Urdu in Canada

By: M.H.K Qureshi

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp.35-41
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Urdu is spoken and read by millions of people in Pakistan and North India, and its poetry attracts an audience that stretches into Bombay and the former state of Hyderabad in South India. This essay describes the transfer of this literary form to Ontario and the creative results of this voyage.

Urdu is a relatively young language, for oral and literary tradition is approximately 250 years old. Its roots developed during the Moghul period of Indian history, beginning in the early sixteenth century and lasting until the establishment of British power in the subcontinent in the late eighteenth century. In the parts of India under the control of the Mughul Empire, Persian was the official language, as well as the language of business, commerce, the arts, and culture. Urdu began to develop in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries along with a range of popular regional languages. Though Persian was a significant source of its vocabulary, its grammatical structure is almost totally Indo-Aryan, and it has also been influenced by a number of North Indian indigenous languages. Urdu, therefore, derives from both the Persian and Sanskrit traditions, and as a result, its literature, especially its poetry, has been influenced by the cultural traditions of both Hindus and Moslems. The "ghazal," an Urdu verse form, is widely popular among a diverse multicultural population in the subcontinent.

Most Urdu-speaking people in Canada come from the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent; they began coming here in the early 1960s. This emigration was a flight of young, educated, and ambitious people from the harsh, unsettled socio-political atmosphere and worsening economic conditions that were prevalent during the early 1950s. Those were hard times. Unemployment was widespread, and it was very difficult to attain a good and prosperous life. Consequently, almost everyone wanted to go to the "West," the land of opportunities. With optimism and surging enthusiasm, these people made their way to Canada and the United States, where they found a free society and abundant economic opportunities. Unfortunately, with settlement came the realization that they had made their home in a country where they were strangers and were treated accordingly. Promises of equal opportunity, justice, and human dignity often turned out to be empty words since many Canadians did not accept them on equal terms. The result was the creation of a socio-psychological barrier. With different social norms, traditions, and beliefs, these new immigrants saw themselves being isolated from the mainstream and felt threatened. The host society remained largely indifferent to their plight and at times, outright hostile. It gave the impression that they were unwelcome guests. Engulfed in the inhospitable environment, both physical and cultural, they sought to find their own ways to make themselves at home. The Canadian climate depressed them, and Canadian institutions made them feel ill at ease. They were the victims of discrimination in the work place and lacking political influence, they suffered. Initial unhappy experiences did not deter them from adjusting to a new society. They were determined to succeed and over the years were able to carve out a niche in the Canadian mosaic and finally to overcome loneliness and desolation.

Although there were enormous material benefits available in Canada and a good number of the immigrants were doing very well, collectively they feared that they would lose in other important parts of life. As the disenchantment set in, they began to miss their culture, customs, and traditions. There was a general consensus that they should not barter their souls for material gains. Fruits of technological achievements may be very sweet, but they should not be the reason to sacrifice a way of life. Therefore, a range of South Asian community groups started concentrating on matters that would help them retain their distinct identity in Canada.

Urdu-speaking people are devoted to their cultural and traditional mode of life. Their Indian and Pakistani background, a colourful mosaic by itself, ties them to an ancient and much-loved tradition. They are generally conservative and are easily scandalized if any member of their community does something contrary to the established norms. Any wayward behaviour will expose a person to the disapproval of the community.

In the late 1970s some like-minded people gathered to form the Urdu Society of Canada in order to promote the literary, cultural, and secular aspirations of Urdu-speaking people. The society was duly incorporated and registered with the Province of Ontario. For a small fee, membership was available to anyone interested in Urdu. Regular monthly meetings were held at different locations. In these meetings, literary articles, poetry, and other papers were read and these readings were followed by lively discussions. Gradually, as the audience became mature, serious scholarly papers were also presented. Very soon this society became well known all over the Urdu world. With concerted efforts, the First Canadian Conference on Urdu was organized in 1982. The theme of the conference was "modern Urdu poetry." Scholars, poets, and writers came from all over the world to participate. The three-day conference culminated in a "mushaira," a poetry-reading session, in which the most famous Urdu poets of the contemporary world read their poetry. The entire Urdu community thronged to listen to them. They were magical moments charged with electrifying joy. It was difficult to believe that it was happening in Canada.

Visiting dignitaries who came to Canada for the first time were very impressed. The interest and enthusiasm of Urdu-speaking Canadians surprised them, and Canada became a new and instant friend. The local Urdu press printed pictures of these visiting luminaries and took them around to show off the beautiful Canadian landscape. Fall colours were at their best. It produced an atmosphere of a carnival. In this venture, the Canadian government, the Province of Ontario, the University of Toronto, and various libraries cooperated with the Society by either giving financial grants or lending their facilities for meeting purposes. Before the conference these visitors knew Canada only by name, but after it they were able to take back beautiful memories of pleasant moments and new Canadian friendships. They also felt satisfied with the performance of their compatriots. The event generated tremendous good will for Canada in the Urdu-speaking world.

Urdu literature, known for its richness and urbane sophistication, has developed a tradition of lyricism even when the poems are lighting fires and spreading rebellion. In the late 1930s the Progressive Movement championed the cause of the downtrodden, rebelled against cumbersome traditions and, by and large, followed the Marxist view of history and economics. The newness of the message, the creative use of the language, the use of metaphors, and a forceful presentation had a strong impact, especially on the young generation. Many of these progressive poets attended the Toronto conference. Some of their poems were well-known and extremely popular with the audience. Local Canadian Urdu poets were also eager to read their own poems. They imitated the style but for them, the reference point was Canada. Through their poetry, some of them expressed sorrow:

How pleasant is life and how satisfied is my being,
But, passions have turned into dust.
The other cried,
Look, where you have come-
Away from the world
Of moonlights and cool seasons,
Where hamlets are lighted by the rays of the sun.
And the air laden with fragrance of harvested fields
Kiss your body
To assure its presence.

And yet another one complained:

Life, O life
Why you take me from place to place
Why this insistence?
Munibur Rahman1

But these feelings were expressed at the early stages of the settlement process. Later on, matters relating to life in Canada became hot issues for local literary pundits. The early responses now appear to be somewhat emotional and myopic. At the regular monthly meetings of the Society, one can see how the problems of the Third World are discussed and how Canadian issues, whether relating to environment, housing, interest rates, acid rain, or the indiscriminate shooting of women in Montreal, become a matter of concern to Urdu-speaking men and women.

The Urdu Society of Canada has continued to progress and has held two more conferences and arranged many other poetry readings. Almost any name worth mentioning in the Urdu literary world has been invited to Canada. Literary journals in India and Pakistan have published Canadian Urdu poets, fiction writers, and literary critics. The Society has provided a forum for discussing Canada and how it affects the lives of immigrants. But most important, it has provided a regular opportunity for introspective analysis and objective viewing of the members' collective approach to problems and situations. When we were new to the land, we looked at Canadians from our miseries - actual or apparent. But now we look at things as Canadians. The perspective has changed. We have found a synthesis between our own identity and our new environment. One of the most respected poets, a Lenin Peace Prize winner and one of the founders of the Progressive Movement, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, confirmed in an interview with the "Toronto South Asian Review"2 that there was an extreme difference between the subjects touched by visiting poets and local poets.

There is no need here to go into the history of modern Urdu literature and how it evolved into its present form. It should suffice to say that the Urdu literature now being produced in North America does not differ appreciably in diction and style from that of India and Pakistan but does bear its own stamp in the themes with which it deals. "An Anthology of Modern Urdu Poetry" bears testimony to this fact. Under the auspices of the Urdu Society of Canada, this writer has selected and translated into English all the major poets from India and Pakistan together with some Canadian Urdu poets. The Urdu Society has always encouraged such ventures, and its members have cooperated with other literary organizations in publishing literary works, in part to promote better understanding among different cultural heritages.

People of Urdu ethnicity are now well integrated into the mainstream of modern Canadian life. Their children are flourishing in schools and universities, in business and commerce, and by and large are well adjusted. They do not make or live in ghettos, they participate in the social and political life of Canada, and yet they try to preserve their heritage. The new conditions of life have often taken their toll and have created pressures that have torn apart the traditional fabric of their cultural-religious way of living. These problems continue to be reflected in Canadian Urdu literature:

Every moment, I go further away from the world of my desires. Would some one tell me God, what is this imprisonment of a place? How long will I get stuck in the enigma of East & West,
For how long this veil of race, colour and creed will
blind the hearts?

The following lines depict the internal turmoil of an isolated soul planted in a strange country.

Amidst a huge crowd
Ashamed of my wounded ego,
Carrying it on my arms
Am quite ready To be crushed
Between the millstones of mountain and highway.
One poet says,
My body burns in a hell
My blood cries out-
I've demolished the barrier of my soul.

Nuzhat Siddiqui

Today, the Urdu-speaking community has identified itself with Canada. In Urdu literary tradition, a new horizon is about to appear on the western edge of the globe. Whether it will shine or not depends on the Urdu education of the coming generations.

The first of the poems below was written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the late doyen of Urdu poets. The other four are Canadian contributions to the genre.


Speak! your lips are free
Your tongue,
Slender body;
All are still yours.
Look! in the smith's shop,
Fierce flames; red irons;
Lock springs open,
Chain links break.
Speak, even the brief time left for the body and tongue
Is abundant.
Speak, truth still lives;
Speak - say whatever is to be said.

North America

After coming here it occurred to me
That life is difficult and its paths arduous

Granted, socially it is pleasant and good for the physical well being
But my passions have gone to dust.

On every step one suspects the shining light
As the moon-faced ones glitter their bare bodies.

Here, everyone carries his own measure
And creates a garden of his own spell.

But I feel alone, in this colourful world
I can't appreciate the music of its lifestyle.

I have sincerely prayed to God
To preserve the conscience in my passions.

Here the soul is nourished by pleasure and glitter
Our "ways" of life have gone astray.

In the dazzle of this blackened civilization
People have mortgaged their lives to pleasures.

To whom can I show the pain of my heart
Who would understand my troubles.

Alas, when I think of my country, it bothers me
That there also the lamps of oppression glow.

Afzal Imam

Pierre Elliot Trudeau

This we knew that you will not forever shine
On the Canadian firmament like the sun.

But, O, the spring of our garden, you will depart so soon
This we did not realize.

Canadian life is now quiet without you
That glamour is gone from this cold environs.

You were a grace to the house of worship; life of the tavern
Your doorsteps were the shrine for the pilgrims.

The house of politics reverberated with your presence
The Canadian winters draw their warmth from you.

You were the only beacon of determination in the city of opportunism
The rolling waves in this land of standing shores.

You have given a new constitution to the nation
Otherwise it lacked the direction to its destiny.

The United Nations talks about you
The world is convinced of your wisdom and foresight.

The melody you struck on the Iyre of peace
Will one day resonate as a song of peace.

The breeze says, "they will not go waste
Your efforts, day and night, for world peace."

Now, let us see, what they do; the people who inherited your mantle
We pray, life may not become difficult for us poor.

You were a hope for those who lost their heart in the terraces of Canada
Where will they find a sympathizer and friend like you.

But Sheikh, I recall a couplet of poet Zafar
There's no use wailing and crying.

As this garden will remain as it is now
All its inhabitants will fly away singing their song.

Dr. Noor A. Sheikh

The Pain of Non-Communication

Darkness, descending through my blood
Floats over my heart
Like poisonous blue smoke.
Desires, like bare trees, with no pangs of growth
Bow their heads in shame
In the bazaar of non-fulfilment.
Eyes don't see
Ears don't hear
The tongue has lost its taste.
And touch sparks no sensation.
The whole body has turned into a heap of sand.
The fear of what will come shatters the nerves-
When that frail bond will be broken
Under strains of pressures
When objectives of life
Will go down
As useless pursuits
And faith turns skeptic
And meaning loses its sense
Like the leaves of autumn
Broken and scattered by heavy winds.
Then, all those ways of communication
Will be filled
With mangled corpses of thoughts.

Nuzhat Siddiqui

This Is Life

The breeze falls away.
In the Yukon
On the sunlit wall
Hangs a picture of flowers,
Fresh, red, bright;
But above,
Snow still covers the mountain crests.
In front of me,
A girl smiles,
Whispering into the phone
Sheepishly looks around
What a quandary! What a charm!
Here, my imagination blossom flowers,
And there, everything frozen.
This is our life.


M.H.K. Qureshi is an officer of the Department of Government Services, Government of Ontario.


1. All of the poems reproduced here are translated from the Urdu by M.H.K.
Qureshi in his "An Anthology of Modern Urdu Poetry" (Toronto: Urdu Society of
Canada, 1988).

2. "Toronto South Asian Review", vol. 1, no. 3 (Fall 1982/Winter 1983), p. 5.

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