A SMALL room at Punjabi Bhawan in Ludhiana looks like a government office storeroom with its clutter of typewriters, discarded fans and worn-out furniture, but what sets it apart is a blackboard. Perched on wooden stools around a table are seven people, ranging in age from 68 to 22 years. What brings this diverse group here every day is their love for Urdu, taught by the 86-year-old Prem Singh Bajaj. It is 11 am and Bajaj is expected any minute. But, until then, students practise what they have learnt in class on each other – Urdu couplets and poetry.
When Bajaj enters, some rise to help the octogenarian to the blackboard. But, he signals he can manage on his own. “Mere azeez doston, aaj kya tareekh hai,” he begins as he writes the date in Urdu.
For over 22 years now, Bajaj, a retired college principal, has been teaching the six-month Urdu certificate course run by the Department of Languages of the Punjab government, almost single-handedly trying to keep alive in the new century a language and script that were in common use in pre-Partition Punjab but gave way to Gurmukhi on the Indian side after 1947. Even today, an older generation of Punjabis is more comfortable reading the Punjabi language in Urdu script, rather than in Gurmukhi.
“I loved reading and studying Urdu literature when we lived in Sargodha (now in Pakistan). Those were the most memorable days of my life. My heart did not allow me to leave the language that I studied till Class 10 back home. I refused to leave Urdu and decided to tell people here in India how beautiful this language is. How can a language be Hindu or Muslim. It is an Indian language. And how can a teacher be Sikh or Muslim or Hindu. I am an Indian and can teach whichever language I love,” says Bajaj, who did his schooling from Khalsa High School, Farooqa, in Pakistan.
After retiring as principal of Lajpat Rai DAV College in Jagraon, Ludhiana, Bajaj started what he calls his “duty” for Urdu. Not only as teacher, but he is also the brain behind a library on the Punjabi Bhawan premises, having some 3,000 rare Urdu books. “We transported Urdu books from far-off places through old friends and acquaintances. Those were the days of struggle but anything for Urdu,” he says.
“Aashiq,” says Bajaj, asking students the plural. The youngest student, 22-year-old Bhavneet, is quick to make a wild guess: “mashooka”. There are laughs all around. “I asked the plural in Urdu not synonym in Punjabi,” quips Bajaj.‘Gusalkhana’, says Bajaj. “Sir, you mean bathroom? Wow this is an Urdu word,” says Sandeep, another 22-year-old, surprised that it’s the same in Punjabi.
Bajaj keeps his students engaged with sher-o-shayari and his memories of the language.
‘Doston, Urdu ek bahut hi khoobsurat zubaan hai, ek khazaana hai. Paper mein aapko aath number ki chitthi likhni hogi. Mere paas bhi meri puraani chitthiyon ka ek khazaana hai. Unn chitthiyon ki aaj bhi bahut ahmiyat hai. Sabke liye nahi, mere liye,” he says, as he explains to students the question paper pattern of the 50-marks exam they will be appearing for in July to clear the course.
Some 40-odd students registered for this free-of-cost Urdu class in January but the number has now come down to 8-10. “Let’s see how many still remain in the battleground till July,” jokes Bharat Bhushan (47).
A sling bag hanging off his shoulder and a smartphone in hand, 65-year-old Baldev Singh says he is learning Urdu because of his interest in literature, hakeemi (ayurveda) and astrology. A retired employee of Punjab State Power Corporation Limited, he says, “Urdu is deeply involved in all three fields and after retirement, I made it a goal to learn Urdu.”
For Bharat Mahajan (24), Bhavneet (22) and Sandeep (22) — three college students — it is love for cinema, script writing, lyrics writing and a dream to be a writer that landed them here. The only female student in the class, Sarabjit Kaur (27), is studying the language to pursue her research better. An MPhil student in history, she says, “I wasn’t able to study many Urdu texts of the medieval period. Now, I can understand quite a lot.”
Harminder Singh (68) says he had wanted to learn Urdu since his school days. “My father said he had no money to give me Urdu coaching but it was my zidd to learn it no matter at what age.”
“Real estate business is really down and I had too much of spare time. Then, why not an hour for my love, Urdu? I was amused when I saw people writing this curly script. It is so beautiful. Basically, it is love for Urdu script that got me here,” laughs 47-year-old property dealer Bharat Bhushan.
The students say it is only because of Bajaj’s personal efforts that Urdu is still being taught by the Department of Languages. Course books, which were not available in Ludhiana, have been arranged from Malerkotla, the only Muslim majority town in Punjab.
“A serious effort is required to preserve a language. If I did this job for Rs 2,500 a month for two decades, doesn’t mean every teacher would do it. There needs to be more batches, proper classrooms and qualified teachers and salaries for them,” says Bajaj.
With Bajaj keeping unwell, the department has now hired Mohammad Eid M Karim (69), another Urdu teacher for Rs 5,000 a month. The raise came after repeated pleas from Bajaj.
“It will be grave injustice if Punjab and central government ignore the efforts of Bajaj saab, who gave his life to keep Urdu alive in Punjab. He deserves an honour for his lifetime service. I will never be able to take his place but will try to teach with the same dedication. There is no Muslim, Sikh or Hindu when it comes to love for a language,” says Karim.
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