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Syed Nomanul Haq is a former scholar-in-residence at the American Institute of Pakistan Studies and is Advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Program at the IBA Karachi. He is general editor of the Oxford University Press book series, Studies in Islamic Philosophy and recently shared the Waldo Leland Prize of the American Historical Association


In recent years, the social sciences appear to have dominated both the literary and linguistic studies of Urdu, at least in terms of the volume of writings and their documented prestige. Reigning supreme in the academy have been the social sciences as a discipline that is determining the very nature of inquiry into literature. Note again that we are here talking about a relatively recent phenomenon, for in its fullness this discipline itself arose out of the complex vicissitudes of the human intellectual and social history since the 19th century, now with its defined borders and its own turf, rapidly cast it seems in the furnaces of the industrial world. And in the general run of things, in the wider world of the Urdu-language media, literary periodicals, and lightweight magazines, it is not so much the discipline but the concerns of the social sciences kind that are defining more and more the framework of explications, explanations and analyses. So typically, it is now way more likely that the learned scholar of Urdu, the one operating in the international arena, has a much better grasp of seminal writings in the field of the social sciences than of humanistic discourses. Expect more familiarity now with the likes of Marx and Weber and Durkheim, along with their bountiful harvest reaped over the last two centuries or so, than with the writings of the kind we have received from I.A. Richards or Frank Kermode. Expect no more than a cursory familiarity with the literary deliberations of a Coleridge or a T.S. Eliot. And worse, do not expect the newer critics to have cultivated a friendship with the reflections, mind-boggling reflections, of Ghalib’s mentor Bedil. Here one would hardly dare recall the thrust generated by personages such as Qudama ibn Ja‘far, being too far away as they happen to be, sitting in the frozen cultural chambers of medieval Baghdad: to expect an acquaintance with the Qudama tradition would be just too much to ask.

But the most conspicuous manifestation of the rule of the social sciences in an expanding empire is the shedding of the linguistic burden. It seems that the critic is no more required to pay attention to source languages — to classical Arabic, Sanskrit and Persian. Sometimes, though such instances are few, the contemporary critic happens to be rather unrefined even in the object language itself. This does make conceptual sense. The interest now lies in social relations, in urban pressures and politics, in demography and kinship, in migration and diaspora, in the dislocations wrought by the construction of massive dams and highways, it lies in colonial machinations, in post-colonialism, in emerging city ghettoes. Yes, the interest has shifted from its gaze on imagery, metaphor, idiomatic structures, diction, stylistics, rhythm, rhyme and prosody. No more are we talking much about the autonomy of an alternative cosmos created by a poet or a story-writer — a cosmos with its own laws, its own grammar and its own atelier of meaning-creation; a cosmos that resembles this given cosmos of ours, but does not represent it in any non-complex linear manner. We are blurring the distinction between resemblance and representation.

Yet, it ought to be admitted that the social science approach has opened many new vistas for us. We are asking new questions, creating new synergies with many other disciplines, making the study of literature accessible to a much larger number of young people, now unencumbered by protracted phases of language preparation. But what is particularly important here, the newer approach has made us engage in the process of real life in order to understand literary works. Indeed, contemporary Urdu fiction or latter-day poetry cannot be fully grasped without this engagement. Without a context other than that of literature itself, we cannot explain the difference between Iqbal’s treatment of the Mosque of Cordoba and Spain on the one hand, and Ghalib’s treatment of steam engines and Calcutta on the other. To explain literature, we sometimes have to go outside the realm of literature.

So we have here mixed blessings. An apt imagery here is that of a glare. The social sciences have engendered a glare that makes certain objects much clearer, even some dramatic unseen objects compellingly visible — but it does so at the cost of obscuring many others. This glare needs to be reduced in its intensity. A good case in point is the wonderful body of work on cities. From Ajmal Kamal’s rich volumes on Karachi many years ago to Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s ongoing researches on Allahabad and Kamran Asdar Ali’s recent reflections on Pakistan’s urban ethos and its creative drift, we have received much illumination from these crisp works.

Entering sometimes into the discussions about cities is this question of the Urdu language, the Urdu language as it is moving in our times. But this is a subject that is yet to be fully developed, and I anticipate that when it is looked at in earnest it will tend to undermine the glare we are talking about.

The question of the Urdu language as it is going through changes seems to be a highly complex one. On the one hand, it involves a consideration of commercial industries and new technologies; but then, on the other hand, it brings into focus, or ought to bring into focus, profound philological issues. In this endeavour, the social scientist needs the participation and aid of those trained in humanistic, text-based disciplines, trained in languages particularly — the participation and aid of those who have a touch with poetry, who savor a Hafiz and a Ghalib, those who are, so to speak, ghazalised. This latter expertise, becoming more and more rare by the day, is conspicuously absent from the discourses on the daily urban changes and reversals Urdu is going through.

Let’s look at the phenomenon: what happens frequently these days is that an Urdu word is incorrectly appropriated by Bollywood; then the same word, now in its incorrect meaning or unlawful usage, returns back to Urdu and becomes part of the language in a widening environment of linguistic anarchy. I say “incorrectly” and “unlawful” with the presupposition that there must exist an entity called standard Urdu. This back-formation evidently fascinates the social scientist, but for the philologist it may mean a reduction of semantic nuance or an invasion into the rhythms of Urdu. Take the case of the word shuru‘at, an infrequently occurring plural of shuru‘ (inception or beginning), now deployed to replace the word ibtida’ or to substitute for the singular form which is standard Urdu idiom. So now, living as we do in the shadow of Bollywood, we say, “kam ki shuru‘at karte hain” rather than the standard “kam shuru‘ karte hain” or “kam ki ibtida’ karte hain”. This is not a romantic lamentation for “old” Urdu; it is in fact a scientific observation. Note that two things are happening here: one, that the semantic range of Urdu is being reduced; and two, that by making light of it and calling it ‘a process of life’ as some people do, we block a consideration of the role played by commercial industries in our daily lives.

There are many such examples, but let me take just one or two more, rather hilarious and ubiquitous ones. Thus, sometimes what happens is that an English word enters Bollywood and is used in a non-English idiom. Then the non-English idiom carrying the English words travels back to Indian/Pakistani English, such that it makes no sense to the English speaker. A case in point is the word “tension” — it entered the Mumbai vocabulary in the expression, “tension mat lo” and has now undergone a back-formation into English to appear both in speech and writing literally as “don’t take tension”. “Taking tension” is a meaningless expression in English.

Much else has been happening to Urdu in our days. For example, the difference between “mukhtalif” (different, adjective) and “farq” (difference, noun) has been obliterated. So instead of saying “these two things are mukhtalif,” people now say, “these two things are farq.” That is, using a noun when logically and syntactically there should have been an adjective. But most intriguingly, the second Urdu word in its English translation has travelled back to Urdu and we hear expressions such as “ab is ki awaz change hai” = “now its sound is farq”. Is this only a process of life? Or are we impoverishing the semantic scope of Urdu? And are we violating the idiomatic autonomy and phonetic sovereignty of the language? We must remember that it is one thing to import foreign words into a language, something that happens all the time; and quite another to invade its idioms, as it seems to be happening under commercial terror. We need to diffuse the social science glow to see of all this, significant as it is — significant in order for us to explain ourselves as dignified cultural beings.