#AsiaNow Speaks with Walter Hakala

Walter Hakala is Associate Professor in the Asian Studies Program and Department of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and author of Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia, published by Columbia University Press. He is the recipient of an Honorable Mention for the 2018 AAS Bernard Cohn Book Prize for a first book on South Asia.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Negotiating Languages explores the role of lexicographers (those who compile dictionaries) in the emergence of Urdu as a language of literature and state in South Asia. Modern Standard Hindi and Urdu are unusual in that they share the same grammar and, in ordinary spoken language, a common vocabulary. I argue that dictionaries were an important means through which elites were able to articulate and, occasionally, resist, the bifurcation of this single language on the basis of script (Arabic and Devanagari), vocabulary (Perso-Arabic and Sanskrit), and, increasingly, religion (Muslim and Hindu). I focus on four texts: a work that some consider the first dictionary of Urdu, compiled around 1700 by a schoolteacher in the hinterlands of Delhi; a vocabulary of Delhi’s idioms prepared for a restive Mughal official whose author was convicted of a vast conspiracy to overthrow the British in Bengal; and two works from the turn of the twentieth century, one compiled by a Muslim and the other by a Hindu, who both apprenticed under the same British colonial official.

What inspired you to research this topic?

As a student, I spent a lot of time thumbing through dictionaries in an effort to make sense of the Urdu texts that I had been assigned to read—particularly during the two years I spent in New Delhi studying Urdu literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University. I remember frequently thinking, “I spend more time reading the dictionary than I do reading poetry” and “Why can’t these authors at least use the hard words in some kind of alphabetical order!” Later, I learned that a famous eighteenth-century Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir, would sometimes write with his uncle’s dictionary of Persian idioms open in front of him, incorporating these idioms into his prose in the same order they appear in the dictionary! From here, I made what I thought was a sensible decision to stop reading dictionaries as merely a means of understanding literature, and instead focus on the dictionaries themselves as repositories of poetic citations, anecdotes, and social history.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

Urdu continues to be a relatively understudied field, even in South Asia. Well-meaning interlocutors would plead with me to give up my obsession with the “second-class poets” who would compile dictionaries and sometimes attempt to sneak their own poetry into them. They wisely suggested that I instead focus on the truly great and yet still largely unknown poets of the past. I wanted, though, to understand the lives of people who, like me, found themselves compelled to use dictionaries in order to make sense of and even produce literature. I have at times worried that readers would immediately dismiss a book on dictionaries—Urdu dictionaries, mind you!—as too boring to read. So I did my best to make it as entertaining and accessible as possible by focusing on the surprising lives of a quirky group of individuals who devoted their lives to collecting and defining long lists of words.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Sayyid Ahmad of Delhi, the author of a famous dictionary of Urdu called the Farhang-i Asafiyya (1918), decided to turn his entry on the term kashmiri (describing someone or something from Kashmir) into an extended diatribe, detailing his own bad experiences with a Kashmiri printer whom he claims stole his money and delayed the publication of his dictionary. In 1975, one year after the Government of India’s Urdu Promotion Board had reprinted the massive work, an Indian Member of Parliament asked the Ministry of Education, Social Welfare, and Culture:

  1. whether the dictionary entitled “Farhangi Asafi” published by the Urdu Taraqi Board contains insulting language and expressions about Kashmiri brethren;
  2. if so, the action taken by Government against the writers and publishers of the said dictionary; and
  3. if not, the reasons therefor?

He seems not to have realized that the author of this work had passed away some nearly six decades earlier. The representative of the ministry responsible for reprinting the dictionary nevertheless agreed that the entry was unfortunate, and responded by assuring the MP that “the entire stock of unsold copies of the reprint brought out has been frozen with a view to undertaking a review of the contents of the Dictionary.” While subsequent editions have replaced the entry with blank space, some of the unexpurgated copies of the dictionary did make their way to a number of libraries in the U.S., where the same “insulting language and expressions” may still be read by any with an interest to do so!

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

My undergraduate Urdu and Hindi professor, Griffith Chaussée, suggested that I read Christopher King’s One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India (Oxford University Press, 1994) the summer after my first year of college. It introduced me to the language debates that raged through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and much of my own investigations were inspired by insights from it. That same year, I bought my first copy of John T. Platts’s A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English (1884), a work that I still consult almost every day. I derived much of my initial interest in Urdu poetry from Frances Pritchett’s Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics (University of California Press, 1994). Fran has not only been my mentor through the years, but her precise and approachable style of writing has been a model for my own. I was also very influenced by my Ph.D. advisor’s first book: Lisa Mitchell’s Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue (Indiana University Press, 2009) on Telugu and linguistic nationalism provides much of the conceptual scaffolding for my study of Urdu dictionaries.

What are you working on now?

I am hoping to return to India and Pakistan to investigate some of the early examples of South Asian languages preserved in the Arabic-script—texts ranging from inscriptions in stone to a fascinating genre of multilingual children’s vocabularies in verse. I am interested in learning about why and how those who were literate became interested in recording the spoken languages of South Asia, and what effects this had on those who read or heard them.  

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday