Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who died on December 25, 2020 at his home in Illahabad at the age of 85, disliked the Anglicised version of the name of his karmbhoomi, Allahabad, as much as its latest version, Prayagraj. Faruqi’s professional life was both prolific and versatile. He was a novelist, literary critique, poet, and rhetorician, in addition to being a full-time civil servant in the Indian postal service. As a linguist, I would like to pay a tribute to his work on language in general and Urdu in particular.

I never met Faruqi personally, but I attended many of his talks at the Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna in the late 1980s, when he served as the Postmaster General of Bihar. As a young man in my late teens, as much as I would be fascinated by his unconventional and often critical thoughts on language and literature, coupled with his delivery and eloquence, I was equally impressed with the way he dressed up and especially the way he would light his pipe and create rings of smoke; it often felt like he was giving shape to new thoughts and ideas.

Perceiving new realities

Faruqi’s professional life was a constant struggle to reconceptualise and reconfigure the contours of literary and linguistic debates and keep pushing the boundaries so that new realities could be imagined, perceived, and felt. It was an unrelenting drive for creating a nai dunya, “a new world” as he himself aptly put it in a couplet.

“Banaenge nai dunya ham apni
teri dunya mein ab rahna nahin hai”

“We will create our own world
We will not live in yours anymore.”

Faruqi was born in 1935 in Kalakankar, a village in Pratap Garh, Uttar Pradesh, where his grandfather Khan Bahadur Nazeer Ahmad was the guardian of Raja Ajit Pratap Singh in the Court of Wards. He moved to Illahabad in 1953 to study at Allahabad University, where he received an MA degree in English literature. He was very proud of the fact that he shared the geographical and cultural space of Illahabad with stalwarts like the Hindi poet Suryakanth Tripathi Nirala (1896-1961), and Urdu poets Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982) and Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921), the latter a great satirist.

For someone who dedicated his life to imagining a new world, Faruqi was pained by the recent politically motivated and divisive renaming of his city into Prayagraj, which he termed an “assertion of small-mindedness” and “denial of history”. In a moving reflection on the renaming, he argued that people must know that Akbar did not rename the holy city of Prayagraj Illahabad/Allahabad; the city of Prayagraj, which is at the confluence of the rivers of Triveni, Saraswati, Ganga, and Jamuna, has remained where it was.

What the Mughal emperor Akbar did, he pointed out, was to combine existing provinces and create a new province, which he named Illahabas; it later became Illahabad. Although Faruqi was angered by the change of name, he was confident of the civilisational strength of the city and concluded that history is not just a word that can be erased – “It is a time, a people, and a sensibility. It stays with you, however much you may deny it.”

Urdu – past, present and future

Faruqi’s mission to create a new world wouldn’t be possible without developing a critique of the existing one, a great example of which is his book Early Urdu Literary Culture and History. In this book he critiques a widely-held theory about the origin of Urdu, which holds that it is the language of an army camp, where, in order to communicate with one another, people speaking different languages made up a new one consisting of words from Hindi, Persian, Turkish, and so on. The assumption is partly based on the Turkish word “Urdu”, which means court/camp.

In order to debunk this, Faruqi traced the different names for Urdu across the centuries, with copious citations, which included Hindi, Hindvi, Gujri, Dehlvi, Rekhta, and Dakani. He shows that the name Urdu didn’t become popular until the end of the 19th century. Even Ghalib refers to his language as Hindi.

Faruqi explained why people began to adopt the camp-origin theory by showing that the name started as a compound word “zaban-e-urdu-e-moalla” – “language of the exalted royal camp” – which was shortened to zaban-e-Urdu, and, later, to just Urdu. Faruqi cited a number of sources that used the word “Urdu” to refer to the city of Delhi / Shahjahanabad, and not the language.

The camp-origin theory of Urdu has serious consequences, for it makes Urdu look like the language of the “invaders and conquerors”. The theory is also bogus because languages are not born this way. Urdu came into being when words and expressions of Persian, the language of administration and power, began to be mixed with the Khari Boli dialect spoken in and around Delhi for centuries.

Faruqi’s book also lays to rest the contention, held by many proponents of modern Hindi Urdu, that Urdu came into being as a consequence of the Persianisation of Hindi. This view, along with the camp-origin theory, has been paraded by right wing supporters to render Urdu as “foreign” and, thus, not a rightful claimant for membership of the cultural and linguistic landscape of India. This discourse of hatred against Urdu has recently surfaced on many occasions when people and symbols associated with Urdu names have been targets of hatred and attack.

Despite Faruqi’s demise, his vision of a new and beautiful social and cultural landscape by critiquing the existing one so that infinite potentials could be imagined and realised is with us. We are all heirs to his legacy, and in order to keep it alive, we must work hard to create a nai duniya in which not only would Faruqi have found his new world, but we will find ours as well.

Rizwan Ahmad is Associate Professor of sociolinguistics at Qatar University, Doha.