Saturday, October 5, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Keeping Urdu alive
 Khushwant Singh

ON a brief visit to the Delhi Book Fair I spent most of my time autographing my own books at the stall of Orient Publishers. Alongside where I sat was a shelf of collections of works of Urdu poets past and present, Indian and Pakistani. All beautifully produced in Devnagari script with meanings of more difficult words in footnotes. There were many buyers for these books. They could not read the Urdu-Arabic script but had developed a taste for Urdu poetry and wanted to read works of contemporary poets. I came to the conclusion that the only way we can keep Urdu alive in India is through the use of Devnagari and scripts of regional languages. Many Urduwallas, including former MP Syed Shahabuddin, disagree with me and insist that the only way to keep Urdu alive is by using the Urdu script. I think they are in error.

Urdu has been deprived of its economic base; you can’t get jobs and promotions unless you know Hindi, regional languages or English. It is also the victim of the strong Hindi lobby and the wave of Hindutva sweeping northern India, the homeland of Urdu. It is they who do not allow Urdu poetry to be included in school and college text-books, knowing fully well that Urdu is closer to Hindustani, the language of common people than the highly Sanskritised Hindi being churned out today. 

How a rapist should be punished
September 28, 2002
Historical research: Punjabi style
September 14, 2002
No one will go hungry
September 7, 2002
Neither blind nor deaf to the beauties of nature
August 24, 2002
More about life after death
August 17, 2002
Importance of being important
August 10, 2002
Land-grabbing in the name of God
August 3, 2002
On being alone but not lonely
July 27, 2002
When rituals defy reason
July 20, 2002
Why bother to work hard
July 13, 2002
What do different religions say about drinking
July 6, 2002
You don’t always reap as you sow
June 29, 2002
Daughters of the earth get a raw deal
June 22, 2002
How to handle compulsive talkers
June 8, 2002
The Bible as literature
June 1, 2002
Marriage on the rocks
May 25, 2002
Have you ever thought of death?
May 18, 2002

They spread the propaganda that Urdu is the language of Muslims. This is completely false. Urdu was the lingua franca of northern India and the mother tongue of the people of the region, including people like me. Although I have only superficial knowledge of some other Indian languages, Ihave reasons to believe Urdu poetry is richer and, therefore, more quotable than any other poetry.

The latest in my collection of Urdu poetry in Devnagari script is Ranga Rang Shaaeree: 1400 memorable and quotable couplets of Urdu, compiled and published by Triloki Nath Kanoj (pen name K.N. Raz), and assisted by Praveen Kumar, both of Panchkula. I was charmed to notice that of the many topics, including chose related to God, prayer, life, old age, death friendship, love, beauty, politics, the largest number of couplets were devoted to the preference of the tavern over places of worship and to the joys of drinking. So I raise my glass as a toast to Urdu: "Long may you live and may your enemies perish."

Lament over old age

Having long crossed the biblical limits of life — three-score and ten (70) or four-score & ten (80) — I know I live on borrowed time. I write this piece primarily for people in my age group (80-90) and those — their children and grandchildren — who are saddled with looking after them. I seek their compassion and understanding of problems that beset old people.

It is most important that an old person must reconcile himself to the fact that he has become old and not try to behave like a young man; if he does so, he will only make an ass of himself. It has been truly said:

Jawaanee jaatee rahee

Aur hamein pataa bhee na chalaa

Usee ko dhoond rahey hain

Kamar jhukai hooey

(Youth had fled/And I did not know about it I go seeking for it/With my back bent/double.)

No matter how well a person may look after himself, with the onset of years parts of his body begin to decay. Teeth rot and have to be replaced with dentures. I still have more of my own than artificial ones but the score will be evened by the end of the year. In another year or two, I’ll have to do with a complete set of artifical teeth. That needs radical changes in our diet. No more tough meat or vegetables or fruit that need to be bitten with sharp teeth. So in every home where there is an old man, a parallel menu has to be made to cater to his needs. Eyes go bleary. Lucky is an old man who does not have to wear spectacles to read newspapers or watch TV. I still do both but only just. In a few years someone will have to read out the paper loud to me and tell me what is going on in the world. Hearing becomes defective and one may need a hearing aid. I am sure my hearing is sound but my friends tell me it is not. Even two years ago, my wife would shout in exasperation dora or behra (deaf). Now I have to tell people to repeat what they have said.

Memory begins to play tricks. I still take pride on mine: I can recite passages of poetry by the yard and hardly ever consult the telephone directory to dial a number. But I do forget faces, even of pretty girls and have problems recalling their names. It does not bother me very much.

What bothers me is having to slow down and my inability to walk without the help of a walking stick. I recall days of my youth when I walked from Shimla to Narkanda and back non-stop, covering 72 miles. Now I am reduced to doing a few rounds of my little garden and am scared of walking on an uneven path lest I stumble and break one of my bones. That is often the prelude to the end of an old man’s life.

Old people become slothful, slovenly and lazy. I never suffered from the daily bath fetish. I find rubbing the vital parts of my body with a damp towel as cleansing as immersing myself in a tub or pouring mugs full of water on my body. I no longer bother to change for the night and sleep in the same clothes I wear all day long. When I eat, soup, dal and curry drip on my beard and on to my shirt. People around me find it repulsive. I could not care less.

More serious is the problem created by an enlarged prostrate gland. The urge to empty one’s bladder often does not give one the time to get to a urinal. You wet your trousers or salwar. It is best to pretend you splashed water carelessly. Others know the truth but maintain a polite silence.

With old age life’s values change. Bowel movements become sluggish. One has to resort to laxatives or Isabgol to ensure proper evacuation. It is odd but an old man’s day begins with worrying about his bowels. If he gets a clear evacuation, he feels as if he has conquered the fort of Chittorgarh. It he does not, he remains cranky for the rest of the day.

I keep going with the help of a variety of pills, 20 every day prescribed by my physician, Dr I.P.S. Kalra. He is a great one for prescribing pills for every ailment: high blood pressure, diabetes, blood sugar, prostrate gland — whatever. I grumble but I know they keep me alive and kicking.

Old age need not be an unmitigated curse. It has many advantages. You are free of ambition to achieve more. "Of making many books there is no end and much study is weariness of the flesh", says the holy book. One can take liberties with young girls because they know and you know it will never go beyond a warm hug. One can get away with bad manners; people forgive you as a cranky, old grey-beard.

In my late eighties, I enjoy reading pornography. Old bawdy songs come back to my mind. One favourite used to be a Punjabi doggerel about a white bearded lusty bony. It began with Toomba vajdaee na, taar bina (you cannot play the lute without a string) rahendee na yaar bina (she cannot live without her lover). It went on to describe the antics of the budha baba who was vadda bajogee (great miracle man, very clever). He spent the night in the brothel and left his companion with a counterfeit four-anna piece (chavaani khotee).

Old age need not be dull or boring. Only young people should look upon the old with compassion because they too will grow old and doddery.

Medical test

Buijor Mody from Bangalore has sent me a small portion of the test answers which a Haryanvi gave in a medical entrance test: Tablet — small table; ultrasound — radical noise; urine — opposite of you’re out; rupture — ecstasy; pacemaker — winner of Nobel Peace Prize; dilate — the late British Princess Diana; cyst — short form of sister; labour pain — hurt at work; lactose — people without feet; lymph — walk unsteadily; obesity — city of Obe; antibody — against everyone; artery — the study of fine paintings; bacteria — back door to a cafeteria; caesarean section — a district in Rome; chronic — neck of a crow; coma — punctuation mark; and protein — in favour of teens.