Rise in Popularity of Urdu in Western Countries

Wherever there is a sizable population of Urdu-speaking people in the world, Urdu is thriving. Outside India and Pakistan, the biggest Urdu centre is Canada, particularly its biggest city, Toronto. But unfortunately, there is no information bank on current or past literary activities. There have been international Urdu conferences but there is no record as to who and how many people attended them. There is also no record of the visits of great Urdu luminaries like Faiz, Jaun Elia,Ali Sardar Jafri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Iqbal Safipuri, Iqbal Ashhar and many others. Many seminars were organized on Faiz, Josh, Sajjad Zaheer, Taraqqui Pasand Movement and Taraqqui Pasand Adab, but there is no record of the proceedings of these conferences and seminars. Therefore the information given below is mainly from oral sources.

There are a number of Urdu literary societies in Toronto. The notable ones are: “Urdu International Writers’ Forum”, “Izhar International “, “Gehvara” and “Family of the Heart” (FOTH) which has several other activities as well. The city has four Urdu TV programs: “password” is run by Dr. Baland Iqbal, the son of Himayat Ali “Shayar”, Rubina Faisal runs “Dastak TV Show”, Tahir Aslam Gora’s programme is “Bila Takalluf” and Tasleem Zulfi runs “Urdu TV Canada”.

There is no daily Urdu paper but there are 27 Urdu weekly, fortnightly, and monthly newspapers and magazines. The well-known papers are: “Urdu Times”, “Urdu Post”, “Awam”, “Jang Canada”, “Pakistan times”, “Urdu Khabarnama” and “Eastern News”. There are four private Urdu libraries with a huge collection of books at the homes of Dr. (Physician) Syed Taqui Abidi, Bedar Bakht (Engineer) who has bequeathed his entire library to the University of Toronto, Colonel Anwar Ahmad, and Wali Alam “Shaheen” who lives in nearby Ottawa.

Among the writers, Mr. Pervaiz Perwazi, a distinguished scholar and teacher of Urdu has written 19 books but his major work is a critical review of 350 biographies published in four volumes. At present, he is working on his fifth volume on the subject. There is hardly any published autobiography in Urdu, which Mr. Perwazi has not reviewed.

The late Athar Razvi authored 12 books in Urdu on various topics but mainly on social and political issues. His major contribution was the establishment of “Ghalib Academy” in his home on the street “Hidden Valley” which he called “Posheeda Vaadi” in Toronto, more than three decades ago. Here, he held an annual “Tarahi” Mushaira: “Bayaad-e-Ghalib” and invited a large number of participants, some from the U.S. also to whom he offered Lakhnawi hospitality by serving a sumptuous dinner as well. A regular participant to this Mushaira was his close friend from Washington D.C., the scholar and poet, Mr. Satya Pal Anand. The basement of Mr. Razvi was a museum exhibiting a large number of photographs of Urdu poets on its walls. After Mr. Razvi’s very sad and sudden demise two years ago, a prominent shayara of Toronto, Nasreen Syed, a close family friend of Razvi’s kindly took over the responsibility of carrying the torch. Last year, the “Bayaad-e-Ghalib” Mushaera was held, for the first time, in the auditorium of a public library.

Mr. Ashfaq Hussein, a well- known poet and writer, has authored and co-authored 26 books in Urdu and is an authority on Faiz. He is the recipient of “pride of Performance” award in Pakistan for his outstanding contribution to Urdu in Canada. Mr. Ikramullah Bareilvi, at 96, is the senior-most Urdu novelist in Toronto who has been writing for over 70 years.There are a number of Urdu poets in Toronto. The senior- most is Professor Rehman Khawar who is also the mentor of a number of young poets in Toronto. The next senior is Himayat Ali “Shayar” who divides his time between Karachi and Toronto as his children live in both these cities. There are several women poets as well and the prominent ones are: Naseem Syed, Aabida Karamat, Zakia “Ghazal”, Nasreen Syed, and Parween “Saba”.

Among the poets and writers both, there are some multi-faceted personalities such as: Dr. Khalid Sohail (Psychiatrist) who is a poet, short story writer, novelist and who is also the founder of a secular and international organization “Family of the Heart” (FOTH). He organizes literary as well as other seminars on the major topics of the day. Books by FOTH members are released and cultural events take place. The most heavily attended is a picnic on a Farm every summer. He also developed the concept of “Green Zone Living”, that is, healthy and happy living. He has written books and blogs on this concept. Dr. Taqui Abedi is a physician, proficient in several languages, a collector of rare books and manuscripts, poet and writer. He has written extensively on “Dabeer” and his major writings are: “Faiz Nama”, a fourteen hundred page book which is a comprehensive source on Faiz, “Marsia Anees-o-Dabeer” and “Insha Allah Khan” Insha”, Baland Iqbal is a physician and the most original short story writer in Urdu in Toronto. Among his books, a collection: “Meri Ikyavan Kahania(n)” is the most popular. He also runs a TV show known as “Password” in which he interviews mainly those who are involved in humanitarian works. Ashfaq Hussein, apart from being a poet and writer, is a very expert organizer of literary conferences and Mushairas. Parween “Saba” is a very hard-working and talented housewife, a widowed mother of five, scientist, artist and poet.

Toronto is known for frequent Mushairas where local poets as well as those from the nearby cities in the U.S.A. participate. In the Mushairas during the summer months, poets from India, Pakistan, England and other countries are also invited. Writers and poets from Toronto are also invited to international Urdu conferences and Mushairas in India, Pakistan, England and the Middle East. Besides Toronto, In Washington D.Cand U.S.A. also, Urdu is very popular. The late President Kennedy had introduced the idea that the diplomats of his country should learn the national languages of the country where they were going to be posted. Suddenly, a number of foreign- language schools had sprung up in the city during his short term of presidency. Urdu was also taught in those schools. I taught Urdu in two of those schools and at Georgetown University. I was surprised to find that apart from the diplomats, many other Americans and foreigners also enrolled in my Urdu classes. Such as: Army personnel, Christian missionaries and also young people who were going to marry Urdu- speaking girls and boys. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. is considered to be the biggest library in the world and it has a huge collection of Urdu books as well.

In Europe, I was most surprised to be invited to an Urdu Society get-together in Oslo, Norway on our short visit there. I learned that a large number of Pakistanis had suddenly landed there (In late eighties) and initially were not accepted by the locals so they had formed a closely-knit community and organized their own activities including Urdu literary get-togethers. Some of them turned into short-story writers and poets to express their homesickness and voice their grievances against the inhospitable people in the host country (This was a long time ago, may be the situation has improved now).

I learned that the major cities of Sweden also had Urdu-speaking communities and literary activities. The well-known Urdu writer, (late) Mr. Ram Lal of Lucknow was a regular invitee by Urdu societies in Sweden. Once, from Sweden, he came to Geneva at the invitation of his Pakistani friends and learned about me, another Lakhnavi in town, and contacted me. So two old Lakhnavis met for the first time in Geneva! I had a little get together for him at my place in which he read his popular story “O. C.” which was much appreciated. We became good friends and met in Lucknow on our annual visits till he passed away.

What great service to Urdu, Mr. Arif Naqvi has done in Germany is known to all fellow- Lakhnavis as he frequently visits his hometown and keeps them informed. Among the Western countries in which I lived in, Switzerland was the only country, which had no Urdu- related activities as the Urdu-speaking population was very small and it consisted of mainly diplomats and economists working at the United Nations Organization. But Urdu language was much appreciated by the Indian women speaking other languages as was evident by the popularity of Pakistani Urdu dramas among them. Many of them did not follow the Persianized Pakistani Urdu in the dramas but they watched them in any case, as they liked the sound of the language. When they got stuck at some less known Arabic or Persian words in Urdu, they would stop their VCRs and call me – the “Expert”? In Urdu from Lucknow and say: ” Zara Jaldi se, Jaldi se, Jaldi se is shabd (word) ka arth (meanings) batao”

There was a Bengali- speaking lady who was so enamoured by Pakistani Urdu dramas that she decided to learn Urdu for better appreciation of the plays. She enquired about a possible Urdu teacher in the community and who else but the “Expert”! from Lucknow was recommended to her. So she called me and requested me to be her teacher. I would have loved to help her but unfortunately at that time, I was too busy with a number of assignments and could not give her time. But it was agreed upon that, for the time being, when we meet in social gatherings, which were frequent, I speak “Chaste Lucknowi Urdu” with her. So when we met in a party later, after exchanging the Lakhnawi salutation: “Aadaab Arz” I wanted to say “Mizaj shareef”? (as she was very particular about “Chaste” Urdu) But then I thought it might be too difficult for her in the first lesson so I softened it a bit by asking “Kahiye mizaaj kaise hai(n)? and she very happily answered: “Aaj bahot khush mizaaj hai(n)”!

My main contribution or service to Urdu was at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, U.S.A where I had gone to get my Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics. One of the requirements for this programme was to know or learn two foreign languages. Most students already knew at least one foreign language and had to learn a second one. One day when I was talking to some Pakistani friends in Urdu, some of my international classmates said: “What a beautiful language you are speaking” and I jumped at the opportunity to suggest to them to take my beautiful language Urdu as their second foreign language. Some of them agreed in principle but said that the University did not offer Urdu in their curriculum. When I talked about it to my academic advisor, he told me that the Linguistics department would offer any language for which there are at least five students and a qualified teacher available. I persuaded five of my classmates to ask the administration to offer for Urdu classes and I offered to teach. For my Ph.D.,I had a choice between taking a research assistantship or a teaching assistantship as a financial support. I had initially chosen research but changed to teaching assistantship to teach Urdu which was accepted as one of the languages to be taught in the Department of Linguistics and Foreign Languages. As the news spread, several Indian students from other disciplines also enrolled in my class as they loved Urdu poetry but could not read or write Urdu. They had read Urdu poetry in Hindi or other Indian scripts with the disadvantage of not knowing the meanings of all the words in it.

The next step was to start building a little Urdu library. I was very surprised to know that although Urdu had never been taught there before, there was a good collection of Urdu books in the library. I asked to see the collection and a volunteer guided me to the Urdu section of the stack room. There were at least a dozen book- shelves full of Urdu books. I spent several hours looking at the books and almost broke my neck but it was too exciting and tempting to see what books they had. Apart from the famous classics, I even found copies of books like, A.R. Khatoon’s “Afshan” and Munshi Fayyaz Ali’s “Shameem”! I was very curious to know how and why the Urdu books were there when the language was never taught and I learned that the University gets copies of significant books in the major languages of the world whether they teach those languages or not as these books might be needed in doing research in those languages. This was an excellent idea and I also benefited from it.

In one of the linguistics classes, we were asked to write a paper on the variety of female language in our mother tongues. In our class, there were students speaking more than a dozen different languages. Everybody found books in the library to do research in their language. A good source of finding typical women’s language was the book “Afsha(n)”. Just one book was sufficient for my research as the novel dealt with all aspects of women’s activities at home and in the community.

The children of Urdu-speaking parents, who are born and brought up in the West, are speaking their parents’ language less and less and prefer to speak the language of their peer group. But some of these children regret later on for having abandoned their ancestral language and want to pick it up again, for various reasons. One such young man who became a medical doctor and had many Urdu-speaking patients who were not yet fluent in English, wished to re-learn Urdu to better communicate with them. Another university student gave an interesting reason for wanting to learn Urdu. He said that his parents had literary gatherings at home in which poets recited their poetry and everybody said “Wow-Wow”, “Wow-Wow” which meant that what the poets recited was really cool but I did not understand a thing”. Thus it appears that Urdu would survive in foreign lands, for one reason or the other, especially if it remained part of the curriculum in the departments of linguistics and international languages at the universities.

Dr. Sehba Ali
Writer is an Applied Linguist and a freelance-writer.

(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 3 Issue 5,August 2016)

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