Update from Nick Sexton - India
Three mornings a week, I venture to the Muslim quarter for Urdu class. To get to my guru, Salman-ji's home, at around 7:15 in the morning, I bike past the local mall, IP Vijya, which houses the theatre that I frequent to get my fill of Bollywood; past the svaadisht -- delicious -- Kerala Cafe, which has secured a place in my mind as the best purveyor of chole-bhature (a native Punjabi dish) in Banaras; past BABA Black Sheep, a vendor of some of the finest cashmere scarves in Uttar Pradesh, and then a few meters later, my surroundings start to become more starkly Islamic.
The more familiar Hindi signs, written in Devanagari, which is always discernible by the severe straight lines that make each word one, start to transform into the swirls and light dots of Urdu. Instead of being surrounded by signs advertising the best shaakahari khaana -- vegetarian food -- around, I see chickens packed into wooden boxes, while butchers, the sleep having just fled from their eyes, sharpen their knives and cleavers. Men, after a bright and early morning prayer, flood the streets in their ornately embroidered white kurtas; their foreheads are bare, devoid of fire-orange Hindu tikkas, but their heads are covered with topis, or woven caps. Women do not don the essential dupatta; instead, most are in full parda, dressed in enveloping black burqas. And instead of hearing "Namaste bhai!"s and "Pranaam!"s as I whiz along on my bike, I hear reverent "As-salaamu alaykum!"s.
I lock my bike to a water pipe jutting out of Salman-ji's home, because "this is still Banaras," enter his home, which doubles as a mini-publisher's office, take off my shoes, and greet my guru with an emphatic head bob and an "Adab!" which loosely translates to “respect,” and class begins. The focus of my classes is reading and writing. I already get a good amount of speaking practice of Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu) just from living here and from Hindi class, so I am more than happy to spend most of my time decoding and writing the right-to-left lines of Urdu, that look like they’ve been written with the talon of a bird dipped in ink.
I would call Urdu Hindi's fraternal twin. There are an incredible number of similarities between the two languages, but there are definite nuances. Urdu, which is the national language of Pakistan, spoken by most of India's Muslims, and recognized by India as one of its many official languages, uses essentially the same initially-confusing grammar of Hindi. Most of the verbs are the same too. The primary differences arise in the nouns, adjectives, and most obviously, the script: Hindi uses a writing system called Devanagari, while Urdu uses Nastaliq, a script that is markedly similar to Arabic, differing only in some letters. Thus, written Urdu is beautiful, rhythmic, scrolling, like fine tendrils, just like the complex arabesque designs that help make the Taj Mahal so unquestionably breathtaking.
Spoken Urdu is also generally regarded as euphonious. Bollywood songs use many Urdu words that are, in fact, not understood by laypeople, solely because they are mellifluous and musical. It is important to emphasize how Urdu and Hindi are still close family members: Hindi uses a myriad of "Urdu loanwords," and vice versa. Less educated native Hindi speakers are less likely to understand more specialized Urdu words: for example, the other day when I was informed by a coworker that one of my students had hit a cricket ball into another child's eye, I used an Urdu word "ittifaaqan," meaning accidentally, to ask my student if he did indeed hurt his peer by mistake, but all I got was a blank look. But the more educated totally understand more complex Urdu words, and often sprinkle them into their everyday speech.
Learning Urdu has been more than simply another linguistic venture. It has been a rich cultural one as well. When I was deciding what to do for my Individual Study Project (or ISP), I was deciding primarily between Urdu and Sanskrit. Some people I asked advised me to learn Sanskrit, saying things along the lines of "You're in India, Hindu India, so you should learn Sanskrit." If Latin is the archaic language of Roman Catholicism, then Sanskrit is that of Hinduism, as most of Hinduism's integral texts are written in Sanskrit.
While ruminating on advice I got from other people, I thought back to something I heard from the Dalai Lama back when we heard him speak in September. He extolled India for its immense religious diversity and how, for the most part, it as a country remains united and peaceful. India is not just Hindu. Hinduism is an integral part of the culture, but so are Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, and so many other religions. Nine months is unfortunately not enough time to delve as deeply as I would like into learning about all of India's different religions, but I had to start somewhere, so I chose Urdu, and I have been learning it for about two months, and I do not feel the slightest pang of regret.
Urdu is also an incredibly sophisticated literary language, which is one of the biggest things that appealed to me when deciding what to choose as my ISP. The ghazal, which is an Islamic form of poetry supposedly with very strict rules of rhyme scheme and whatnot, has been looming on the horizon for me as I’ve continued to work through my book of “Literary Urdu” with Salman-ji. Hearing comments that Urdu poetry is “heartwrenching,” “powerful,” and “bahut sundar – amazingly beautiful” from past Urdu-learners and local Banarsis has made me ecstatic to continue to progress in Urdu, and to hopefully, if I’m lucky, be able to read some of the great ghazals before I leave India.
Salman-ji is an incredibly accomplished Urdu teacher, who is always friendly inside and out of the classroom. The other night, a big Sufi festival for an Iraqi baba was happening in his neighborhood, and Salman-ji, his older son, and some of my friends from my group and I ventured to a local joint, with steaming tandoori chicken, skewered on kebabs, lining the outside perimeter of the shop, tantalizing passerbys. The food was spicy and scrumptious, and Salman-ji and his son were gracious as always. As I devoured orange chicken tikka, with the pleasant din from the festival outside bouncing off the restaurant’s walls, I reflected on how vast, important, and culturally-rich Islam is in India, and how fascinating it is to explore: both the food one finds in Islamic neighborhoods, which is an omnivore’s solace in a largely vegetarian India, and the beautiful language that is Urdu.