No room for narcissism

August 30, 2020

Can a decaying Indian language be rescued from erasure?

Urdu has witnessed a whirlwind of challenges to its survival in India and appears to have been relegated to a mere echo from the country’s past. While listed among the 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, it is in constant danger of being purged from the fabric of social life. With the growing unease among Muslim minorities in India, it has become even more important to raise questions about whether Urdu can survive the pressures of officialdom and the surge in the Sanskritisation of Hindi; if it is possible to reverse the slow decay of the language and preserve its roots in the Indian milieu; and who is its true custodian.

It is tempting to answer the last question in the light of Anita Desai’s In Custody, primarily because it tackles the issue of who must bear the burden of preserving the language. The novel, which was published in 1984, explores the friction between Urdu and Hindi within the Indian context and depicts how it is inextricably linked to notions of identity. As the blurb suggests, In Custody is “a… parable lamenting the gradual corrosion of culture and tradition in the face of modernity”.

This description instantly brings to mind Ahmed Ali’s modern classic, Twilight in Delhi.

Published in 1940, Ahmed Ali’s novel is arguably a dirge to a bygone era and mourns the slow death of Delhi’s ancient past. In his introduction to the book, the author states that Twilight in Delhi captures the decay of the city’s fast-diminishing Muslim culture that was “nourished within the city walls that lie demolished today”. In addition, Ahmed Ali refers to the blurred boundaries between Delhi’s “well-preserved, jealously guarded language and the surrounding world” that have resulted in the “rattle of many tongues”. The sense of loss is palpable from the first chapter of the book in which Delhi – once the city of monarchs and storytellers – is shown to have lost its “pride and grandeur under a foreign yoke”. With troubled nostalgia, Twilight in Delhi mourns the cultural values and modes of thought that were sidelined by the Raj.

Desai’s novel builds on a similar motif. It depicts how Urdu, an important facet of this vanishing culture, has fallen prey to segregation and suppression. While the characters in In Custody can’t be reduced to mere allegorical representation, the tactic might offer some crucial insights on what ‘service’ to a language means. The novel’s protagonist Deven, a Hindi lecturer at Mirpore’s Lala Ram Lal College, is locked in a silent tussle between “the meanness of his physical existence” and “the purity and immensity of his literary yearnings”. While he teaches Hindi to fulfill his duties towards his family, Deven wants to pursue his passion for Urdu poetry. This unusual dichotomy seems endearing as it shows how an affinity with a language can be insulated from any form of communal strife.

Desai’s novel depicts how Urdu, an important facet of this vanishing culture, has fallen prey to segregation and suppression. While the characters in In Custody can’t be reduced to mere allegorical representation, the tactic might offer some crucial insights on what ‘service’ to a language means.

When his childhood friend Murad asks him to interview the esteemed Urdu poet Nur Shahjehanabadi for his Urdu journal, Deven gains the golden opportunity to reconcile his conflicting passions and find a shred of happiness. However, Deven soon realises that the opportunity to interview the poet – which eventually transforms into a chaotic process of documenting his poems on tape – is quite a burden. Driven by a passion for Nur’s work and the illusion that he will change his own fate, the Hindi professor finds himself negotiating the complex terrain of the Urdu poet’s turbulent domestic life. The machinations of his freeloading sycophants and devious wives threaten to obstruct the project. Enfeebled by the domestic disputes and conscious of the fact that he is an accidental casualty of Urdu’s fading glory in the country, Nur has become a much-diminished man and often finds it difficult to cooperate with Deven.

As the novel fizzes and soars towards its denouement, the two men enter into an unhealthy, exploitative alliance that defeats the purpose of their noble endeavour. As a result, Nur’s experience and Deven’s youthful sincerity do little to rescue a language that is ‘in custody’. Nur’s poetic vision is, as Amina Yaqin argues in a paper titled ‘The Communization and Disintegration of Urdu in Anita Desai’s In Custody’, steeped in outdated metaphors and “untouched by a Progressive outlook”. Despite his intention to act as Nur’s custodian, Deven struggles to balance his conflicting realities in a sensible and humane manner. In order to pursue his passion for Urdu poetry, he loses sight of his own settled reality that relies heavily on his commitment to Hindi.

Throughout the novel, Deven encounters financial challenges that can impede his efforts to release the Urdu language from its long confinement. Moreover, Deven is equally swayed by outmoded aristocratic traditions associated with Urdu and lacks the foresight to recognise its modern variants. His reluctance to even read Nur’s second wife Imtiaz Begum’s poems typifies the snobbery and disdain that keeps any form of modern poetry in Urdu – especially from women – on the fringes of literary discourse.

In a similar vein, Murad, who has devoted his life to maintaining the “glorious traditions” of Urdu, labours under the self-righteous belief that he has served his language. The fact that he refers to Hindi as a “vegetarian monster” shows that he lacks the empathy to respect another language, let alone skillfully navigate between his mother tongue and the national language.

Siddiqui, who is Deven’s colleague at the Lala Ram Lal College, is equally unfit to be a custodian of the Urdu language. Like Murad, Siddiqui has ‘served’ the language by teaching in an Urdu department that practically exists on sufferance in an already hostile academic environment. His role in the novel is that of a caged bird that desperately wants to escape the shackles of past traditions. Immured in his dilapidated ancestral home, he finds himself in a different form of custody.

In Custody raises pertinent questions about who can rescue a decaying Indian language from erasure. Urdu’s custodians ought to recognise its past glories as well as present literary output, and preserve them in equal measure. According to Yaqin, Desai’s In Custody views Urdu as “an artefact of Old Delhi” that is laden with aristocratic pride. It is important that any discourse on Urdu and its longevity in India accounts for the many variants of the language.

Any attempt to ensure the survival of a language must have its basis in empathy and escape the intellectual snobbery of the past.

The writer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

No room for narcissism: Can a decaying Indian language be rescued from erasure?