In this treasure trove of stories, verse and history, Ralph Russell-one of the greatest scholars of Urdu-expands our world of Urdu letters to include fascinating folk and oral narratives, besides exceptional prose and poetry. By situating each form historically, he gives us a refreshing perspective on the diverse literary cultures of India in the last two centuries.
Besides canonical short stories by the likes of Manto, Krishan Chander, Premchand and Rashid Jahan, he brings us gripping extracts from the memoirs of Ismat Chughtai and Shaukat Thanavi. Exciting creation tales from the Quran find space next to the popular stories of Akbar and Birbal, and the legendary exploits of Sikandar (Alexander the Great). The sublime section on love poetry features selections from the masters Mir, Ghalib, Momin and others, and is supplemented by astute commentary and roman transliterations of the original Urdu. Finally, in Farhatullah Beg's brilliantly imagined account of the 'last Delhi mushaira', Russell presents a moment in time never seen again, with the horrors of 1857 just around the corner.
This luminous volume is an accessible introduction for new readers, and a pleasurable companion for those familiar with Urdu literature. Originally published to great acclaim as Hidden in the Lute (1995), this revised edition has been edited by Russell's student and friend, the novelist Marion Molteno.
Ralph Russell (1918-2008) has been widely recognized as the greatest western scholar of Urdu. Khushwant Singh described him as 'the most revered name of interpreters of Ghalib's life and works'. He headed the Urdu department at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London for thirty years, and was a popular visiting scholar in India and Pakistan. His unusual skill as a translator and his insightful writing have opened up an appreciation of Urdu literature to a wide range of readers. His books include The Pursuit of Urdu Literature: A Select History (1992), How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature: and Other Essays on Urdu and Islam (1999) and The Oxford India Ghalib: Life, Letters and Ghazals (2003) among others.
The book you are about to read is the work of an Englishman who became an eminent scholar and translator of Urdu. He felt that his close engagement with Urdu speakers and their literature had immeasurably enriched his life. So he directed his considerable intellect and energy to sharing what he had learnt by teaching and translating Urdu literature to make it accessible to people who didn't know the language.
Ralph Russell was born in 1918, at the end of the First World War, and died at the age of 90 in 2008, when the world had changed almost unrecognizably from the one he had grown up in. Throughout his long life he was continually reading, thinking, writing, making new friends and cherishing old ones, always keen to understand how others saw the world. He was an easy communicator: warm, relaxed, open to people of all kinds. Until a month before his death he was still teaching, advising others, and writing further chapters of his autobiography.
His first encounter with Urdu was-to say the least-unusual. During the Second World War, as a young man of 22 just out of university, he was conscripted and sent to serve on an attachment to the Indian Army. He had been a communist since the age of sixteen and was a passionate believer in the cause of Indian independence. Urdu was the army's language of communication, and from his first days in India he applied himself to learning it as well as possible, so that he could get to know the people among whom he would be living. His unit was sent to Assam to supervise the building of a road to the Burma border, and in this remote area, cut off from civilian life, he spent the war years in the company of the hundred Indian sepoys in his unit. Most were from South India but they all used Urdu to communicate. The British officers around him knew little Urdu, relying on their Indian subordinates to interpret. Ralph picked up the language fairly quickly, and freely talked with the men about things which the authorities would have regarded as highly subversive. He taught himself to read, practising on leaflets from the Communist Party of India and translations of the works of Lenin.
This experience changed the direction of his life. When the war was over he was sent back to the UK, but looked for a way to maintain his connection with India. He got a scholarship to study Urdu at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, with the possibility-if he did well enough-of becoming a lecturer. He describes the shock of discovering how difficult he found Urdu literature in his autobiography. It involved a huge leap in vocabulary from the kind of conversational Urdu he had acquired. Its literary forms were strange to him, particularly the poetry. Later he wrote about his personal journey in getting past this strangeness, in an article called The Pursuit of the Urdu Ghazal. Eventually he came to not only appreciate the ghazal, but felt a close identification with it.
This book presents a selection of Urdu literature for anyone who cannot read Urdu but is interested to find out what it has to offer. Apart from people who count English as their mother tongue, there are many to whom this description applies. In particular I hope it will be useful to young people of South Asian background who use English as their effective first language. In both India and Pakistan there are tens of thousands of people whose parents are Urdu speakers but whose own education has been through the medium of English, and who are likely to be considerably more fluent in English than in Urdu. I am very pleased to know that many of them regret that they have learnt less about Ghalib's poetry than about Wordsworth's, and would like to do something to change this situation. In India, many others who are not Urdu speakers have heard Urdu poetry recited or sung, and know that it has a rich literature. They look upon it as part of their wider South Asian heritage and would like to know more about it. In Britain, Canada, the USA and elsewhere where people from Urdu-speaking backgrounds have settled, many of their children and grandchildren have not had the chance to become confident speakers and readers of the language of their family and community. A growing number of them now feel a strong desire to learn more about the wealth of their literary heritage, and they have no choice but to do this through the medium of English.
How Urdu Became a Literary Language
Urdu is one of the fifteen or so major languages of the South Asian subcontinent. It was born out of the need of Muslim invaders of India from the tenth century onwards to create a language in which they could communicate with their Indian subjects. Its basic structure, and much of its everyday vocabulary is almost identical with that of Hindi, which in an earlier form had been the lingua franca of northern and central India. The Muslim invaders were men from different regions of what is now the Middle East and Central Asia, speaking different languages, but their common language of culture and administration was Persian. Gradually Persian words became more commonly used in the native Indian language framework, and the result was a new language, Urdu.
Like many other literatures, Urdu literature begins with poetry. But, like the modern languages of Europe, Urdu had to establish itself as a literary medium in the face of a convention that only a classical language could be a fit vehicle for poetry. In medieval Western Europe this language was Latin. In India it was Persian, and by comparison with Europe it was late in the day that the modern language won out. In northern India, it was not until the early decades of the eighteenth century that Urdu became accepted as the medium of poetry. The change came about because many Indians had begun to feel that they could not express themselves as adequately as they would wish in Persian, a language that was not their own; and major poets now appeared who made Urdu the medium of their work. Nevertheless, until well into the twentieth century there were Urdu-speaking poets who continued to write some of their verse in Persian as well, just as in England Milton wrote verse in Latin as well as English. All of them were completely familiar with the literary heritage of Persian, and followed Persian models in both genres and the established themes of classical poetry. Thus Urdu poetry represents, in a sense, a further development of a literature already centuries old, with only the language changed.
For a century after poets were writing in Urdu, Persian remained the only acceptable medium for serious writing in prose. It could be the vehicle of powerful feeling, but it was a highly stylized form of Persian which employed all manner of literary devices-wordplay, alliteration, antithesis, balancing rhythms and rhymes, and many more. What little Urdu prose there was, imitated this style of writing. Clearly, this could not be an all-purpose prose, able to meet all the varied needs of modern writing. For that it was necessary to establish the convention that the spoken language of educated people-Urdu-should be accepted as the medium of written literature, prose as well as poetry. When that change came about, it was partly as a response to a new colonizing presence, the British. This process is described in the section on The New Light'.
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