Hindustani and Urdu Treasures - Anachronisms or Treasures

February 11, 2010
Harold Bergsma

The last time I heard a proverb being spoken by an American was in Tucson, Arizona twenty years ago. It was spoken by my father who loved to read Proverbs in the Old Testament. He read, Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird. Prov.1 vs .17. He loved to expound upon such things and talked about how clever the hunters were in Taxila who caught the elusive batera, the beautiful brown quail that scurried away at the slightest footfall. These birds were brought to our home in a basket and sold for a few annas. They were shiny eyed little things, now terrified as they crouched in the basket. One by one they were brought out and given to the cook who immediately dispatched them with a slice of a knife on the neck; to appear that very evening as roasted treats on a platter.

“How did you catch them?” I asked. The seller smiled. “In a net that they never saw. I strung it up in the dark on a moonlit night. The net is longer than this porch. Then during the day six of us formed a circle around that part of the jungle and pounded on pans and the quail ran in front of us and then flew into the net and got tangled. We caught thirteen today!” Oh, the old childhood memories came back in a rush.

But of course all of this did not tell us what my father had intended to teach us, the real meaning of the proverb, not to get involved with people who try to snare others for ill gotten gain; when you see the web of evil they are planning, keep away from them. In recent years I see snares/webs and nets on the web site, many from Nigeria wanting me to deposit huge sums into my checking account, anyway, I am sure you all have received these snares.

Many cultures use proverbs regularly to emphasize a point, to insert a bit of humor, to short-circuit communication, to elaborate on a subtlety, to say one thing and mean something else, to insert a comment that creates social control, to paint common speech with a wise statement; oh there are so many ways that proverbs are used. To those who use them, it is often not necessary to say the entire proverb, just a word or two will suffice. Some proverbs include puns, but that is a whole other subject to discuss.

Hindustani and Urdu proverbs and clever sayings abound in literature and in the speech of kahani story tellers and people like my father who wished to open the doors of communication to his children. The most recent proverb I read in a novel was yesterday in Trespassing, by Uzma Aslam Khan from Lahore, Pakistan. With homes on the riverbank, those who die of thirst die of their own making. I had a hard time understanding her use of this proverb. The Indus has begun to drop and whole stretches of the once flowing river are now sand banks, fresh water fish are dying because the sea tides inundate what were fresh water lakes.

In 1983 I was given an English/ Hindustani dictionary by David Paul, a Christian Pakistani who was my Urdu teacher. I could read and use it because it was written in Roman Hindustani with English translations. To this day I have not been able to find where it was published or who edited this wonderful volume. All I know is that it was published in 1937 and used by the pukkah gora sahibs who were part of the old British Raj. My friend David said he found it in an old book store in the bazaar and he gave it to me as well an old Urdu Bible, Kitab I Muqaddas, Purana aur Naya ‘Ahd-Nama, 1878, London, B&FBS. While using the dictionary I noticed that certain pages had been removed, either to roll a cigarette or because what was written by the editor as meanings of words was considered to be blaspheme by the reader. All the Z words are missing, as well as pages 321-324 in the H section, you know, hades, heaven, hell, hate, harlot. But what a treasure to receive such a gift! I have cross-checked so many Hindustani words and expressions using these lovely old books that had no covers except for a pasted on sheet of faded and worn brown wrapping paper cleverly fashioned by the book seller.


During the last four years I have collected a few score of Hindustani and Urdu proverbs and wonder if these sayings are still part of the orthography and common speech of the people of India and Pakistan. Below are a few selected from many others that illicit memory.

Khubsurat chiz se hamesha khushi hoti hai.
From beautiful things always comes joy.

Unfortunately, the beautiful quail with their exquisite feather patterns and beautiful high pitched voices became culinary joy. My teen age friends used to rag me when I would sigh over a beautiful sunset or the shining glory of a girls long black hair. “Write a sonnet, Bergsma!” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Saudae husn lete hain ankhon ki ankh par.… anyway, thanks Shakespeare..

Bansi ka khilari, lane tora, khane bahut.
The fish one catches is small, yet the appetite remains big.

I paid a laborer who carried goods for me exactly what we had agreed to in the morning. He looked at the silver rupee in his hand that evening and wagged his head from side to side, looked up at me and told me he had six children ‘khane bahut.’

Phuion phuion kar-ke talab bharta hai.
Drop by drop the tank gets filled.

I love the onomatopoetic phuion, the sound when a pebble drops into a well or a drop of water in a talab. It was forbidden for children to climb to the top of the water tank in Ludhiana, but when we got there, Patrus had pebbles in his pocket and we dropped them one by one, phuion- phuion into the water of the tank. My high school Latin teacher in Mussoorie, Miss Vera Marley, despaired of me but would always hold out hope that drop by drop I would be able to conjugate verbs. Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Amant. Phuion.

Vo aisa nachta hai jaise gur ke matke me makkhi.
He dances around like a fly in a pot of sticky molasses.

Hisa kitab, the weekly accounts were being reviewed. The cook tried to remember what he had spent for what, when and where. First he remembered the meat, then the vegetables and finally he still was short by about forty rupees. He stammered, then thought of another item and then finally kept quiet for a moment and said, “I put all the money in the same purse. I must have spent it thinking it was my own.”

Taza ehsan taze phul, basi ehsan basi phul.
Fresh flowers are like fresh ideas; wilted flowers, worn out ideas.

Oh, when the elections are about to happen and the pictures of various things are shown to illiterates to catch their votes, the radio blares, the television sets show the political hopefuls talking and making promises. Somehow the speeches sound so very familiar, basi phul, but the symbols are important, The Elephant, Lotus, Hammer, Sickle and Star, Full Sun with Rays, (Bahujan Samaj Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, and Praja Rajyam Party). A few wonderful new thoughts as well as many wilted political flowers.

Sasti bher ki tang utha, utha-ke dekhte hain…Sasta sayda soch-ke lo.
Think twice if you think you are going to get something really cheap.

The shikara brought fresh fruit to our house boat in Dal Lake. “Cheap, cheap. Look. Hold it. Best mangoes. Very cheap.” A large basket was in fact about half the price as in Srinagar bazaar. We paid; the boat sales person paddled away to the other side of the lake. Only two layers were perfect. All the rest were half rotten. The cook shook his head, “Sahib ji, soch-ke lo.”

Gol mez pe jagah ki takrar nahin hai.
At a round table there is no dispute about who has the place of honor.

There were five gorgeous peacocks in the Lahore zoo, all in full and brilliant display, their tails reflecting blues and greens around the ‘eyes’, and one peahen was in the center pecking at the ground, totally ignoring them. They strutted and grunted; each one as lovely as the other, but not one was given the seat of honor.

Thanda loha garam lohe ko katta hai.
Cold steel slices through red hot iron.

Watch the blacksmith in the bazaar fashion objects, red hot objects with a cold hammer that flattens them, or a heavy chisel that cuts through a glowing rod. As a child I watched and was in awe of the process. Then one day I saw red hot metal flowing like soft fudge into a mold made of mud and wax and watched as an urn was removed when it had cooled. During hot arguments among my kids, I heard the phrase, “Cool it!” and other cutting remarks.

Gosht ki jan khun hai.
The life of the flesh is in the blood.

Sounds Biblical or Koranic to me. Rituals to insure the meat is hallal are still part of many culture’s food processing methods. Perhaps the proverb is used in speech to give blood to the meaning intended, the essence of the utterance.

Roti bahut dhari rahne se bus jati hai.
Leave out the bread too long and it gets moldy.

This expression is rather old hat. I have not heard it used for a very long time, in fact five years ago I wrote an article and then did not send it in to be published, it lay around for a month or more and when I read it again it got tossed, the ideas were now already historically passé, moldy.

Ek ek par kar ke battakh nuch jati hai.
The duck gets plucked only one feather at a time.

I was once a hunter and shot a brace of mallard ducks. It was my job to prepare them for the oven. Forget it. After a thousand feathers had been plucked there still remained hundreds of tiny ones and new ones emerging. Even boiling water did not help much.

The proverb enjoined me to be more patient, take my time, enjoy the view while I tended to the detail. Patience makes perfect.

Permit me to jot down a few others without my comment but hopefully these will elicit comments by my readers or spice up the dinner table conversations.

Rupea ko rupaya kamata hai.
Money has a way of making more money.

Mohabbat hai yaksan, nahin manhasar. Yeh rang pe, ho gora yal kalabashar.
Love dwells in all similarly, with no distinction between white and black.

Behtar benaneki koshish me ham aksar acheche ko bura kar dete hain.
While trying to do better we often get things fouled up or make them worse.

Sada aql se josh dabta nahin.
Passion is seldom controlled by reason.

Nikah ek tala (beri) hai.
Wedlock is a padlock. (This is one of my favorites)

Laddu kahne se munh nahin mitha hota.
By saying “fudge” doesn’t bring that sweet taste into your mouth. (A laddu by any other name is still a laddu.)

Ghada pite ghora nahin hota.
A half breed donkey will never be a horse. (I heard this in Peshawar)

Kutte se khabar-dar raho. Jo apni izat se na dare usse dare.
Beware of the dog; and more of him who does not care about his own reputation.

Garmi me dudh phat jata hai.
Hot weather sours the milk, (Lavina said to me.) See: Lalla and Lavina, Tales of Indian Women, Authorhouse, 2007 by this author.

Jon jon ubhre bandra won won punchh dikhae.
The higher the monkey climbs the more he shows off his bare rear end.

Sharabi ki jumma, botal.
A drunkard’s only savings were in the bottle.

Thali aur munh dono band rakkho.
Keep both your mouth and your wallet closed.

Shad ke niche, zahr.
The bait hides a sharp hook.

Hauke se zyadah bura kya? Afimi.
What could be worse than discontent? Opium. See: The Opium Eaters, 2009 by this author.

Badla mita hai.
How sweet revenge is.

Such karva hai.
Truth is bitter.

I gave my old stamp collection of India Free States to my daughter years ago. She now has an eye for any stamp that she has not collected. I decided that collecting proverbs was easier and there was no storage problem, or gluing on the hinges, just jotting down on the computer and hitting Save. This is no longer work but a hobby. Apne kam ko tu chala, na kam tujh ko chalae. You should drive your work, not let it drive you. So if you are driven to share a proverb, I am all ears.

Harold Bergsma has published widely in professional journals, and novels. In 2007, One Way To Pakistan was published and in April of 2007 was awarded the Indie Excellence Award for Multicultural Fiction.
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Hindustani and Urdu Treasures - Anachronisms or Treasures


Author: Harold Bergsma


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