Learning Urdu is written by Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), one of the prominent Indian English poets. Before beginning with the summary and detailed analysis, it is advised that you read the text of the poem once. Read poem.
Revolving around the themes of lost identity, Agha Shahid Ali’s Learning Urdu is about post-partition Kashmir. The poem reveals how the tragedy of the partition of 1947 affected not only the people, but also the shared languages and culture. All that remains now is a hazy memory of the past, of pre-partition days and the traumatic memories of partition.
Line by Line Explanation and Analysis
From a district near Jammu, (Dogri stumbling through his Urdu) he comes, the victim of a continent broken in two in nineteen forty-seven.
The poem begins with the image of a victim of the 1947 partition which divided Hindustan into two nations, India and Pakistan. The victim, who belongs to the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir, is not alone and along with him comes Dogri, stumbling. The word ‘stumbling’ is important as it shows how it is not the person alone who is suffering.
He mentions the minced air he ate while men dissolved in alphabets of blood, in syllables of death, of hate.
These lines bring forth the prevalent condition of hate and violence. Partition was not a peaceful process, hundreds and thousands of people lost their lives to hatred. ‘He mentions the minced air he ate’ reveals how partition was not just a geographical division. Rather, it shredded, it minced the entire lives of people, their homes, places, languages, culture, everything. The division crept into the minds of people, thus blinding them to all but hate (men dissolved in alphabets of blood…hate).
‘I only remember half the word that was my village. The rest I forget. My memory belongs to the line of blood across which my friends dissolved into bitter stanzas of some dead poet.’
The victim in these lines speaks of his loss and and trauma. He is in an identity crisis. He no longer remembers or recognizes his home. His village has become just a ‘word’. Partition has done an irreparable damage to its existence. It is essential to note here that, it is not important in which country his village lies now, after partition. It might have been merged into Pakistan or might have remained with India. In either case, the loss is similar and irreparable.
The victim’s memory is stuck to the ‘line of blood’ (Line of Control) which changed his everything. The phrase ‘friends dissolved’ has to it two meanings. He lost his friends as they dissolved into bitter stanzas of enmity, while others dissolved into bitter stanzas of death.
He wanted me to sympathize. I couldn’t, I was only interested in the bitter couplets which I wanted him to explain. He continued,
The speaker confesses that he was not able to sympathize with the victim. The victim’s pain, grief, loss and suffering is alien to the speaker. He is only interested in ‘the bitter couplets which I wanted him to explain’. This is in continuation with the previous stanza, where the victim mentions that ‘my friends dissolved into bitter stanzas’.
The poem is in the form of a documentation. The speaker is representative of the class of people to whom all that matters is the chain of events. How these events affected the real people and their lives is not their concern.
Stanza 4 and 5
‘And I who knew Mir backwards, every couplet from the Diwan-e-Ghalib saw poetry dissolve into letters of blood.’ He Now remembers nothing while I find Ghalib at the crossroads of language, refusing to move to any side, masquerading as a beggar to see my theatre of kindness.
Mir and Ghalib are two very prominent names of Urdu literature. The victim has vast knowledge of Urdu literature. However, he ‘saw poetry dissolve into letters of blood’. Language is intricately connected with culture. It is not immune. Our memories and experiences shape our relation with a language. Violence and bloodshed, hatred and killings has smeared the relationship of victim with Urdu. Urdu which is often seen as the language of Muslims, too is suffering and dying. Partition has rendered it too homeless.
People might try to divide languages between countries and religions, but a language is universal. It does not belongs to any one geography or religion. Ghalib masquerading as a beggar shows this universality. Ghalib, representing the entire Urdu literature, refuses to move to any side.
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