It was a domestic flight but had virtually become an international one. Scholars and writers of different nationalities were flying from Karachi to Sukkur. Their destination was Khairpur where Shah Abdul Latif University’s Urdu department had organised an international conference on ‘Literature and co-existence’.
On our way to Khairpur I first introduced myself to the gentleman sitting next to me. He had an attractive personality and was apparently a ‘gora’, whose countenance and whiskers lent him a striking resemblance to Mark Twain. When he introduced himself in perfect Urdu, I was elated. He was Prof Dr Heinz Werner Wessler from Sweden’s Uppsala University. After getting back to Karachi, we had tea together on a couple of occasions and during the next few days I realised how articulate and well-read he was. Before he could catch a flight back home, Karachi’s two well-known literary organisations, Ghalib Library and Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu (Organisation for the development of Urdu), invited him to deliver lectures. Here is what I gathered during the lectures and sittings.
Prof Dr Heinz Werner Wessler was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1962. When he was still a teenager and by his own account as naive as child, his father suddenly died. He was devastated as he his mother coped with the ensuing problems.
In those days, he had read Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ and had been deeply influenced — not religiously or philosophically — but it had made him learn to pursue a goal with determination. According to Prof Wessler, the novel changed his perception about the world and he began to view things differently. Perhaps it was one of the reasons why he later turned to oriental studies and learned oriental languages.
In 1988, he obtained his Master’s degree from Bonn University in Indology, with comparative study of religions and musicology as subsidiary subjects. He had a chance to go to India in 1985-86 and also earned a diploma in Hindi. Later, he studied Arabic and Persian for about a year and with the script being almost the same as Arabic’s and a background of Hindi, learning Urdu came naturally. Besides, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and Persian, Prof Wessler also learned Sanskrit.
According to him, his mother was not happy with his field of study she used to ask what kind of a job he would get with this education. However, he soon landed a job at the Voice of Germany’s Hindi and Urdu sections and later worked in many radio departments. This training helped him a lot in different capacities, especially in working as an editor of the German-language quarterly magazine Sudasien which was published from Bonn.
After he got a scholarship, Wessler Sahib began researching for his doctoral dissertation at the Zurich University. He said he felt lucky to be associated with a few renowned scholars, such as Prof Peter Schreiner, who is an expert in narratology, epics, Puranas and Mahabharata.
His dissertation, titled ‘The concept of history and time in Vishnu Purana’ earned him a PhD in 1993. His thesis was a sort of criticism on Mircea Eliade’s theories, who had a philosophy of his own about comparative study of religions. In fact, according to Dr Wessler, Eliade had developed kind of a separate religion for himself. Eliade believed that the western religions had a concept of time which was linear while the Indian religions had a circular concept of time. Wessler Sahib’s disagreement with the theory and successfully defence of his thesis earned him a doctorate.
In 1995, Prof Wessler served for the international human rights committee formed under Red Cross. He visited different Indian prisons, especially in Jammu and Kashmir and met prisoners who came from different backgrounds, including criminals, intellectuals, political workers and the ones labelled ‘terrorists’ who did not exclude boys as young as 15 or 16 years old.
Dr Wessler taught Hindi in Denmark for about two years. In 2002, he joined the division of Indology at the Institute of Oriental and Asian Studies, Bonn University, and taught Urdu and Hindi. Around three years ago, he joined the department of linguistics and philology at the Uppsala University, Sweden, where he is currently in-charge of advanced Urdu and Hindi courses, modern Indian history, history of Indian religions and modern Indian literature.
Having visited India many times and completing a research project on Sikhism, Dr Wessler developed an interest in Hindi’s contemporary Dalit literature. For about a decade, the Dalits, or untouchables, have been raising their voices against discrimination more forcefully in Hindi and other Indian languages and the history of Indian literature cannot truly be called complete without the Dalit perspective. After completing his research on Dalit literature and Wessler Sahib was awarded a D.
Lit. Now he plans to publish a book, consisting of research papers, titled Dalit voices beyond victimisation.
Dr Wessler has attended many international conferences and seminars and has also been a key speaker on several occasions. In July 2010, the 21st European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies was held in Bonn. It was one of Europe’s biggest conferences in recent history and Wessler Sahib was the main organizer of the event, a great honour and achievement by any standard. Wessler’s command over many aspects of the South Asian literature, languages, history and culture has earned him the title of ‘Mr South Asia’.
Being a linguist Wessler Sahib has a deep interest in languages and language policies of different countries. His great advantage is that he has insight into both Urdu and Hindi and, therefore, can be a better judge when it comes to the Hindi-Urdu controversy.
According to him, both languages were one and the same hundreds of years ago since their origin goes back to the same roots —Prakrit and Sanskrit — but are divided by script. But contrary to the common perception that it was the British who intentionally promoted Hindi’s Dev Nagari script to divide Hindus and Muslims, Wessler Sahib feels it was a natural phenomenon and the Hindi script did exist before the establishment of Fort William College in Kolkata in 1800.
His lecture at the Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu was a very lively and spontaneous. The audience enthusiastically participated in the question-answer session and threw many questions at him regarding the Urdu-Hindi controversy.
Prof Wessler does not mince his words. Replying to a question, he candidly declared that the so-called Hindi movies of Bollywood were in fact Urdu movies since their language was devoid of the typical Sanskrit words. He observed the differences between the Indian version of Urdu and Pakistani version of Urdu had come to be very few. Much to the surprise of his audience, he told them that in some European countries Bollywood movies had become very popular and their songs were very much in demand. So much so, that one can sometimes hear a European youth singing a Bollywood song even when he or she does not understand what it means.
Though it was Wessler Sahib’s first visit to Pakistan, he already in love with it. He was fascinated by the Pakistani food and the traditional hospitality of its people. He plans to come back soon.