August 21, 2013

The pleasures of Urdu commentary

Memories of following an India-Pakistan match described in high-flown Urdu
28

Radio commentary offers a chance to imagine interesting new worlds
Radio commentary offers a chance to imagine interesting new worlds © AFP

On February 20, 1985, I was feeling a little cross during my usual long bus ride home after classes at the university. India were playing Pakistan in a one-day international game in Australia, and not only was there no live telecast, there was also no radio commentary.

However, by the time I returned home my mood had changed. Commentary was on from an unexpected source: Radio Pakistan. All India Radio, unable to send a team of their own to cover the games, had decided to start relaying commentary available from across the border.

Pakistan's innings was over, for a less-than-stellar 183, but in response, three Indian wickets had already fallen, all of them to Imran Khan. As Sunil Gavaskar and Mohammad Azharuddin put together what would prove to be a match-winning partnership of 132, their feats were described to us in a familiar lingua franca: the seemingly highfalutin Urdu of Radio Pakistan's commentators. And there was no English commentary; it was Urdu all the way.

We all "understood" Urdu because we spoke it. Or at least we spoke that hybrid language that many Indians and Pakistanis speak, its vocabulary influenced equally by Persian and Sanskrit.

But we also knew that at opposite ends of this linguistic spectrum, at the extreme points occupied by Radio Pakistan and All India Radio, were the official languages of the governments of India and Pakistan, the languages of poets, artists, and writers, two entities termed "Hindi" and "Urdu".

The former was heavily Sanskritised, the latter heavily Persianised. Very few of us spoke chaste Hindi; it made us giggle. As did the chaste Urdu we heard in old Bollywood movies, in readings of poets from Lucknow, in news bulletins from Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television.

Urdu seemed to us impossibly courtly, full of graces and airs, meant for conveying courtesies and conducting mannered interactions, perhaps between nawab and courtier, between lovers exchanging declarations of undying love. To hear it used to describe cricket was still a novelty. We had heard news broadcasts in Urdu before; All India Radio still carried them in the 1980s. We had even heard cricket commentary in Urdu before, but the televised variety - during India's 1978 and 1982-83 tours of Pakistan - had been less chaste than the radio version we were now listening to.

That evening, and the next day at university, during the inevitable celebratory post-match discussions, there was talk, too, of the new words we had heard, of how quaint it had seemed for familiar cricketing situations described in such high-flown Urdu.

Imagine: the language of Mughal-e-Azam used to describe mid-pitch discussions and field-placings, the language of the poets used to describe a beautiful shot. We repeated our favourite lines, declaiming them with as much solemnity, stateliness and style as we could muster.

We all agreed that, thanks to context, we had learned new words: asharya apparently meant decimal point, as in: "the run rate is four asharya two"); sifar meant zero, as in: "Vengsarkar was dismissed first ball for sifar." (We figured out later that this word was the same as "cipher".) Who would have imagined it, having our vocabulary expanded by a cricket broadcast?

Because we had been listening to radio commentary with no accompanying images, we had an interesting new world made available to us: a game played many thousands of miles away, in a city called Melbourne, between India and Pakistan, described in a language that we associated with a host of other images drawn from history, the movies, and many of the arts. It was a singular experience and, as my writing here shows, an unforgettable one.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • J751 on August 21, 2013, 19:25 GMT

    Munir Hussain,who died recently was a prominent Urdu commentator. Another whom I liked was Hasan Jalil. I remember the 1979-80 Pakistan India series when I heard Hindi commentary for the first time and added some Sanskrit words to my vocabulary.

  • on August 21, 2013, 8:44 GMT

    Excellent article Samir. The charms of Hindi/Urdu commentary can never be replicated by English. Even in present times people often switch channels to listen to the Hindi/Urdu commentary done by the likes of Sidhu, Rameez Raja, Wasim Akram and Kapil Dev, for it offers a refreshing break from the monotony of English commentary. As one of the cricket channel's promo goes- Jo Baat Hindi/Urdu main hain, woh Angrezi may nahin.

  • on August 21, 2013, 1:22 GMT

    That took me back. I was in Delhi University at that time and would have been willing to bunk a class or two if Doordarshan had shown it live. DD did not show the live telecast till the final league game, against Australia. Listening to Pakistani commentators did feel a bit different, in a language that you sort of kind of understood. But context carried the day. yup learned some Urdu as well. Including asharya....Nicely written

  • cricketkhan on August 25, 2013, 9:52 GMT

    Those were the days my friends. For me cricket was a craze and passion, thats why i used to lsiten to Akashwani, to catch up the commentry of say India playing down-under in 1977-78. Can You believe that? A Pakistani lad waking up early in the morning just to listen to the cricket broadcast, that too from Akashwani, and of a contest not involving Pakistan. I vivdly remember two names of that time Soshil Doshi, who used to do commentry in Hindi, and Dr.Narotumpuri, the english comentator. There used to be another English comentator of English but alas i have forgotten his name. he was just supurb.He often used to pair with Sushul Doshi, if someone recalls his name please do write it here. Radio Comentory was a very tough but facinating art, and very few mastered it.All the voices i used to hear on radio are silent now,recently casualty being Muneer Hussain.only two are still going great guns ,Chisti Mujahid from Pakistan,and Tony Cozier for WI.May god give them strenght to carry on

  • aarshad on August 24, 2013, 1:15 GMT

    It would be nice if in the next Pakistan-India test series, we had Urdu commentators from Pakistan and Hindi commentators from India talking in sheereeni Urdu and shudh Hindi. I think it will sweeten the tense moments.

  • AQ13 on August 22, 2013, 14:18 GMT

    @CricIndia208 you are welcome.it will also be interesting foryou that Sansikrat(the mother of Hindi language) also came from central asian aryans in about 2000 BC!

  • Nampally on August 22, 2013, 13:24 GMT

    A fine narration in praise of Urdu commentary. Being brought up in formerly a muslim state of Hyderabad Deccan, even as a Hindu, I learnt Urdu during my childhood. Urdu literally means Lashkar or Army & is a Turkish word. Just like English (which is mixture of 100 different languages), Urdu language itself is a mixture of Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hindi. Hyderabad is well known for its Urdu culture which extended to our Cricket fields during our Cricket matches at the huge Osmania University cricket fields. We used the terms like Gendh(ball) & Balla(bat) quite commonly. When someone played a great innings, we described it as "Khayamut hai " meaning heavenly. I remember the terms used by fast bowlers boasting "unn Ki line laga dunga" means I will send the batting back in a line. Because of Nawabi attitude, when a fielder misfielded we used to shout "Jhukko Nawab". The commentary in Urdu can be very pleasant experience depending upon the commentator - who can make it refined or mixed!

  • on August 22, 2013, 5:18 GMT

    Remember that particular match for precisely that reason - urdu commentary from Radio Pakistan. The progression of coverage in India during that tournament was quite interesting: first match against Pakistan - commentary from Radio Pakistan. Next match against England - AIR had managed to get their own commentators there. Next match against Australia - DD was telecasting live!

    I also used to listen to commentary from Pakistan on short wave radio for many of the tests Pakistan played at home. Particularly enjoyed a series against WI in '87 when Qadir did very well.

  • Desihungama on August 21, 2013, 19:50 GMT

    Thanks Samir for the lovely write up and your fondness of Urdu which is quiet evident. Even for a Pakistani like me who grew up in late 70's and 80's of Pakistan it was somewhat hard for us to understand the pure Urdu lingo. Reason being - We were too entrenched in Indian movies and often mixed Hindi/Urdu words in our conversations. I still remember my then 10 year old sister telling me one morning Bhaiya Kal Sapne Mein Dharam Fight Kar Raha Tha. (Reference to Dharmendra). Plz keep up the good work.

  • on August 21, 2013, 18:31 GMT

    Cannot speak the language but I always enjoyed listening to Urdu. Regarding that Benson & Hedges Tourney, do not know about the match, Author has described but I have distinct memory of the Final between Ind and Pakistan telecast ed by DoorDarshan on Sunday afternoon with Shastri winning his Audi for ManOfSeries. Looking @ It now - How in the world India won ODI World Championship (Went undefeated) with Amarnath, Shastri, Vengsarkar(All the tuk-tuk guys) in the Team. That tells a lot Cricket is a game of chance!

  • J751 on August 21, 2013, 19:25 GMT

    Munir Hussain,who died recently was a prominent Urdu commentator. Another whom I liked was Hasan Jalil. I remember the 1979-80 Pakistan India series when I heard Hindi commentary for the first time and added some Sanskrit words to my vocabulary.

  • on August 21, 2013, 8:44 GMT

    Excellent article Samir. The charms of Hindi/Urdu commentary can never be replicated by English. Even in present times people often switch channels to listen to the Hindi/Urdu commentary done by the likes of Sidhu, Rameez Raja, Wasim Akram and Kapil Dev, for it offers a refreshing break from the monotony of English commentary. As one of the cricket channel's promo goes- Jo Baat Hindi/Urdu main hain, woh Angrezi may nahin.

  • on August 21, 2013, 1:22 GMT

    That took me back. I was in Delhi University at that time and would have been willing to bunk a class or two if Doordarshan had shown it live. DD did not show the live telecast till the final league game, against Australia. Listening to Pakistani commentators did feel a bit different, in a language that you sort of kind of understood. But context carried the day. yup learned some Urdu as well. Including asharya....Nicely written

  • cricketkhan on August 25, 2013, 9:52 GMT

    Those were the days my friends. For me cricket was a craze and passion, thats why i used to lsiten to Akashwani, to catch up the commentry of say India playing down-under in 1977-78. Can You believe that? A Pakistani lad waking up early in the morning just to listen to the cricket broadcast, that too from Akashwani, and of a contest not involving Pakistan. I vivdly remember two names of that time Soshil Doshi, who used to do commentry in Hindi, and Dr.Narotumpuri, the english comentator. There used to be another English comentator of English but alas i have forgotten his name. he was just supurb.He often used to pair with Sushul Doshi, if someone recalls his name please do write it here. Radio Comentory was a very tough but facinating art, and very few mastered it.All the voices i used to hear on radio are silent now,recently casualty being Muneer Hussain.only two are still going great guns ,Chisti Mujahid from Pakistan,and Tony Cozier for WI.May god give them strenght to carry on

  • aarshad on August 24, 2013, 1:15 GMT

    It would be nice if in the next Pakistan-India test series, we had Urdu commentators from Pakistan and Hindi commentators from India talking in sheereeni Urdu and shudh Hindi. I think it will sweeten the tense moments.

  • AQ13 on August 22, 2013, 14:18 GMT

    @CricIndia208 you are welcome.it will also be interesting foryou that Sansikrat(the mother of Hindi language) also came from central asian aryans in about 2000 BC!

  • Nampally on August 22, 2013, 13:24 GMT

    A fine narration in praise of Urdu commentary. Being brought up in formerly a muslim state of Hyderabad Deccan, even as a Hindu, I learnt Urdu during my childhood. Urdu literally means Lashkar or Army & is a Turkish word. Just like English (which is mixture of 100 different languages), Urdu language itself is a mixture of Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hindi. Hyderabad is well known for its Urdu culture which extended to our Cricket fields during our Cricket matches at the huge Osmania University cricket fields. We used the terms like Gendh(ball) & Balla(bat) quite commonly. When someone played a great innings, we described it as "Khayamut hai " meaning heavenly. I remember the terms used by fast bowlers boasting "unn Ki line laga dunga" means I will send the batting back in a line. Because of Nawabi attitude, when a fielder misfielded we used to shout "Jhukko Nawab". The commentary in Urdu can be very pleasant experience depending upon the commentator - who can make it refined or mixed!

  • on August 22, 2013, 5:18 GMT

    Remember that particular match for precisely that reason - urdu commentary from Radio Pakistan. The progression of coverage in India during that tournament was quite interesting: first match against Pakistan - commentary from Radio Pakistan. Next match against England - AIR had managed to get their own commentators there. Next match against Australia - DD was telecasting live!

    I also used to listen to commentary from Pakistan on short wave radio for many of the tests Pakistan played at home. Particularly enjoyed a series against WI in '87 when Qadir did very well.

  • Desihungama on August 21, 2013, 19:50 GMT

    Thanks Samir for the lovely write up and your fondness of Urdu which is quiet evident. Even for a Pakistani like me who grew up in late 70's and 80's of Pakistan it was somewhat hard for us to understand the pure Urdu lingo. Reason being - We were too entrenched in Indian movies and often mixed Hindi/Urdu words in our conversations. I still remember my then 10 year old sister telling me one morning Bhaiya Kal Sapne Mein Dharam Fight Kar Raha Tha. (Reference to Dharmendra). Plz keep up the good work.

  • on August 21, 2013, 18:31 GMT

    Cannot speak the language but I always enjoyed listening to Urdu. Regarding that Benson & Hedges Tourney, do not know about the match, Author has described but I have distinct memory of the Final between Ind and Pakistan telecast ed by DoorDarshan on Sunday afternoon with Shastri winning his Audi for ManOfSeries. Looking @ It now - How in the world India won ODI World Championship (Went undefeated) with Amarnath, Shastri, Vengsarkar(All the tuk-tuk guys) in the Team. That tells a lot Cricket is a game of chance!

  • on August 21, 2013, 16:10 GMT

    @AQ13 You are just plain wrong! Your comment only shows your ignorance, or your attempt to push some sort of agenda.

  • alarky on August 21, 2013, 14:29 GMT

    Samir, A good reminder! It is always so nice when we could back into the past and reminesce, and tell those who did not see or hear what made us happy in the past; especially when we could look up the STATS and present the accurate data for them to see. As it's only so they really get the best picture of what really happened - that is, via the STATISTICS!

  • muzika_tchaikovskogo on August 21, 2013, 13:50 GMT

    This article reminded me of the commentary by Akram and Ramiz Raja in the recent ODI series between India and Pakistan. Being from a part of the country where Urdu is seldom used, I found the vocabulary pretty quaint. Words like Umda, Asharya or Sifar remind me of old Hindi movies with the overdose of Urdu dialogues

  • on August 21, 2013, 13:35 GMT

    Excellent article! Urdu/Hindi commentary is far better than English.

  • Engr.TahirShah on August 21, 2013, 13:23 GMT

    Absolutely, Urdu and Hindi commentary had its charm and I remember as a 9 year child, when we used to wake up for Sehri (Early morning breakfast to observe fasting in the month of Ramadan) in World Cup 1992 and we use to listen to the Urdu commentary of Radio Pakistan. It was an absolute charm. I used to enjoy so much that I never did the same even watching on TV and with top class English commentators speaking. Similarly I used to listen to Hindi commentary on All India Radio and it was nothing short of joy. Unfortunately there are no Muneer Hussain, Chishti Mujahid, Hassan Jaleel, Ehtisham ul Haque and also those old days Hindi commentators. So there is no more any charm in listening to the modern day Urdu and Hindi commentators.

  • Kamal22 on August 21, 2013, 13:08 GMT

    That's right. I recall the jaarriyyana(aggressive) andaaz(style) ki(of) batting of various strokemakers that Radio Pakistan, and its Aalami Sports Round Up(7:30pm IST) used to describe, in the evenings. I used to listen to in India also simply becuase of the high brow Urdu. The opposite of Jaarriyyana was Mo'othaat(slow, dour) qism(type) ki batting. One time Waqar got a hat trick in Sharjah, and the way it was described on Aalami sports round up, hold your breath: Ek baar phir Sharjah ke stadium mein Waqar Younis ke naam ki aandhi chali....That was an unforgettable phrase. I think it happened in '90 or '91! You made me nostalgic. I would like to check if the Aalami Sports Round Up is still there or not? Anybody have info?

  • CricIndia208 on August 21, 2013, 12:32 GMT

    AQ13, thanks for the clarification. Interesting point is how did south asians adapt the language of the central asians.

  • AQ13 on August 21, 2013, 11:54 GMT

    @CricIndia208 Urdu is 99% Arabic,Turkish and Persian.It was the language of Central Asian troops(as the word "Urdu" describes:Urdu is turkish for Army).Some Hindi words are used in Urdu because of interaction with Hindus but they are very little in number.You can statistically analyse an Urdu dictionary if you want proof.The way of writing or Rasm ul khat is also Arabic!

  • on August 21, 2013, 10:42 GMT

    Great piece Samir... I only heard hindi commentary for the first time in early 2000s with the advent of Dish antennae in Pakistan and Star Sports India. It continues to be a giggle inducing experience for us here in Pakistan... to us it sounds like a bhai or tapori from one of those bollywood gangster movies doing cricket commentary. The words seem made up.

  • Bilal_Choudry on August 21, 2013, 9:38 GMT

    reminds me of Munir Hussain who sadly passed away last month ... voice of radio pakistan urdu commentary

  • Katey on August 21, 2013, 9:33 GMT

    A most interesting article Mr Chopra - you so often find a new and different angle to write. I am sorry I can't speak either language - you describe the experience well. Having several languages must give one a novel "feeling" for many things, including cricket.

  • st_aubrun on August 21, 2013, 7:54 GMT

    Its not just formal urdu that does not use sanskrit words - even street Urdu in Karachi and Lahore has very little if any such such influence. Instead, a great deal of English has crept in to street urdu. I find hindi and Indian Punjabi (what I heard on DDI Sports News from Amritsar) to be very pure in comparison. Whereas, Urdu commentary prefers English words - 'batsman' or 'runs', for example, hindi commentators will usually say 'ballaybaaz" and DDI from Amritsar will say "Dawriyaan". Two countries separated by a common language!

  • smalishah84 on August 21, 2013, 7:13 GMT

    I am really beginning to enjoy your articles Samir. Absolutely loved your last piece as well. They have been touching on cricket but in a very non-cricketing way. Indeed Hindi and Urdu are sister languages. Pretty much all of Urdu's grammar comes from Hindi and most of its vocabulary comes from Persian (some from Arabic). Here in Pakistan when we first listened to the world "shoonye" in Hindi conmmentary we also had to glean it from the context as to what it meant but it was always fun to catch the commentary from the other side, it was always a novel experience.

  • CricIndia208 on August 21, 2013, 6:57 GMT

    Hindi is the mother language. A Pakistani friend once mentioned that Urdu ultimately came from Hindi. It is a mixture of Hindi, Persian and Arabic.

  • deepak_sholapurkar on August 21, 2013, 6:02 GMT

    Good article I remember one frequently used word is "Umda".

  • Rufus_Fuddleduck on August 21, 2013, 5:05 GMT

    Really good Samir ... one minor nitpick - the word sifar predates the English cypher and is probably the root. Much came alive, from your article, of all the despairing hours of the 1982-83 Pakistan tour by India, with much of asalaam-aleikum-naazreen and onwards..... And incidentally this may have been among the last times of dependence on Pak Radio, because one more victory later good old Doordarshan upped its performance by starting live telecasts

  • on August 21, 2013, 3:31 GMT

    Good piece Samir. I remember being across the border and listening to commentary from All India Radio and discussing the same things : ) "shoonye" instead of "sifar" was a point of discussion at our end as well! The funny thing is that most Pakistanis didn't consider Urdu to be as courtly and elegant as you described and it was only when I came to the US as an undergrad did Indian friends make me aware. I guess we just take it for granted back in Pak : )

  • on August 20, 2013, 23:09 GMT

    Nice article.....................................

  • on August 20, 2013, 23:09 GMT

    Nice article.....................................

  • on August 21, 2013, 3:31 GMT

    Good piece Samir. I remember being across the border and listening to commentary from All India Radio and discussing the same things : ) "shoonye" instead of "sifar" was a point of discussion at our end as well! The funny thing is that most Pakistanis didn't consider Urdu to be as courtly and elegant as you described and it was only when I came to the US as an undergrad did Indian friends make me aware. I guess we just take it for granted back in Pak : )

  • Rufus_Fuddleduck on August 21, 2013, 5:05 GMT

    Really good Samir ... one minor nitpick - the word sifar predates the English cypher and is probably the root. Much came alive, from your article, of all the despairing hours of the 1982-83 Pakistan tour by India, with much of asalaam-aleikum-naazreen and onwards..... And incidentally this may have been among the last times of dependence on Pak Radio, because one more victory later good old Doordarshan upped its performance by starting live telecasts

  • deepak_sholapurkar on August 21, 2013, 6:02 GMT

    Good article I remember one frequently used word is "Umda".

  • CricIndia208 on August 21, 2013, 6:57 GMT

    Hindi is the mother language. A Pakistani friend once mentioned that Urdu ultimately came from Hindi. It is a mixture of Hindi, Persian and Arabic.

  • smalishah84 on August 21, 2013, 7:13 GMT

    I am really beginning to enjoy your articles Samir. Absolutely loved your last piece as well. They have been touching on cricket but in a very non-cricketing way. Indeed Hindi and Urdu are sister languages. Pretty much all of Urdu's grammar comes from Hindi and most of its vocabulary comes from Persian (some from Arabic). Here in Pakistan when we first listened to the world "shoonye" in Hindi conmmentary we also had to glean it from the context as to what it meant but it was always fun to catch the commentary from the other side, it was always a novel experience.

  • st_aubrun on August 21, 2013, 7:54 GMT

    Its not just formal urdu that does not use sanskrit words - even street Urdu in Karachi and Lahore has very little if any such such influence. Instead, a great deal of English has crept in to street urdu. I find hindi and Indian Punjabi (what I heard on DDI Sports News from Amritsar) to be very pure in comparison. Whereas, Urdu commentary prefers English words - 'batsman' or 'runs', for example, hindi commentators will usually say 'ballaybaaz" and DDI from Amritsar will say "Dawriyaan". Two countries separated by a common language!

  • Katey on August 21, 2013, 9:33 GMT

    A most interesting article Mr Chopra - you so often find a new and different angle to write. I am sorry I can't speak either language - you describe the experience well. Having several languages must give one a novel "feeling" for many things, including cricket.

  • Bilal_Choudry on August 21, 2013, 9:38 GMT

    reminds me of Munir Hussain who sadly passed away last month ... voice of radio pakistan urdu commentary

  • on August 21, 2013, 10:42 GMT

    Great piece Samir... I only heard hindi commentary for the first time in early 2000s with the advent of Dish antennae in Pakistan and Star Sports India. It continues to be a giggle inducing experience for us here in Pakistan... to us it sounds like a bhai or tapori from one of those bollywood gangster movies doing cricket commentary. The words seem made up.