My Days in Prison tells of Iftikhar Gilani’s seven-month incarceration under the anti-terror law in 2002, and is seen by its publishers, Penguin India, as a “revolutionary experiment” in Urdu publishing.
Gilani, working for the Urdu service of Radio Deutsche Welle, says he was falsely implicated by the state and tortured while in Delhi’s Tihar jail before being acquitted in 2003.
Muslim readers who feel victimised by the state’s anti-terrorism drive say the book is cathartic and that it has given a new dimension to the language identified with the country’s 140 million Muslims.
Naved Akbar, editor of Penguin’s Urdu wing, told Aljazeera net: “The appeal of the subject cuts across language affiliations as evident from the first reprint of the English edition within two months of its publication, but for the Urdu-speaking population it has a special appeal.”
He says the publishing company has several original and translated Urdu works in the pipeline.
Urdu, a mix of Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Hindi, developed over 600 years and had an elitist image until India’s independence from British imperial rule in 1947. Born in India, it is among the 23 officially recognised languages but Urdu-lovers rue its neglect in its home country.
Poetry and fiction
Urdu publishing in India, and even in Pakistan where Urdu is the official language, has largely been confined to poetry and fiction.
But with Gilani’s book, Penguin India has become the first international publisher to bring out in Urdu an account of contemporary politics and its impact on the lives of ordinary people.
Mohammed Ahmed Kazmi, editor of Media Star News and Features service which caters to several Hindi and Urdu newspapers, says: “The book is highly readable and gives great insights into the working of the system; it is certainly the first of its kind in Urdu.”
The fact that My Days in Prison is written by a respected journalist makes it more credible, says Kazmi, and the fact that the majority of terrorism suspects in India are Muslim, makes the book appeal especially to the community.
Gilani told Aljazeera.net: “Because of the present political situation in which innocent people are hunted in the name of terrorism, people identify with my book and the sense of identification is always an important factor for any book.”
Gilani is from the only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir where Urdu is the state’s official language and the language of instruction in schools up to the eighth grade.
“The book’s Urdu version has a special, sentimental appeal to me, not as a Muslim but as someone who grew up with Urdu.”
According to SR Faroqi, an Urdu language critic, the factor responsible for the decline of the language is its “identification with Muslims who were convicted of the crime of dividing the country”.
The migration of Urdu-language students and their families to Pakistan and the emergence of Hindi after partition as the first language in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, seen as the hub of Indian-Islamic culture, are other reasons for the declining popularity of the language, especially its reading and writing.
While reading and writing Urdu is dwindling at the official level and among educated Muslims, the language is flourishing among the masses thanks to the use of subtitles at cinemas showing Hindi-language films.
Besides English and Urdu, Gilani’s My Days in Prison has been published in Hindi and Malyalam, the language of the people of Kerala in South India.