‘If Urdu Is Foreign To India, Tell Us What Is Its Home Country’
The enthusiastic audience that turned up to hear Javed Akhtar speak at a session titled ‘Do you know you speak Urdu?’ at the Times Litfest on Sunday was looking forward to an entertaining, engaging and informative talk. They were not disappointed.
The poet, lyricist and scriptwriter, who was conferred a lifetime achievement award at the festival, regaled the audience in his inimitable style, blending humour and sarcasm as he lashed out at a recent decision by Panjab University to move Urdu to the foreign languages department. “Germans speak German, people of France and Italy speak French and Italian, respectively. Language belongs to region, and not religion. Religion in fact borrows language from the regions. There are ample examples of songs and hymns on Radha, Krishna, Sita written by Urdu poets,” he said.
“If Urdu is foreign to India, then which country is it native to?” he asked, adding, “Pakistan mein Urdu bolo toh aapko Indian kaha jata hai. India mein Urdu bolo to aapko log Pakistani kehte hain (If you speak Urdu in Pakistan, you’re called an Indian, if you speak Urdu in India, you’re called a Pakistani)… east Bengal became part of Pakistan in 1947 but when they had to choose between religion and their mother tongue, it was no contest and Bangladesh came into being.” He said that he was especially unhappy that Urdu was being considered a foreign language in Punjab because that region had contributed immensely to its development.
Explaining how languages develop, he said, “Languages don’t have birthdays. You won’t even know when they gradually develop.” He added that languages cannot be imposed upon people by governments, they thrive because they are useful. “Languages don’t need passports or visas,” he declared.
Amid peals of laughter from the packed house, Akhtar said that ‘tehzeeb’ (manners/etiquette) was the gift of Urdu. “When we want to appear even slightly intellectual, we use Urdu words. This tehzeeb is only present in India. Denying Urdu is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In Lucknow, we never greet each other with salaam alaikum, but instead say adaab. Adaab is secular and this is Urdu tehzeeb.”
Akhtar added Urdu, Persian, Arabic and English are so ingrained in our various languages, be it Hindi, Bengali or Marathi, that we unknowingly use a lot of Urdu words in our daily lives. “Like makaan, aadmi is Arabic, balti is Portuguese, peshwa, bachcha are Persian, pistol is English,” he said.
Asked about the need to maintain linguistic purity, he said, “Elsewhere in the world, dictionaries add a few new words that have become common usage every year. Here, some people want to remove words that supposedly have foreign roots. I worry that we might turn our dictionaries into pamphlets. Did you know that ‘saheb’ is a Persian word? Look at the people who are using the word. ‘Shah’ is also a Persian word. This is the reality, what can I do about it?”