He caught up with me as I turned the corner in Connaught Place (C.P.), the shopping hub in central Delhi where I had been running some errands. He was fair-skinned and wearing a checked shirt, jeans and bright sneakers–the basic uniform of young men in urban India. He was probably one of the Kashmiris who hang around C.P. waiting to chat up lost, sweaty tourists. He asked me where I was from, what I was doing in India. I gave the short answer, that I am an American who lives in Delhi for part of each year and that I am a student.
“I am also a student. My subject is English. You study which subject?”
“I study Farsi,” I said, using the name for Persian more commonly understood in India.
“What is… Farsi?”
“It’s a language.”
Our impromptu meeting ended there because I had to catch the metro. In any case, these conversations typically continue with “Would you like to see some shawls?” or “I can sell you cheap tickets to Kashmir—lovely place, where kings used to stay.”
For a moment it astonished me that he had to ask what Farsi was. After all, two centuries ago, an upwardly mobile Indian like himself would have been learning not English but Persian. Then I remembered how many times I have answered similar questions when I mention that I study Persian in South Asia (“Indo-Persian” for short). According to the area studies model in most universities, Persian is the language of Iran (part of “the Middle East”) as well as Tajikistan and parts of Afghanistan (both in “Central Asia”). It supposedly has no place in South Asian studies, which couldn’t be further from the truth—it is not spoken in India anymore, but its cultural influence remains vast. Our inability to get this right in universities mirrors the lack of awareness of Persian in Indian society today.
Modern memory has not been kind to Indo-Persian. It is often forgotten entirely or otherwise dismissed as an artificial language imposed by foreigner invaders that Indians never really embraced. The historical record says otherwise: Persian was a language of administration and high culture in South Asia from the eleventh century into the colonial period. For nearly a millennium, it linked India to a Persianate cultural region that stretched from Turkey in the west, across South and Central Asia as far as Khotan on the Chinese frontier. It was available to all religious communities, and was enthusiastically embraced by non-Muslims in India. When the austere Safavids ruled Iran (1501-1722), poets decamped by the hundreds for India where fortunes could be made from generous patrons at the Mughal court and at smaller courts across the Subcontinent. At various times before the modern period, Indians (and Iranians living in India) were producing more important scholarly works in Persian, such as dictionaries and commentaries, than Iranians in Iran. Moreover, Indians felt themselves to be on equal terms with Iranians when it came to slugging it out over questions of literary style.
This had changed by the nineteenth century when Persian became the language of a nation-state, which after several iterations became today’s Islamic Republic of Iran. Given this situation, Indo-Persian would appear to have roughly the same relationship to “real” Iranian Persian as, say, the study of Polish-Americans in Chicago has to Polish literature. This is, however, emphatically not the case. Indians interacted with native speakers from Iran and Central Asia who had different accents than they did, but they swam as easily in Persian waters as literate Europeans did in Latin during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Try slicing up Latinate Europe and you’ll see what a futile exercise projecting nationalism onto the distant past is: Let us assume that since Latin was originally the language of Italy, Latin texts produced outside of Italy aren’t historically relevant and can safely be ignored. The study of pre-modern European history would grind to a halt if scholars accepted that kind of reasoning. The Persian cosmopolis, the vast territory where Persian was used (to borrow a useful concept from MESAAS professor Sheldon Pollock’s work on the Sanskrit cosmopolis), similarly cannot be divided up by imposing simplistic nationalist or native-speaker/non-native-speaker dichotomies. To fully understand the development of Persian outside of India, you need to study Persian in India, and to fully understand the development of Persian in India, you need to study the rest of the Persian cosmopolis, including of course Iran.
If Indians today don’t know of Indo-Persian, then perhaps we should assume it was a phenomenon confined to the elite. Again the evidence is not on the side of this widely held belief. By the seventeenth century, everyone in northern India from the king down to the patwaris, the village officials at the lowest rung of the bureaucracy, used Persian officially. It was taught in thousands of village schools, and was the working language of the Sufi orders that spread Islam throughout India. The most eloquent evidence of the wide penetration of Persian in India is the fact that modern Indian languages are studded with Persian words, and that so much of what is casually assumed to be “ancient” Indian culture, including material culture, actually came from Iran or Central Asia just a few centuries ago. Records were kept in Persian until the British abolished the practice in 1837, and Hindi and Urdu did not come into their own as prose languages until the nineteenth century. Therefore the knowledge of the Persian language in its Indian context is crucial for most historical study of the pre-colonial and early colonial periods, and yet, the academy does not reflect this. Instead of training more students to read texts in the original Persian, we (in both Indian and Western universities) largely depend on a set of English translations completed in 1877, The History of India, as Told by its Own Historians. Letting Indians speak for themselves seems a liberal goal, but the reality is sordid imperialism. This ubiquitous series has been rightly criticized on the grounds of inaccuracy, but more importantly, the preface says that the translations were prepared to prove that Indians produced no historical writing worthy of the name and, furthermore, that the benevolent British were the best rulers for India. The sun set on these parochial notions more than sixty years ago.
In India, the conceptual difficulty is two-fold. The first is that the university system has allowed all of the humanities to languish because why bother with fusty old things like history when there are doctors and engineers to train? I’ve written about the plight of the humanities in Indian higher education inOutlook magazine. The second difficulty is that for some people the Muslim and British presence in India, which is represented in part by Persian (as opposed to Sanskrit), is believed to be best forgotten as an embarrassing interlude between an ancient Golden Age and a potential post-Independence Golden Age. Nevermind that this particular interlude spans a millennium! People who support this view have expressed their will through changes to the official language, Hindi. Head-scratchingly complex Sanskritic neologisms have been introduced in order to scrub Hindi of Perso-Arabic (and English) words. Official Hindi has strayed from the language as it is spoken by hundreds of millions of Indians. A classic example is that of the humble speed breaker (called a “speed bump” in the US). Hindi road signs that refer to it by its formal name “gati avarodhak”—literally “velocity hindrance-thing”—often also have in parenthesis “spīd brekar” so that no one causes an accident while trying to figure out what a “gati avarodhak” could be. Whereas the state widely subsidizes Sanskrit education and research, it does little for Persian, which some academics have—rightly in my view—begun arguing should be recognized as a second classical language of India. (Sanskrit, though it claims a paltry number of native speakers in the census, is on the list of 22 official languages, the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution, but Persian is not.) The efforts to preserve Persian manuscripts are dwarfed by those to preserve Sanskrit ones.
What is the picture like in Western academia? Of course funding for foreign language study and a humanities-based education is copious compared to what is offered in India, but our commitment to non-hegemonic Persian (which is to say non-Iranian Persian) is no better. Unfortunately, the twentieth-century view about the inferiority of Indo-Persian vis-à-vis Iranian Persian is still an acceptable prejudice in academia. (The origins of this stance, which I argue are related more to nationalism than to any inherent quality of Indo-Persian, are too complicated to get into here.) But that’s a lot like rejecting Indian writers in English as being inferior to the “native” English writer. We no longer do this, because it’s blindingly obvious to anyone who has studied India that English has become an Indian language. Obviously, English departments hire experts in Indian English literature, so why can area studies departments not follow suit and hire Persianists whose training is primarily in Indo-Persian sources? Even if there are virtually no academic jobs for Indo-Persianists, we can at least be hopeful that many Iranian scholars through projects like editing and publishing Indo-Persian texts are now taking Indo-Persian more seriously. The degree to which Iranian scholars were contemptuous of Indo-Persian a few decades ago cannot be overstated. Take the example of Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda (1879-1956), whose dictionary is the Persian equivalent of what the Oxford English Dictionary is for English and relies heavily on lexicons compiled in India. However, in a biographical notice about Siraj al-Din ʿAli Khan Arzu (d. 1756), an Indo-Persian scholar who happens to be the subject of my PhD dissertation, he makes four mistakes in succession: Dehkhoda misspells Arzu’s name, falsely claims he is an Iranian, incorrectly cites the title of one of his works, and misattributes a famous work written by someone else to Arzu. Here we have arguably the greatest Persian scholar of the twentieth century not bothering to check the basic facts about the greatest Persian scholar of the eighteenth century because the latter had the misfortune of working in India.
The sense of Indo-Persian as not worthy of the name Persian is exacerbated by the categories imposed by area studies. For example, when I applied for a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grant a few years ago, my application was forwarded from the South Asia Institute to the Middle East Institute and back again. If Persian is only a Middle Eastern language, then it is a problem that I recite Persian poetry in the accent of an Afghan truckdriver, not like a graduate of Tehran University. But so what? Everyone knows that the Western area studies model emerged in the Cold War, and is based on arbitrary divisions.
Perhaps history can help us break down these distinctions. Consider how Europeans first came to study Persian. Much of the British scholarship on Persian in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was actually carried out by East India Company bureaucrats in India. Critical editions of some of the most important (Iranian) works of Persian literature were lithographed in India in the nineteenth century for the first time. The history of ancient Iran was reconstructed on the basis of texts kept by the Parsi community in western India. Most notably, it was after his contact with Indian scholarship, some in Persian, some in Sanskrit, that Sir William Jones (1746-94), a Welsh polymath who was serving as a colonial judge in Calcutta, laid the groundwork for what eventually developed into historical linguistics.
When discussing the past, imposing the idea of ownership of a language and its literature is misleading. Britain doesn’t own Shakespeare—he is every bit as much an American or an Australian or a Canadian playwright. Because we live in a world of nation-states, other kinds of cultural formations are overlooked. Persian texts produced in India have become, in Mohamed Tavakoli-Targhi’s memorable phrase, “homeless texts.” Indians generally have no access to them and Iranians have little interest in them. If we are to learn from the past, we have to move beyond the national (as Erich Auerbach so eloquently argued in his essay “Philology and Weltliteratur”) and recapture the ease with which ideas and literatures flowed across political borders before modern times.