My Tryst With Hindustani

November 23, 2013 at 9:15 AMNov (Cinema, Friends, Literature, Media, Music, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life)

Quite often I am asked by friends how is it that I know Urdu. A boy who was born and brought up in coastal Karnataka choosing Urdu as a language of poetic expression surprises many. Every time I am asked this question I want to correct them as “The language I use is not Urdu but Hindustani,” for I am not so good with the language that my language can be called Urdu. It can be called Hindustani, it appears to me.  But I stop myself because to get started about the Hindi-Urdu politics and the usage of ‘Hindustani’ would become a never ending discussion!

Initially when people would ask me about my connection with “Urdu” I too dint know how I had picked up the language. Just because I never bothered to think about it. But then I thought a bit and then traced the roots of “Urdu” in my heart. That appeared like an interesting journey. Hence, decided to share it here.


Like many in India I too grew up listening to Hindustani film music which we all know and refer  to as Hindi film songs. My sister used to be a tv addict. Like any younger one in the family, at one particular age, I followed the path of elder sibling. Every Sunday she would get up and switch on the TV to watch Rangoli and I would sit with her. Every Wednesday she would watch Chitrahaar and I would sit with her and watch TV. Those days I did not follow a single word of Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani. Yet I listened to all the songs for its music and to see the film stars! I learnt some songs by-heart without understanding a single word of it. The first song that I leant by-heart, all by myself, was Kisi Ki Muskuraahaton Pe Ho Nisaar from the film Anari. I had just loved that song for some mysterious reason. Similarly I learnt a few lines from few more songs here and there. The love for songs got cultivated those days. “Hindi film songs” became a part of me, like it has been a part of innumerable people in this country. With continuously listening to “Hindi film songs” I started understanding the meaning of some words and some parts of the song. Word by word I started understanding some of the simple Hindi, though not the Urdu words in those songs.

Then when I graduated to class Five I had to compulsorily learn Hindi. I was excited about it. It meant understanding film songs better. Learning alphabets were all exciting but somehow the poems in the text book, which our the then teacher Sunita Kaul taught us in some film song tunes, did not appeal the way Hindustani film songs did. No. The poems like gaay hamaari maatha hai did not have the charm of the songs that I loved! Even the lessons in the text book did not make an impact on me the way film songs and dialogues did. After compulsory learning of Hindi for three years in class five, six and seven, when I came to class eight I opted out of Hindi.

Those days I was too young to understand that the difference between the “Hindi songs” I heard and the Hindi poems I was made to learn were different at the level of language. The earlier being the language of the people for years together a lingua-franca in this country and the latter being a Sanskritized version of the language which was a result of the Hindu nationalistic politics. The charm of the Hindustani which had borrowed from both the Persian influenced Urdu and the khadi-boli, avadh influenced Hindi was missing in the Sanskritized Hindi taught to us in the text books. When I could learn the film songs quickly I would struggle to learn poems in the text book! To me the latter was not as attractive as the earlier. My parents wouldn’t understand that. To them I was taking more interest in film songs and not in studies. They could not understand and probably still wouldn’t understand why “Hindi” of the “Hindi film songs” have a charm of their own and the sarkaari Hindi doesn’t have! In any case when I reached class Eight I opted out of Hindi.

But I fell into something more boring than the sarkaari Hindi that I was being taught in those text books. That was also the age when most of us- classmates- were getting that thread ceremony done. We were all being initiated into some Sanskrit chanting and some priest would say how Sanskrit is the language of the God and the mother of all languages etc etc. Those were also the days when many of our classmates went for the RSS shaakha and were under complete influence of the Hindutva politics. They would speak to us, along with many other things, of the supremacy of Sanskrit. Then yeah for having been born in a Sanskrtized community which always felt the need to be more brahminical than all the Brahmins I was suggested, though not forced, to opt Sanskrit as the first language. I chose Sanskrit as first language and threw Hindi out of the window.

Thanks to all my poor performances in academics, we never got cable connection at home! Doordarshan was the only channel. Those days of late 90s were something! People have studied the serial Ramayan coinciding with the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement. But someone should also study how during the BJP regime and Hindutva regime DD had a Hindu mythological serials everyday! Jai Ganga MaiyyaShri KrishnaJai HanumanOm Namah Shivaayaand what not! Out of no choice I used to watch them because dinner without TV was unimaginable for me those days. The language used in those serials were like a higher version of those Hindi text books we had to read and at the same time it had echoes of the Sanskrit I was learning! My God. Dryness meets dryness! Ramanand Sagar and the trend he set proved it to us that language is a weapon using which you can kill. I wondered if anyone ever spoke such a language! I still wonder. Now if you ask do people speak the way the characters in Mughal-E-Azam speak I don’t have an answer but I can bet my life and say the dialogues of Mughal-E-Azam had elegance and were beautiful! Your heart beats and skips a beat for something like “Shehanshaah Kay Inn Behisaab Bakshishon Kay Badle Ek Kaneez Mohammad Jalaluddin Akbar Ko Apna Khoon Maaf Karti Hai.” But dialogues like, “Humein gurudev kay pooja kay liye kuch pushp chaahiye. Agar aapki aagya ho toh aap ke pushpvaatika se le le?” can only make you pull your hair! The earlier was close to the songs that were close to my heart and the latter was close to the text book Hindi and the Sanskrit that I had then started learning.

Learning Sanksrit, to me, was no less difficult than learning Mathematics! Raama Raamou Raamaah Hey Raama Hey Raamou Hey Raamaah was a language equivalent to learning tables in Mathematics class! And thosesubaashitas like which were a part of the text book. I did like the meaning of some of it but somehow the language seemed to have no magic for me! Finally when three years of High School came to an end with great difficulty I had managed to pass in Sanskrit. So when I completed my class ten one of the great satisfaction was that I was done for once and for all with Sanskrit. I was not sure if I would pass in Maths and Science but even if I dint I would have to give only those papers and not repeat Sanskrit! What a relief it was.

In all those years of Ramanand Sagar Hindi and Sanskrit in the times of Hindutva, where I couldn’t digest both I went to film songs more and more and enjoyed them thoroughly. During the last days of my high school I had also started writing some Hindi couplets and had started fancying myself as some great poet! With that my engagement with language became more serious.

After my class ten board exams I visited my cousin at Londa. In all years prior to that my cousins would come down from Londa. But that year I decided to go visit them and come back along with them. I spent more than 15 days in Londa, a small town located in the Karnataka-Goa-Maharashtra border.

Londa is a small town that is built around the railway station. It is a major railway station. Londa Junction. It was a major station even during the days of meter-gauge. It was also the station which was connection the North and South part of the nation.

My cousin who works for the railways would go for work. I would be at home with my aunt. The language spoken by almost everyone in the town is Marathi. So there were no friends I could make who were of my age. I would just sit at home and watch TV- movies- for the initial few days. But evenings I would go to the railway station and just sit there. There at times my cousin would come and sit with me if he is at the station. On one such day when he was free and at the railway station he wanted to buy a newspaper and we walked to the book stall at the railway station. The shop owned by Narendar who happens to be my cousin’s friend. While buying the newspaper my cousin introduced me to Naru. That is how Narendar is known among his friends. We did not exchange much word on that day.

Next evening when I was alone walking in the railway station without my cousin Naru saw me and greeted me with a warm smile and initiated a conversation. I stood by his shop and kept talking to him. That is when my eyes fell on a small 65 page book titled ‘Ghalib Ki Shayari’. Those small pocket size books meant for railway passengers. It was there in Londa railway station because this station was a major station from years together connection the north and south. Else in Karnataka no one would have Hindi/Hindustani/Urdu books except for text books. I just casually picked up the book, when our conversation had exhausted all the possible general introduction kind of questions in a first meeting. I picked up the book and opened a random page and read the couplet:

Ishq Ne Ghalib Nikamma Kar Diya, 
Warna Hum Bhi Aadmi Tey Kaam Kay.

I dint understand it because I did not know what Nikamma meant. There was a star mark over the word Nikamma and I wondered what that was for. Then I realized that at the bottom of the page they had given meaning of that word. Nikamma= naalayak (useless). That made me understand the couplet. I was thrilled by the ease in which Ghalib had written! Plus it felt close to the songs that I had heard and loved until then. The language was similar and the textures of the words were similar. It immediately hooked me. I read a couple of more couplets and left thinking about them. I was also reiterating to myself the Urdu words that I had learnt and their meaning.

Next evening I got back the railway station not just for a change from closed environment but because of Urdu poetry. I picked up the book again and went through a few more couplets and learnt few more Urdu words. Now it was getting difficult to remember every new word I was learning. So I bought the book and took it home. Next day onward reading Urdu poetry became a routine and watching movies took a backseat.

After having completed Ghalib Ki Shayari I went on to buy another 65 page book of Urdu couplets titledRangarang Shayari! The poetry was giving me an experience which was similar to the film songs but because some of these couplets were written before all these film songs I started realizing that most of the songs that I have been singing- written by Shailendar, Sahir, Kaifi, Gulzar- were all belonging to this tradition of Urdu poetry. During the second book more than poetry it was the language which started leaving a greater impact on me. Words like firdaustabassumtaskeenfaraamosh, were fascinating me. I bought a notebook and started making note of all the new words I was learning and their meaning. I made my own learning dictionary! After Rangarang Shayari I got hold of Dard Bhari Shayari! After that it was Ustaadon Ki Shayari which had poems of eleven Urdu poets from Meer Taki Meer to Majrooh Sultanpuri. This book was slightly different because it had poems which were more Persian words unlike the previous books I had read which were more of Hindustani. But from Hindustani I had moved to proper Urdu. Not that I followed it much but it was more of a language learning exercise. But with this collection my idea of poetry and the possibilities of it expanded.

Now with this new interest in Urdu poetry I started listening to ghazals. Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh, Talat Aziz, Mehdi Hassan all came home through cassettes. This time while listening to them I was able to follow most of it and also some of the Urdu words too for I had my own dictionary. In the years to come I started reading more and more of Urdu poetry. Ghalib, Zauk, Jafar, Faiz, Sahir, Kaifi, Javed Akthar, Gulzar, Meer, Majaaz, Iqbal, Faraaz, Sahkeel, Makhdoom etc. All of these readings went on expanding my world of Urdu words. Though I stopped adding words to that personal dictionary of mine, I would go through that dictionary once in a while and those words, along with the words I was reading, started seeping into my poetry without even me realizing it. Those words became a part of my diction. Slowly Urdu became my language of expression.

None of the books of Urdu poetry, which can be referred to as Hindustani, that I read in my initial days would be available in any book store. They were exclusive railway station books. Now come to think about it I feel the best two representatives of India and its nature would be the language Hindustani and its railways. Both have such rustic and elegant nature and both have such diversity held within themselves.

For long my mother didn’t know that I was writing poems in Hindustani which to her was and still is Urdu. When she got to know she was a bit upset/angry. She was upset/ angry because I had taken interest in “Muslim language” after having shown no interest in “language of the Gods” (Sanskrit).Those days I myself did not know the history of and politics around Urdu. But now even after having read a bit on it I find it difficult to explain it to my mother and many others too that Urdu is not a Muslim language but language of the people. It takes too much time and patience to narrate how Hindi nationalism and Hindu nationalism strategically portrayed Urdu as “Muslim language” and how it went deep down into the collective mindset and how these two nationalism pushed the language of people Urdu into a corner and edge. One of the ways in which Urdu survived in the mainstream, though in the form of Hindustani, in spite of Hindustani as a language being eliminated from the census in 1961, and has stayed among people is through the Bombay cinema songs which we all call as “Hindi film songs”!

Well, isn’t it there that this boy while growing up in saffron 90s got attracted to the beautiful language Hindustani?


  1. Vinyasa said,

    What a lucid flow of writing it is.. I loved it.

  2. malathi S said,

    aah now I/ we know.
    Though i was surrounded by shayars in my high school and plus 2, i couldn’t be bothered with it. Surprisingly, later i realized how mush i missed it.
    But you Samvartha, you are too good at it and blessed i should say.

  3. Prajna Shastry said,

    ahh you shared it! Granted us the pleasure of knowing about how you prepared your own dictionary, how hindi songs and railway book shop quenched your thirst, how you encountered Ghalib…loved reading all about that passionate journey. hugs.

    In fact, I am learning the language through your couplets!

    But, i do find pleasure in reading and listening Rgvedic hymns, sanskrit dramas and philosophical texts. I am not ashamed of liking Sanskrit. It was the language of kalidasa and also of Vatsyayana. I mean, it is not the sole property of rss.

    Problem lies in the politics of representation. I agree.

  4. Ashwin Nag (@dynamicashwin) said,

    I have seen your poetry grow.. this tells how it began and got nurtured.

    I think its time to publish some?

  5. Ashok Shettar said,

    “the best two representatives of India and its nature would be the language Hindustani and its railways. Both have such rustic and elegant nature and both have such diversity held within themselves.”
    haan,yeh baat sahi hai.
    Be grateful to Hindi film songs and Londa railway junction..:)

  6. Nayana Bhat said,

    Really nicely reflected and written! I really enjoyed the fresh perspective of how the Hindustani and Hindi are different for that matter. 🙂 One is for romance and the latter is for purity. No wonder you fell for the former. 😉 Keep writing.

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