I MET the late Tom Alter for the first time at Film Archives in Poona way back in 2004. I didn’t know him then as my knowledge of modern Hindi cinema was zilch. I learnt that he was an actor and spoke impeccable Urdu. A white man speaking Urdu with perfect diction and no accent always fascinated me. I learnt Urdu from my white British professors at SOAS, London. Though they knew astounding Urdu, there was a mild interference of English. It wasn’t discernible, but I could make out, having learnt Persian from native speakers in Tehran and later when I heard white scholars of Persian language and literature converse in this euphonic language at Oxford and Cambridge. So, I was inquisitive to hear this white man’s Urdu. I introduced myself to him. And a friendship that began 13 years ago lived till he passed on recently.
Indeed, he spoke flawless Urdu, despite being the son of an American missionary. He would enunciate highly nuanced Persian and Arabic root words in Urdu. What fascinated me more was his ability to write Urdu in a cursive hand which he learnt in Poona when he was a student at the FTII in 1972. He would cycle to the camp area and learn to read and write Urdu from a maulvi.
He already knew Hindi well but was agog to master Urdu. Needless to say, he mastered it and began to even write poetry. Few people know he compiled a book of his Urdu poetry and some of his couplets are so exquisite that one wonders where this white man got the sensibilities of ahle-zabaan (native speakers)!
Once I asked him, ‘Aap kis zabaan mein sochte hain?’ The question stumped him. ‘Aapne zara dushwaaar sawaal poochha hai…. I think in Urdu.’ ‘Angrezi mein nahin?’ His reply stayed with me: ‘Urdu seekhne se pehle Angrezi mein sochta tha. Ab nahin soch pata.’
His love for Urdu floored me. We would often sit at a cafe near the FTII and discuss Urdu/Persian poetry. He loved Hafiz Shirazi but not knowing Persian, he would read English translations by Swanton, Nicholson, Coleman Barks, among others. When he learnt that my mother tongue was Persian, he requested me to recite Hafiz in Persian and then translate the ethereal verses into Urdu. We never talked to each other in English!
One day, he requested, ‘Aap mujhe Farsi sikhayenge?’ This amused me. Tom regretted that often he had to render dialogues in the way of a Gora saheb. He would always carry a diary and immediately jot down an Urdu couplet that appealed to him. He told me that after 1972, he seldom read anything written in Devnagari script. He would read his dialogues written in Urdu.
One day, he recited a ghazal, with a beautiful couplet: ‘Chahat ke angaron ko sulagte hi rahne do/Kahin ek lamhe ki phoonk se aag na lag jaaye.’ (Let the cinders of longing continue to smoulder/Lest a momentary misdemeanour turn them into ashes). ‘Kiska hai ye sher?’ He paused for a moment and said: ‘Iss naacheez ka’. I immediately wrote it down in my diary.
That he would depart so soon was unexpected. I will live with the regret that I didn’t teach him even rudimentary Persian. In the other world, I will.
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