WHEN it comes to Urdu literature created on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, the general perception is that Pakistani writers have produced more than their Indian counterparts. Indian writers and intellectuals, researchers believe, are more inclined to express their creative streak in critical and research works and some of them have done a marvellous job. On the other hand, Pakistani Urdu literary writers have produced exquisite works of poetry and fiction.
While this may still hold true, recent trends show that Pakistanis are catching up fast in the realm of Urdu criticism and research. During the past few years, young researchers from Pakistan have published their critical and research works in large numbers. Though most of these works may not compare favourably with those of senior Indian critics, one hopes the future of Urdu criticism in Pakistan is bright.
Aside from senior and established Indian critics and researchers, the number of works by new Indian critics is, however, on the decline. This is, perhaps, a natural outcome of the status of the Urdu language in India, which is not much enviable.
Although in Pakistan Urdu is not getting the treatment it deserves, it fares much better here than in India. Here Urdu enjoys a status that it can only dream of in India. Urdu is the language of mainstream media in Pakistan. According to the Constitution, it is the country’s national language and is to replace English as the official language.
Politicians and officials communicate with the public in Urdu and on certain occasions, such as addressing the nation, not using Urdu is frowned upon. Urdu is taught as a compulsory subject in almost every school in Pakistan up to matric/ O level. In some parts of Pakistan, it is a compulsory subject at intermediate. At Karachi University, Urdu is compulsory at the graduation level.
While in the upper strata of Pakistani society English is has nearly replaced Urdu and is considered “cool” to communicate in English as it perhaps gives a sense of belonging to the upper class, Urdu is now preferred in the middle class even by those whose mother tongue is not Urdu. This writer knows Gujarati and Memon families from Karachi and Punjabi families from Islamabad and Lahore that converse mostly in Urdu among themselves but at home they talk in English.
Gujarati or Memoni is mostly used to communicate with older relatives, while Punjabi is used to communicate with servants or shopkeepers. The intention here is not to degrade Punjabi, otherwise a rich and expressive language, it only shows that speaking Urdu is considered “cool” in other sections of the society as well.
The new generation may compose poetry in English, but Urdu poetry still commands respect in literary and cultural circles. For instance, the Karachi Arts Council’s International Urdu Conference is said to be far more successful than Karachi Literature Festival.
Urdu in India
On the contrary, Urdu is being ignored in India. It is not part of syllabi anymore. If Indian students want to study Urdu then they have to seek admissions to those schools or colleges offering the subject.
Although there are Indian universities that teach Urdu at PhD level and the Indian government helps in running several literary institutions created for the promotion of Urdu language and literature, Urdu does not seem to have a bright prospect unless it is taught at primary level because it is usually at school or college that one falls in love with a language or literature.
Moreover, Urdu has now become the language of some specific groups and regions. It was already confined to northern India, where cities like Delhi and Lucknow were considered cradles of Urdu, but even in these cities its script is now being replaced with Devanagari.
This is definitely taking a toll on the creation of Urdu literature in India and will become more tangible, perhaps, in the next decade or so. This year at the Karachi International Book Fair (KIBF), almost 90 per cent of stalls exhibited Urdu books published in Pakistan. But there was only one stall stocked with Urdu books published in India.
This year, perhaps due to official snags, Indian publishers specialising in Urdu books could not make it to the fair — yet again. But a few years ago when some Indian publishers did obtain visas in time and they set up their stalls, one was dismayed to note that not a single stall offered Urdu books, except for a few leftover copies of old Urdu books. When asked why they had not brought Urdu books, the exhibitors said that Indian Urdu publishers were quite a different lot as Urdu publishing in India was an altogether different game played by its own rules.
This year the only stall displaying Indian Urdu books at the KIBF was swarmed by book lovers and many writers, poets, journalists and teachers were seen enthusiastically sifting through the fast diminishing heaps of books. Imported by a local book trader, most of these were on history, religion, Urdu criticism, Urdu research, bibliography and yes, creative works by Indian writers.
But most were reprints of the giants from the past — such as Ghalib, Hali, Shibli and Mir — and the not-so-distant past, such as Qurratul Ain Hyder, Krishan Chandr and Rajinder Singh Bedi. Most works on Urdu research and criticism by contemporary writers, such as Qazi Abdul Wadood, Shamim Hanafi, Gopi Chand Narang and Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, were either reprints or older editions of their earlier works. Nevertheless, book lovers were buying them in such huge numbers that they had to ask for a helper to carry them to their vehicles.
One wonders why the local book traders do not import Indian Urdu books more often and in larger numbers. It would only make the KIBF more attractive for readers and more profitable for the traders.