Every Saturday, Chander Shekhar, a professor of Persian at Delhi University, meets old friends at the Iran Culture House, opposite the Supreme Court. Over many cups of tea and gentle banter, with Abida Parveen’s ghazals playing in the background, their agenda has been the same for the last thirty years: to work on the Farhang-e-Aryan, a lexicon of the Persian language, with translations of words into Urdu, Hindi and English.
Dictionaries are essential to imagining the social, cultural and material histories of a people—they are full of minute descriptions of objects, customs, ideas and beliefs, drawing on idioms, colloquialisms and poetry. “We have gathered over seven hundred and fifty dictionaries, in Persian, French, German, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Arabic,” Abdur Rasheed told me. Rasheed is a professor of Urdu at Jamia Millia Islamia and a member of the dictionary committee, which also includes the senior archivist Madhukar Tewari; Gobind Prasad, a professor of Hindi at Jawaharlal Nehru University; and Ravinder Gargesh, a retired Delhi University professor of linguistics. “We’ve looked at all kinds of terms in these, ranging from history, weaponry, sports, agriculture and botany to Sufism, mysticism and natural sciences,” Rasheed said.