Jiski zuban Urdu ki tarah

As kids we often made fun of our father because he could not read Hindi. He’d grown up in Lahore and moved to Delhi during Partition, when he was twelve. Like many such others, he had learned Urdu, not Hindi, as his second-language. Of course he spoke Hindustani, which mixed Hindi with Urdu. But he leaned towards Urdu and couldn’t read the Devnagri script.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Why did we think this was funny? Because we were growing up in a different India, where the ‘national’ language, Hindi, was default and everyone knew it. But of course there are always so many histories, even inside just one home, leave alone a country. So, Urdu was around our house, but as with Hindustani, rather casually and mixed up with many other things. There were books whose mysteries I could not unravel. Hanging out with friends, I’d sometimes hear my dad offer a sheyr as a comment. And a friend, or my mum, would respond with an answering couplet.

It’s not that ours was a house of great erudition — we were really quite a regular middle-class family. It’s just that poetry was a part of life, in a simple way, and in many homes. I only learned the languages taught to me in school — English and Hindi. So what Urdu I knew I learned in this overheard way — or through old Hindi film songs. Perhaps the fact that they were written by accomplished poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi or Shakil Badayuni meant that the mixing of Urdu and Hindi was not just functional, but full of the play and pleasure of poetry. So, for many, these songs reflected our fluid relationship with language, and our everyday, popular relationship with the poetic. They were a place where the worlds of Urdu and Hindi, were not necessarily worlds of Muslim and Hindu, but where they overlapped and meshed.

Learning Urdu is on my To Do Before Too Late list. Because I’d like to graduate from quoting 1950s Hindi film songs to reading Ghalib and Faraz like my father could. However, seeing as I live in Maharashtra, I’m thinking this is one of those things I should just strike off my list, unless I want to be declared anti-national (at best). Because, presenting a “watertight case” to justify a continuing ban on SIMI, one of the affidavits filed by a policeman from Solapur cites Ghalib as an inciter of terrorism. The proof? A sheyr of course: “Mauje khoon ser se guzer hi kyon na jay, Aastane yaar se uth jaein kya!” (“Should we perish in a wave of bloodshed, yet still we will not leave the Beloved’s country”).

It’s not that they found the poem in the backpack of a terrorism accused. They just feel this is the stuff of terrorist propaganda. In another affidavit, an inspector from Ghatkopar police station cites material seized from two SIMI activists. You’d think these might be items for a bomb, or arms or at least a leaflet, right? But no. It’s a children’s magazine called Umang, which is in Urdu.

I don’t even want to suggest sensitisation courses, boss. I’m just wondering how this intelligence gathering method of ignorance and prejudice is supposed to reassure us about security! Sure, there must be terrorists who read poetry. But I doubt it’s poetry that’s causing terrorism. Prejudice of many kinds has curdled our society, separating one language from another, and us from language; but also, separating poetry from life and so, making us stupid. It has robbed us of our ability to understand complexity, ambiguity and so, our ability to live with difference.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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