Owning and knowing Urdu

Apropos of nothing except the article I was reading, as I waited for the bus to take me home from work, I thought: One day, Urdu will be a medium of my poetry.

I was taken aback by the intensity of that thought. I’ve written a lot about my relationship with Urdu, but most of my writing has a distinct note of pining to it. This thought, sudden as it was, had a determination to it that I rarely feel in matters of Urdu. That thought knew Urdu, felt an ownership over Urdu that I have been too hesitant to feel. Even now, as I write this on my phone, my اردو کیبورڈ inserts Urdu straight into my stream of consciousness (as well as my writing). At a time in my life when انگلش has been my primary medium (nearly six years, now, living away from my family), اردو pulls itself from my tongue without clearing it with my brain first. In my moments of frustration, prayer, alarm, or deepest love, Urdu takes the place of English. When I find myself in a largely Urdu/Hindi-speaking environment, my English is punctuated with Urdu, my Urdu with English. When I realize this, I feel both embarrassment and satisfaction. Embarrassment because I wonder if I made a mistake, if my diction seemed off, if my lisp is apparent. Satisfaction because distance still hasn’t removed the ease with which I can slip back into my mother tongue.

I am content with that arrangement. I have reconciled myself with the fact that I am not great at Urdu, in the same way that some native English-speakers aren’t great at English. It’s a technical thing. No reason to take it personally.

But then: One day, Urdu will be a medium of my poetry.

Way to shake the status quo. It’s always been a pipe dream, of course. Who doesn’t want to write poetry in Urdu (that has been exposed to how beautiful Urdu poetry is, anyway)? No need to lose sleep over it.

So why do I get the feeling I’ll be losing sleep over this thought tonight?

Pursuant to good news I have previously referenced, I am now in the genuinely exciting position of planning for graduate school. As much as I enjoy my job, I miss the discipline that school brings with it. I’ve been trying to pick up languages, but it’s hard to hold yourself accountable when there aren’t quizzes or deadlines. So more than likely, I will want to take or audit a language class while I’m in grad school. This is where the question comes in: which one?

This has been the subject of recent discussion between my best friend and I. There is, of course, the option of going back to French. At my best, I could have been a somewhat interesting conversationalist in French. I’ve since gotten rusty, but I have a solid enough foundation. It makes sense to pick French up again.

Well, says best friend, by the same token, you could feasibly pick up French at any point in your life. And besides, says best friend pointedly, how relevant is French really in international relations today?

I felt myself bristle on behalf of my Martiniquaise French professor. I can hear her tut and mutter, “Tarzan…” disparagingly (poor Tarzan was her synonym for, essentially, barbarianism. She used the term in reference to Québécois French quite a bit).

But I am not Mme. Miles, and so I should not take it personally. Thus, I was able to admit that, yes, English could do the same general task as French did, 50 years ago, in today’s international relations landscape.

Also, continues best friend, wouldn’t it be a better idea to take a language closer to your region of interest?

Well, I considered Arabic, I respond. I also would love to take Farsi.

Best friend considers this and approves. Farsi would be better than Arabic, says he. Closer to your region, and genuinely interesting to you.

Yeah, I feel like it would help me understand Urdu poetry better.

Or, says best friend, what about Bengali? I don’t suppose you have any interest in that?

I can see the inevitability we are both circling. It’s not really that I wanted to avoid discussing the inevitability. It’s just that I wanted to talk through all other options first.

I mean, I start, I could audit an Urdu class.

Best friend is satisfied. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s the one who’s been interested in learning Urdu himself. But beyond that, he knows my relationship with Urdu.

Here’s the thing (and now I’m breaking out of this strange back-and-forth I’ve cobbled together): any language class I take will be audited. Essentially, that means I can participate – or not – to whatever extent I want. I could participate fully in the class, or I could only sit in and not do any of the actual legwork involved in learning a language. There are many reasons this format makes sense for an Urdu/Hindi class – for my specific case, anyway.

First of all, note the forward-slash: Urdu and Hindi. I could learn to read and write Hindi. That would be hugely helpful for any primary sources I end up using in future scholarship! Second, I could feasibly test into an intermediate level class and check in and out depending on what is most relevant to me. An Urdu lesson that comes easily to me? Skip the quiz. More complex vocabulary and/or actually learning the difference between ت and ٹ? I’m all-in.

Third, and most importantly, it would give me the chance to actually work with a teacher whom I won’t feel judged by. My biggest fear, even as a child, was that I would be judged by my peers and by others. To be in an environment where I would actually have the edge in an Urdu class would do wonders for my confidence – a confidence I have sorely needed.

I can’t do the work I want to do in good faith if I don’t put in the work to really, really get good at Urdu – and why pick up Devanagari script while I’m at it? Grad school will give me a chance to do that.

But that’s the road to getting good. Is it hubris that’s making me suddenly want to get great?

Quick sojourn back to Mme. Miles. After my first semester of French, I asked her what I could do to improve my French writing. I was doing fine for my level of French, but I wanted to be better than that. I told her – with an optimism and arrogance that makes me wince slightly now – that I wanted to be as good a writer in French as I am in English. In fairness, I didn’t mean it arrogantly. I just wanted my French to be on par with my English. I wanted to be great at French.

I thought back to that moment after my present revelation. At 18, I had shown a determination to be great in a language even before I had become great at my own. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I can’t help but feel the sadness of being content, comfortable in not just one, but two languages before my own.

I’ve come a long way, in all respects. I can honestly say that. And getting into an amazing grad program has only reinforced my desire to continue to work on myself. Last year, I read a poem (out loud, to people) featuring a whole stanza in Urdu. That I wrote. Mine! You couldn’t have told 18-year-old Neiha that. I would have cried and thought you were making fun of me. Even as I wrote that poem, I sent my Urdu stanza to my mother and asked her to read it, and tell me honestly if it made sense. I asked her not to make fun of me. I still feel like asking people not to make fun of me when I speak to them in Urdu. But at the same time, I chastise myself: you don’t need to ask permission or ask for allowances when you speak your own language. Speak it. Whatever comes out of your mouth will still be your own language.

Poetry is taking liberties with language while paying homage to it. I know English well enough to take liberties with it; I don’t need to learn to pay homage to a language I speak 65% of the time. But with Urdu, I feel that all I ever do is take liberties with it. What I lack – according to this misgiving – is the knowledge to accurately pay homage to it.

If that truly is the case, and the rational part of me is not convinced that it is, then auditing an Urdu/Hindi class gives me the perfect excuse to receive the “knowledge” I need.

But the truth is, I have always paid homage to Urdu. It’s in the way I set Urdu up on a pedestal; how I pray in Urdu; how afraid I am of embarrassing myself, not in front of others, necessarily, but in front of Urdu.

To own Urdu enough to think – honest as a gust of wind – one day, Urdu will be a medium of my poetry is jarring, but inspiring. I can feel the determination settle inside me, thick and true as the hesitation and satisfaction with which it now cohabits. Urdu is a nurturer, a coaxer of thought and expression. To pay homage to it would be to nurture and coax this new-found determination out from its current co-occupancy with hesitation and satisfaction, into a home of its own. I am writing this determination, this mission into existence.

One day, Urdu will be a medium of my poetry.


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