Tom Reiss’s hard
work paid off when he discovered the real identity of Kurban Said, the author
of ‘Ali and Nino’. It also appeared that Said’s (real name Lev
Nussimbaum) birthplace was no place at all. The notes that Nussimbaum left
with his publishers reveal that he spent all his life grappling with the
problematic nature of his existence. He mused: “Most people can name a
house or at least a place where they were born. To this place, or this house,
one makes pilgrimages in one’s later years in order to indulge in
sentimental reminiscences.” He was rootless where he took his first breath.
We witnessed, quite
recently, how Urdu poet Gulzar choked on his own tears when he visited Dina,
his birthplace in Pakistan. He was lucky to have been given the opportunity
to make that pilgrimage, unlike O.P Nerula, who was uprooted from his
birthplace, Daska, after the partition. He melancholically described those
memories in his short book, ‘I Still Remember a Small Town’.
“the land where I was
I cannot sow anymore seeds
I once belonged there but
today I cannot
belong to that land where
my awareness was awakened.”
This proves the old saying
that it’s easy to take a person out of his native town, but it’s hard to
take the native town out of a person. The same person continuously, and
sometimes unconsciously, makes inane comparisons between the new and old town
they call home. It was unfortunate for O.P. Nerula that he could not come
back to his motherland, but even those who migrate for brighter financial
prospects are thrilled to the bone remembering their towns. A word, a picture
or other form of stimulation could trigger a powerful memory.
It’s a dilemma really,
that for some there are places that are home away from home, but for most
that notion doesn’t exist. The Syrian poet Nazar Qabani, who worked abroad
most of his life, longed for Damascus. The city remained his muse. He wrote,
‘Damascus, what are you doing to me’ and most importantly ‘Jasmine
Scent of Damascus’. His will, written in London where he spent last few
years of his life, included a clause that said he should be buried in
Damascus, which he described as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me
creativity and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.”
The time spent
away-from-home was described well by Marcel Proust in his novel ‘In search
of Lost Time’ or termed ‘Season of Hell’ by Pablo Neruda. While Pablo
had an extended asylum and spent years away before returning to Chile, there
are many who can’t bear to keep distance from their birth place at all,
even for a few weeks. One of them was world-renowned poet Rasul Gamzatov.
Unlike Pablo, he wasn’t
tempted to become a universal poet. He stuck to his roots. He extracted more
energy and sharpened his skills further every time he returned from a foreign
trip. He journeyed from Hiroshima to Africa, from Canada to Egypt, and always
used his travels to draw comparisons between his host cities and his homeland
The same Daghestan where
‘Ali and Nino’ found shelter. Where they faced hardships yet lived
euphorically. Where they made love, and got married and, made love again. The
mountainous area where the rule was “never, under any circumstances, to
show one’s love in front of other people.” Yet Rasul propagated, and
promoted his sole love.
If in this world a thousand
menWith love for you are smarting,Know that among those thousand menAm I,
Rasul Gamzatov.If to your loveone
hundred menEnrol as willing martyrs,Among them seek the mountaineerBy name
Rasul Gamzatov.If ten fine fellows you entrance,Among those glad to
barterTheir fortune for a loving glanceAm I, Rasul Gamzatov.Should but one
lover seek your handWith fearless, peerless ardour,Be sure theman’s none
other thanThe mountaineer, Gamzatov.Should no one for your favours plead,
We don’t know if he was
seeking similarities or a contrast to Daghestan when he came to Islamabad,
but we do know that he was full of curiosity during the four days he stayed
In December 1995, former
prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, presided over an international
conference to promote literature. 600 writers from all over the world
participated, and Rasul was the star of the show. He was heard saying,
“Faiz was my only friend. With him I had a 30-year acquaintance. Without
him, I feel very lonely and sad here.” Some twelve of his poems were
already translated by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who had won the famous Lenin Award a
year before Rasul himself.
Similar to Nazar Qabbani,
Rasul Gamzatov called Daghestan his cradle. He referred to foreign countries
as mothers-in-law. “I have nothing against mother-in-law, but there is no
Mother but Mother.”
When Gamzatov was born, his
father took him to an older wise man in their family, who had a reputation
for prophecy. The father asked the older man to name the newborn. The man
studied the baby boy’s features, read some verses and declared: “Here is
Throughout his adult life,
Gamzatov wondered whose rasul he was, whose messenger, whose representative?
It turns out he was the Rasul of his Daghestan, his aul, his mountains, his
rivers and his language, Avar. “From early youth one should realise that
one has come into the world so as to become a representative of one’s
people, and should be prepared to assume that role.” he declared.
Since age 11 he wrote
romantically, passionately and empathetically, in poetry and prose, about his
homeland. He became the people’s poet of Daghestan. “Daghestan, you are
my love and my vow, my supplication and my prayer. You alone are the main
theme of all my books and all my life.”
Rasul was a child prodigy.
In his own words, when he was quite small his father would wrap him in a
sheepskin cloak and recite his poems to him, so he knew them all by heart
before he ever rode a horse or wore a belt. Later, Pushkin and Lermontov
became his inspirations.
He realised over time that
once you make peace within yourself you can spread peace outside. His poetry
touches on his own personal experiences, detail his fears, his romances, his
people and their fascinations which all connected with the universal truth.
The nesting place of his
thoughts, his feelings and his aspirations bound him to the world, and
ultimately that human experience was translated into dozens of languages. His
message was spread in the form of the book known as ‘My Daghestan’.
Like true love, Rasul and
Daghestan eventually became synonymous. Before his death ten years ago, he
“About my country, as I
I cannot tell, though hard
Full bags behind my saddle
try as I might, they
(Gamzatov died on November
3, 2003 at the age of 80)
A few years ago, I
was sitting with eminent Pakistani historian, Dr Mubarak Ali. He asked me if
I would be interested in writing an article for his Urdu magazine, ‘Tareekh’.
I worked on the idea for a few days but eventually gave up.
However, the topic that he
asked me to write about was something that I have never been able to get out
of my mind — “What is the relevance of history to an ordinary person in
Pakistan?” As a history student, I did not know how to answer that
question. Over the years as I read more books my understanding of history
expanded and I could see understand the relevance of the subject in an
ordinary person’s life.
In this regard, there are
two particular authors who have helped me, William Dalrymple and Amitav Ghosh.
Reading through Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’, I understood the
connection he made between present societies and certain historical events.
On the other hand, Amitav
Ghosh’s ‘In an Antique Land’ is another travelogue, which attempts to
do the same, though with a different kind of approach. The book juxtaposes
two parallel worlds that are separated by about a millennium. Both existed in
One, which was tolerant and
inclusive, in which an Arab Jew could live in Egypt, dominated by Muslims and
could still be economically successful. The other world is that of
contemporary Egypt (1980s), in which the identities of Jews and Muslims have
become mutually exclusive.
The book doesn’t attempt
to answer any questions regarding how these drastic changes in the attitude
came about but only raises the question as to how could this be possible. In
the end, the author travels to a Jewish shrine in Egypt, where he is no
longer allowed because he is not a Jew. This was a shrine where Jews and
Muslims prayed together, a practice unimaginable because of the current
It was interesting for me
to find that Dalrymple in his book ‘From the Holy Mountain’, raises the
same question as he travels across the Middle East interviewing and also
exploring the history of Christians in the region. Reading history books as
he undertakes the journey, he tries to understand how these religious
distinctions between Christians and Muslims become so distinct whereas only a
few centuries ago the boundaries were much more fluid.
One can trace Dalrymple
asking the same questions in the ‘White Mughals’. I am under the
impression that Ghosh’s ‘In an Antique Land’ must have been an
inspiration for Dalrymple. Sometime back in an email communication, Dalrymple
recommended a few travel books to me and ‘In an Antique Land’ was one of
Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The
Glass Palace’ is another book that attempts to trace the thread of
continuity. It begins with the Burma of the late 18th century and travels all
the way to the contemporary era. In a way, the book is similar to Alex
Hailey’s ‘Roots’, which traces the story of his own ancestors who were
picked up from Africa, sold as a slave and brought to America.
At the end of the book
Ghosh states that the book is autobiographical in a way as the idea emerged
out of the stories he had heard from his ancestors; however, the entire story
is fictional piece and so are the characters.
There are several
interesting themes in the book that can be used to explain the problems
facing the modern Burmese society. One of the most important is the issue of
the Rohingya minorities being persecuted by the majority Buddhist population.
In the book, Ghosh mentions
that several Indians were brought to Burma to work as labourers, something
similar to how the Africans were exported to America. The current Rohingya
minority are ancestors of the labourers that were brought to Burma.
Ghosh further discusses
that the relationship between the Indians and the Burmese population was
constructed on a marshy ground to begin with, as this social engineering
experiment was undertaken by the British to occupy Burma and the entire South
East Asia. The British used Indian soldiers which earned them the ire of the
local population. The Indian labourers working in Burma who had nothing to do
with the Indian soldiers also became a symbol of British imperialism. The
persecution of the Rohingya minority today being a legacy of that burgeoning
Ghosh also comments on the
nature of the Indian army. He talks about the concept of martial races, the
anglicising of the Indian army, which often translated into derision towards
one’s own culture.
Through the latter half of
the book, Ghosh discusses this aspect and one could not help but draw
comparisons with the Indian army (of the British India) and the contemporary
Pakistani army. During the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, a major chunk of
the Pakistani army was recruited from the regions of Punjab and what is today
referred to as Khyber Pakthunkhwa (KPK). It was argued that the Bengalis
don’t make good soldiers. This concept of martial race and non-martial race
is a direct legacy of the British policy.
We also adopted the concept
of Brown babu from these anglicised soldiers in the British army. The concept
of proper suits at social clubs like the Punjab Club and Gymkhana bear mark
to that tradition; what is considered as formal and informal of course being
a socially-constructed concept.
In ‘The Glass Palace’,
Ghosh mentions how soldiers of all religious backgrounds were encouraged to
eat British food and those officers who still preferred Indian food over
British were not considered to be fit enough to make the officer class.
Haroon Khalid is the author
of ‘A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious
minorities’ (Westland Publishers, 2013).
One wonders when
the first dictionary was compiled/written or more pertinently when does the
need arise to do so — probably, when a language starts to develop or
graduates from a dialect to a more formal status. As greater formalisation of
the process is needed, one aspect is the compilation of the total number of
words being used in the language and the meaning that are ascribed to them.
The first exposure to a
dictionary is of students eager to look for the meaning of a word, but there
is a purpose far more serious for students of language. In the compilation of
words that are being used is the discovery of a process by which words get
coined and incorporated into language. As to where the words came from and
how they get transformed in their usage from the language of its origin to
the other language is to be privy to the way a language is formed.
If one looks at
dictionaries of major languages, especially the more prestigious ones, the
origin of the word is always referred to with its current meaning. The
etymological side is perhaps more important in the reading of a language
through a dictionary than the various meanings that the word can be ascribed
to in the process of its usage.
Most of the dictionaries,
particularly the ones which have been compiled/written by local experts/
scholars, the origin of the word is hardly ever mentioned. It becomes very
difficult to say as to which language the word originally belonged to before
it became part of the language in which the dictionary is being compiled. All
dictionaries of Urdu fall short on this count and fail to settle the argument
as to where the language originated from, and the various routes that it took
in its development, the process of enlargement of the number of words and the
comprehensiveness of the vocabulary.
Urdu, as has been rightly
pointed out by the Editor in Chief of the project Rauf Parekh, grew out of
the various Prakrit dialects/languages and the interaction with Sanskrit,
Persian, Arabic, Turkish and later the European languages.
The true guide to
understanding the structure of language is through its syntax and as Urdu is
a young language in comparison to the languages spoken and written, a whole
plethora of languages had to be contended with.
The base of most languages
was provided by the Indo-Aryan framework and that had made it part of the
family of Indo-European languages, one of the biggest extended families of
languages in the world, that spans greater part of Asia and Europe.
Dictionary can be of many
sorts. One is the dictionary which gives the meanings of the words in the
same language while there can be dictionaries of one language that give
meaning in another. As both have been the instances in dictionary writing are
available in the subcontinent, the writing of Urdu can be divided into many
In the first phase, the
process of a non-formal endeavour in writing the dictionary started by the
fourteenth and fifteenth century with Persian into Persian and Arabic into
Arabic dictionaries in the era just before the Mughals took over and
established their rule.
The second phase was the
nisaab nama, as part of the syllabi with meanings of words in verses to
facilitate its memorising. The third phase was when dictionaries were written
of Urdu words with the meaning given in Persian while the fourth was the
English to Urdu dictionaries. By this time the Europeans, particularly the
British, had started to consolidate their rule in the subcontinent. The more
important works that flowed out of this tradition or endeavour were by John
Gilchrist, F. Dickens Forbes, John Shakespeare, S W Fallon and John T Platts.
Because of a more
scientific approach adopted by the European scholars/linguists/philologists,
dictionary writing became more organised. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan made an effort
but due to his other engagements he could not spare the time to give it a
finishing touch. At about the same time, Syed Ahmad Dehlavi wrote ‘Farhang-e-Asafiya’,
and one of its first editions was published as Arghavan-e-Delhi in 1878.
The next dictionary of note
was Maulvi Noorul Hasan’s ‘Nurul Lughat’ in 1930s and 1940s. After that
there is a long list of dictionaries but most make no real contribution to
the craft of dictionary writing except two, ‘Mazhabul Lughat’ and ‘Urdu
Lughat’. The one published by the Urdu Lughat Board has the largest number
of words in any dictionary of the language compiled.
Urdu has the inherent
ability to absorb words from other languages but some purists rejected this
absorption, underlying a more parochial approach to the language. For them
Urdu was located in a particular area and only that could form the standard
reference point; anything other than that was an aberration or corruption.
Most of the regions and
their languages have poured into the cauldron of Urdu and that has guaranteed
its growth and relevance to the changing times. This inclusionist approach
too has been taken in the compilation of this particular dictionary. Taking
1,800 as the base year, the words that had become obsolete before that have
not been included in the dictionary for it is claimed that the words rendered
obsolete since then have been not that many.
Many peculiarities of the
language have been mentioned and that too defies any systematic
comprehension. Like all living languages, the language comes first and is
followed by rules and principles of that very language. This is the proper
approach to take, otherwise a scholar can become judgmental and begins to
adopt an exclusionist attitude in the name of purity of language and that can
strangulate its free growth, hence doing more harm than good.
Oxford Urdu Angrezi Lughat
Editor in Chief: Rauf
Oxford University Press,