taliayya)...

Conrad Barwa | April 07, 2009

@Conrad: care to recommend some specific titles you have liked in Hindi on caste? Masawat ki Jung - by Ali Anwar, is a good one though it concentrates on caste in the Muslim community mainly. Also available in Urdu. Most of the rest are autobiogrsaphies or article in Hans and other self-publications; I recommend: Joothan - Omprakash Valmiki Aalo Andhari - Baby Haldar - ironically this book was translated into Hindi years before it made it into English. A sign of the relative priorities of our english speaking elites. Mrityunjaya - Shivaji Savant, though published originally in Marathi, a powerful attack on caste using Karna's story from the Mahabharata. I also liked Premchand's Hindi stories but I think his protrayal of Dalit characters has come under attack and remain problematic.

karachikhatmal | April 08, 2009

this post really depresses me on so many levels. such linguistic insecurity. oh the shame of being a post-colonial bastard child.

DK | April 09, 2009

@ Conrad: Thanks for the [i]Masawat ki Jung[/i] recommendation - it's a non-fiction scholarly study, yes? That's what I'm primarily interested in. I've read some of the stuff on contemporary Dalit historical imagination (by Badri Narayan in English, esp. on Dalit women heroes of 1857) that draws on quite a large Hindi oeuvre, it seems like. I wonder if more Marathi material (there has been a spate of Dalit memoirs, autobiographies, poetry etc in Marathi that are nowhere as mainstream, "accepted" and popular as Savant's magnum opus, but which are far far more hard hitting with respect to caste) isn't available in Hindi as well - stuff by Arjun Dangle, Baby Kamble, Laxman Mane, Daya Pawar, Baburao Bagul, etc? Cross-translation between these languages, of course, is a whole nother thread...

MUHAMMAD YOUSAF | April 29, 2009


akhil | July 14, 2009

hiiiiii maself akhil frm lucknow i need good book which can teach me urdu at the earliest can u kindly send one. i ll pay for it whenever and whatever u tell. shukriya address CDT A. S. SOMVANSHI 1383/E/23 CADETS TRAINING DEPARTMENT DAYASHANKAR BLOCKI INS SHIVAJI LONAVLA MAHARASTRA- 410402

Rashid Ashraf | August 10, 2009

Hi! This is Rashid from Karachi --- I want to talk about IBNE SAFI, the person who taught URDU through his books to millions of readers in this sub continent. My dear Akhil Sahab (Lucknow), i request you to visit www.wadi-e-urdu.com to see material on Ibne Safi. On the morning of May 19, 2009, I visited the graveyard of Paposhnagar, Karachi to offer pray at the grave of great mystery writer of Udru literature Ibne Safi (Asrar Ahmed) who, for decades, had been the favorite writer of millions of his readers. He had written about 244 masterpieces of Imran series and Jasoosi dunya which indeed are the Gems of Urdu literature. “I know you're there. A breath away's not far too where you are." The question of Ibne Safi's literary merit is still unsettled, but it seems as if the tables have already started tilting in his favor. One obvious reason is that those who used to read his novels, hiding themselves from their elders under bed-sheets, are now well into their forties and fifties. They are teachers, professors, writers and parents. But they are also old friends of Safi's like Dr Abul Khair Kashfi (died May 15, 2008), one of the few senior critics of that generation. The sum total of the positive bias of these people is that some of the prejudices against Safi have been lifted but an open acknowledgement of his literary greatness remains to be seen. Mr Kahild Javed (Dehli-India) gave the names of those great western writers who have created detective characters in their novels/works, this includes Edgar Elan Po (1809-1849), Zadig by Voltaire (1694-1778), Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), Human Comedy by Balzac 1799-1850), Adventures of Cabb Williams by William Garden , Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), A Gun for Sale by Graham Green etc. Many literary personnel generously admired Ibne Safi including Poet, Ajmad Islam Amjad, Columnist Hasan Nisar, Writer Bushra Rehman, Indian Poet/Writer Javed Akhtar (in an interview to Ms. Munni Kabir), Dr. Gopi Chand Narang etc. However, at a seminar in Mumbai in 2007, legendary Urdu writer Intizar Husain, who apparently tried to shock the audience with the comment that he 'had neither read Ibne Safi nor felt he was important enough', invited flak for his comments. There was severe criticism of the comment on the stage itself. Several litterateurs reminded Intezar Hussain that though one may be entitled to his personal views, and his literary status apart, Ibne Safi can't be simply dismissed as just another writer. Regards RASHID ASHRAF

AFREEN | July 16, 2012

I am Afreen .My teacher gave me a home work to make magazine which includes book reviews in Urdu too, and I am continuously finding Urdu Books to read but the books that I found are not of my level.I mean that they are not of class 7 .Some are popular because on them dramas are also made.Therefore,I am requesting you to find a good Urdu Book for me.I'll be very thankful of you.