In Custody

In Custody Urdu

One of the major themes in the novel is the language of Urdu and how its admirers believe it is rapidly disappearing. We will take a look at the history of the language in order to discern just why it means so much to Deven, Murad, Nur, and Siddiqui.

Urdu is closely related to Hindi, another major language that developed in India. They are similar in their phonology and grammar, but Urdu derives more from Arabic and Persian sources, whereas Hindi derives more from Sanskrit. Yet while an Urdu-speaker and a Hindi-speaker can easily converse, they cannot easily read each other's language. Urdu reads right-to-left and is associated with the Nastaliq script style of Persian calligraphy. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics further explains, “Like Arabic and Farsi, Urdu is scanned from right to left, and an important difference from English stems from its orthographic property that clusters of letters together do not make a word (or even a pronounceable nonword) unless they are connected in script-like fashion. Unlike English, there are no distinctions between upper and lower cases in Urdu, but a letter's image may change when it is joined in script with other letters. Designated vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) can be in any position within a word or pronounceable nonword. In some literary and religious texts, vowel markings are used to accentuate spoken vowels. In everyday Urdu, like Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi, vowel markings are not used.”

The language developed in the 12th century C.E. near Delhi, India. For a time, it was called “Hindvi,” and major Urdu writers still used this term until the first decades of the 19th century. It progressed even further during the Mughal Empire (1526-1858).

There was a great deal of poetry written in Urdu in the 14th and 15th centuries, and its golden age was the 18th and 19th centuries. The British, in their period of colonial rule over India, began formally teaching Urdu at Fort William College and introduced it to other schools throughout the 19th century. It became associated with elite Muslims by the 1870s.

In the early 20th century, there were language associations formed to support both the teaching, development, and appreciation of both Urdu (Muslims) and Hindi (Hindus), and tensions began to increase. Gandhi promoted Hindustani as the official language of the independence movement in order to forestall any greater conflict between adherents of the other two languages. In 1937, Nehru declared Hindustani as an all-India language, but none of these efforts alleviated the trouble. The Encyclopedia states that “The divergence between Urdu and Hindi languages, on the one hand, and the congruence of linguistic and religious identities, on the other, became so salient politically in the process of nationalism and nation formation that Hindustani failed as a symbol of unity...the identification of national, linguistic, and religious solidarity was ‘more integral and pervasive’ in the case of Muslims than with the Hindus.” The Hindi supporters dropped their support for Hindustani, seeing it as appeasement for Muslims, and Hindi itself became the official language of India in 1948. Nevertheless, it did not have the overall support Hindustani once had.

When Pakistan was created in 1947, Urdu became its official language (though there are still more Urdu speakers in India than Pakistan).