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Urdu and my Manto moment

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-06-2014 Aakar Patel

A few days before the election results, I was moderating the launch in Bangalore of Rudra Chaudhuri’s book on India-US relations. As we were winding up, one last question was addressed to me. How many more days would it be, the questioner wanted to know, before I was marched off to jail?

I didn’t reply but I hope it’s not soon. Incarceration is unappealing generally but especially now given this dispensation’s dislike of chicken biryani.

And also because I have a book of my own to flog this month. My work translating the non-fiction essays and short sketches of Saadat Hasan Manto is being published as you read this. Soon there shall be a book tour and interviews to be done and festivals to be attended, to say nothing of awards to be collected. That is the hope, anyway. Jail will interfere with this.

Advance copies arrived earlier this week, sent by the publishers to me, and to Manto’s daughters in Lahore, Pakistan. One of them wrote to me to ask if I had translated from the Urdu (Nastaliq) script or from the Devanagari. I wrote back to say that I had done it from Urdu and that as far as I knew, there existed no transliteration of these particular works in Hindi.

Many Pakistanis I have corresponded with, the wonderful columnist for Roznama Express, Zahida Hina is one, are surprised to learn that being Hindu I can read Urdu. I would have been equally surprised to have known this many years ago. Here’s how I came to learn it. In imitation of Manto’s style (though not his quality, which I cannot match) let me tell you this story in meandering and desultory fashion. As a drawing-room chat, though one-sided naturally. So listen.

Twenty years or so ago, I was editing The Asian Age in Mumbai. I have always loved working in the newspapers and enjoyed the industry’s many aspects. But two of the things I particularly liked doing was going to the press at midnight, and at dawn, learning how distribution worked from the great centres at Dadar, VT, Fort, Gogha Street and Nariman Point.

The knowledge confirmed what I, the lone Gujarati in most newsrooms I worked, had long suspected. That the content of a journal or newspaper was only partly responsible for its popularity or lack thereof. A digression: Older journalists will remember our outrage when “content”—a perfectly accurate word—came to displace “journalism” in the late 1990s.

But the sobering fact one learnt on the street is that it was distribution and marketing and pricing that brought in readers as much as the “product”—another acceptable word that made journalists apoplectic.

Anyway, in the course of acquiring this knowledge I noticed one morning that the Urdu papers packed in bundles had their essentials (price/date/masthead) in English also. This was for the benefit of the vendors, who couldn’t read Urdu. What mysteries lay within? Around the same time, a friend of mine, Dilip Raote, wrote in his column that out of curiosity he had taught himself the alphabet. His encounter with Urdu newspapers brought him the knowledge that they reported the same things—rising prices, cinema show timings, erratic water supply—as other papers.

This information was shocking to me, fresh off the boat from Surat. Muslim concerns the same as ours! If my naivety surprises you it shouldn’t. A very senior and accomplished Gujarati newspaper editor informed me a few years ago that what all Indian Muslims spoke at home was Arabic.

The idea that this alien culture could be penetrated through its language was powerful and tugged at me often. And so I took up evening classes to learn the alphabet and the grammar. My job and the commuting times of Mumbai made this difficult, but I persisted. I took and finished the Urdu evening course run by Mumbai University in Kalina, with a dozen or so others, mostly retirees. This was easy, so I also finished a night course in colloquial Arabic at a class in an old building on DN Road, in Fort. Here the other half-dozen students were workers about to go to the Gulf. Lastly, I took and did not finish an afternoon course in Farsi run by the Iranian consulate in a building in Marine Lines, where the other students were Parsis. The instructor, a bald middle-aged Iranian, was insolent and insisted at the beginning that no Indian could possibly pronounce qaaf, the glottal Q. That put me off, even if it may have been true.

All of these elementary courses brought knowledge of the alphabet. Urdu is based on the Persian rather than the Arabic, though it also has sounds and letters that neither language does and are only used on the subcontinent. However, learning grammar and vocabulary and reading texts with any fluency was a different matter and for this something else, more intensive, was required.

The solution was in being tutored at home, preferably from people who knew all three languages. This turned out to be as easy as tracking the source of the nearest azaan, because most urban maulvis know at least two of these—Urdu and Arabic—quite well. For about a decade, I had maulvis come and teach the classical texts. When I had to change neighbourhoods or cities, I had to find a new tutor but this was never a problem. Even when I was in Ahmedabad, I found one easily. Here, the maulvi was from Sarkhej Roza, a mosque Corbusier compared to the Acropolis. Sarkhej is, perhaps as interestingly, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Amit Shah’s former constituency, and quite close to the Muslim neighbourhood that people often compare to a ghetto: Juhapura.

The last tutor I had was on a recommendation of my old friend, the late and great scholar Asghar Ali Engineer. He suggested Maulana Shoeb Koti, who instructed me on Quranic Arabic. Koti, a white-bearded man of Spartan habits, taught me other things also: how a deeply religious, deeply serious man can be open-minded and in fact liberal in so many ways. I found Arabic difficult to understand, but because of Bollywood I was familiar with Hindi. And so I learnt how to read Urdu, armed with a dictionary.

Then a friend of mine, Suparna Sharma, while researching the outstanding Star & Style columnist Devyani Chaubal, asked if Manto had written anything on cinema besides his biographies of stars. I went to his anthology, a set of which I had bought years ago from the Urdu Bazaar opposite Jama Masjid in Delhi, and noticed a book of his essays. There were a couple of Bollywood essays that I saw, but there was lots of other work, on Mumbai, on riots and Partition, on things like bumming cigarettes. I was surprised to learn that most of this work was un-translated and began doing it for a lark. Soon it was a series, and now it is a book. It is one of the joys of my life that it has resulted in a work whose royalties I will split with Manto’s family.

What it required was some curiosity and a lot of time. Which leads me to conclude, come to think of it, that jail might perhaps not be so totally bad after all. But after the book tour, please.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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