Learning Urdu in a Hindu Household

As the lockdown started, I had a lot of free time on my hands and not much to do. I thus decided to try my hand at learning Urdu — not just the spoken language, but also the script.

For some background, let me just state that I come from a half-orthodox-half-liberal Hindu family. I also recently resigned from the ABVP, the right-wing student organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). As a result, in the past, I’ve backed the idea of a forced imposition of Hindi across India and held a hatred of sorts towards languages like Urdu.

Over the past few months, as I started reading Saadat Hasan Manto, my curiosity grew. But the main credit for the idea of actually learning Urdu goes to columnist and former executive director of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel. Patel and I both belong to Gujarati families with more or less the same values and teachings – though at first, I had thought he was a Muslim Gujarati all because the trolls had dubbed him ‘Aakar Ahmed Patel’. There have been many instances where I find myself relating to his stories and ideas. In an interview, he spoke about how and why he learnt the Urdu language. This sparked something in me.

Still, I was unsure about how to move forward as the prospect of learning the script seemed like a hard task. I took to Twitter and several individuals were incredibly helpful. And so I enrolled for online Urdu lectures organised by Rekhta for free.

The course turned out to be much easier than I had initially imagined, and it took me just a week to get familiar with the alphabets and numbers – the script may have been new to me, but the spoken language was not as we have all heard Urdu being spoken in countless Bollywood movies growing up.

My family wasn’t aware of my decision to learn Urdu. I hadn’t been eager to tell them since in many Hindu households, this would be seen as a taboo. But since they hardly came to my room, it wasn’t something that I had to really try and hide.

Also read: Why Urdu Isn’t Just a ‘Muslim’ Language

The one day my mom did enter my room, she saw the pages I was working on. She was confused about what script I was writing, mostly because of how poor my handwriting is. So I told her about the online lectures I was attending.

Though I had expected a soap opera style drama to follow such an admission, it turned out that I had been wrong. As it turned out, I learned that my great-grandfather used to write most of his letters in Urdu – he had worked at the Nawab of Junagadh’s palace.

Still, I realised that this was a rarest of rare case where my family had a background with the language, and thus did not stand in my way of learning it. My experiences till now have shown me how Islamophobia is passed down the generation in many Hindu upper-caste families, leading them to see Urdu as the language of the Muslim community alone. With their ‘nationalism’ blinkers on, such families ensure that these are spaces they will never step into – never mind how deeply ingrained the Urdu language is when it comes to India and its history. For these reasons, and many more, Urdu finds itself occupying lesser and lesser space in the country with each passing year. This communalisation of a language also means fewer younger people are learning it – not just Hindus, but also Muslims. A 2019 report authored by Dr John Kurrein found that only 30% of Muslims declared Urdu as their first language, and that there has been a decline in enrolment in Urdu medium schools. English has become the preferred choice instead.

Also read: Why the Urdu Language Is Fading Away From Bollywood

Urdu is a language of love – no one can imagine Bollywood romance without Urdu. Even many of the words we use on a daily basis as a part of spoken Hindi are actually Urdu.

With its fantastical world of beautiful phrases, Urdu gives you everything you need for a very sweet pick-up line to Nawabi discourse. There is so much life and joy to be found in the language. The language has huge scope in contemporary India, especially as Hindi gets diluted with rough and disrespectful words becoming more and more commonplace. That’s not an issue with Urdu – the sweetness and sophistication of the language leads to the appearance of endearment when it comes to the tone.

We have lost much time fighting over language and literature. Because of this, many amazing writers like Manto, who should be celebrated as national treasures and read in the language they originally wrote in, are not as popular as they ought to be. Thanks to translators, we do have access to their work – but there is nothing like reading stories in the language they were written in.

Perhaps one day I might try my hand at translating a thus far untranslated work. I know, it sounds like a lofty goal. Until then, I will spend my time with my head buried in books, and practice reading and speaking one of the most beautiful languages in the world.

Jay Kholiya is currently pursuing a B.A. in Sociology and Political Science in Mumbai. He was formerly a district secretary in the ABVP.

Featured image credit: Amr.Malik/Flickr