Ammara Ahmad: Do you write humorous verses in Urdu?
Anwar Masood: Yes. Most of it is in Urdu. Remember, I once said
“Haan mujhe Urdu hai Punjabi se bhi aziz,
Shukar hai Anwar meri sochein elaqai nahi”
( Yes I am more fond of Urdu than Punjabi,
Thank God Anwar my thoughts are not regional.)
My wife is Urdu-speaking. How can I express my love for Urdu more than through the fact that I married an Urdu speaking woman? She has never spoken Punjabi. She just said one phrase once. I had gone to Faisalabad. The boys there decorated me with a garland – and a cardboard hanging from that garland said: “Shadi Mubarak” (Happy Wedding). I told my wife and she said “Faer tussi kalle hee agaye?” (Then you came alone?)
AA: But you must have a favourite between Urdu and Punjabi?
AM:I am related to three languages. There is a third language too, Persian. Punjabi is my mother language. Urdu is my children’s mother language. Persian is my teaching language. I have taught Persian for thirty years. Persian is our memory for one thousand years. The language closest to Persian in the Subcontinent is Punjabi. Punjab itself is a word of Persian. For example the word ‘Dehleez’ (doorstep), is called ‘Barunh’ in Gujrat, probably from ‘baroon’, which means ‘coming outside’ in Persian. The strength of both Persian and Punjabi is that they have ikhtisaar (brevity) – ‘Saat’ and ‘sat’ (seven), ‘Aath’ and ‘ath’ (eight). The words are even smaller in Punjabi and this is an asset.
AA: How did you develop a taste for Persian?
AM: I am not a Ph.D. in Persian. I am not a doctor. However, I came first at Punjabi in Punjab University. I am a gold medalist in 1962. I became fond of Punjabi as a child. My elders had a library of Persian and I am particularly in love with Allama Iqbal. Inshallah, I will always remain in love with Iqbal and the majority of Iqbal’s oeuvre is in Persian. I read it as a child. I couldn’t understand it but I did enjoy it.
I took medical science earlier. I was dissecting frogs. (laughs) Then my professor and principal of Zimmedar College, Chaudhary Fazl-e-Haq, brought me to Punjabi. Peer Fazal is a great Punjabi poet. These two Fazals gave me support. I have maintained this commitment with all three of the languages.
AA: People complain that Iqbal never wrote in Punjabi despite speaking it and living in Punjab.
AM: Iqbal is great. His ghazal is global. He would have limited himself by writing in a regional language. Punjab is, after all, a province despite having a population greater than all the other provinces in Pakistan. Iqbal wanted to address India and Central Asia. He wrote Bang-e-Dara in Urdu. To address areas like Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia he wrote in Persian. And to address the whole world he wrote his lectures in English. Those who say he didn’t write in Punjabi have a restricted vision.
Once some boys came to Iqbal. One said “This is my friend and he translated Asrar-e-Khudi from Persian to Urdu.” Iqbal asked him to recite it. The translation was in the form of poetry. Iqbal then stopped him from reciting it further. He said “Don’t think so highly of Urdu.”
Iqbal’s ideas could not have been enclosed in Punjabi. Punjabi is not a very theoretical language in that sense.
Now we have Shareef Kunjahi, who translated the Quran into Punjabi, and also translated six lectures of Iqbal. He is from Kunjah in Punjab, where I started teaching for the first time and one of my most well-known poems, ‘Ambri Ma’ was written there.
AA: You said Punjabi is not a theoretical language.
AM: Not yet. We have no scientific knowledge in it. Otherwise, it is a difficult language and its greatest gift is that it is the language of Sufis. Waris Shah, Sultan Bahu, Baba Farid, Khawaja Farid and Mian Muhammad Baksh Rahmatullah Alaihi are at Punjabi’s back.
AA: Turkish and Persian are ancient languages but they were implemented as official languages and therefore evolved into theoretical languages because they were consciously adopted.
AM: Absolutely. You are 100 percent right, bibi. One has to adopt it and translate. These folks do not adopt Punjabi because they think it is not functional. This is like not letting your son buy a cycle because he may fall down.
A mother tongue has so much significance that primary education all over the world is preferentially given in the mother tongue. This is so important. When the child goes to school, it leaves two things. One is the lap of the mother and the other is the mother language.
To take away the mother language of a child isn’t a good thing. Primary education should be in Punjabi or any regional language. After that, the national language Urdu should be taught. This should be the sequence. After that, you can acquire any language.
AA: Some people lament that Urdu was enforced on us after Partition (1947) much like English was imposed by the colonialists before Partition.
AM: This is untrue. Urdu is the uniting factor between us after Islam. Our Quaid said in Dhaka that Urdu will be our national language. Everyone understands Urdu – from a Baloch, Pakhtun to even a Bengali.
English as a medium is a fazool (futile) thing. A child educated that way is neither an Englishman nor a desi!
AA: Why has Persian’s footprint receded?
AM: It is such an injustice. We make so much noise about Iqbal being our national poet. How many of us realise that his main asset was Persian? We have distanced ourselves from Iqbal that way.
Our national anthem is in Persian, too.
AA: People say Persian is a foreign language rather than Urdu.
AM: Yes, they do think so, but Urdu has 66% Persian in it by vocabulary. Urdu has no words of its own. Punjabi has no words of its own in that sense. All our provinces understand Urdu – which truly ought to be our national language. And a national anthem in Urdu will naturally have Persian in it.
I believe there is an increase in our crime rate because we do not teach Persian anymore!
AA: How so?
AM: Persian teaches ethics.
During Ayub’s time, someone gave an interview saying that Ayub has not read the first story of Gulistan (landmark collection of stories from Persian literature). The first story says that there was injustice already and whoever came next added to it.
We have a religious link with Arabic. When a child is born, the first words uttered it its ears are Arabic. Our life starts with Arabic.
Persian also developed a heavy association with Islam. The influence of Persian and the associated worldview and ethic decreased here and crimes have consequentially increased. This is my thesis!
AA: But we are more Islamised than ever before!
AM: Older generations were different in terms of ethics. In our times, walking in an alley without a head cover was frowned upon even for men. The dupatta came from Islamic influences. Hindu and Sikh women adopted it from Muslims in the one thousand years that we lived together. Our architecture, like the Shalimar Bagh, was impossible without Islamic imagery because the concept of Jannat (Paradise) is such that the garden has canals in the middle. And the Shalimar Bagh is like that.
AA: How did the topics and the kind of humorous poetry that you present on television evolve?
AM: I have captured words from peoples’ lips and returned them to their ears. Such have been my life and experiences. My poetry is people’s poetry.
I was an MA-pass and I did not have a car. I went into a Suzuki (public transport van) which was so crowded that when one man scratched his arm and the one next to him said “This is my arm!” I have seen the grief and joy of this public very closely. I am from that part of Punjab (Gujrat) where Urdu and Lahore’s sophistication have had no impact. And Potohari hasn’t attacked it either! I am from the middle. I have the best Punjabi. I have talked about the culture there: the schools there and the houses there.
AA: Punjabi literature, when taught in colleges and universities, doesn’t include Hindu and Sikh Punjabi authors. Would you recommend some of them?
AM: Punjabi has this edge over Urdu. Punjabi has a religious book in it. Much as Arabic has the Quran, Punjabi has the Guru Granth Sahab.
AA: Name your favourite poet in each of the three languages – Urdu, Punjabi, and Persian.
AM: The poet who had the most influence on me was Mian Muhammad Baksh Rahmatullah Alaihi. And you will be astounded that the Government of Punjab asked me to undertake the translation of his poetry into Urdu prose. There are at least ten thousand verses. This was no easy feat and I take pride in this.
One of my uncles, who was called Khalil – all he did in his life was read the Saif ul Malook. My maternal grandmother was a poet in Urdu and Punjabi. Her name was Karam Bibi and Aajiz was her pen name. Her collection was called Gul-o-Gulzar.
In Persian, I like Hafez Shirazi. Iqbal’s favourite was Hafez but Iqbal differed from Hafez’s fikr (thought). He was, of course, an admirer of his art.
A poet of Persian who had a great impact on Iqbal was Baba Tahir Uryan. He was from Hamadan and legend has it that he was naked – he is said to have been such a passionate man that his clothes would burn off! These are all anecdotes, of course. We have a similiar tradition here that Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s shirt would burn around his heart.
In Urdu, I admire Majeed Amjad from our times. Mir and Ghalib were great poets. Remember, the great poet doesn’t come soon after another. Mir and Ghalib were very far apart. So were Ghalib and Iqbal. We have yet to have another Iqbal. Faiz and Faraz are also wonderful, no doubt, but their tilt was towards the Left.
AA: Any Russian or English poets that you admire?
AM: Shelley, Keats and Shakespeare. I have read them in English but not as much as I have read the Persian poets. The Russians are far ahead in fiction – what with Tolstoy and Chekhov. Russia’s short story is amazing.
Our own Manto is very effective.
I believe if Europe has given the world the literary drama, eastern literature has given the world the ghazal.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. She tweets at @ammarawrites and her work is available on www.ammaraahmad.com