Are Urdu readers a diminishing breed?

Published: February 6, 2011

Javed Jabbar. PHOTO: NEFER SEHGAL/EXPRESS

KARACHI: 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.

on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook

Reader Comments (7)

  • zahid sheikh
    Feb 6, 2011 - 2:17PM

    Urdu readers are not a diminishing breed. Visit Europe, America, Africa, UAE and other Arab countries including Iran, especially Tehran and you will see people thirsty for Urdu reading. In these countries I met many a literary figures from India, Pakistan, Britain and the US working for the promotion of Urdu literature.The problem is we ( having Urdu our national language) here should help out those working in foreign lands to preserve and promote Urdu heritage. Viewers can never replace Readers and growth in quality and content depends on our efforts to encourage Urdu users from all over the world especially our home breed. There is no lack of talent in our country what we need is to help them polish their literary skills. Persian may have been forced to shrink in our land because of its strong connection with Urdu language — let it be noted here that both the languages are linked to our great cultural legacy –.or may be for the economic reasons. Whatever the cause, Urdu has a bright future. Recommend

  • danesh
    Feb 6, 2011 - 5:40PM

    Urdu is anyway an Indian language, it was developed in the north of India where it is still widely spoken. Pakistanis hate Indians but love to watch Bollywood movies, eat Indian food and have adopted an Indian languae Urdu as their national language. Recommend

  • karachiite
    Feb 7, 2011 - 3:45AM

    @danesh: I don’t see any relevance of the contents of your comment apart from xenophobic hatred so before you accuse Pakistanis of hatred do us a favour and look in the mirrorRecommend

  • sara
    Feb 7, 2011 - 9:16AM

    urdu is not a language that is diminishing per se, but the quality is become lackluster by the day. where we strive to make our english pronunciations correct and get the sentences right, we barely do the same for urdu. we have populated the language with inane sounding slang words. reading the urdu papers is painful, as the content as well as the way it is written is poor and lacks maturity, of thought as well as use of a language.

    the best sources for urdu are probably the khawaateen digests. most of us just wave the idea of reading such magazines away, thinking that it caters specifically to the mindset of an ordinary housewife. the digests are actually verbose- a word that most of us are forgetting the meaning of. Recommend

  • Asmat Jamal
    Feb 7, 2011 - 11:06AM

    @danesh: I agree with you as far a Urdu language and Indian Movies are concerned, but Indian and Pakistanis have different food culture, while Indians are herbivores, Pakistanis are carnivores.
    Carnivores generally eat herbivores. Recommend

  • danesh
    Feb 7, 2011 - 5:17PM

    Dear, you country is a land of the pure and to keep it pure you have to curtail every kind of kafir India influence. Thsu Urdu should be the first Indian thing that you people have to get rid of, speak your pure languages like Arabic or Pathani. Then stop eating India food like Biriani, Korma or Nihari, and last but not least the kafir bollywood movies that the whole country of the pure watch day and night. Please be pure and keep pure.Recommend

  • danesh
    Feb 7, 2011 - 5:22PM

    Asmat, Don’t generalize please. In India there are all kind of people. Some love to eat meat and some avoid it. More Muslims live in India than in the land of the pure and almost all of them consume meat, and many Hindus too. But I know very well when you peopel say “you Indians” than it generally mean “You HIndus”.Recommend

More in Sindh