Tracing the roots of Urdu in India and Pakistan

Rakhshanda JalilAuthor Rakhshanda Jalil, best known for her book ‘Invisible City: The hidden Monuments of India’, has been one of the frontrunners in the movement to create awareness for Hindi-Urdu literature in India. Having come to the field of writing as a translator in 1992, she had published a series of translated works before moving to the fray of critical writing and then increasingly veering towards academic pieces, biographies, historiographies and even English fiction.

Given this large oeuvre of works, what really interests Jalil are biographies and books that require rigorous amounts of research. She recently completed her book on Rashid Jahan, an Indian writer, a member of the Communist party and the Progressive Writers’ Association. “It was then I realised that this is what I enjoy doing. I like to locate writers in a certain context,” she says. At the moment, she is working on a biography on an Urdu poet, Sardar Jafri to be published by Oxford University Press.

At the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Festival, Jalil took part in a panel discussion that traced the roots of Urdu in India and Pakistan and also mapped its future. About the state of the language, she notes, “This whole business of script , going on for the past 60 or 80 years, where people are saying it has be written in Devanagari is contributing to its downfall. When we learn Japanese or Russian or Chinese, we take the trouble to learn their script. With Urdu, why do we want to take the easy way out? This is just doing more harm than good.”

Being a proponent of translating works from Urdu to English and making it available for the masses, she does feel that the essence of the language is most often lost in the process. “There is no way you can say that what you are translating is 100% right,” she says. In a language as disparate as Urdu and English or Hindi for that matter, not only the resonances or speech patterns differ but also the way of constructing sentences. Hence as a translator you have to work within these limitations and put out a work that is sincere and sensible, she says.

Childhood, they say, has a very strong impact on a writer’s psyche and it is true in Jalil’s case. Having grown up in a house filled with books, taught by a mother who retired as a librarian and having people who talked about books and gave books as birthday gifts, she was blessed. She adds,  “When I was in the eighth grade, I got a book called ‘The Exile’ by a French existentialist writer as a birthday gift. When most children got Enid Blyton books, I was encouraged to read books from different genres. That, in a way, drew me to writing and if I hadn’t been a writer I would have done something else in writing.”

Incidentally, Jalil started her career, first as a teacher and then as an editor in the publishing industry. She agrees, “I have felt words. I write them now. But I have known them all throughout.”


First published in The New Indian Express on September 30, 2014

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Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Culture, Interviews | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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