In the narrow lanes of Old Delhi, a unique and flavoursome dialect of Urdu is going extinct

The ‘karkhandari zubaan’, spoken by trader communities, was once the subject of many nostalgic tributes to the city.

In Old Delhi’s anarchic tangle lie lanes named after ancient crafts and trades: Sui Walan​, the ​tailor’s ​lane, Phatak Teliyan, ​the oil presser’s alley, ​Kinari Bazar, ​the border or brocade market, ​Galli Jootewali, ​the cobblers street, ​Choodiwalan​, the bangle makers’ quarters, and Kasaabpura, ​where the butchers plied their trade. Artisans, traders and workers lived, worked and sold their wares here.

These streets once rang with an earthy, flavoursome and idiomatic dialect of Urdu called the karkhandari zubaan. As the name indicates, this was the dialect of those who worked in karkhanas or factories, but embraced a wide set of worker communities.

The karkhandari zubaan was first analysed socio-linguistically by veteran Urdu scholar Gopi Chand Narang in 1961. He estimated that around 50,000 people spoke the dialect in the area ringed on four sides by Chandni Chowk, Faiz Bazar, Asaf Ali Road and Lahori Gate. But Old Delhi has changed vastly since Narang’s research – several crafts and professions have died and many old-timers have moved out to the newer parts of Delhi. For those who stayed on and moved up in life, the patois was simply not refined enough to be retained.

Chandni Chowk, Delhi. Photo credit: Juan Antonio Segal/ Flickr CC
Chandni Chowk, Delhi. Photo credit: Juan Antonio Segal/ Flickr CC

In pursuit of the patois

Fouzia, an actor and Dastango who grew up in the area, has seen the patois fade to the brink of extinction. Four generations of her family have lived in Pahari Bhojla, off Turkman Gate, in the thick of the zone where karkhandari was once the most commonly heard dialect. Until her grandmother was alive, it was spoken in her household as well, until it came to be replaced by standardised Urdu or Hindi. Some traces of the tongue, she said, have been absorbed into regular use.

In search of the familiar singsong and friendly cadence of karkhandari, the Dastango searched high and low in the alleys of Turkman Gate two years ago. “You can count the number of people who speak karkhandari now,” Fouzia said. “It is considered coarse Urdu so when people meet you and you tell them that you come from Dilli 6, they say, ‘Arre, but you don’t speak that funny Urdu.’”

Pulling together material from Narang’s research, her own memories and from historian and activist Sohail Hashmi’s vast knowledge about the city, the Dastango put together dramatised readings in the karkhandari zubaan or dialect, that she now presents at various forums.

At Samanvay, the Indian language festival at India Habitat Centre, last year, Fouzia spoke on “Dilli ke dhobiyon ki zubaan” and “Dilli ki nayeeyon ki zubaan”, or the language of Delhi’s washermen and barbers.


Group speak

In karkhandari, itne mein​ or in this time is abbreviated to itte mein, neeche ​or below ​becomes neechu, launda ​or boy ​becomes lamda, vahan ​or there ​becomes vaan, usne or he is visne and achanak, or suddenly, ​is achanchak and kabhi or sometimes ​is kabhun.

Hashmi, who leads popular heritage walks in the Walled City, said it is hard to date the precise origins of karkhandari zubaan, but the time when Shahjahanabad – now Delhi 6 – was set up, around mid-17th century, seemed to be an obvious start. When various trades started flourishing in the city, each acquired a peculiar vocabulary.

“All the old cities of the world have these quarters where guilds lived and worked,” said Hashmi. “This was true of Delhi as well. Different professions had their own special vocabulary of trade-specific words. For instance, butchers in old Delhi use the word muddi to describe their chopping block. It must have been a familiar word in Kasabpura. The nanbais or bakers and kebabis had their own jargon too.”

The more common trade words and expressions, he reasoned, came together and formed karkhandari zubaan. Hashmi said the street brogue of Delhi became a subject of interest among writers in the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Not just the city’s language, but its traditional way of life too began to appear in Urdu literary works. “Post-1857 and the devastation of the city, among the writers of the city there was a strong sense of nostalgia for a way of life that seemed to be disappearing. This feeling of impending loss inspired them to document Delhi’s culture, including the language of its many trades.”

The city of Delhi before the 1857 siege. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
The city of Delhi before the 1857 siege. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Among those writers was the humourist Ashraf Subuhi Dehalvi. His character Ghummi Kababi, an eccentric kebab maker of Old Delhi who refuses to be hurried or awed by his celebrity clients, spoke the old tongue of the Walled City. It is a story often told in dastan form by Dastango.

Subuhi’s other city sketches like Dilli Ki Chand Ajeeb Hastiyan ​or a few of Delhi’s eccentrics and Ghubar-e-Karvan​ or the caravan’s dust ​also documented the eccentricities of Old Delhi, its residents and their language. Maheshwar Dayal’s Aalam Mein Intekhab-Dehli​, or the chosen city of the world – Delhi, ​documented the quaint street traditions of the city. The book’s chapters were titled “Dill​i​ Ki Boli T​h​oli” or​ Delhi’s dialect, “Pheriwalon ki Awazein” or the cries of street vendors​, “Dilli ke Banke” or ​the dandies of Delhi. Similar works of nostalgia capturing the wrecked world of Awadhi culture were being written in Lucknow.

Women’s speech

“The varying lehjas or accents of Urdu are now near dead because they are not considered literary or refined,” recalled Fouzia. “But my grandmother’s Urdu was bursting with texture, it was a better language than what I speak because it was rich with idioms. Everything she said came attached with a simile, some cultural reference – I don’t remember her ever speaking a direct sentence. ‘Tumne to apna hadada kho diya’ she would say, meaning you are so shameless. What we call quirky used to be the normal.”

Up until her mother’s generation, the actor said, you could listen to someone talk Urdu and trace his or her precise village or city – Bareilly to Sahranpur to Bhopal. Remnants of this Urdu find its way into films only to be used for comic characters who elicit laughs with caricaturish expressions like aariya​-​jaariya, ​or coming and going.

Interestingly, while the distinct street talk was being replaced by sophisticated Urdu, it was the women in the inner courtyards who hung on to another distinct, fruity and colourful dialect called begamati zubaan. This was the language of the begums and their world – their minions, the hangers-on, complex network of aunts and cousins, the dhoban, nayin and so on. It was only ever exchanged between women, liberating them from the need to be perpetually polite and polished.

One of the most fascinating works on begamati zubaan was American scholar Gail Minault’s ​essay, Begamati Zuban: Women’s Language and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Delhi. It offered an insight into the cloistered life of Muslim women in the 19th century, fraught and claustrophobic but also lively and robust. This dialect is better known because it peppered the writings of the irrepressible Ismat Chugtai.

As Minault pointed out words and expressions li​​ke chav chonchle​ (pretty tantrums)​, ​teri jan se dur​ (heaven forbid)​, do ji se hona ​(to be pregnant) ​show up an entire world that revolved around kinship, feminine bonding, fertility talk, romance, sex and marriage. Between begamati and karkhandari zubaan the Urdu of the lost gone era must have been a vastly more entertaining and varied world to inhabit.

Photo credit: Pixabay CC BY
Photo credit: Pixabay CC BY
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