What are we preserving when we try to preserve a language?


“Do you understand what I am saying?” Moiniyar Khan asks me. I am Bidar right now, have come for the sole purpose of documenting the languages spoken here. Without waiting for a reply, he inquires after the languages that I speak.

Tumhari zubaan kya hain?”

“English. And Hindi.  “ I reply.

Aur Urdu aati hain?” he asks. Do I know Urdu? I make a vague motion in the air. The Urdu that I am familiar with appears only in Bollywood music, in the occasional shayiri that my grandparents recite from time to time.

“Bagaer Urdu, khatati samajh nahi aati.”  You can’t understand khatati without Urdu, he says. Nevertheless, he begins explaining this art of Urdu calligraphy by explaining the mechanics of the language that it is written in. He clasps his fingers together, forming an interlocked knot like the pattern at the entrance of the Abdul Faid Khanqah.

“Just like the Roman alphabet, the Urdu alphabet also has 26 letters. A B C – Alaph Bey Pey,” he says.  “It developed out of constantly writing Arabic. Like a joint handwriting, except prettier. And there have been nine changes in the Khatati design since it came into being. “

He pauses. “And there are two types of Khatati. The first one is rooted deeply in Arabic, and is only used for the Qoran. That is known as Khatati suls. The second is Khatati nusk. “

He pauses again, waiting for me to catch up. And after writing it down, I read his words back to him to make sure that I have put them down correctly. I am able to understand his words only in their most basic form- the way you grasp at the gist of an unknown word when you read it in a sentence. I know Urdu as an inherited, diluted tongue because it has been passed down to me only from my father, and the Urdu Moiniyar Khan is speaking is more complex than I expected. Hindi is my second language by miles, but my access to it is like a qanat1 system- speaking it for long intervals creates a flow; makes me more capable of creating depths and discovering words buried inside.  The more I excavate, the more I can revive it. But with Urdu, there is only what there is and no more. With Urdu, there are no words that can be found.

“N-u-s-q-u-e, “Moiniyar Khan says, placing a finger over the incorrect spelling. “Aliph.”  Once he is satisfied with my penmanship, he reaches behind him and pulls out a box as weathered as his fingers. This is what is inside: round bottles of ink, blades, tapering fountain pens, paintbrushes, a rectangular whetstone, pieces of rosy brick. He picks up the blade and it turns out to be a pen. It is the slant that he is after, which writes like a length of ribbon. The blade is sheepsfoot and the paint bottles unscrew in a cloud of black and brown specks.

“They are all spoilt.” Moiniyar Khan says. His ink has run dry, his cutters have blackened. His  daughter brings him a steel container full of water, and he tips it into the bottles, waiting for sludge to form. He says that he used to make the ink by grinding small stones; kankad, but it wasn’t permanent, which is why he shifted to the Camel brand. He takes my A4 cartridge sheet drawing book from my hands and prepares to write something.

Sabse pehle, char line maarna. “ He says. Before starting on the calligraphy, I should draw four lines. He dips blade into ink bottle and draws the pen from right to left four times. The lines fade away before he has finished. The colour is brown- he is drawing with dust.

“The paper is absorbing water.” I observe.

“The pen is more suited to glazed paper.” Moiniyar Khan counters. He picks up another blade and rubs it against the whetstone, evening the edges out.

“Nib ko cut karna padta han. Stone ke upar is tarah karna padta hain.” He says. These nibs you get ready made. Otherwise, you buy and cut.  Slowly, he draws his knees to his chest to serve as a drawing board, and begins again. And in between drawing, he tells me something about his life.

His initiation into the craft began through the self. He had no teacher; he started by copying headings, by tearing out strips of newspaper and working through them himself.

Hum apne khud se seekhe. Koi teacher nahi tha hamara.” He has a book that he used to refer to, but in Urdu, so even when I flip through it, it is of no use to me. He has a book which he has created also. An album of all those pieces of newspaper, of all the verses that inspire him, but that too is in Urdu.

I try out all the pens. Most of them squeak, the ink in them dried up like the water in the qanat. Once, the ink flowed. This was before computers, when wedding invitations were written by hand. Now everyone prints, he says. Everyone does everything digitally. There is no use for him anymore. But this is not to imply that he does not have any work. There was a girl in the community who won a scholarship to drama school. There, she was given the role of the queen of fairies, and her mother was so proud that she got him to make a pink and black tiara for the occasion. He also made a khatati monogram for the Karnataka Charitable Trust, Humnabad district, Bidar. His portfolio consists of verses: yahan se phan khatati ka silsila shuru hota hai. Writings shaping pigeons. Golden wedding cards, with small domes incorporated on top of long stalks. Some of the words he has taken from the Rangin Mahal, and he says that in certain parts of the palace, a split shell was used to carve the inscriptions. I learn that there are tremors that run up and down his arm, which is why he can only teach now. Even what he is showing me is just a demonstration. He is the only one in Bidar who practices this craft now.

Access to a language is constructed like a flute. A hollow rod with holes on the top. A qanat is a system which is basically this kind of technology. A series of interconnected wells.  Technically, it is a structure used to lead trapped underground water from the interiors of hills to expanses of land.  The qanat was brought to Bidar by Mahmud Gawan in the 15th century, and built to transport water to Bidar fort. But it seems that people forgot about it, forgot a thing like that even existed. Recently, the area was being mapped, and when the mouth of the qanat was discovered, no one knew what it was. Most of it was covered in vegetation, and inside, frogs, porcupines and thirteen foot snakes had taken up residence.  The access points were all suffocating and filled with mud. Reeking of disuse.  It had to be dug out again. When I stood inside the qanat, it was like standing inside a vein of the city. Veins collapse when empty, and when people stop reaching for a language, a similar thing happens.  As a child, my father was enrolled in a school where Urdu was the main language of instruction. But he has forgotten pieces of the script now because he never needed to use it again. And that is the problem: that the vernacular is no longer something to aspire to.

I take the pen from Moiniyar Khan and try to copy his strokes. He is willing to teach, but only if somebody is willing to learn. He doesn’t say a word, rheumy eyes following my hand. I try to replicate exactly what he has made. There is method to approach a script, but I am focusing only on getting it to look right.  As I am writing, he says that I can’t learn khatati by just copying it. He tells me how the most magnificent examples of Khatati can be seen in the Abdul Faid dargah, in the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, even at the entrance of the khanqah that I had spotted it for the first time. I know that Arabic is taught in a khanqah, that the teaching at the Abdul Faid khanqah is for free. I know this because the day before, I had encountered a member of the Sufi brotherhood there. Tariqa Hussaini had mentioned that ten years ago, there used to be six maulanas, and all seats used to be filled. Now, the number- of both- has dwindled.

When I finish, Moiniyar Khan looks at what I have done. He has pulled out spectacles from somewhere, and they are perched on his nose. Meanwhile, I look around. His house is constructed out of bricks of laterite, and the holes that make it porous give it the appearance of wine coloured coral. The door to his inner quarters is painted a vivid Persian blue. A neem tree grows at the entrance. There is Panther sewing machine on a table.  An orange rubber duck tucked behind clothes. He is probably a grandfather. There is a pocket sized book which has fallen open on the ground. Phone numbers and addresses are scrawled in it, with an asterisk and a short note under the ones which have changed. The addresses are scribbled in English, the notes under them in Urdu.

This is how language is not like a qanat system: it endures. It finds a form to dwell in. Like water. Dakhini, a language of Bidar, is an example. Once upon a time, it was the Muslim court language of the Deccan. In Bidar, I learned that it had become the most common street language in cities of the South, like Hyderabad, Aurangabad, and even Bangalore, the city of my residence. And in Bidar, I strained my ears to hear it, but whoever I asked – auto-drivers, women washing clothes in enclosures, said that they didn’t speak it.

Until I realised that I was chasing a Dakhini that no longer existed. Until I realised I have already heard some of its forms before. I have heard it echo in Hyderabadi Urdu- a variant so different from the Hindi-Urdu that I know that it might as well be from a different family.  I have heard its strains in the Kannada- Marathi words of the woman who told me to go to the Papnatha temples instead of lurking in her alley. Language, I realised, is a palimpsest. Any representation is not an absolute image, but a work in progress. It holds evidence of all the tongues who have ever uttered it. Even now, it changes: taking words on loan, giving some up; its surface is its depth. Moiniyar Khan might be speaking it right now, which would explain my more-than-usual struggle for comprehension. So need I worry about forgetting?

But this is the other problem: we are more concerned with conservation rather than usage, with preservation rather than need. Languages were not meant to be stored. Syntax was not meant to gather dust in a museum, to be rewound and heard through film.   Languages have died, and they die when we leave them no space to grow, when we crush the structures that support them. I, myself, have come here to document the tongues in Bidar, rather than learn them. And we document things to prove that they happened. Things that we consider elusive and short-lived. Things that we don’t think will happen again. Sometimes I wonder if the vernacular is becoming a refugee. Like the Syrian people. Their homes have been destroyed, and they look for a land that can take them in as its own.

Moiniyar Khan pats me on the shoulder. He picks up a wider blade and draws over what I had copied, making adjustments and thickening lines that had shaken. Changes that I could never have made, even by looking. To my eye, both look identical enough.   He looks at me, takes off his spectacles and says “Lekin nakal karne ke liye bhi akal ki jarurat hai.” Even to copy something, you need a measure of understanding.  

“I can teach you if you wish.” He says. “I can teach you Urdu also. Hindi theek se samajh aati hai na?

We let that sentence hang. Even I am not sure at this point.

this article was first published in Offprint Magazine: http://www.offprint.in/article/1842/

  1. A qanat – pronounced kanaat– is a gently sloping underground channel with a series of vertical access shafts, used to transport water from an aquifer under the hill. They create a reliable supply of water for human settlements and irrigation in arid and semi- arid climates.

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