A language flourishes when it has a growing number of readers and writers engaging with its literature. The count of people who can read and write in Urdu in its rasmul khat, the Perso-Arabic script called nastaliq (written from right to left), however, has been diminishing constantly. “It’s a serious problem. For that’s how languages die: by losing its script,” says Hindi novelist and former Jamia Millia University professor Abdul Bismillah, who is also well-versed in Urdu. Bismillah is not unduly alarmed by the rapid ‘Hindisation’ of Urdu, which has seen too many Urdu writers raring to get their works published in Devanagari script through Hindi publishers. He is merely expressing a concern shared by many Urdu-wallahs. Writers choosing Hindi publishers fear that with little readership for Urdu books, their efforts to create an identity for themselves through their language and script will be a non-starter, as whatever they write will be lost in a moribund script few can read.
“Urdu is a nation unto itself… Wherever Urdu goes, it clasps people in a bear hug. It becomes a tradition unto itself. For Urdu is, after all, the lingua franca of a culture,” wrote Gulzar in the foreword to The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry, edited and translated by Raza Mir (Penguin Books, 2014), which brought together a selection of around 150 poems from 50-odd poets—from the canon as well as the contemporary landscape of Urdu poetry. It’s hard not to see Gulzar’s description of Urdu as a language laced with poetic flourishes. While Urdu may continue to charm people everywhere, the fact remains that those who can read it are few and far between.