I was raised on the cadence of Faiz Ahmed Faiz; his couplets were my lullabies. “The third verse of this poem is where your name comes from,” my mother would say, reciting lines about pouring colour into a garden. These became my handshake with a language that even the rickshawallahs of old Lucknow, the city where I grew up, use abundantly.
“Kahaan tashreef le jaayenge, janaab?”, they ask young boys, freshly-feasted from the famous kebabs at Aminabad or the paan at Nakkhas. Tashreef, a word which etymologically means honour and pride, elevates the transactional question to verbal calligraphy, and just like that, a bumpy auto ride down a dusty road is infused with poetry.
Indeed, Urdu is a language where poetry trumps efficiency. That’s how Amir Khusrau, 13th century historian who first wrote poetry in the language, intended it to be. A derivative of Persian and in parts Khari Boli, Braj Bhasha and Awadhi, this is a big reason why Urdu, written in Nastaliq (The Hanging Script), became the unifying language of the subliminal literature produced in the Indian Subcontinent.
“Unlike the script Devnagri where each letter’s name is the sound it makes, in Nastaliq each letter has its own name as well as the sound the letter makes,” explains my teacher Ali in our first Urdu class. I struggle to make sense of it all.
The most told story in my family is about how my grandfather, bedridden from a stroke, partially paralysed and with declining speech, would write his favourite ghazals to his 18 year old daughter, passing papers back and forth, underlining words she misused. In turn, my mother would slip scraps of papers with couplets from Mir (her favourite), Allama Iqbal, Faiz and Ghalib under the door to my teenage bedroom (strictly not to be opened without permission), reminding my sullen self how temporary my current defeat - heartbreak or a lost debate - was.
“tū shāheeñ hai parvāz hai kaam terā
tere sāmne āsmāñ aur bhī haiñ
(You’re an eagle, soaring is in your nature
There are many skies which still lie in front of you).
“When two consonants are conjoined, it’s called a sukoon”, explains Ali my teacher.
“Sukoon? The word that means comfort?” I ask.
“Yes, doesn’t it?”
After decades of flirting with Urdu, I am finally taking formal lessons in the language. In our early classes, we copy short stories to practice letter formations and build muscle memory. This is my favourite part: the curves and thighs of Urdu letters naturally lend themselves to calligraphy. Traditional qalams used for writing Urdu had nibs split in the middle for better absorption of carbon ink or davat, I learn. Another delicious nugget: Urdu doesn’t use capital letters, lending to a mystic confusion of whether the writer of a ghazal is implying “you” for his beloved or “You” for the love of God. I gradually see that in each couplet this meaning is easily interchangeable.
For all its intentional and unintentional poetry, Urdu isn’t the simplest script to study. It’s easier for readers and writers of Devnagri script, but still weighed down by complex challenges. For example, there is more than one letter for the same sound, “h” and “z”; the writer needs to learn which letter to use in, say, zaroori and which for nazakat.
It’s only by the fourth class that I begin to recognise the darkness in the stories of C. Naim’s textbook. There are a cluster of review sentences where trains catch fire and plunge into the dariya below; a short story where over-worked mules are treated with cruelty; and little boys tumble to sudden deaths from their bicycles. And yet no morbidity can overshadow the joy of haltingly reading what I’ve known since childhood as my poem, in the original script Faiz wrote it:
3) kabhī to subh tere kunj-e-lab se ho āġhāz
kabhī to shab sar-e-kākul se mushk-bār chale
((at least once) let the dawn arrive from the corner of your mouth
(at least once) let dusk be perfumed by your curled tresses.
Urdu book recommendations for beginners by my teacher Ali:
Before the Divide: Hindi and Urdu Literary Culture (buy here)
Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry And Its Critics (buy here)
Read And Write Urdu Script: Teach Yourself (buy here)
PS: These are a good start, but Urdu is best learned with a teacher and enough chai breaks to talk about its aged history and all the wars and affairs its been witness to.
This article was contributed by Kakul Gautam who works on an Urdu promotion project #StoriesFromUrdu on Instagram @hyperbolemuch.
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