Library of India

Looking in vain for Urdu in New Delhi’s world of books

How long can a literature survive if there is neither fresh blood nor publisher enthusiasm?

When I visited New Delhi in February to attend the World Book Fair as part of the Singapore Delegation, one of the things I was looking forward to was to explore Urdu and Hindi literature – something that I missed in Singapore. Although Singapore’s libraries are well-stocked with English language books, as well as books in Chinese, Tamil and Malay, they don’t have Hindi and Urdu literary works.

As I have grown up reading both Urdu and Hindi, I often yearned to read literature in these two languages in my adopted homeland. And hence my curiosity to discover some new gems in Hindi and Urdu literature during my trip to India.

A meagre display

As Singapore was the guest of honour country at this year’s NDWBF, our pavilion had been given a central location in the foreign publishers’ hall. We were surrounded by the pavilions of Korea, Iran, Indonesia, China, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Poland and some other countries. Interestingly, there were three booksellers from Pakistan too who had set up shop in the same hall. I was happy to spot them and started looking at their ware even before they could set up their stalls properly.

Among the three Pakistani booksellers, one had displayed more literary stuff than the other two – works by Mumtaz Mufti, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, books on Allama Iqbal and his poetry and so on. The other two stalls had plenty of Islamic literature on display – commentaries on the Holy Quran and biographies of Muslim caliphs and warriors. Looking at their displayed literature, I got the impression that Urdu was doing fine in Pakistan. A lot was available beyond your typical Ghalib and Iqbal.

However, when I looked for publishers of Urdu and Hindi literary books in India, I found them in a distant corner of the fair. I was glad to see sprawling pavilions set up by some of the leading Hindi publishers (Vani Prakashan, Bhartiya Gyanpeeth, Rajkamal, etc). The National Book Trust and Publications Division (both run by the government) too had plenty of books in Hindi. At least in terms of space, they seemed to be competing with leading English language publishers such as Penguin Random House, Hachette, and Rupa, among others. There were also plenty of discussions and book launches organised by Hindi publishers.

But my heart sank when I saw the pathetic condition of Urdu booksellers. Their small kiosks, in stark contrast to what even the Hindiwallas had to show, stuck out like lacklustre paan shops in an otherwise five star environment. One or two organisations – supported by government funded bodies – had slightly bigger stalls, but they were too were selling only 19th and 20th century Urdu literature (books on or by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Hali, Ghalib, Maulana Azad, etc).

In search of new writing

Where was the new work by Urdu writers? Looking at, and through, these stalls, one could clearly sense that Urdu literature is dying in India –  the slow and painful death of a sweet language that claimed its birth in this great country called India.

I spoke to one of the booksellers from Daryaganj who was sitting on a stool with a shelf of books behind him. He had some relatively new literature from Pakistan. How did he publish those books in India, I asked him. Did he have the rights?

He answered, and I appreciate his honesty, that there was no problem (yes, he used the word ‘problem’) between India and Pakistan as far as copyright was concerned. He also made the claim that he supplied books to Urdu readers all over the world.

I was hunting for works by Indian Urdu writers, or, at least, writers who wrote in Urdu. For example, I was looking for Urdu novels by Shamsur Rehman Farooqui. Alas, I did not find them in the Urdu book stalls. I found the English and Hindi translations of his novels in the Penguin Hindi and Penguin Random House stalls.

Hindi film industry veterans Gulzar and Javed Akahtar’s books could only be seen in the lush pavilions of Rupa and other big English language publishers. And the latest collection of poetry by Bollywood lyricist Irshad Kamil, which was released during the Book Fair, was not to be found in an Urdu book stall. Rather, it was proudly displayed by a Hindi publisher in their sprawling pavilion.

I bought some dust-laden and moth eaten Urdu books from the Publications Division and NBT. These were books printed 20 or 30 years ago, and the publishers had not bothered to print anything new. I bought them as mementos – a biography of Tagore, a treatise on India’s secularism by Dr Rajendra Prasad, and a Ramayana for children in Urdu.

The only book of Urdu poetry that I bought for a friend was a collection of poems by Ali Sardar Jafri – a book in Devnagri, published by Bharatiya Gyan Peeth. I also bought a few Hindi novels for a friend and for my own consumption.

Can a literature thrive on performance?

To be fair, the Book Fair did organise an Urdu mushaira (a poetic soiree). And I was intrigued by this. Mushairas and Kavi Sammelans have been flourishing in India, and abroad (Urdu and Hindi poets, just like their gahazal singing and musician brethren, regularly travel out to rich first world countries to entertain the Indian and Pakistani diaspora). Then why was it that I could not see the new works of contemporary Urdu poets in the book fair? What was going on, I asked a part-time poet friend over coffee.

He reasoned that there was no money in, and hence no motivation, for publishing Urdu poetry books or anthologies. The money was in mushairas, which helped poets put food on their families’ table.  A decent poet would get anything between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 for a night’s performance, my friend said. If a poet manages to get three to four gigs a month, he can earn a decent income for himself.

Some Urdu and Hindi poets who are in high demand can fetch much higher remunerations. For example, Hindi poet Kumar Vishwas (who is also a member of Delhi’s ruling Aam Admi Party) gets a couple of lakhs for his performances.

While I understood the economics of mushairas, I am not convinced that mushairas alone could keep a literature alive. The printed word has to be there. New work has to be written, published and critiqued. While a few good men in India such as the Farooqis (novelists and writers, and also the force behind the Dastaangoi movement) and Sanjiv Saraf (the man behind the fantastic rekhta.org) are trying their best to keep the train of Urdu chugging in India, I can see the dead end coming.

At the Book Fair, I gathered the sense that the future of Urdu literature in India is bleak. It might survive as a branch of Hindi – Urdu appearing in Devnagri, like the treatment Jafri’s book has received. And as long as there are madrasas in India, there will be religious publications in Urdu. Similarly, departments of Urdu in colleges and universities will keep churning out PhDs in Urdu. But how long can a literature survive if it is denied the fresh blood of new talent?

Hindi and Urdu are sister languages and both could enrich India so much. However, if the Indian elite had thought that Hindi would slowly replace Urdu, then Urdu has taken its revenge: it is English, and not Hindi, that is having the last laugh in India. And no matter what the likes of Bhalchandra Nemades say, we will have to live with this post-colonial irony.

Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based journalist and writer. He is the author of many books, the most recently of Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician (Random House), and Startup Capitals: Discovering the Hotspots of Global Innovation (Random House).

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