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Double-edged as any language

November 14, 2017


“IN Urdu, the only language she [Anjum’s mother] knew, all things, not just living things but all things — carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments — had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him — Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.” From Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Another excerpt: “Long ago, a man who knew English told her that her name written backwards (in English) spelled Majnu. In the English version of the story of Laila and Majnu, he said, Majnu was called Romeo and Laila was Juliet. She found that hilarious. ‘You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?’ she asked. ‘What will they do when they find that Laila may actually be Majnu and Romi was really Juli?’ The next time he saw her, the Man Who Knew English said he’d made a mistake. Her name spelled backwards would be Mujna, which wasn’t a name and meant nothing at all. To this she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m all of them, I’m Romi and Juli, I’m Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited’.”

Only a few years ago, Arundhati Roy paid a clandestine visit to the Maoist heartland in Chhattisgarh, which produced a separate book. She left her collection of music there because the ‘comrades’ loved to listen to Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib in their own voices. It was a strange fascination with Urdu poetry for a people who were least connected with the language. They spoke dialects of Chhattisgarh. They spoke Telugu, Oriya, Bengali and even Marathi. But Urdu?

Urdu is used with equal force by reactionary mullahs and by followers of Faiz; and by practically all sides in the Kashmir imbroglio.

Now, the other day, I was reading a letter written in English by an inmate from the Nagpur jail — from the notorious Andaa Cell, in fact, where Yakub Memon was lodged before he was hanged next door two years ago.

The author of the letter was a Telugu-speaking professor of English at Delhi University, an alleged Maoist and therefore in jail. Recently a British court said it was not inclined to repatriate someone to India because of the appalling jail conditions in the country. It doesn’t help, of course, that India has failed to ratify the UN convention against torture, which it signed in 1997.

The so-called Maoist activist — so-called because he denies being one — has addressed the letter to Anjum, the character from Roy’s fictional novel.

In March, an Indian court had sentenced G.N. Saibaba to life imprisonment. His crime was having alleged connections with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Saibaba suffers from permanent post-polio paralysis of the legs; he is almost entirely dependent on others to perform basic functions. However, he has languished in solitary confinement, in the notorious cell. In an earlier letter to his wife, Vasantha Kumari, he wrote, “Already I am shivering with continuous fever. I do not have a blanket. I do not have a sweater/ jacket … I am living here like an animal taking its last breaths.”

The jail authorities have done nothing to relieve his pain. His family sends medicines, but he does not receive them.

Addressed to “Dear Anjum”, a key regret in Saibaba’s letter is he did not learn Urdu. He belongs to Andhra Pradesh, whose capital was Urdu-speaking Hyderabad. Perhaps this could be a reason.

“In what language should I write to you? I know it is ridiculous to write to you in English … One of the biggest blunders I committed in my life is not to learn Urdu.”

Saibaba tried to learn Urdu when he was in the Andaa Cell as an undertrial prisoner in two spells. He tells Anjum how seriously he tried to correct the “mistake in life”. However, he could not become proficient in the language to write a letter on his own. The prison authorities allowed him to write only in Hindi or English. He didn’t know how to write in Hindi, though he could manage to read it.

“I hope you are doing well with the entire Ministry in the Jannat Guest House,” Saibaba tells Anjum, referring to the characters in the book. “I hope you still remember me six months after my disappearance from Delhi.”

Seen from the perspective of status quo, Urdu is as dangerous a language as any. I believe Saibaba would have been exposed to the poetry of Makhdoom Mohiuddin, legendary Marxist poet of Hyderabad. “Ye jang hai jang-i-azadi, azadi ke parcham ke taley”, he wrote for the Telangana struggle, a rare revolutionary phase in the history of Indian communism. The intensely romantic Majaaz spent time pondering revolutionary change.

“Kaleja phunk raha hai aur zubaan kehne se aari hai/ Bataoo’n kya tumhe kya cheez ye sarmayadari hai [What can I tell you about capitalism, except that it singes the soul and stifles my mute anguish?]”

Iqbal equated capitalism with Satan. But Urdu, like any other language, works both ways. It is used with equal force by reactionary mullahs and by followers of Faiz; and by practically all sides in the Kashmir imbroglio. A Kashmiri police officer in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness mockingly recites Habib Jalib. “Mohabbat goliyon se bo rahey ho/ Watan ka chehra khoon se dho rahey ho/ Guman tumko ke rasta kat raha hai/ Yaqeen mujhko ke manzil kho rahey ho. [Bullets you sow instead of love/ Our homeland you wash with blood/ You imagine you are showing the way/But I believe you’ve gone astray.)”

The debate will be rekindled when the Urdu version of the book hits the stands sometime next year.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2017