I was born in the house of a poet. As I grew up, my grandfather’s collection of books on Urdu Shayari (poetry) expanded. I’d stand in the drawing-room, looking up at the dusty books; he’d read each one of them. We’d have at least one visitor every day: his acquaintances, friends, and even fans. I’d often go meet them, offer them water, chai, or Osmania biscuits. I would hear them praise his verses or guffaw at his witty humor.
In a city full of Hyderabadi slang, my grandfather, Muztar Majaz carried the burden of speaking the purest form of the Urdu language. He was a man of knowledge and integrity. He traveled the world, shared the beauty of Urdu and made friends, a lot more than the people around him.
His poetry stood out in the world of literature. He reformed ghazals and shayari that were once thought to only express love and affection. Through spirituality, wit, and philosophy, he changed the way his contemporaries saw Urdu literature. His biggest contributions were his works that translate Allama Iqbal’s Persian poetry into Urdu.
At one of our family gatherings, my grandfather began to explain Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa to us. Most of us were astonished at the psyche behind the Persian ballad. My grandfather’s translation along with his interpretation of the verses resurrected Iqbal.
But his passing away disheartened me in more ways than I could imagine.
A day or two after his death, we were invited to a memorial, organized by a local library. As I walked past the cramped space with books covered in dust, I almost expected a tumbleweed to roll past me. I heard so many eulogies that day, but I felt as if it wasn’t just him I was bidding farewell to, it was also the intimate attachment to Urdu that I’d grown so accustomed to.
Ever since then, I haven’t been in the presence of poets. I haven’t been to mushairas (poetry symposiums) to listen to men and women pour their hearts out. Urdu has begun to seem foreign to me. I can read and write it, but understanding it in its purest form requires effort, and it’s difficult to set your heart upon things that are already fading away.
Literature, poetry, and storytelling signify a language’s strength.; it is not merely about the number of speakers. The content produced and the exposure it gets determines its richness. How can you do justice to a language if its only audience is your home?
Back in Hyderabad, some households prioritize learning English. To give our kids an upper hand in English medium schools, we teach our children how to read and write English before they even understand Urdu grammar. Unless they’re exposed to the language in school, the only Urdu they know is that which they speak at home.
I often find that native Urdu speakers forget the importance of the language when they immigrate to predominantly English speaking countries. Many kids abroad I’ve come across can barely speak a word of it. We’re stealing the gift of multilingualism from our children.
South Indian Urdu speakers are at another disadvantage. Urdu in this region is overpowered by slang. This dialect is only spoken, not written. So it becomes difficult to separate the pure language from the spoken one. Its power diminishes as the language no longer has a written basis.
The mushairas that I’ve been to seemed like they were reserved for men over the age of 50. Although there are women and youth who contribute to Urdu literature, there is a strong lack of representation among them. The Urdu literature community, however, is persistent in its efforts to make the language something the newer generations can relate to. One of the events I’ve been to was giving away free copies of Iqbal’s poetry translated in simple Urdu, to encourage the youth to revive the language. But the generation gap cannot overcome the language barrier.
Urdu is dying with the poets and writers that pass away. There are too many books and ironically, not enough people to read them. The libraries are full, yet they are deserted. There is no way to conclude this, except in the words of my grandfather, Muztar Majaz:
ہم اردو میں بات کریں گے شرماۓ گہبراۓ
بچہ بچہ خوب ہماری ہنسی اڑاے گا
تھوڑی بہت بھی آتی ہوگی جس کو نوشت و خواند
اپنے وقت کا اقبال و غالب کہلاے گا
میں بھی مضطر شاعر بن کر گاڑوں گا جھنڈے
جس دن اپنا نام مجھے لکھنا آجاے گا
Loosely translated to:
We will speak in Urdu, shy and embarrassed,
Every child will make fun of us,
Whoever is even slightly literate in Urdu,
Will be that generation’s Iqbal or Ghalib,
Even I will establish myself as Muztar the poet,
The day I will be able to write my name.
–an excerpt from his book Tilism-e-Majaz