Literary borders

September 19, 2021

To understand our history better we must pay attention to history we share with other peoples and languages – especially Urdu’s intimate connections with Hindi

Literary  borders

Insha Allah Khan’s Rani Ketiki Ki Kahani, written in the Eighteenth Century, is one of the earliest examples of Hindi/ Urdu fiction. It is a short daastaan that revolves around magical events and a love story. Intezar Hussain says in his preface to Rani Ketiki: “The tradition of Urdu fiction is not entirely derived from Persian culture. We see Persian and Indian culture working together here.” Hussain goes on to make the argument that Sanskrit traditions are extremely important in Urdu, citing works like Sanghasan Batisi and Betal Pachisi as well as modern writers like Miraji. Hussain’s own work, of course, is deeply indebted to Sanskrit storytelling tradition.

Why is this influence - the influence of Sanskrit literatures on Urdu prose - rarely acknowledged? Simply because the history of Hindi/ Urdu has been distorted by colonial and postcolonial literary critics to such an extent that it has now become common to present Urdu as the language of Muslims (derived from Persian and Arabic) and Hindi as the language of Hindus (derived from Sanskrit). This is historically false, or, as the critic, Nasir Abbas Nayyar, puts it, it is merely an effect of “the colonialist partition of Urdu.”

Several versions of the language we know as Urdu today existed throughout Indian history: Hindi, Hindvi, Dihlavi, Gujri, Dakani and Rekhta. When the British began colonising India, they quickly realised that they needed to learn these languages (and other common languages like Bengali) if they wanted to rule with maximum authority. They set up Fort William College in Calcutta to train young British colonial officers in these languages. They employed many munshis – local linguists and writers – and set about the task of translating, writing and teaching whole new literatures in vernacular languages. This is why a book like Bagh-o-Bahaar can be recognised today as one of the most important works of early Urdu fiction when it was originally written for British colonial officers who were learning Urdu, not for Indian readers.

However, the British didn’t simply teach these languages. They distorted them for their own purposes. John Gilchrist, the first principal of Fort William College, spread inaccurate ideas about Hindi/ Urdu. According to him, the original Hindi language belonged to Hindus only. Muslims were foreign conquerors who attacked this language with their own languages, Persian and Arabic. Scholars like Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Aamir Mufti, Maryam Khan and Nasir Abbas Nayyar have written about how this is an entirely false depiction of history. It is more accurate to think of Hindi/ Urdu as the product of a syncretic Indo-Persian culture rather than a result of Muslim conquest. However, Gilchrist, possessed by his own false version of history, started the grand project of converting the vernacular language of Hindi into two different languages: Urdu (written in Persian-Arabic script) as the Muslim language, and Hindi (written in Sanskrit script) as the Hindu language.

The division of Hindus and Muslims as two completely distinct and mutually exclusive cultures, religions and languages by the British changed the course of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries in South Asia. Its disastrous effects are too many to list here. In fact, the separation of Hindi and Urdu on religio-nationalist grounds has only intensified since partition. It is rare to find Urdu translations or critical evaluations of Hindi literature today, which makes it nearly impossible to create a comparative literary framework for a shared history of Hindi and Urdu. How can we understand Hindi/ Urdu literature in all its vastly complex relations and interactions if we continue to follow and accept false, colonialist divisions of language?

The writer and literary translator, Inaam Nadeem, has made an important contribution towards an appreciation of Hindi and Urdu’s interactive literary cultures – and South Asia’s shared histories – by translating the Hindi short stories of Bhisham Sahni in Urdu. Bhisham Sahni (1915-2003) was a writer, playwright, and actor. Born in Rawalpindi, he migrated to India during the partition of India. He was inspired by communist politics and literature and was actively involved with the Communist Party of India, Indian People’s Theatre Association, the Progressive Writers’ Association, and Afro-Asian Writers’ Association. While he is arguably best known for his novel, Tamas, an impassioned story about partition, Nadeem’s translated collection throws light on Sahni’s brilliant short stories.

The title story, Amritsar Agaya Hai, is a harrowing account set in a train travelling across the border during partition. Smoke rises from far-away towns; news of other passengers being slaughtered circulates from cabin to cabin; people try to get on the train and are heartlessly thrown out. A well-educated, middle-class babu sits quietly. A few rowdy Muslim men keep making fun of him – calling him effeminate. When the train crosses the border and reaches Amritsar, the babu suddenly starts shouting angrily at the men. He leaves the train and returns with a rod, but the men have already escaped. Later, he uses the rod to hit a Muslim man who is trying to get on the train. The story is a powerful depiction of how rigid ideas of religious and gender identity drive extraordinary spectacles of violence.

Another story, Pali, is about a Hindu child who is left behind in Pakistan at the time of partition when his family migrates. He is adopted by a Muslim family and brought up by them. Many years later, his family returns to claim him, but the child is treated with contempt when he moves to the Indian village of his family because the villagers see him as a Muslim. Other stories depict very different settings and characters: O Haram Zaday is about an Indian man who is settled in some far-off corner of Europe and misses his home intensely; Jhoomar is about a theatre actor who is trying to balance his familial responsibilities with his love for theatre; and Do Chiryan is a children’s story about a grumpy man and his fight against the two sparrows trying to nest inside his house.

Nadeem has done an excellent job of translating these compelling stories. The theme of partition in the short stories is particularly significant for Urdu readers. While reading Sahni’s stories, I kept thinking about Manto, Quratulyn Hyder, and many other Urdu writers who have written about partition. In this sense, Nadeem’s translations are an important reminder that while partition is part of our history, we share this history with other peoples and other languages. In order to understand our history, language and literature better we must pay attention to these connections, especially Urdu’s intimate connection with Hindi.

Literature can help us imagine new forms of linguistic exchange and political solidarity. Think of the countless people in India who took to reciting Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry as a way of resisting Modi’s nationalism. And think of Arooj Aurangzeb singing Bismil’s verses at protests in Lahore. Colonial functionaries at Fort William College could not have imagined that our desire for a shared, revolutionary future – a shared, revolutionary language and literature – would survive their false divisions and continue to inspire us centuries later. This is the kind of literature I want – a literature that crosses borders to unite the oppressed.

Amritsar A Gaya Hai

Author: Bhisham Sahni

(tr. Inaam Nadeem)

Publisher: Aks

Publications, 2020

Price: Rs600

The reviewer is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at UCLA. He is the translator of Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs and a member of the Progressive Academics’ Collective

Literary borders