On the 214th birth anniversary of Mirza Ghalib on December 27, people who remembered the poet’s birthday shared some of his choicest couplets on the social media website Twitter. Some subliminally took shots at the on-going tug-of-war between the government and the military, while others condensed the state of their love-life in a nutshell within 140 characters.
But the script they used to share the words of one of the greatest poets of Urdu literature was not Perso-Arabic script, but Roman – the root script of English and other western languages.
The tendency to use Roman script to communicate Urdu caught on so fast that it has become a part of people’s lives — at least in the urban cities of the country — where texting is a raging trend. But the development has set alarm bells ringing among Urdu purists.
They argue that the young generation, especially in urban areas, who are highly encouraged to study in English and to an extent look down at their mother language, are fast loosing their grasp on the Perso-Arabic script anyway. The advent of technology such as SMS is only making things worse, according to them.
“But you cannot help it. It disgusts me but the trend is spreading so fast that you have to live with it. Our children are no more raised in Urdu. English is considered the passport to success. People who love the language should find ways to be glad in the fact that at least Urdu as a language is still being used by the young generation,” said Zaki Usmani, an Urdu poet and critic based in Karachi.
Despite the reservations of purists, the use of Roman script provides tech-savvy youngsters with a much broader platform to express themselves in Urdu. The use of Roman script is also attributed to the inherent languages limitation available in the basic usage of the west-manufactured modern technologies.
“Given our colonial heritage, the urban people, no matter how unschooled in English they are, use such technologies. It is taken for granted that they can decode the language,” says Adan Ashraf, a social media consultant and blogger. “So perhaps, it is this convenience that works as a catalyst for such trends.”
But the use of Roman script is not limited to the casual, anything-goes realm of web and SMS. The trend has spilled out of the world of technologies and landed in proper exam answer sheets.
“These days, students, in their Urdu exams, start jotting down in Roman script just to give us an idea that they know the answers when they are faced with a time-crunch in exams,” said Yasmeen Jahan, a teacher of the Urdu language at a local school that follows the Cambridge board.
Some believe that the Roman script would be instrumental in bringing the people of India and Pakistan closer. One such project, Hamari Boli, a website being developed by the popular web-tutorial portal Khan’s Academy, is dedicated to the use of Roman script to find a middle-ground between the two much over-lapping (at least in the contemporary sense) languages of South Asia: Urdu and Hindi.
The website claims to be inspired by the Bollywood language, which is a mixture of “middle-lowbrow speech”. Hamari Boli (our language) is perhaps one of the very first serious undertakings to explore, develop and encourage the growth of Roman script in the use of Urdu/Hindi language – an unintended off-shoot of the digital age. For many, such a development maybe repulsive and for some it will be nothing but another convenience of the speed-obsessed age to be cherished and celebrated.