In school, my Urdu was a widespread joke among my friends. My pronunciations aside, I was hopeless with sentence construction, which in Urdu is the opposite of the way a sentence is constructed in English. If I was to translate ‘she is sitting under a tree’ into Urdu, the correct structure would mean that it would read like this: ‘She tree under sitting is’. In Urdu, of course, that sounds perfect: ‘woh darakht kay neechay baithi hai’.
Since I was formulating sentences in my head in English, and translating them (maintaining the English structure) before I said them, they’d normally come out backwards. I’ve since overcome that obstacle; I still think in English, but translate and re-form the sentence in Urdu before speaking. But my bigger challenge was, and still is, gender assignments. Unlike English, Urdu doesn’t have words equivalent to ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘his’ or ‘her’. Gender is revealed through verbs and prepositions like ‘of’. Each verb and preposition has a male (normally ending in an ‘aa’) and female (ending with an ‘ee’) version of the word. It’s difficult to explain, but the Urdu word for ‘of’ is ‘ka’ (male), ‘ki’ (female) and ‘kay’ (plural).
Speaking about a person is no problem. I know which preposition to use when referring to a man or a woman—so ‘her’ would be translated as ‘uss ki’, and ‘his’ would be ‘uss ka’. But Urdu assigns genders to inanimate objects too, like chair, which is female. A tree is male.
I have yet to come across a definitive, comprehensive list of which words are male and which are female. Every once in a while, I still sound like a foreigner in my own land because I just don’t remember every object’s gender. It didn’t help that I studied a pared down, ‘easy’ form of Urdu when I joined school. We weren’t taught structure, or grammar. Instead, we read poetry.
Urdu poetry is incredibly diverse, profound, and if you understand it, hauntingly beautiful. The poetry I studied in school, however, was delivered in a dry and boring manner. Venerable and powerful poets like Ghalib and Hali were reduced to meaningless words strung together with no particular relevance to me. Since I wasn’t going to be tested on the poets, I barely bothered reading deeper. It didn’t help that my reading speed in Urdu was woefully inadequate. In English, my speed is intense, quick; reading Urdu left me frustrated at my slowness, and I was more than happy to drop my attempts to read poetry or anything in Urdu given half a chance.
My Mother the Teacher
Along with my accent and back-to-front sentence structure, I was, at times, ridiculed for the fact that my mother taught Urdu for many years at a private school (‘how can you be so lame in Urdu when your mother is so good at it?’). In fact, she put together a comprehensive guide for teachers on how to teach Urdu to beginners. The guides are still in use, twenty years later, in schools in Pakistan and the UK where it’s used to teach adults. She is my primary source for all things Urdu, and she never spares an opportunity to correct my stumbling words.
Her method for getting me interested was to hook me on to poetry by music. Some of our greatest poets have had their words put to music, from Iqbal to Ghalib to Mir Taqi Mir to Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. Back in the days of vinyl records, she’d turn up the volume on the record player in our small apartment and cook and clean (along with me and my siblings) to exquisite strains of sitar and harmonium music and legendary singers like Madam Noorjehan, Munni Begum, Shamshad Begum, Tahera Syed and Nayyara Noor. She translated the poetry, bringing meaning to the cadence and pitch of the songs. My brother, sister and I had our individual tastes in music, and while my sister is a head-banging rocker who would follow Metallica on tour if she could make it happen, my brother and I incorporated Mom’s tastes into our own.
She bought us poems written for children, poems turned into songs by artists such as Sohail Rana, who ran a show for many years on PTV, teaching the nation the value of poems such as ‘Maa ka Khawab’ (a mother’s dream) by Muhammad Iqbal. One of our first pop singers, Nazia Hassan, was a long-time student of Sohail Rana’s and classic tapes of his old shows have her sitting among his group of students, singing songs that the country still remembers today.
When I got to college, I learned about Iqbal Bano and Mehdi Hassan, Salman Alvi, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and so many, many more. In our Urdu class in college, we held weekly mushairas*, or poetry slams, in which, shockingly, I was a leading contender. The game was to recite a couple of verses and the opposing team had to answer with a verse starting from the letter on which the other verse ended. I knew an incredible number of poems by great poets and because they were set to music, I remembered them easily.
Most of the older poets in this part of the world wrote overwhelmingly about love, about wine, about sin, and about heartbreak. It’s a testament to both the language and the poet that hundreds of thousands of verses have been written on love and yet no two are alike. It’s as frustrating as my reading speed that those unaware of this great language will never be touched by the words of Ghalib or Faiz.
I’ve since started reading Urdu poetry on my own, struggling with my slow pace and exasperation because some things are just worth the effort. I am starting with Shikwa, Jawab-e-Shikwa (My Grievances, Your Reply, written to God) by Muhammad Iqbal. It’s an epic poem reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
I’m curious to see how far I get with it.
* A mushaira is traditionally held between actual poets, an elegant duel of wits and words, often extempore, spontaneous. Our mushairas were spirited parodies of the real thing.
A Mother’s Dream
Maa ka Khawab by Allama Muhammad Iqbal, translated to the best of my ability. While I can convey the gist of the poem, you have to know Urdu to appreciate the depth, feel the rhythm and truly absorb the words below.
Mein soyi jo ek shab to dekha ye khawab
Barha aur jis se mera iztarab
As I slept one night, I had a dream
That left me shaking and confused.
Ye dekha ke mein ja rahi hun kahin
Andhera hai aur rah milti nahin
I dreamt I was travelling to an unknown place.
It was dark and I couldn’t see the path or find my way,
Larazta tha der se mera baal baal
Qadam ka tha dehshat se uthna mahal
My body was trembling with a strange dread,
A creeping fear turned my feet to lead.
Jo kuch hosla pa ke aagay berhi
To dekha qitar aik larkon ki thi
I gathered my courage and moved forward
When I saw a line of boys not far ahead.
Zumurad si poshak pehne huay
Diye sub ke hathon mein jalte huay
They were dressed in emerald robes, and
Carrying oil lamps burning bright in their hands
Woh chup chap thay agay peche rawan
Khuda jane jana tha un ko kahan
They walked in silence, single-file, one behind the other
God only knows where they were going.
Issi soch mein thi ke mera pisar
Mujhe uss jamat mein aya nazar
As I gazed in wonder at this strange sight,
I suddenly saw my son among the line of boys
Woh peche tha aur taez chalta na tha
Diya uss ke hathon mein jalta na tha
He was trailing behind the others, dull and slow
The oil lamp he was carrying was dark and unlit
Kaha mein ne pehchan ker, meri jaan!
Mujhe chor ker aa gye tum kahan?
I called out to him, ‘my dear, don’t you recognise me?
Why would you leave me for this strange, dark place?
Judai mein rehti hun main be-qarar
Paroti hun her rouz ashkon ke haar
I live in despair because of my loss;
Every day, I weep in grief at being apart
Na perwa humari zara tum ne ki
Gye chor, achi wafa tum ne ki!
You left me without a second thought
What happened to your loyalty, to the life you were to live?’
Jo bache ne dekha mera peach o taab
Diya uss ne munh phair ker yun jawab
The boy had seen my distress and my fear,
But he turned his head away. And then he said,
Rulati hai tujh ko juddai meri
Nahin uss mein kuch bhi bhalai meri
‘My leaving causes you to weep, I know.
But your tears do me more harm than good.’
Ye keh ker vo kuch dair tak chup raha
Diya phir dikha ker ye kehne laga
He paused for a long moment after these words,
Then raised his lamp to show me the dark wick.
Samajhti hai tu ho gaya kya issay?
Tere aanasuon ne bhujaya issay!
‘Do you not understand why this lamp is not lit, why my path is dark?
Its flame has been extinguished, you see, by the flow of your tears.’
Note: The video above is the voice of Nayyara Noor singing ‘Maa Ka Khawab’ in 1977 for PTV.