A lively debate around the question ‘Are Urdu readers a diminishing breed’ held an appreciative audience in thrall.
Iftikhar Arif said history is testament to the fact that the language of a predominant civilisation always finds wider acceptance around the globe. He cited Greek and Arabic as cases in point. But this should not prevent mother tongues from growing.
He said it is not Urdu alone which is faced with the problem of being overwhelmed by the reigning language of our times. All the 18 or so regional languages of India are similarly affected. But India emulated the Russian tri-lingual formula under which it encouraged all states to adopt English, Hindi and the regional dialect. But here in Pakistan, “we complicated matters”.
Iftikhar Arif disagreed with the notion that Urdu is in decline. He said Urdu is more widely used now than was the case before, ‘although [he] wouldn’t go into the quality and content employed’. He called on the audience to consider the proportion of Urdu newspapers, journals and TV channels in the country. “They represent an awesome 90 per cent share of the total audience.”
He said the much-despised Lord Macaulay is often accused of shrinking the sphere of Persian in the subcontinent to promote English in its stead. He then asked, rhetorically, who is trying to stop the growth of Urdu now.
Dr Nomanul Haq agreed that numbers were not falling, but the issue was one of attitude. He concurred with Zehra’s view that students doing their O’ and A’ Levels are pretty weak in Urdu. He said technology is partly to blame for this state of affairs. “Our relationship with paper is completely severed as now we use ibooks,” he said. “This is the epoch of viewers, not readers.”
He recalled that manuscripts used to be treasure troves for readers, which showed where the author had tinkered with his own text to chisel the language used. This used to be a great learning experience. But now desktop publishing has rendered such manuscripts redundant.
He rued the fact that textual and pronunciation mistakes abound in all forms of communication. In the WikiLeaks stories, for instance, many Urdu-language newspapers wrote ‘raz afshaan huay’ instead of ‘raz afsha huay’.
He said the growth of a language hinges not on its poetry, but on refined prose.
Solid work should be done in this area, then poetry will serve as icing on the cake.
Columnist Zahida Hina said that people who pursue Urdu reading seriously – those who swim in the language, so to speak – are evermore decreasing. So is the case with other regional languages. The reason is simple: they do not contribute to the growth of the personal economy.
She stressed that for many people pursuing Urdu, scholarship was like ‘naiki kar darya mein dal’. But things are not as bleak as they are made out to be. One English-language TV channel had to switch to Urdu recently to tap a larger audience segment, she said.
She said one must not be awed by the dominance of other languages. “Take the invention of the pen nib which had rendered the traditional quill redundant for writing. There was much hoopla over that development, but then it proved that machine aids the growth of language, she said.
It’s not something to be frowned upon if families want their children to get an education at a convent. Only they must arrange for their children to also learn their mother tongue so it stays alive.
Dr Haq recalled that he used to have a Diwan-e-Ghalib at home. But its printing was so bad it never attracted him. But when he proceeded to Bradford, he got his hands on Allama Iqbal’s Zarb-e-Kaleem in such printing as to gladden one’s heart. He brought home the point that nicely printed books are a must for attracting young readers. “.”
Arifa Syeda Zehra, a self-confessed lover of the Urdu, who moderated the discussion, said the reason why Urdu readers were disappearing was that we consciously want Urdu to die an unsung death. “We have not stepped out of the shadow of mehkoomiat (the state of being ruled) and mehroomiat (the sense of being deprived),” she said. “Our heritage is in that less fortunate language (bad-naseeb zaban) we call Urdu. We want to study other literatures but the one who is not acquainted with itself will scarcely profit from knowing others. We have one system of education designed to produce rulers and another which churns out mehkoom (the ruled).”
Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2011.