While at school, we were given the option of learning a third language. Girls from the East took up Bengali, many learnt Sanskrit and Punjabi but a few others and I chose Urdu. My mother felt that being a Sikh, I would learn Punjabi at home invariably and so I should not miss the opportunity to learn a language she had always admired for the emphasis it laid on politeness and propriety.
Our first encounter with Urdu teacher Miss Hamida, or Hammy as we nicknamed her later, was intimidating. She was a tall, gaunt lady, who remained in a plain white sari and dark glasses all the time. We were never sure who she had been keeping an eye on.
Being our Matron as well, she would glide into the dorms at night quietly to catch us whispering after “lights out” and scare us to boot. To our childish eyes, it was akin to a ghostly encounter, so we would shut our eyes tight and snuggle into the quilts pronto.
She introduced us to the Urdu alphabet, which with its “aleph, be, pe” was so foreign sounding, and writing right to had our arms and hands sore quickly. The curved lines and the various dots seemed daunting at first but in a year, we were making words and sentences.
It’s only when she would pause while teaching to remember her long separated family in Pakistan that we’d catch her eyes, when moist.
Studying Urdu took a backseat after the Class 8, and the choices between science, humanities and commerce took precedence. I went to college and forgot all about Urdu and Miss Hamida; but the language was to come back to me after marriage.
My father-in-law belonged to Montgomery, Pakistan, before Partition and would only read the Urdu newspaper. It was a pleasant surprise to him that I also could read and write the language; so it became a routine until his death to sit with him in the mornings and read aloud a few paragraphs to remain in practice and hone my almost forgotten skill.
He would, in fact, do his daily “path” (prayer) also from the poetic translations of Japji Sahib and Sukhmani Sahib in Urdu by Khwaja Dil Mohammad, famous mathematician from Lahore.
Three years since he’s gone, I chanced upon the magical language once again… in an old newspaper I had wrapped some china crockery in. As I smoothed the pages, I had a rush of nostalgia and tears pricked my eyelids. As a salutation to both “Hammy” and my loving father-in-law, I hope and pray that I will be able to continue my love affair with Urdu.