I did not understand a word of what our prime minister said at the United Nations General Assembly. Well, except for words like “taaqatwar”, “rozgar” and “zahir”, all other words were beyond my comprehension. I had to fall back on translation.
What confounded me even more were the one liners on top of the TV screen.
“Modi’s befitting reply to Sharif.”
This was baffling. I may have lost Modi’s syntax but I did not hear him mention “Sharif” even once. But the anchors would not give up.
“The UNGA hall was empty when Sharif spoke; it was packed when Modi did”.
Another chipped in: “I think we should cut out this Indo-Pak hyphenation”.
The anchors were possessed by a seering desire to be nasty with Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan, and anything associated with either. As an answer to their prayer, up popped the heads of two ex Pakistani generals from distant Karachi and Islamabad, grinning from ear to ear, in cheerful anticipation of being punched for the next hour. Why they show up is a mystery.
Yes, to revert to that difficulty in accessing the Hindi used by Narendra Modi. Why did I find it so disconcerting?
It is immaterial what my belief is because in a world comfortable with denominational identity, it is tempting to place me in a coop with other Indian Muslims. This would be a bad fit. Indeed it would be a cacophony. Muslims would speak Malayalam in Kerala, Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Bengali in Bengal and so on. Modi’s elevated Hindi would pose the same problems in the regions – for Hindus and Muslims alike. They have all learnt to understand Bollywood Hindustani. That should be the queue.
In Kerala, for instance, it was accepted in the 1980s, that Mohammad Koya spoke the wittiest Malayalam in the state assembly. As chief minister, he once invited me to dinner which was something of a culture shock to both of us. He spoke little Hindi or English and I spoke no Malayalam. He left a strong Malayali imprimatur on the meal by having me sample five varieties of bananas by way of dessert.
Hindi cascades from its Sanskritic heights, then picks up the flavours of Awadhi, Brajbhasha, Bhojpuri and lilts of a hundred rural, pastoral dialects, across the Indo-Gangetic plains.
Dilute the Sanskritic bit and add some Persian instead and you have the scale of Urdu. The language can be stately and inaccessible to the untrained.
When writers elevate their diction, as Maulana Azad did, the verse quoted is generally in Persian. But the finest writers and poets have brought it down to the level of popular literature where it becomes Hindustani. It was the boast of Arzoo Lucknawi that in his collection of poetry, “Surili Bansuri”, Melodious Flute, there is not a single Persian or Arabic word.
In the vast stretch of the cow-belt, an area called Awadh, was where Hindus and Muslims together refined and enriched Urdu. The first great prose writer of Urdu was Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar. One of the great ghazal poets of the 20th century was Raghupati Sahay Firaq Gorakhpuri. Urdu became the central column of what people in this region called India’s Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb or culture. (Tragic consequences of Partition on Urdu in Pakistan is another sad story.)
When the Congress party, without consulting the people, signed up for the Partition of India on June 3, 1947, this lot panicked. What would happen to their beloved Urdu? In divided India, Hindi would have to be the national language. What would happen to Urdu?
Saiyyid Mohammad Askari wrote:
“Hai dua yeh ki mukhalif jo/Hain dharey mil jaaen/Aaj phir Kausar o Ganga ke/Kinarey mil jaaen.”
(Let us pray that these opposing currents become a stream/May the banks of Kausar, river of paradise, become one with the Ganga)
Josh Malihabadi wailed:
“Chalne lagi zabaan pe churi inteqaam ki,/Chhaanti gayeen lughat se jo lafzein theen kaam ki/Rahman hi baat chali phir na Ram ki/Guddi se khich gayee jo zubaan thi awaam ki”
(The vengeful knife reached for our mother tongue/Choice words were wrenched from dictionaries/
No heed paid to Ram or Allah,/Tongues pulled out from the throat, men became speechless.)
This was not hyperbole in 1950.
This love for Urdu cost the Muslims dear. While the enlightened Hindu took to Western education exactly as Macaulay had willed, Muslims saw the package of Westernization, language included, with disdain. Later they settled for Hindustani. But what would happen to the Urdu script? Trapped in such considerations, a whole community lost the race for modernity.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s reversal to Hindi was moderate cultural assertion. There was lilt and melody in his makeup. Modi’s Hindi, learnt presumably as an RSS pracharak, is dry and, to a novice like me, forbidding. Not just me, there are Macaulay’s children and millions of votaries of the new consumerism – they will all be more comfortable with Hindustani.