Coming Home, One Word At A Time

Upon returning to India, a course in Urdu helps Sharanya Deepak embrace the rich and turbulent history of her native country.

Sharanya Deepak | Longreads | March 2019 | 13 minutes (3,366 words)

“Big bird, red eyes …” my teacher said, hinting me toward the new word I was learning. “Big, big bird … think about Central Delhi …” he added, excited for me to untangle his clues, for this big bird to fly into my brain. I was in my third Urdu class, ripening my vocabulary in a language I had always known but never formally studied.

Gidh!” I finally screamed, the Urdu word for vulture, leaning onto my notebook. I thought about the times I would lay under trees in central Delhi and watch the birds perch on branches. Gidh, a vulture my friends and I once fed jam sandwiches, determined to get close. Gidh, the bird I once saw feed on an elderly man’s remains in Old Delhi. The simple word for a bird so ubiquitous in folklore, flushed in memories of warm Delhi winters, of stories told to me as a child, of faces of friends I had long forgotten, of the bird both revered and condemned in the city that raised me. But like the Urdu word for it, the vulture was long since gone from my life.

I grew up in a flurry of languages: in the beautiful, unfurling Tamil of my mother’s rage, in the curt English of my grandfather’s routine, in the effervescent Hindi of my father’s quickly changing moods. The concept of one native tongue had no meaning. Languages switched quickly in our house: New ones entered with meals presented by neighbors, unknown nurturing words appeared in the homes of friends. Our everyday lives were a wonderful linguistic mess, but Urdu — the language that floated in the backdrop of everything in Delhi, in songs, in corners of the old city, in anecdotes told by poetic uncles, in the history of the city’s kings — was the one that got away.

I moved back home more than a year ago. I stopped running from New Delhi, from India, in all its brutality and Technicolor, and I decided to learn Urdu. I had been in Europe for four years, living in old cities, making familiar mistakes with new friends. Dil say toh dilli, I thought, as I flew over the many oceans that lay between new homes and old: “No matter where you go, your heart will forever be made of Delhi. I was coming home to come to terms with this heart, which had gone from feeling rich and enlightened to feeling broken and weak. Yet the prospect of coming back to relentless New Delhi was still terrifying. If I had to let my heart love the city again — and I had to, of course — it had to be through Urdu.

***

Urdu’s tryst in the North of the Indian subcontinent began in the 12th century. Conquerors, kings, merchants, Sufi saints, and artisans came seeking refuge in Hindustan’s abundance. Delhi then was a center of trade, a political and social capital, a center of intellectual exchange, poetry, and literature. With the foreign incomers came their languages: Persian, Dari, Pashto, and Turkish. These disseminated into the city’s corners, inserting themselves into Zuban-e-Dehli, “the language of Delhi,” then known as Hindavi. Under the Delhi Sultanate, an empire made up of five dynasties of Turko-Afghan kings who ruled the city from 1206 to 1526, Hindavi changed a great deal. It traveled with the kings to other parts of the subcontinent, imbibing regional tones and indigenous dialects. It then returned back to Delhi as a fluid, volatile entity: a language that would eventually evolve and be divided into Hindi and Urdu.

If I had to let my heart love the city again — and I had to, of course — it had to be through Urdu.

In the 16th century, Delhi saw the arrival of the Persianate Mughal kings who replaced the sultanate. Famous for their love of sprawling gardens and long, decadent feasts, the Mughals created a plush economy and culture that still remains in the sights of tall domes towering over Delhi’s chaos, in the smells of charred kebabs in corners. The Mughals brought with them their language, Persian, which became the language of the royal courts. Persian created a literature and courtly etiquette on its own, but also cultivated rekhta, or “mixed language,” as it inserted itself into the existing Hindavi.

The fifth Mughal king, Shahjahan, was an audacious emperor of the 17th century known to the world for building the Taj Mahal. During his reign, rekhta thrived and was not only spoken by the residents of Delhi, but also traveled to other parts of the continent like the Deccan (today’s Andhra Pradesh). It was here that it met the quill of poet Wali Mohammad Wali, who was instrumental in Urdu’s later institutionalization. When he introduced his rekhta-sprinkled couplets to Delhi’s royal courts, he disrupted their Persian dictum. By the end of the 18th century, rekhta became Urdu, both a courtly and colloquial tongue, or “Zaban-e Urdu-e-Mohalla-e-Shahjahanabad”: the language of the exalted city built by Shahjahan.


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As Mughal rule entered its final days in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Delhi began to fall to ruin. Wars and mutinies ravaged the capital before it ultimately succumbed to Britain’s imperial domination. Urdu then became a medium for grief, loss, remorse, endurance, and critique. Courtesans, preachers, and natives peppered the language with idioms and expressions typical to Delhi’s personality. It was spoken by everyone: Urdu flowed from restaurant workers to royalty. The language, like Delhi, became a fluid entity encompassing all things that came its way: religions, histories, genders, and emotional tones. “The main difference is not what languages are made of, but what they choose to talk about,” said Ali Taqi, my Urdu teacher. He spoke to me about how words in the language can be ephemeral, experiential: “Urdu has a depth that Hindi doesn’t have, a sentimentality. It is a tool to convey more inherent matters, of pain, pleasure, love. It is much more than just function.”

***

On August 15th, 1947, the day the subcontinent wrung itself free of imperial rule, two nation states were born: Indians and Pakistanis were united in their freedom, but divided in their lives and new political identities for which they had fought. More than 15 million people were displaced in the partition of the subcontinent, countless families torn apart in Punjab and Bengal.

In the hostility that cursed a newly free yet blood-ridden India, Urdu became a point of contention as Hindu and Muslim leaders decided their communities belonged to different realms. Like its dispersed people, the language became haphazardly divided between borders. Because Urdu was written in Nastaliq, a script derived from Arabic’s Nasq, it was designated to Pakistan. Hindi, scripted from Devanagari, derived from Sanskrit, was claimed by India. While the origins of the language both predated and defied a segregation based on religion, this division gave a finality to the split. To press Urdu into Pakistan was more than a weak-willed attempt to rip a region in two; it was a way to claim India as a majority-Hindu state. For Pakistan, formed as a country for Muslims, receiving Urdu as a mandate was a way to cultivate a new, separate identity. Urdu and Hindi became divided children of a bad divorce — different in character, in body, in tone, but with the same blood, the same rhythms in their veins.

***

In this new India, formed in the glory of freedom but entrenched in the tragedy of being split by the very diversity it had once envisioned, Urdu as a formalized language began to fade away. Hindustan was a country for Hindus, who spoke Hindi, we were told in school. Urdu became a sparse presence — guarded, written and studied in universities, vigilantly activated in literature by writers and scholars — but its grace disappeared from Delhi’s everyday customs.

The city’s Hindi, meanwhile, was an amalgamation of the city’s many dialects: a rambunctious, nervous stream that came from its gnawing chaos and terrifyingly fast pace. It was this Hindi that I spoke: a harsh, rough creole learned from my father, friends, samosa sellers, cigarette shops on the sides of streets that also posed as roundtables for teenagers to gather after dark.

Par hai kya?” a Pakistani friend insisted, bewildered. What is it? What is this hybrid you speak?

Itna bhi bura nahin hai!,” I squealed with laughter, while he cringed as I spoke. It really isn’t that bad, I claimed, speedily cutting through his sentences across a dinner table in Brussels.

***

While Urdu and Hindi have similar grammar and structure, Urdu has a specialized vocabulary that resounds somewhere deep: in the stomach or even the soul. The word for best friend, jigra, means “a piece of your own heart.” The word for different, mukhtalif, means “free from a beginning,” aloof from structure. To say bay-had Mohabbat, “I love you very much,” is more an urgent claim than an utterance. Bay in Urdu was added as a negation to a word to express infinity: Bay-imtihan, “without test”; Bay-ahtiyat, “without care”; Bay-hat, “without limits.” Bay, the word for negation, but the one that turned others into infinity.

Bay-hat Mohabbat, yaar, an old friend insisted when he told me he loved me years ago, insisting his love was without boundaries.

In turn, Urdu poetry proves the language’s ability to portray the inertness, ambivalence, and complexities of human emotion. In Urdu poetry, the lover is a contemplative being, often love was unrequited. Pain, pleasure, madness were all realms of love, all part of the same thing. Urdu was, as my friend once said, “the perfect language for heartbreak and for expression of romantic love.”

In Ibn-e-Insha’s popular poem, Kal Chaudhvi ki Raat, which translates to “On the Night of the Full Moon” the poet throws himself into the void for the person he loves. Aashiq tera, ruswa tera, he says, meaning “this lover is yours,” dissolving himself into nothingness, surrendering himself entirely. Like in Inshah’s poem, the abandonment of one’s self was often glorified in Urdu poetry; the medium saw meaning in grand gesture, it saw beauty in a conflicted, emotional vacuum. While much of the world viewed love in linear polarity, from first meeting to eventual marriage, in Urdu there was a grey space in which to feel love undefined by label and constancy, a place I often inhabited.

“The way the meat melts off the bone, the way the fat renders into the onions, the way it all comes together, that is Urdu,” my granduncle Gulzar Naqvi used to say, comparing his favorite language to Nihari, his favorite meat stew. “It is not language, it is temperament, and it must be felt.” To many, like my uncle, Hindi was the language of the outdoors, that of everyday life, while Urdu became the language of scholarly pursuit and private intimacy. If there are languages that inform about the world as everyone sees it, Urdu is one that brings out the worlds that lie within.

In the 20th century, it became the language through which progressives like Saadat Hasan Manto, Mulk Raj Anand, and poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz would articulate a sense of life in the Indian subcontinent. At the same time, it became the base of the lyrics of Bollywood songs, a mood through which to profess love. It also developed into an integral part of the struggle for freedom; the language’s spirits surged language against the colonial British government. Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna aaj hamare dil may hai, wrote Bismil Azimabadi in Urdu in the wake of the struggle: “A desire for rebellion now wakens our hearts.” Urdu could be in all things at once, shy yet mutinous, calm yet virile, homebound yet political. Urdu was more than a technical tongue to all those living in the subcontinent; it was mood, feeling, poetry, history.

‘The way the meat melts off the bone, the way the fat renders into the onions, the way it all comes together, that is Urdu,’ my granduncle Gulzar Naqvi used to say, comparing his favorite language to Nihari, his favorite meat stew. ‘It is not language, it is temperament, and it must be felt.’

Alongside the election of Trump in the United States and the United Kingdom’s vote to initiate Brexit, India too has seen a rush toward an intolerant fundamentalist right. This viewpoint relegates Islam and Muslims to the status of foreign entities. India’s government has replaced some of Delhi’s Urdu street names with those of Hindu figures, Urdu texts are discouraged in universities, scholars and artists touting Urdu are reproached in public. In the three days after the recent terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir — a region still heavy with civil conflict and occupation — the subcontinent saw a frightening fear mongering and hysteria, with agitated Hindus crying for war, Kashmiris attacked and beaten on the streets. Under a religious-leaning framework, Hindu-driven fundamentalism moves toward violent homogenization.

Urdu, along with the country’s history, is being pushed to the margins. As Urdu’s visibility decreases, its bookstores replaced by English and Hindi ones. Even Old Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar, a once flourishing market for the subcontinent’s greatest poets and writers, has begun to fall to ruin. “I wonder where it went,” said Firoz Ahmed, a bookseller in the market who sold me my Feroz-e-Laughat, a 2,000-page Urdu dictionary, the heaviest book I own. “Why is it in exile?” he asked. “Learn it. Bring it back. It belongs here, it belongs with us.”

***

During my three years in Brussels, times filled with grey skies and scratching homesickness, Urdu came to my rescue. Simple words like “hello” and “goodbye,” salaam and khudahfiz, exchanged with my Pakistani neighbors were warm hugs. When discussing our hometowns, my neighbor Shehzad once said, “There’s no smell like your own land.” He used the Urdu word mulk for land. Hearing this, in his jumpy Lahore accent, sent me into a rush of tears.

In 2015, a steady stream of refugees flowed into Brussels. A police officer came to our home for a random search. After he left I crouched, upset on the couch, saddened by this intrusion and about all those whose lives and homes were upturned without warning. Shehzad and I gathered in the streets to watch our neighborhood infiltrated by men in uniforms. More Urdu speakers arrived, bearing tall jugs of tea. When Europe began to burn with hate for outsiders, when our identities were threatened, we hid in our little Urdu universe, yelling variations of Urdu jokes at surveillance officers, mean supermarket attendees, anyone who stared down with his green eyes at my dark hair. Urdu became the thing that brought me closer to home as I scoured my street for familiar sounds, when my life was suspended by a sudden resentment in that faraway city I had begun to call home. It created for me, a little space in which I could be myself amidst the sprawling Europeanness of my life.

For those who take respite in language, those who are comforted by the sound of words that fall off tongues and enter through fingertips, understand that the way one speaks can also be the way they live. When I was studying German and Dutch, I felt a tie to the wry rationalism that can inhabit the regions where they are spoken. When I picked up informal French from my Moroccan neighbor, I found friendship in his jest-filled lingo with unending improvisations and twists. In Italian, I recognized voracious appetites, in Farsi I detected unflinching beauty and pride. In Urdu, like its poets before me, I discovered a space for my own ambiguities, a space in which to feel. If Hindi and English had taught me to brazenly thrash against predestined boundaries, Urdu came to me when I was trying to be more like the language itself: open-ended, nurturing, patient.

***

During my fifth month of Urdu classes, collective hums and sighs went around as we learned to write the more formal words that we had always somewhat known. Questions arose: Why did we stop using these words? What happened to phrases and customs that showed respect? Was there once another Delhi, not one who raced blindly through crowded roads, but one who stopped to look at trees? Paused to pay compliments to strangers? Was there once a Delhi who wasn’t choked by grey skies and violent resentment? Was there once another Delhi in which arms belonging to different communities linked, in which languages intersected above the old minarets?

We learned to greet in Urdu with a sweetness and performance our Hindi didn’t possess. To say “thank you,” Raza Saheb taught us to say hum aapke mohabbaton ke shukrguzaar hai “we are thankful for your love.” As an introduction, we were told to refer to ourselves as nacheez or “a nonentity,” meaning that we did not not exist until we met the other person. In Urdu there was performance, consideration for the subject with whom the conversation was being held. If other languages had politeness, Urdu jumped quickly to intimacy, injecting everyday talk with metaphor and a bygone element in Delhi’s life: uncanny, misplaced love.

If other languages had politeness, Urdu jumped quickly to intimacy, injecting everyday talk with metaphor and a bygone element in Delhi’s life: uncanny, misplaced love.

Through our studies we realized that we already spoke Urdu. What we thought was Hindi was actually not exclusive. It was filled with the essence of Hindavi, toned with the brazen violations of Punjabi, Bhojpuri, English. Beneath all this was a constant pulse of Urdu; it had never left. When we wondered why we were learning to write a language that was counting its days, we concurred that is was important not for moving forward but for going back. Urdu denotes a precolonial past, a glimpse of what we were before the British dictated the culture of the city. If in English there was feckless ambition where Western rationale was the name of progress, as we learned Urdu we felt ourselves anchored in our city’s discarded past.

***

I recently rediscovered my favorite word in Urdu, a word that had resonated with me in my early days of acquaintance with the language: inquilab. Inquilab means revolution, a word used in the center of India’s struggle for freedom from the British, the word painted on the streets when it finally wrung itself free. Premchand, one of the most revered literary voices of the subcontinent, used it in his prose. Premchand wrote both in Hindi and Urdu, but his Urdu works lay buried in the wake of the split.

When I was a little girl, my Uncle Naqvi showed me how to write inquilab, rolling my qafs (the letterforms for Q) into perfect circles, dotting each earnestly, stressing that it was the center of the word that I was writing. Inquilab … Zindabad, he said under his breath as he taught me to write, repeating the Indian slogan for independence from the British, one that he had chanted as a young man.

Inquilab. On the day I learned to write it, I thought we could go back to the way Uncle Naqvi saw Delhi, the subcontinent and Urdu itself: in motion, inclusive, explosive, full of hope, free. Inquilab, I scribbled again and again, for those that lived in the old city, for the charred, robust smells of kebabs and kormas that floated from its kitchens. Inquilab to fight for a country that welcomed intellectualism, inquilab for our poets that still lived in our heads. Inquilab, we wrote, against the wave of spreading Hindu fundamentalism. Inquilab in camaraderie with the women that zoomed past with open windows and open hair. Inquilab for justice in Kashmir. Inquilab for mangoes that sprouted across the subcontinent, bringing everyone temporarily on the same page. Inquilab for the landless, inquilab for those that fought for those with no voice. Inquilab against turmoil, inquilab against unflinching power. Inquilab against the deep, dark depths within myself.

Inquilab, I scratched on my notebook as deep as I would print the names of those whom I loved onto school desks.

Inquilab! And I was home.

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Sharanya Deepak is a writer from and currently in New Delhi 

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Editor: Katie Kosma
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross
Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler