For decades, the Pakistani state, like its counterparts elsewhere, has force fed certain myths to its grumbling populace. These myths are designed to engender ideological acquiescence to a state project defined by an unrepresentative elite and silence those who dare to speak against it. Typically, these narratives push forth a linear and fantastical view of history, in which our past is rooted in an image of what the state wishes us to become. The drive to create patriotic citizens out us all is predicated, among other things, on the simplistic notions of one country, one religion, and one language; when the intertwined histories of all three are rarely, if ever, so straightforward.
This is why Dr Tariq Rahman’s From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History is so important. It is a detailed study of the social and political history of Urdu. In embarking on this study, Dr Rahman has attempted to complicate our understanding of Pakistan’s official language and in the process shattered certain myths propagated by nationalist narratives. This book, then, clearly has an agenda, and one that is much needed at this point in time.
But this is not the first time that Dr Rahman has done this. A scholar at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Dr Rahman is Pakistan’s foremost expert in linguistics and linguistic history. His most famous works, Language and Politics in Pakistan (OUP 1996), and Language, Ideology and Power (OUP 2002) explore the politics of language and the ends to which it’s used (ideally, both should be read in conjunction with this book). He is thus on firm ground when it comes to writing a detailed history of the evolution of Urdu and how it came to be associated with an exclusionary form of identity politics.
Urdu, Dr Rahman informs us, has a lineage which, as far as the earliest records tell us, stretches as far back as the 11th century.
Five centuries onwards from the 13th, the ancestor of both modern Hindi and Urdu was mostly called Hindi. In between there were a variety of names such as Dehlavi, Hindi/Hindui, Gujri, Dakkani, Indostan, Moors, Hindustani, and Rekhta, which were each associated with certain regions and identities. The word Urdu itself was first used in the late eighteenth century.
In the first of many myth-busters in the book, Urdu, while meaning ‘camp’ in Turkish, did not emerge from Mughal military cantonments, but rather developed from earlier variations of the same language. In discussing this, Dr Rahman, provides a fascinating insight into the regional variations of this language and how they evolved over time.
The picture that emerges from this discussion is of a language that was the product of a religious and cultural synthesis, though it is worth pointing out that religious and cultural identities themselves evolved in complicated ways over centuries.
Gradually however, Urdu came to be associated with an elite class that was predominantly Muslim.
This trend gained further momentum with the colonial encounter when the controversies over ‘Urdu’ and ‘Hindi’ began. Both came to be associated with divisive communal identities and parochial politics. Linguistic reformers in both camps purged words and grammatical constructions deemed to belong to the ‘Other’. This process continued with the emergence of the post-colonial states and their respective projects of state building. While Urdu became highly Persianised and Hindi became highly Sanskritised, both became mutually unintelligible to each other and almost unrecognisable from the shared vernacular spoken in much of the subcontinent.
That was by way of chronology. This book, however, is organised in an interesting way, with a rough chronology running, perhaps slightly uneasily, across its chapters. After detailing the nomenclature, origins and periodisation of the language, Dr Rahman moves into discussing the use of Urdu across various social realms. He examines the usage of Urdu in employment and education as well as the communicative mediums of print, radio and screen. In between, he also discusses the impact of colonialism on the development of the language and examines its varied encounters within the British administered territories and the princely states. Perhaps most interestingly, he shows how Urdu was used both as a language for the sacred and the profane (as defined by those who determine what the ‘sacred’ is). He thus dedicates a chapter each to “Urdu as an Islamic Language” and “Urdu as the Language of Love”. It would have been wonderful, though, had he also examined in depth the use of Urdu as a language of protest and as a medium for drawing people together rather than dividing them.
In doing so, Dr Rahman relies on an impressive range of sources, which range from rare medieval manuscripts to interviews with literary figures. Indeed, the bibliography itself makes for an interesting read. True to his specialised training, he examines the literary constructions of earlier works and shows the linkages between the linguistic variations that fed into the development of Urdu. The very breath of his methodological approach and source material, however, points towards a slight shortcoming of the overall text. For the very ambitiousness of this project meant that Dr Rahman, inevitably, had to cursorily engage with certain historical debates relating to the process of political and social change in South Asia. That said, his work opens up numerous avenues for further research by aspiring scholars as well as the intellectually curious.
On a tangent (and this is worth talking about), it is quite rare, if not unheard of, for a book to be prefaced by a tragic account of the author’s run-ins with pen-pushers in the bureaucracy. Financed (somewhat) by the Higher Education Commission, Dr Rahman had to go through numerous personal and professional trials just so that this project could be completed. If nothing else, this account should serve as an instructive lesson to donors on how not to deal with distinguished scholars. That this book was eventually published is not just reflective of a labour of love but also a testament to the reserves of perseverance that scholars have to draw on merely in order to publish books that are of academic worth.
Nevertheless, one has to be grateful that this book was eventually published. It is an excellent study that is both socially and politically relevant. It challenges nationalist narratives that deny the existence of a shared and pluralistic past by complicating our understanding of it. This is an exercise that we would all do well to undertake if we want to move beyond our recent past of exclusion and intolerance towards a future that is pluralistic and accommodating.
"Mind your language", Book Reviewed by Ali Raza: THIS book comes at an opportune moment. At a time when debates are raging about the creation of separate provinces along ethno-linguistic lines, it is only fitting that a work of breathtaking scope comes along to disturb nationalist narratives. The reviewer is a PhD candidate in South Asian History at Oxford University
"From Hindi to Urdu:" A Social and Political History, by By Tariq Rahman, Oxford University Press, Pakistan, ISBN 9780199063130 , 476pp