Speaking Tiger books.
I grew up in love with Delhi. And I grew up in a family where Urdu was a lived experience. And yet, I knew so little of the past of both Urdu and the city of Delhi- beyond the verses of Ghalib, beyond the common usage in spoken language, beyond the monuments and the modern part of the city, or the kings who ruled here, or the wars that were planned and fought over it. Reading Beloved Delhi (with its English translation of Urdu verses in Roman script) has been a delightful guided tour of discovery.
Saif writes in his Introduction, “I am neither a historian nor an Urdu scholar. But I have grown up around dining-table conversations not only about but also in Urdu Poetry. This book is the culmination of those conversations.” And he asks us to “read it also as a taster’s menu for those who love Urdu, its poetry and cadence, but have little or no access to it.”
I know very little Urdu myself, even though my father had learnt to read and write in the language in his early years. For my paternal grandfather, who ran a dairy business in Lahore, and whose relatives had farming interests in undivided Punjab in pre-partition times, it was very much the language of literature and business. For my maternal grandparents, this was not so, despite their roots too being in undivided Punjab, and despite my great-grandfather being a sort of raja of a small principality comprising Urdu and Punjabi speaking populace. Having pledged allegiance to the British Crown, my maternal ancestors embraced many kinds of cultural and linguistic changes, and become an early version of brown sahibs.
I remember looking at sepia toned photographs of grand-aunts in chenille ghararas, with tiara type hairband on their carefully coiffed hair, holding tennis racquets in one picture, posing with a hunting rifle in another. The photographs were almost all captioned in English, with a smattering of a few words in Gurmukhi on some. And I remember thinking to myself, “these are English princesses from the Arabian Nights’. When I told my mother and her mother what I thought, they told me about the North West Frontier, the connections with Persia and Afghanistan that Sikhs and other Indians had through centuries, and that we had relatives who had lived in and travelled to Basra and Bhagdhaad.
I imagined those long lost relatives speaking in Faarsi, even writing in it, even as I admired my Naana’s perfect cursive hand, and tried to emulate it. I don’t recall if he knew Urdu, but I am sure his father and most certainly his grandfather would have known Urdu and possible Faarsi as well if they had anything to do with the court and government work in their time. Courtly language in North India, till the middle of the nineteenth century was Persian. Urdu was what was the language of the margins at first, of the bazaar, and common people… and then, thanks to the poets and their popularity, it became the language of art and culture and emperors and nobles wrote in it, and were patrons of it. Till the next churning of times, and the shift in fortunes of kings, company, crown, commoners and cultural capital, which made my Naana proficient in English and Hindi as his work languages, and which is how it has continued with his children and their children.
While the idea of Farsi speaking relatives lent a romantic air to my sense of my family and their adventures, it is only in recent years that I have started to discover stories of what happens when languages, cultures, geographies and histories churn in a massive vortex over centuries of comings arrivals, wars, trade, and cultural innovation. Only recently have I begun to notice that we exist in a continuity of ideas put in words by the famous Mughal Delhi poets. For instance, it is in reading this book that I learnt that a much loved Hindi Film ghazal I often hum is not some modern poet’s work but that of Mir Taqi Mir. And so is my personal non-favorite …Patta Patta boota boota, which I never liked in the film, but have found a new fondness for, when read in its original form.
When worlds collide, it isn’t just always terra-firma that rubs together, nor just oceans beds that rise into mountains, and not just river that flow anew or change directions. Languages are born that didn’t exist before, and new art forms give shape to the zeitgeist of the changing times. Urdu or Rekhta is one such creation of the sub-continent, forged and birthed in the flux of the cosmopolitan, multi-national cities, serais and Sufi khwankaahs from the 17th to the 20th Century. As the political and economic nerve-centre of the region, Delhi soon became the place where a lot of Urdu poets worked and earned a name. The flowering of Urdu however, was also the time of the collapse of an era, an ebbing of the tide of all that had made Urdu possible. Saif Mahmood’s brilliantly compiled book captures the story of those times through its telling of the life and work of Mughal Delhi’s eight most popular and well regarded Urdu poets. The book opens with a Foreword by Rakhshanda Jalil, that sets the context for the interplay of poetry and politics in the book. A deeply informative Short History of Delhi’s Urdu follows, written by the master storyteller and historian Sohail Hashmi. In these early pages, the Dilli-wali in me was entranced with the book before I even got to the stories Saif goes on to tell. It has taken me a long time to read the book, and I have already done a second quick scan through of my favorite marked out parts once. I am sure I will be going back and discovering new enchantments again and again, digging about in the old world I didn’t quiet know, and one in which somehow always feels familiar, like being back at home.