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An Ever Festering Wound

Alok Rai

By Ather Farouqui
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 307, Rs. 595.00


The blurb on the dust jacket of Ather Farouqui’s Redefining Urdu Politics in India makes a bold claim: ‘This volume breaks new ground on the issue of the Urdu language with the backdrop of language politics in the pre- and post-Partition eras.’ It is no disrespect to the great energy and stamina that Ather Farouqui has brought to the cause of Urdu in India to say that it is virtually impossible to ‘break new ground’ in this paradoxically trodden wilderness. These issues have been so tirelessly—and tiresomely, too—rehearsed over the last century or so, that there is an air of tedium, albeit of a resentful and angry tedium, that attends any attempt to reopen the subject. It is not as if there is no wound, and it is certainly not the case that the wound has healed—but there appears to be little point in opening it up to yet another round of scrutiny and comment, with little possibility of any redress. Indeed, the problem is so involved that even a select and sophisticated group of individuals such as Ather Farouqui has assembled here cannot agree on any set of recommendations—and I for one am disinclined to blame them. This is, quite frankly, a historical swamp—and perhaps the only way to move across it is to move fast and lightly, before the mud begins to gather around one’s ankles!   At the very outset, there is the problem of definition. Thus, no one can say quite what Urdu is—and one way of resolving this inescapable difficulty is by identifying Urdu with the Perso-Arabic script in which it has traditionally been written. Moreover, there is an element of bad faith in doing this—because if one distinguishes between the language and the script in which it has been written, then it is at least arguable that Urdu, far from languishing, is in fact thriving in the public space. Urdu is by far the dominant language of popular culture, as anyone with even a minimal familiarity with public culture in India knows. And the sources for Urdu’s neurotic commitment to elegiac melancholy, to endlessly intoning the marsiya of its own evidently exaggerated demise—aashiq ka janaaza hai—must be sought elsewhere.   There is however a good, and even humane reason why this act of bad faith comes so easily to so many good people. This ...

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