I have lost the habit of writing in Urdu ever since I left Pakistan, but in lieu of someone’s request and because of my love for the language, I begin this essay on the subject of Urdu language and literature. By language, I mean not only Urdu’s history, but also its colloquial use and its poetry and prose. According to my humble opinion, this Mughal tongue is plagued by difficulties today. Modern society has consigned Urdu’s past glory to oblivion. Its sweetness and its propriety, its refinement and its multiple literary forms, are all in decline, something which is blatantly attested to by today’s youth. The pearl-like forms of its words and its perfection of expression, the semantic neatness and richness of certain words, and the undulating flow of the language are some of its distinguishing characteristics.

One finds, simultaneously, a commotion of emotions and a serenity in Urdu, which not only increase the language’s beauty but also deeply affect the reader. Rigorous choices of words and emotions further adorn Urdu’s scenic creativity. On the one hand, topics of revolution and on the other, God’s indulgent blessings to man are addressed. Idioms, similes and delightful metaphors are woven as deeply into Urdu’s fabric as the prison of love is into Majnun’s. Iqbal attests to this:

غلامی میں نہ کام آتی ہیں شمشیریں نہ تدبیریں“

“جو ہو ذوقِ یقیں پیدا، تو کٹ جاتی ہیں زنجیریں

(In slavery, useless are your swords or your tactics

But should you be firm in yourself, then shall your shackles be shattered)

            Let’s turn to Urdu’s historical and social importance. Iqbal’s verse transports us to the 19th century Indian subcontinent under British domination, where British generals ruled extravagantly and we were slaves to their rule. Urdu’s magic was employed to raise the standard of freedom in these times; its moving words were used to present passionate and forceful metaphorical arguments and historical simile in unique fashion. Thus, the “Thinker of Pakistan,” (Sir) Allama Muhammad Iqbal kindled the fire of freedom from the chains of slavery in Muslim hearts. His literature is on another level, his sentiment and vision are unparalleled and his philosophy is matchless.

Before Iqbal and other Muslim poets, Urdu was the language of kings, taking up legal capacity in the Mughal court. It was employed for debates and discussion, for orders and decisions. In short, Urdu enjoyed the same privilege that English would later, in the British empire.

The arrival of the British changed everything. The new constitution was written in English, and the law soon switched languages too. English newspapers began to circulate, and the colonizers prioritized their language and culture over those of the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. Soon, the language of Urdu stepped into its period of decline, and this decline slowly accelerated with that of the Mughals. Indians who had learnt English begun to get promoted over those who hadn’t, and Anglophones soon attained rank within the new rule. Yet, some stars, like Hali, Manto and Ghalib, keep twinkling and shining their individual lights, while the Muslim community, and Urdu, continued to slowly decline.

Why is it surprising, then, that today we Pakistanis speak English better than we do Urdu? When all education is received in English, when our examinations are organized by Cambridge University, England, and when all history is learnt only from the point of view of the colonizers, what astonishment, then, that the Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa accumulate dust, locked away in old cupboards? The extent of Urdu’s decline is such that some (Pakistani) students even opt to study it as a second language. In this way, escaping the responsibility of learning their mother tongue, they also extinguish the lamp of literature. Those students who do take up studying Urdu, do so only for the sake of good grades, and avoid appropriately studying and understanding the language’s intricate and often, difficult, writers and discourse. This is why Urdu literature is no longer popular. The very alleys where only a few decades ago, studying language and literature was a matter of pride, and that produced invigorating poets like Asad Ullah, are now deserted; to the extent that congregations and ceremonies for the promotion of Urdu are now scanty.

British rule, and the new generations’ craze for English, have a fair share in the modern deterioration of Urdu. Colloquial Urdu today isn’t simply Urdu – it is a mishmash of Urdu and English. Half the words of a sentence are in Urdu and the other half in English. In fact, this mélange of a language is spoken by adults and youngsters alike. Even new movies, TV shoes, news broadcasts and newspapers employ this mishmash, for example: “This is a good idea.[1] I invite you to read a dialogue between my (Pakistani) friends.

Ahmad – Dude, I went to the gym today.

Hamza – Really, did you do Kinobody’s session today?

Ahmad – No, I was short on time. I had to finish an assignment.

Hamza – Oh, do you still have midterms?

Ahmad – Yeah dude, they end on Friday.

The right way to tackle this issue isn’t to turn away from scientific progress and a modern society, and back toward the 19th century Indian subcontinent. The right way is to emphasize the development of Urdu alongside the development of science and society, and to celebrate our culture. Language is an integral part of any country’s culture, and Urdu is Pakistan’s capital, identity and history. To re-glorify Urdu requires that first and foremost, we do not disregard it, nor do we take a hypocritical approach to it. We must fulfil this responsibility not only as students, but also as Pakistani citizens, by speaking refined Urdu in our everyday lives. Similarly, the promotion of Urdu should also be one of the government’s responsibilities; only by sustaining its literature and its language can a country sustain its identity.

[1] In this line and the following dialogue, the words italicized are spoken in English even though the rest of the dialogue is in Urdu.

Translator’s Note by Harith Khawaja ’19, author of the original Urdu text

Urdu is a hard language for any translator to work with. For one, the beauty of its script is simply incommunicable in English. Written Urdu is read from right to left, oftentimes differing adjacent characters will change the way the entire word is written, and many times words spelt identically often have differing pronunciations, making it necessary to use harakat, literally vowel markings that aid enunciation. Furthermore, the language is undivorceable from Pakistani (and subcontinental) culture. There are some words that simply cannot be rendered into English because they will make no sense, for example “Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa,” which literally mean “Complaint and Resolution” are arguably the two most famous works of Iqbal. Another challenge is translating proverbs in Urdu into English. In Urdu, there is a saying which literally means “like the amount of salt in pounded dough” to indicate “scantiness” – here we see some poetry being lost in translation. In the English version of this article, it was extremely hard to make the point of how English words interject an otherwise Urdu conversation. I tried to do that here by italicizing the words that are spoken in English.

One thought on “The Rise and Fall of Urdu Language and Literature by Harith Khawaja

Leave a Reply to Sania Khan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *