Premchand in times of linguistic chauvinism

Fighting over petty issues like nationality, language, religion, god/s, territory, it’s in the fitness of things that we pause and remember Hindi and Urdu's greatest ever writer Munshi Premchand, who wielded his formidable quill to serve both Urdu and Hindi sans a skerrick of discrimination. Born on July 31, 1880 at Lamhi, Dhanpat Rai alias Munshi Premchand was the quintessential upholder of the sub-continent’s Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb (composite culture). Now when Urdu is getting systematically marginalised because of the erroneous belief that it is the language of a specific community, Premchand’s contributions to enriching both the tongues must be reanalysed for the restoration of sanity and communal harmony. 

Born in a kaayasth family of Eastern UP, young Dhanpat Rai learnt Urdu as his first language. “Mera kakhara toh Urdu-Farsi se hua hai. Devnagari rasmul-khat toh maine bahut baad mein seekha” (My education began with the alphabet of Urdu and Persian. I learnt Devnagari years later), admitted the Gabriel Marquez of the sub-continent in an interview to Baburao Paradkar in Bombay. It’s worthwhile to mention that it was the tradition of the kaayasth families of UP and Bihar to learn Urdu before learning Hindi! Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri, yet another kaayasth of Eastern UP (Gorakhpur, to be precise), went on to become one of the greatest Urdu poets of the last century, always getting bracketed with Pakistan’s great Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmad Faraz of Kohat (NWFP). Coming back to Premchand, he wrote in Hindustani (a lovely blend of Hindi-Urdu) and not in Persianised Urdu-e-Mualla (distinct Persian-laden Urdu of the walled city, Delhi or Lucknow).

There is a great, nay persistent, misunderstanding that just by resorting to a script written from right to left (as in the case of Persian, Arabic and Urdu), one dons the mantle of an Urdu writer because Devnagari is written from left to right! Premchand could easily write in Devnagari script of Hindi, but always preferred to write his first drafts in the language, he was at home with. And in his case, he had a natural at-homeness with the Persian script. In other words, he was innately comfortable with Urdu and its Persian script. Just read his numerous stories and novels in Hindi. Except for the titles (like Gosha-e-Aafiyat for Premashram), the contents are fully intelligible to the readers of both the languages. Yours truly first read Premchand in Urdu and then in Hindi. Barring the difference in scripts, hardly any word, used by the great writer, requires to refer to an Urdu lughat (dictionary). Nowhere in his Hindi-Urdu stories, does one come across ‘aashiyana’ for ‘ghar’ (house).

Even while writing in Urdu, Premchand scribbled ‘ghar’ and never ‘aashiyana’. Premchand once wrote to Upendra Nath ‘Ashk’: “Yahan ki zameen aur yahan ki zabaan mein kyonkar Farsi-Arabi alfaaz ki aamad honi chahiye?” (Why should there be an intrusion of Persian and Arabic into the language of this soil?). Urdu critic Dr Gopichand Narang called Premchand’s Urdu: Zabaan jo Hindustan ki sarzameen ki khushboo se muattar thee (language that was fragrant with the aroma of the soil of sub-continent). It’s interesting to observe that Premchand called himself an ahle-zabaan (one whose mother tongue is Urdu) and not a zabaandaan (one who learns Urdu or any other language as a secondary tongue). And an ahle-zabaan is seldom showy or pompous about his mother tongue. Urdu came to him spontaneously and effortlessly, whereas Hindi was slightly difficult for him in the initial years. So, he started writing in Devnagari quite copiously to hone his Hindi.

With the passage of time, he mastered Hindi script but never translated any Urdu word into Hindi or vice versa because there was no need. All the words used in both the languages are common. So much so that he didn’t bother to translate ‘talvaar’ (sword) into ‘shamsheer’ in Persian. Even in Urdu, one gets to read ‘talvaar’ because the word is rooted in our familiar linguistic make-up and ethos. But the same Premchand used ‘shamsheer’ exclusively for his Persian readers (Yes, he wrote separately in Persian as well!) in his Persian short-story ‘Ravayat’ or tradition (unfortunately, never translated into any other language).

Premchand was au fait with the subcontinent’s culture of language/s. He knew, how Urdu and Hindi were Siamese twins. So, apart from the scripts, his stories in both the tongues are swaddled in a common lingo and couched in a known and shared idiomatic territory. His sayings in both the languages were taken from the dialects of Uttar Pradesh and were not borrowed from the unfamiliar terra incognita of Persia and Arab Peninsula. Those who nitpick that Urdu belongs to Muslims and Hindi to Hindus, must read his stories and juxtapose them cheek-by-jowl to have an idea of Premchand’s encompassing linguistic assimilation. Alas, that seems to have faded into thin air in these parochial times with hidebound thinking.

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