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'Aap mujhe Farsi sikhayenge?' said Tom Alter

This disarmingly humble request from an equally unassuming actor still reverberates in my memory. This came from none other than Tom Alter, who just shuffled off the mortal coil. I vividly remember our first meeting at Film Archives in Poona way back in 2004. I didn't know him at that time because my knowledge of modern Hindi cinema was almost a zilch. I got to know from someone that he was Tom Alter, who spoke impeccable Urdu. I got curious. A white man speaking immaculate Urdu with a perfect diction and no accent was something that always fascinated me. I learnt Urdu from my white British professors at School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Though they knew astounding Urdu, there was still a very mild interference of their mother tongue, English, when they spoke Urdu. It wasn't clearly discernible, but I could make out having learnt Persian from the native speakers of the language in Tehran and after that when I heard white scholars of Persian language and literature converse in this euphonic language at Oxford and Cambridge varsities. So I was naturally inquisitive to hear this white man's perfect Urdu. I introduced myself to him. And the friendship that began thirteen years ago remained intact till he faded into oblivion on Sept. 29.

Tom Alter as Bahadur Shah Zafar in the play Sons of Babur written by Congress leader Salman Khurshid (Photo: Ramesh Lalwani)
Tom Alter as Bahadur Shah Zafar in the play Sons of Babur written by Congress leader Salman Khurshid (Photos: Ramesh Lalwani)

He indeed spoke Urdu sans any accent, despite being the son of an American missionary. It was simply flawless and the diction was so perfect that I wondered, why on earth the sub-continental Urdu speakers couldn't speak like him. He'd effortlessly speak and enunciate highly nuanced Persian and Arabic-root words in Urdu. His Urdu was far better than that of the native speakers of northern and central India. 

What fascinated me all the more was his ability to write Urdu in a cursive handwriting which he learnt in Poona when he was a student at FTI in 1972. He'd go on a cycle to the camp area and learn to read and write Urdu from a Maulavi.

He already knew Hindi very well but was agog to master Urdu in all its aspects: Reading, writing and speaking. Needless to say, he mastered it so well that he began to write poetry in it. Very few people are aware that he compiled a book of his Urdu poetry and some of his couplets are so exquisite that one wonders, where did this white man get those typical sensibilities of Ahle-zabaan (native speakers)? Tom loved Urdu so much that he never considered himself to be a zabaandaan (one who learns a tongue as a second language).

Once I asked him,'Aap kis zabaan mein sochte hain?' (Which language do you think in?). The question stumped him. He said, 'Aapne zara dushwaaar sawaal poochha hai.' (You've asked me a rather difficult question). 'Well, I think in Urdu.' I asked him, 'Angrezi mein nahin?' (Not in English?). His reply stayed with me: 'Urdu seekhne se pahle Angrezi mein sochta tha. Ab nahin soch pata. Ab toh sirf Urdu mein hi sochta hoon' (Prior to learning Urdu, I used to think in English. But after learning Urdu, I can't think in English).

His love for Urdu floored me. He was committed to it. We'd often sit at a cafe on the Law College Road, near FTI and discuss Urdu/Persian poetry. He loved Hafiz Shirazi but not knowing Persian, he'd read him in English translations by Swanton, Nicholson, Coleman Barks among others. When he got to know that my mother tongue was Persian, he'd request me to recite Hafiz in Persian and then translate those ethereal verses into Urdu. We never talked to each other in English! 

One day, he requested, 'Aap mujhe Farsi sikhayenge?' (Will you teach me Persian?). This amused me. Tom had this regret that he often had to speak Hindi in movies the way a gora sahib would speak. Deliberately incorrect Hindi/Urdu dialogues that he had to speak in Hindi films made him sad. 

Who can forget the way he essayed the roles of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sahir Ludhianavi, Ghalib and Bahadur Shah Zafar on stage and never did he falter while delivering dialogues in highfalutin Urdu of these stalwarts. 

Tom 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'd read his dialogues written in Urdu.

One day, he recited a ghazal. There was a strikingly beautiful couplet in that ghazal: '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 misdemeanor set them aflame).

I asked him, 'Kiska hai ye sher?' (Who has penned it?). The modest man paused for a moment and said modestly, 'Iss naacheez ka' (It's mine).

I was pleasantly surprised and immediately wrote it down in my diary. 

That he'd depart so soon was unexpected. But then, death always comes tip-toeing. I've a regret and I'll live with it till I kick the bucket that I didn't get time to teach him even the rudimentary Persian.

Tom, I'll teach you Persian in other world.

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