Mind your language

Learning Urdu in Delhi ♦

Malik Al Shuaraa Tootee-e-Hind Abu Alhasan Khwaajah Hazrat Amir Khusrau
Amir Khusrau’s tomb in Nizamuddin

Growing up mostly in the US, my Hindi instruction was limited to brief bouts of Sunday school and reading that ubiquitous Children’s Book Trust Panchatantra with my mother. I did all right, but my family’s own connection to reading Hindi was slight, given that half wrote in Gujarati and the other in Urdu. Like many Dilliwalas, I tried once to learn Nastaliq – in my case, one summer at my grandfather’s knee, with composition books and calli­graphy pens. It didn’t stick.

But recently, a visiting American friend with an interest in qawwali stumbled upon Zabaan, a quietly impressive language centre in East of Kailash that advertises only by word of mouth but has outgrown its offices twice since opening in 2009. The centre offers instruction primarily in Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and Pashto, but teaches other languages on demand. Most excitingly, it offers a free four-session crash course in reading Urdu for Hindi speakers. My friend and I duly signed up for what happened to be Zabaan’s 50th batch of the course. The classes are small, but director Ali Taqi, who was also my teacher, reckons they’ve introduced over 500 people to the script since he and his co-founder Christoph Dusenbery opened the centre.

The enterprise is an illustrative case of how sometimes the people most interested in preserving language or culture are those that come to it from the outside. Taqi, who peppers his encouraging lessons with wry observation (“People are 40 per cent less educated now than they were a generation ago.”), grew up in Chicago, but his Hyderabadi parents ensured he returned to India often. After college, he started teaching Indian Americans Hindi, managing a pretty good living. He took an introductory Urdu course during graduate school in Seattle and got hooked, eventually teaching at the same university. Ultimately, he and Dusenbery, who taught with him, started thinking seriously about starting a company. “We researched what this would look like in Seattle, and what it would take to start it in India, because we knew there was a demand for learning Hindi and Urdu in Delhi,” Taqi said.

In a way, it’s odd that there would be such a demand in a city populated by Urdu literates as little as 150 years ago. On one level, there’s plenty of life conducted in Urdu around the city. Besides the silver-haired governors of the Urdu Academy, a glance at this magazine’s listings and book reviews reveals a healthy interest in Urdu literature and linguistic history. At the same time, it’s not like people are rushing to set up coaching centres in the subject.

There are, as Taqi put it, “two parts to the city” – and one is deci­dedly marginalised. For example, as far as he knows, there’s only one non-religious Urdu bookstore in Delhi, near Jama Masjid. But two or three classes into the course, I started looking for the glimpses of Nastaliq, and magically, this other city started to emerge. First to come into focus were the NDMC signboards, with their clear script and helpful transliterations in Roman and Devanagari. Then, colony boards on the way to work in Lajpat Nagar, whose Punjabi residents came to the city before the dominance of Gurmukhi. And then there was the thrill of standing before a dargah in Nizamuddin and deciphering the epitaph: “Malik-al-Shuara Tooti-e-Hind Abul Hasan Khawajah Hazrat Amir Khusrau.” Or, on a dusky Thursday evening at Ferozeshah Kotla, peeking at people’s petitions to djinns, affixed to the stones and railings, by the mellow light of hundreds of small candles.

The small percentage of Zab­aan’s students who continue with paid Urdu instruction often do so precisely because they want this fuller access to Delhi, past and present. Taqi told me he’s had students who bring in their deceased parents’ letters in Urdu, “or just something their grandmother, grandfather scribbled”. The majority of the centre’s Urdu students are “Hindu Indian people under the age 40,” Taqi said, “exactly the people we wanted to reach out to.”

“We knew there weren’t many people in Delhi under 40, including native Urdu speakers, who [knew] how to read and write,” Taqi said. “Knowing that it has this reputation of being difficult, we decided to give it away for free. It’s the kind of thing that no one, unless they are a researcher or work for government, [is] going to pay you to learn. It’s sort of like a gift to Delhi. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, anyone who wants to get in touch with their roots again.” Including American-born Dilliwalis.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2013.