The elite of Urdu literature — that is, those who have found their place in the literary canon — are a pretty snooty lot. They don’t readily praise works produced by their contemporaries or juniors. But Naseer Turabi is one of those rare poets whose credentials are seen, analysed and praised without a jaundiced eye by both avid readers of Urdu poetry and the bigwigs of literature. To gauge the verity of the claim, read the following opening lines of one of his ghazals:

“Wo humsafar tha magar us se hamnavai na thi
Ke dhoop chhaaon ka aalam raha judai na thi”

[He was a co-traveller, but we didn’t converse
Though we weren’t estranged, there was ambiguity between us]

Although the ghazal was written against the backdrop of the fall of Dhaka, it became extraordinarily popular when, in 2011, it was used as part of the original soundtrack for the television play Humsafar, starring Mahira Khan and Fawad Khan. It is this kind of multilayered nature of his verses that makes Turabi a uniquely creative individual. His collection of poems, Aks Faryadi, is replete with such ghazals.

Naseer Turabi compiles a dictionary of Urdu slang and the vernacular

That’s not all of it, mind you; there’s more to him. Coming from a well-educated family — his father, Rasheed Turabi, was a religious scholar of high merit — and having a restless creative soul, Turabi is deeply interested in prosody and the lexicographic growth (or retardation) of words used in the Urdu language. In 2012, he published a book Shairyaat [Poetics], which highlighted in a pretty succinct manner the basics of Urdu, both as a language and as a literary medium.

In a somewhat similar spirit, Turabi has now come up with a slender dictionary titled Lughatal Awaam: Urdu Ke Awaami Alfaaz Par Mushtamil [Vernacular Dictionary: Comprising the Street Language of Urdu]. This is a compilation of the meanings of the words –– slang, if you like — in Urdu used by the masses whose origins vary from the subcontinent to the British Isles. The author/compiler elucidates the purpose of publishing the book in its foreword: “The timely and apt use of a word can be likened to the sudden flow of a current. Usually, in learned or literary verbal exchanges, words that have an air of permanence about them and have acceptability in cross-sections of society are employed. In contrast, the words that are uttered at casual get-togethers have an element of spontaneity and urgency to them. Therefore, all such words fall in the category of the vernacular. It is a magical quality to express a big idea concisely in that mode of communication.

“Apart from informal conversations, such words are often written for characters in films and television plays ... They are also widely appreciated in journalistic writings.”

It would be difficult to dispute the case that Turabi has built for the lughat [dictionary]. He is a scholar himself, so what he is trying to suggest is that, if writers and poets have been able to accept the efficacy of such a lexicon, attention must be paid to it.

The importance becomes apparent as soon as one starts reading the first page of the book, beginning with the letter alif. The eighth word/phrase listed in the dictionary is “abey o.” It is one of the most common informal terms used to address someone with ‘run-him-down’ undertones. Turabi is aware of its jarring auditory quality. Therefore, not only does he write its meaning, but also gives an example where it is phrased in a couplet composed by Mir Taqi Mir:

Yoon pukarein hain mujhe koocha-i-jaanan waale
Idhar aa be ‘abey o’ chaak gareeban waale

[This is how they call me, the residents of his neighbourhood
Come here, come here you, you dude with the rent collar]

The importance of such a dictionary becomes manifold when one realises that, in this age of rapid technological advancement, languages are being reduced to mere modes of informal communication. And Urdu is one of them.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Lughatal Awaam: Urdu Ke Awaami Alfaaz Par Mushtamil
By Naseer Turabi
Paramount, Karachi
ISBN: 987-9696377160

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 24th, 2019