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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Urdu And English - The Subtle Differences In Sensibility And Sensitivity

Author: Max Babi

Read more on this series: Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

There are two questions I dread, and usually avoid answering. One is where are you from? The honest answer would put off most enquirers, because often I say in reply: I donno. The second and equally foxing query is what is your mother tongue. Again, I prefer to say: I donno. Not very tactful nor diplomatic answers but these two can hardly have a straight off answer. Reminds me of that delightful theory of Simplexity put together so winsomely by Jeffery Klueger, ex-editor of TIME magazine. It states, what is simple is in reality very complex and what is complex is truly speaking very simple. He gives the example of the former, the structure of the atom, which seems to be simple but has foxed the physicists for over a century who have listed 250 sub-atomic particles and are now talking of more sub-sub-atomic particles that gang up to pose as sub-atomic particles. The example of something complex being simple is the crazy street traffic, that would terrify the average person, but for those who don’t give a damn, they can simply wade in and wade out without a scratch. It reminds me of the old Cowboy adage that when the cattle stampede, just lied down on the ground and they will religiously avoid stomping all over you. Life is simple, isn’t it?

In my simple life, Urdu I spoke at home, the first language I learnt in my ‘crib’bing days. But went to play with street kids and spoke Gujarati, a little Sindhi. School was strictly in Gujarati and then English was taught at last. I ended up with two mother tongues, Gujarati and Urdu. But bulk of my writing I did in English – now more than half a century of writing in English. Muse India, a magazine for NRI Indians, has brought out a special edition on Gujarati literature this month, and my article eulogizing Dr. Suresh Joshi is there. He unfortunately passed while in his mid 50s, so he never saw my brilliant writings in Gujarati and Urdu. I really rue that.

For me life was simple till my 12th year (Jr.College now) when aspiring doctors and engineers and scientists were studying together. My future mentor Dr. Suresh Joshi was desultorily taking late afternoon classes with our eyelids becoming leaden. One day he threw the book out of the window and yelled at us : Why are you wasting your time listening to Gujarati poetry? I have taught you guys for ten years and not one has written a poem. I might as well stop coming from tomorrow. This really got my goat so badly, I started writing poems furiously, and got a few published in magazines.

Ten years later I went to meet him, feeling like a sack of jelly, because to me he was the epitome of a litterateur, the most ideal one. He had turned Gujarati literature on its head with his maverick style, contemporary poetry and brilliant short stories. He met me smilingly, and went through my poems, but he didn’t seem impressed. He asked me to write in Gujarati, better still in my mother tongue Urdu.

Our main topic today is sensitivity and sensibility, let us first define them and then put them as straitjackets on Urdu and English.

Sensibility is a noun (plural sensibilities).
It implies:

  1. The ability to feel or perceive.
    1. Keen intellectual perception: the sensibility of a painter to color.
    2. Mental or emotional responsiveness toward something, such as the feelings of another.
  2. Receptiveness to impression, whether pleasant or unpleasant; acuteness of feeling. Often used in the plural: "The sufferings of the Cuban people shocked our sensibilities" (George F. Kennan).
  3. Refined awareness and appreciation in matters of feeling.
  4. The quality of being affected by changes in the environment.
On the other hand, sensitivity is a noun (plural sensitivities) too:-
It implies:

  1. The quality or condition of being sensitive.
  2. The capacity of an organ or organism to respond to stimulation.
  3. Electronics: The degree of response of a receiver or an instrument to an incoming signal or to a change in the incoming signal; the signal strength required by an FM tuner to reduce noise and distortion.
  4. The degree of response of a plate or film to light, especially to light of a specified wavelength.
The meanings of these two words are quite different as defined by the dictionary.

A sensitive person may be easily offended by an off-color joke, but without sensibility, that same person may be quite unsympathetic to the sufferings of war victims in Iraq.

Urdu and English

Broadly speaking, we are trying to compare a goat with a giraffe…so different are these two widely disparate languages. English grew as a traders’ language hence it has managed to remain bare-bones, and God bless the Americans, they have made it even more barebones – because they have no time for the turn of the phrase or idiomatic uses and the endless proverbs and maxims and homilies that English like so much, to sound cultured. Like Urdu, English has absorbed more than 20,000 words from Indian languages and many others. Thus it is a dynamic language, which is flexible and inventive, and lends itself to inventing new words, phrases even maxims and adages.

Urdu most incredibly is not derived naturally by a community or a nation. It is the fabrication of a single man, Hazrat Amir Khusraw, a Sufi saint of New Delhi who was the alter ego of the very famous Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya, of the Chishtiyya order. He was of  Turksh descent but wrote only in Persian which was the language of administration, literature and culture due to the Moghuls having assimilated it for their own unity. Khusraw saw that the armies were drawn up with members from the Arabic peninsula, Turkey, and Persia mainly. He also saw that the franca lingua in Indian North lands was the Khadi boli – the precursor of Hindi or Hindustani.

Urdu is a Turkish word for the army camp. Thus the hotch potch of Arabic Turkish all fixed like gems on the background of Persian and Khadi Boli, became Urdu. It is a paradox that a language made for the soldiers, took only a century or less to sneak into the courts and become the best language for poetry, song and dance and for love.

As we are coming to the end of this article, I shall refrain from opening up new topics, but will gladly do so in the next article. We cannot hope to discuss sensitivity of English poets and poetry and juxtapose the same with Urdu poets and poetry unless we define the basic tenets of poetry in these widely divergent cultures. However to relish the Urdu poetry, we shall start with the doha-like two liners, officially know as ‘qata’a ‘ signifying small fragments or chips from a wooden stock, and the we shall see the sher (plural ashaar) and some quatrains in qata’a tradition or in Rubai format. Very naturally we shall also look up ghazals and nazms.

About The Author

Mushtaque Ali Khan Babi AKA Max Babi: Max is a multilingual writer, poet who likes a wide variety of formats – whose life is full of oxymoronic shades, a polymath who went from being a specialist to a generalist to a versatilist. Mentoring by being a catalyst enthralls him, writes on serendipity and intuition, conducts workshops a range of subjects and topics. A very friendly Santa Claus.

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