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The war of words

Azadi vs Swatantrata


'Willingness to communicate through the same language is quite a different thing from the mere ability to communicate'


Broadly speaking, the Hindiwallahs know what the Urduwallas mean, and vice versa. That mere ability does not translate into willingness is demonstrated by the frequent clashes over the use of words that, while perfectly intelligible to the 'other', are nevertheless not acceptable. The recent debate on Twitter over the Hindi translation of Patrick French's account of India's journey to independence, Liberty or Death, as Azadi ya Maut is a case in point. Why 'azadi' ? Why not 'swatantra' or even 'swadheenta' ? Why 'maut' ? Why not 'mrityu' ? If someone were to add their two-paisa worth to the debate, one might well ask: Why even 'ya' ? Why not 'athwa' ? Other instances of tricky translations have been Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter aur Rehasyamai Tahkhana, with 'tahkhana' being an Urdu word in sharp contrast to the Hindi 'rahasyamai' ), or Zeg Zeglar's See You at the Top (Shikhar par Milenge).

Frankly, the word 'debate' is not really suitable in the case of the Patrick French book. I would prefer the word 'divide' for any controversy that involves Hindi and Urdu. The baggage of history is so oppressive and the two sides so inimical and vehemently opposed to the merest suggestion of finding common ground that debate or discussion seems futile. Some literary historians trace the roots of this discord to an artificial divide, along the lines of the colonial divide-and-rule policy that first linked the script to religion, thus making Urdu written in farsi rasmul khat, the language of Muslims, and Hindi, written in Nagri, the language of Hindus. The seeds of discontent can be traced to Lord Ripon and the introduction of so-called reforms during his tenure as the Viceroy of India from 1880-84. The decision to replace Persian with Urdu as the official language of the colonial administrative machinery added fuel to the fire of the language chauvinists who believed Hindi, written in Nagri, should have got that status as it was identified with the Hindu majority of Upper India. Lord Curzon's educational reforms, initiated from 1901 onwards, crystallised the two language groups into opposing camps;soon, Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University emerged as clamourous citadels of protest for their 'respective' languages.

By the turn of turn of the last century, two groups had emerged: one led by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya at the vanguard of the movement for Hindi, and the other by Viqar-ul Mulk heading the demand to allow Urdu to remain the official language. In the face of mounting outrage from both sides, the colonial government caved in and declared both languages as having equal status. Ironically, this seemingly pacifist decision stoked the fire instead of quelling it from spreading. From 1900 onwards, a bitter battle raged for supremacy.

Deploring the growing divide, Gandhi urged the rabble-rousers to seek a common space: Hindustani. However, such was the madness of the times that this voice of sanity was lost in the clamour of regional politics.

In 1950, the government of free India bought peace by officially declaring Hindi as the national language;Urdu fell by the wayside and shrank in importance. But it is not dead;far from it, in fact, recent years have seen it rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of its dead past. While it is no longer linked to employment and therefore its commercial capital has no doubt declined, its cultural capital has increased. One hears of more and more young people - and I am happy to report non-Muslims - learning Urdu either through correspondence courses or home tutors;they do so not to garner jobs but simply out of the love for the language and to better understand the mellifluous Urdu poetry. The Hindi film industry, popular ghazal singers, cultural organisations that propagate Hindustani programmes - each has done much to negate the bitterness of the language debate and allow people to enjoy the richness of their linguistic legacy.

While it would be simplistic to view the story of Urdu and Hindi as the story of one language with two names and two different scripts, perhaps a more realistic way would be to view Urdu and Hindi as two sister languages that grew from common stock. Having borrowed its grammar and syntax substantially from khari boli, Urdu (commonly understood to be a 'camp language' ) travelled with the troops till it found its way to the courts and became the language of literary expression and came to be called Urdu-e-Moalla, or the exalted language by the late eighteenth century.

In the present context, it might be useful to view Urdu and Hindi as two intersecting circles with a substantial common space instead of the taking the bipolar view commonly adopted by the hardliners who prefer to see 'their' respective literatures as inviolate territories. For far too long, votaries, defenders, critics, polemicists and publicists of both languages have stressed the differences rather than the similarities, advocated exclusion rather than inclusion, quibbled over what belongs to whom. Instead, had they tended the common space they would have allowed an incredibly lush, organic garden to sprout, one that could have given shade and fruit for generations to come. It is still not too late, provided, of course, we steer clear of jingoistic machinations.

Twitter face - off 

Patrick French |

Guys are we liking this, are we liking this A LOT? 'Liberty or Death' has its long-awaited launch in Hindi

Satyabhashnam |

congrats but FYI 'Azadi' is not a Hindi word. 'Swatantrata' is the right Hindi word. :- )

Sceptic Ali |

is 'maut' a hindi word? or 'ya' for that matter?

Nandini Krishnan |

I think 'Azadi' is of Urdu/Arabic origin, & 'Swatantrata', Sankskrit origin. I love how dramatic 'Azadi Ya Maut' sounds. :- )

Anoop Saha |

wrong. 'azadi' is as much hindi word as the absurdly tedious 'swatantrata'.

Patrick French |

Urdu speakers - is 'Azadi ya Maut' a linguistically suitable title? After all, I was accused of being a 'Pak agent' when I wrote it.

Patrick French |

By those lovely people who write letters to Outlook magazine.

Shefaly |

sounds like a 1970s Amitabh Bachchan potboiler with an angry young man. Why does it have to be a transliteration?

Yeh Log! |

Sounds better than 'Swatantrata ya Maran'

Muniba Kamal |

'Azadi Ya Maut' perfectly legit translation of 'Liberty or Death', also you're more likely a British agent than a Pak man. . .

Everything Shafqat |

'Karo ya maro' - would that be appropriate? U'd have to contact a certain Mr. Gandhi for copyright, tho' :)

Lalita Ji |

Sounds like a dmk scam. Sounds better than 'Swatantrata ya Maran'

Madhuvan Pushp |

The more appropriate hindi word for liberty is ????????? [' swaadheenata' ]. . . I guess!!!

Vihang Bhatt |

Patrick French is indeed a British agent. He revived Hindi-Urdu debate. BTW which script he is using? Devanagari or Persian :)

Rahul Pandita |

Ha ha ha. Sir Naipaul's biographer and Pak agent - now that would be a thriller. I meant 'Azadi ya Maut' is accurate.

Kritdeo |

Yes if are looking for pure hindi title then it could be: 'Swadheenata Ya Mrityu'

Lost or gained in translation?

A look at the titles of translated works below is enough to show how idiosyncratic translators can be and how, if left to themselves by the language purists of both 'akharas', how happily, and eclectically, they mix and match and flit from one vocabulary bank to another Mahanagar - Bombay ki Talaash (Maximum City) by Suketu Mehta Ubharte Bharat ki Tasveer (Imagining India) by Nandan Nilekani Firozshah Baag ke Kisse (Tales from Firozshah Baug) by Rohinton Mistry Daastan Khoon or Shamsher ki (Songs of Blood and Sword) by Fatima Bhutto Nasha ka Dariya (Sea of Poppies) by Amitav Ghosh

Reader's opinion (4)

Gone YummyOct 15th, 2012 at 14:28 PM

Hindi and Urdu are not same. Though Urdu shares 70% similarity with Hindi because simple, it is pirated version of Hindi. And another important thing is a language must have a standardized version because like everything else standards help. Only a standard language can be taught to non-speakers.

Shahidur TalukdarOct 13th, 2012 at 21:54 PM

Very well said. Especially, this line:

The baggage of history is so oppressive and the two sides so inimical and vehemently opposed to the merest suggestion of finding common ground that debate or discussion seems futile.

Shahidur TalukdarOct 13th, 2012 at 21:55 PM

For living in harmony with each other, we must give up some parts of our history. They just aren't good enough to kept and remembered.

Shama ZaidiOct 13th, 2012 at 15:21 PM

I wish to learn specifically Hindi swear-words which are never used by Urdu speakers or vice-versa as the case may be.

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