The curious gleam in his eyes transmitted those familiar unspoken questions: are you one of us? Who are you? What are you? For a moment, I was in Delhi’s Old City again. I could smell the kebabs grilling over open coals and feel the smoke stinging my eyes. I could hear the clucking chickens, trapped in tiny steel boxes, stacked in tall piles along the street. Thousands of people and dozens of bull-strewn wooden carts clog the lane, as tiny auto-rickshaws and hordes of bicycles and motorbikes weave between them. Goats meander, some tied up for sale and some free to wander. The memory flickered in and out like an old cartoon flipbook.
A few weeks ago, I was leaving my favorite lunch spot in downtown D.C. when I was halted by a sturdy tap on my shoulder. I turned to find a vaguely familiar face staring back at me. After a moment, I realized it was the busboy that had cleared off my table while I was studying after lunch. He had seen my notebook and noticed Urdu—a Pakistani and Indian language written in Arabic script—on its pages. He asked me if I was studying Arabic. I told him no, but that I hoped to in the future. His beaming smile only grew wider, and he said that was wonderful. He was Moroccan, and as far as I could discern, he didn’t speak a lick of Urdu—he spoke Arabic—but my learning it seemed to draw us together in his eyes, as if we were both in on the same thing.
When I moved to India last September for a five-month internship, I undertook intensive lessons to learn Hindi, India’s official national language along with English, and Urdu, Pakistan’s national language and the language for nearly 50 million—mostly Muslim—Indians. I remember clearly the first time I spoke Hindi with my colleagues, the first time I practiced a few words on friends, and the first time I chatted with a taxi driver. They were all so stunned, so pleased to hear their language coming out of my mouth. They told me how beautiful it was to hear a foreigner speak it, how touching. This is Hindi, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world with over 700 million speakers, 350 million as their first language. Yet, for many Hindi speakers I encountered, it was a core part of a localized identity, their “mother tongue.” In a country with over a thousand languages, your home language says so much about who you are.
Yet, for all of Hindi’s local mindset, it is still a transcendent language, cutting across class, religious, and ethnic lines. Urdu’s place in India is the near opposite. Even though it’s the mother tongue for many non-Muslims in a few certain areas like Jammu and Kashmir, it remains one of the most potent identity markers for Muslims in India. You can immediately tell a Muslim neighborhood by the abrupt switch in dress (headscarves for women and white caps for men) and the appearance of Urdu’s Arabic script. When people found out I was learning Urdu, their first question was either “Are you Muslim?” or “Why?”
The language’s identity is further complicated by its dwindling number of speakers in India. Urdu and Hindi are very similar languages that occupy the same physical space in northern India. Hindi is much more widely spoken, especially among the upper classes, and is a better language for advancement. Increasingly, children are raised with only Hindi, even if their parents speak Urdu. Many Muslims and Urdu speakers I met expressed fear that its days were nearly finished in India, losing its battle to the hegemonic Hindi.
One of my last days in Delhi, I had to pick up a book among the kebabs, chickens and meandering goats of the largely Muslim Old City. While standing on line, I noticed an old man watching me. After a few minutes, he approached me. We had a strange conversation. He had a very thick, difficult English accent and spoke an intense, heavily Arabic-infused blend of Urdu that was a far cry from the Delhi Hindi and Urdu that I was used to hearing. His cloudy eyes revealed nothing and seemed to look right through me. He asked me follow-up question after follow-up question. Why did I think Urdu was beautiful? What did I want to use it for? He corrected my Urdu, offering Arabic alternatives to my Delhi-Hindi-heavy vocabulary and tested my aptitude with insanely difficult lines of poetry (which obviously I didn’t understand). He seemed suspicious of me, as if he doubted my intentions with the language.
All of the sudden, and without any noticeable trigger, his glazed eyes perked up. He smiled wide across his face, a jarring contrast to the previous thin frown. “Thank you,” he said. And he wrapped me up in a bear hug, the most emotional, powerful thank-you I’ve ever received. He asked if he could take me out to tea, and we sat chatting in a nearby tea shop for 20 minutes. The man was a poet, in town for an Urdu poetry conference, and we talked about Urdu, poetry and learning languages. Everyone in the crowded tea shop stared at us, probably wondering who I was and why I was speaking lousy Urdu with this random poet.
As an English-speaker, I’m used to people learning my language. Its continued existence is not a question. In the past year, by undertaking Urdu, I began learning a language that most outsiders don’t attempt to broach. There isn’t even a Rosetta Stone for it. I always used to wonder why outsiders bothered to learn small languages found in random communities. But “small” Urdu is still spoken by more people than the entire population of England. I get it now. To a small degree, I’m keeping Urdu alive, trying to help it stem the tide of Hindi, Arabic, English, and any other language fighting over the same space. And that means something to the speakers themselves. It’s in strangers’ effusive thanks. It’s the hug from a poet. It’s the D.C. busboy just happy to see a Muslim language being carried on and giving me the same warm smile as the others. Their eyes, their words of appreciation, they make me feel connected. In ways, I’m becoming a part of that community now. I have a stake in it. And that’s more than I can say about English.