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Our Urdu’s keeper

Is Hindi truly our national language? The debate is never-ending. Is Punjabi in danger? Listen to the songs to know. Is English our worst cultural enemy? Well, at least I continue to assault it every week in this column, 50 and counting. Writes Aarish Chhabra.

chandigarh Updated: Jun 29, 2014 11:48 IST
Aarish Chhabra
Aarish Chhabra
Hindustan Times

Is Hindi truly our national language? The debate is never-ending. Is Punjabi in danger? Listen to the songs to know. Is English our worst cultural enemy? Well, at least I continue to assault it every week in this column, 50 and counting.

Amidst this chaos, the poet’s beloved, a lyricist’s magic ingredient, and the most beautiful of our languages, Urdu, hits a quiet milestone in Chandigarh today. In room number 2 of SD College in Sector 32, as the latest batch sits for the sessionend exam, this June 30 ends the 38th year of free Urdu classes conducted by the Punjab language department. From July 1, a new batch of the six-month Urdu Amoz basic course will begin. And HK Lall, the teacher, will start all over again.

The story of these classes here — an admirable attempt to keep Urdu alive, besides efforts of university departments — is the story of Lall and his zest. A 77-year-old man of many words, he was born in Pakpattan in pre-partition Punjab. Given that he has a doctorate, you expect him to be a heavy-hearted, serious reader of couplets and all that. A couplet reader he is, but, in his lightness of being, he is much like the language he teaches. Urdu, he says, is about latafat (enjoyment), nazakat (softness), nafasat (finesse) and shireeni (sweetness). Latafat is apparent in his a joke-aminute disposition; nazakat in the way he tends to his hair; nafasat in the insistence on correct pronunciation; and shireeni comes through so sweetly in his personality.

HK Lall, 77, the joyful teacher of the magic called Urdu, In Chandigarh. Photo: Abhishek Sethi/HT

But, for all his literary flair and this job, he was actually an employee of the Punjab irrigation department. “My office was in Sector 17, in the building next to Indian Coffee House (the one that housed Music World till recently). The ground floor had a showroom of Ramington typewriters, the first had BD Tailor, then was our office, and on top was the language department office. The language guys were looking for an Urdu teacher; someone told them I had an MA. The officer just walked down a floor, offered me an hour’s part-time work for Rs. 100 a month, and the class was set. Convenient for everyone!”

There were hiccups. For someone who had learnt his initial Urdu from his brother’s borrowed books and official papers of his father who worked in the irrigation department, Lall found it tough to teach. “The first time, I missed one of the 37 letters of the Urdu alphabet. Thank God, I had a doctor friend who encouraged me and gave me medicine for anxiety. Now, that’s my style — teaching the 37 letters over 19 days!”

His education, too, came in phases. After a failed shot at science, he did his Adib Fazil, diploma in Urdu, completing MA from Panjab University in 1969. As fate would have it, he landed in the irrigation department. In 1976, two years after the language department started the Urdu Amoz classes in Patiala, the scheme that now runs in 12 districts was expanded to Chandigarh. Lall’s calling had found him. In 1989, he completed PhD. Describing his irrigation department job, which he had till superannuation, he uses four words: “No work, no regrets.”

The one-hour evening job is what he lives for. It had started with around 40 students; half had left midway. This year, 102 enrolled; only 17 will take the exam. Most are male, both young and old. The oldest is 87.

What brings the students? “Most are just lovers of Urdu shayari (poetry).poetry).” Why do most
leave? “They get bored, maybe. Like Daag Dehlavi wrote, ‘Nahin khel hai Daag, yaaron se keh do; ke aati hai Urdu zabaan aate aate’ (This is no child’s play, let this be known; learning Urdu takes its own sweet time).”

About the state of Urdu, he refuses to be pessimistic. “There is so much Urdu in the Punjabi we speak; so much in our Hindi. Only the script is different.” He is repelled by the theory that Urdu is a language of Muslims: “What does religion have to do with it?” But how do we preserve Urdu’s entity here? “The government should introduce it as a subject in school. Until then, we may not learn its Persian script, but at least read and write more of it in Devanagari or even in the Roman script.”

How much is he paid? “From Rs 100, it was raised to Rs 250 after a decade, then Rs 500. In 2010, the then finance minister Manpreet Badal, a lover of Urdu, got it raised to Rs 2,500. That’s what I get.”

And does he write poetry? “I am no poet. But I end up writing poetry.” He ends with a couplet of his own, using a Hindi word and an analogy to underline a point and his love for Urdu: “Khidmat-e-Urdu karunga umar bhar; ye meri pooja, mera imaan hai. (Serve Urdu, I will, all my life; it is my worship, it is my faith.)”

P.S: Want to join the free Urdu classes? New batch begins on July 1; classes from 5.15 to 6.15 pm in room number 2, SD College, Sector 32. Lal saab will be waiting.

First Published: Jun 29, 2014 09:04 IST