Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

[This article contains mild spoilers.]

Recently, I watched the movie Arrival (released in 2016) and was impressed by its philosophical profundity and intellectual portrayal of first contact with aliens. The movie keeps you in suspense throughout and makes you think deeply even long after it’s over. As someone interested in languages, I appreciated the substantial time it gave to just solving the linguistic problem of communicating with extraterrestrials in the first place. It made perfect sense when I discovered, while reading more about the movie, that it was based off a short story by a prominent science fiction writer, Ted Chiang. Since Arrival had such unique plot elements and involved many scientific and linguistic details, it was clearly the work of a serious and thoughtful author.

I then decided to read “Story of Your Life”, which served as the basis for Arrival, and the other short stories included in Chiang’s collection, titled Stories of Your Life and Others (published in 2002). Set everywhere from ancient Mesopotamia to the rapidly approaching future, these short stories represent his first eight works, and they were refreshing to read. A few of the stories, like “Hell is the Absence of God”, take place in fantastical alternate universes, whereas others like “Division by Zero” and “Liking What You See” feel much closer to home. With his sharp prose and interesting utilization of scientific, philosophical, and theological concepts, Chiang definitely succeeds in crafting thought-provoking stories with original plots.

An important feature of this collection is the variation of narrative styles that Chiang employs: he includes second-person flashbacks in “Story of Your Life”, presents “The Evolution of Human Science” as an article from an academic journal, and portrays “Liking What You See” as a documentary with snippets from characters’ speeches and interviews. The fact that Chiang is so precise not only in his language, but in his presentation of that language, really indicates his skill as a writer. Plus, the way he builds up each story’s setting and characters really immerses the reader in that world, making you invested in the plot and its protagonist(s).

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I read “Story of Your Life” first and really enjoyed the way he structured it by interrupting the story multiple times with flashbacks and eventually coming around full circle to explain everything. It is definitely an optimistic portrayal of what humanity’s first contact with aliens might be like if they landed on Earth, but the fact that the aliens are so different from any terrestrial organisms and the way humans try to communicate with them feel realistic. As in the movie, the ending is logically mind-boggling and emotionally heavy. Throughout the 50 or so pages that it fills, this story engages the reader’s mind by diving deeply into everything from the physics of refraction to the semiotics of writing. At a philosophical level, it deals with issues of life, death, and free will in a way that keeps you pondering for days. Some details in “Story of Your Life” were surprisingly and importantly different from Arrival, especially the circumstances of the daughter’s death, but I was still able to appreciate the movie’s adjustments after reading the original story.

Each of the other stories in the collection is also unique in terms of storyline and rich with meaning. My two other favorites would probably be “Tower of Babylon” and “Liking What You See”, primarily because of their intriguing premises. On the other hand, the least captivating stories in my opinion were “Seventy-Two Letters” and “Division by Zero”. This might be because they felt a little too dry and technical in building up their plots. In between, “Understand”, “The Evolution of Human Science”, and “Hell is the Absence of God” were all interesting short stories that are worth reading.

“Tower of Babylon” is, as the title suggests, based on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, although it doesn’t involve the “confusion of tongues”, which I thought it might have given the author’s interest in linguistics. In this version of the story, the Babylonians have spent several decades building a massive tower in order to break through the heavens and be face-to-face with God, and in the process the tower has amassed its own population. I liked this story because of the attention it pays to the logistics of building and living on such a structure in an ancient setting without modern technology, as well as the societal effects it has on the people. The surprise ending is reminiscent of that of “Story of Your Life”, but perhaps not as mind-bending or interesting as it could have been.

The last story, “Liking What You See”, is presented as the transcript of a documentary, with snippets from speeches and interviews revolving around a social justice debate on a college campus. Essentially, the student body is debating whether or not to mandate (for all students) a new procedure that prevents the brain from being able to distinguish beautiful faces from unattractive ones, in order to prevent the discrimination of “lookism”. The premise is strikingly similar to real-life debates taking place these days on American campuses, and perhaps if the sort of technology Chiang made up in the story is actually possible, we will be facing such a situation in the near future. Individuals from both sides of the debate make captivating arguments one after the other, highlighting the complexity of ethical issues and the tension between freedom and equality.

In the end, I’m glad that Arrival introduced me to Ted Chiang’s excellent work, and I’m sure that more of his stories could be successfully adapted on screen. Reading Stories of Your Life and Others has definitely rekindled my interest in reading fiction, especially science fiction, and I highly recommend it. Personally, I look forward to reading Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (published in 2007) soon.

Top 5 Versions of “Tajdar-e-Haram”

In no particular order, here is my list of the top five versions of the qawwali “Tajdar-e-Haram”. You can find my full translation of the poetry here. The original by the Sabri Brothers is obviously very hard to match, but I think others have also done justice to it. Post any more versions of “Tajdar-e-Haram” that you enjoy in the comments!

1. The Timeless Original by the Sabri Brothers

Highlights: The original is always the original, and here the Sabri Brothers are at their best. The two brothers’ voices are very distinct and complementary. They show their musical mastery in this qawwali by repeatedly varying the pace and volume, taking listeners on a journey.

2. The Second Generation by Amjad Sabri & Shahi Hasan

Highlights: Amjad Sabri ventures out of traditional qawwali in this soulful collaboration with Shahi Hasan. It’s an amazing composition in its own right, with lots of overlapping vocal tracks, and the female background vocals at the beginning are really mesmerizing.

3. The Coke Studio Rendition by Atif Aslam (2015)

Highlights: Atif’s Coke Studio version is also not traditional qawwali, but it includes a wider array of instruments that enhance the song. At times, the emotion in his unique voice really comes through.

4. The Indian Masters’ Version by Sonu Nigam & Sukhwinder Singh (1992)

Highlights: This is a really cool (and rare) rendition by two of Bollywood’s most famous singers, Sonu Nigam and Sukhwinder Singh. While not focusing on the raw and spontaneous nature of traditional qawwali, this version lets their amazing, highly-trained voices shine.

5. The Thunderous Tribute by Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad (2016)

Highlights: Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad paid tribute to the Sabri Brothers and Amjad Sabri through a more traditional performance. This version is loud and powerful, with excellent percussion (check out the vocals at 0:49 and the change in beat at 17:58).

A Comprehensive Keyboard Layout for Urdu

Many Urdu speakers first learn how to type in English, and therefore have trouble adjusting to the standard Urdu keyboard layout. The same applies to many of the speakers of languages that use variations of the Arabic script. Some people adjust to the standard layout of the language, but others may prefer an alternative that is more convenient and easier to learn based on their experience using a QWERTY keyboard. As one of those people, I downloaded the Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator (MSKLC), a really useful tool that allows users to design custom keyboard layouts by assigning different Unicode characters to each key. I used it to create an optimized and comprehensive layout for Urdu, which also has the full capacity to type in Persian, Punjabi (Shahmukhi), Arabic, and other languages.

The main idea behind my keyboard design is to make it easy for someone who already knows how to type in English. Therefore, “p” corresponds to “پ” (“pe”), “k” corresponds to “ک” (“kaaf”), “l” corresponds to “ل” (“laam”), etc. Of course, there cannot be a perfect correspondence between Urdu and English because some letters exist in both languages that don’t have an equivalent in the other. Being able to assign more letters to the “shift” state helps with this because we don’t have to worry about upper and lower cases for languages that use the Arabic script. Thus, “t” corresponds to “ت” but “shift”+“t” corresponds to the less common retroflex “ٹ”. I followed an analogous pattern for retroflex “d” and “r”. For a few letters, I simply had to pick whichever keys were still left, but the majority of keys are intuitively placed. Although there is an accessible keyboard layout for Urdu that follows this phonetic approach (“CRULP Urdu Phonetic Keyboard Layout”), mine has a few advantages. It includes characters specific to Arabic, making this keyboard easily usable for typing in both Urdu and Arabic. Plus, it makes use of every key, allowing for more special characters and punctuation marks.

As I mentioned, this keyboard is also compatible with Arabic, which requires different variations of certain letters. I assigned “ك”, the Arabic version of “kaaf”, to “alt+ctrl”+“k”.This is convenient because it is the same key as the Urdu/Persian version of “kaaf”, in a different state. Similarly, the Arabic “ya” is “alt+ctrl”+“i”, whereas Urdu/Persian “ya” is just “i”. Another feature of this keyboard layout is the extended assortment of special characters, diacritical marks, and punctuation marks that I included. Most of these are in the “shift” or “alt+ctrl” states because they are used less often. The bottom row of keys in those states, for example, includes all the short vowels used in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. Here are some highlights of the special characters and punctuation marks:

  • The takhallus sign used to indicate the name of a poet is “alt+ctrl”+“z”.
  • The sign used to indicate a line of poetry is “alt+ctrl”+“e”.
  • The sanah sign used to indicate a year is “shift”+“7”.
  • The Bismillah ligature is “alt+ctrl”+“o”.
  • The reverse question mark is “shift”+“/”, replacing the regular version.

The images below show how characters are assigned to each key in the three states. For some computers, you only have to press “alt” for the “alt+ctrl” state instead of both keys. You can download and install this layout on your own Windows computer to use it and even to edit it yourself if you have MSKLC. Click here to download the folder with the necessary files. Installing it just requires running the file called “setup” after you have downloaded and unzipped the folder. Once the keyboard is installed, you can switch between it and the regular QWERTY keyboard by pressing “alt”+“shift”. I hope this Urdu keyboard layout is helpful, and comments and suggestions for improving it are appreciated.

Urdu: Language of Poets

Urdu is an Indo-European language from the central zone of the Indo-Aryan branch, with over one hundred million speakers worldwide. Once associated with the Mughal Empire, it is most prominent in Pakistan, northern India, and South Asian diaspora communities.

Urdu is the official language in Pakistan and some states of India (marked in dark orange; marked in yellow is Hindi).

Due to its mutual intelligibility with Hindi, Urdu and Hindi are often referred to jointly by the term Hindustani (literally: “from the land of the Indus”). Considering Hindustani as a single unit, it is the third or fourth most spoken language in the world, depending on which source you look at.

People often ask what the differences between Hindi and Urdu are, and I would say that there are essentially two. First, the writing system: Hindi employs the Devanagari script, which is a descendant of older Indian scripts, whereas Urdu uses a version of the Perso-Arabic script, which came into use for several South Asian languages after Muslims entered the subcontinent. Second, while the grammar and syntax for both is alike, higher-level vocabulary in Hindi is derived from Sanskrit while in Urdu it is often derived from Persian and Arabic. In regular conversation, though, Hindi and Urdu speakers can communicate with each other perfectly well. Due to the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, the differences between the two have been artificially magnified in Pakistan, where Urdu has national status, and India, where Hindi has national status, in quite a politicized manner.

Anyways, Urdu is known for its great canon of literature and poetry; figures such as Meer, Ghalib, and Iqbal have truly inspired millions. It makes sense that Urdu is a poetic language when one looks at the rich sources it draws from – it is built on a foundation of Sanskrit and Hindi, and ornamented with vocabulary from Persian, Arabic, and even Turkish.

Interestingly enough, the word Urdu is even synonymous with poetry in some cases. For example, take a look at the super-hit Bollywood song “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from the 1999 movie Dil Se. Skip to 1:28 and you’ll hear the line “Woh yaar hai jo khushboo ki tarah, jiski zubaan Urdu ki tarah”. This would translate to “My beloved is like a sweet aroma, whose words sound like Urdu”.

In this post I will highlight some of the interesting features of Urdu. (Of course, many of these apply to Hindi as well)
1) In Urdu, a noticeable number of words rhyme with their antonyms. Here are a few examples:

  • Dena (to give) دینا  – Lena (to take) لینا
  • Aana (to come) آنا – Jaana (to go) جانا
  • Torna (to break apart) توڑنا – Jorna (to fix/join together) جوڑنا
  • Daaein (right) دائیں – Baaein (left) بائیں
  • Tan (physical body) تن – Man (heart) من
  • Mera (my) میرا – Tera (your) تیرا
  • Saaz (instrument) ساز – Awaaz (voice) آواز
  • Dukh (sadness) دکھ – Sukh (happiness) سکھ

There are also many pairs of rhyming words that are connected by a similar theme, and while they aren’t necessarily exact opposites, they are distinct.

  • Neela (blue) نیلا – Peela (yellow) پیلا
  • Mota (fat) موٹا – Chhota (small) چھوٹا
  • Ghoomna (to wander/go around) گھومنا – Jhoomna (to sway/dance) جھومنا
  • Neeche (below) نیچے – Peechhe (behind) پیچھے
  • Agar (if) اگر – Magar (but) مگر

2) This is probably my favorite characteristic of the Urdu language. Many verbs are part of families (usually 3-4 verbs) that use a root verb to derive causative versions of it. Take a look at the examples below to see what I mean. The infinitive form of every Urdu verb end with the suffix “-na” (نا-), just as every English infinitive begins with “to”.

  • Banna (to become) بننا – Banaana (to make) بنانا – Banvaana (to have someone make, as in, to cause to be made) بنوانا
  • Seekhna (to learn) سیکھنا – Sikhaana (to teach) سکھانا – Sikhvaana (to cause to be taught) سکھوانا
  • Karna (to do) کرنا – Karaana (to have done) کرانا – Karvaana (to cause to have done) کروانا
  • Milna (to meet) ملنا – Milaana (to introduce/connect) ملانا – Milvaana (to cause to introduce) ملوانا
  • Khulna (to become open) کھلنا – Kholna (to open) کھولنا – Khulvaana (to cause to open) کھلوانا

It is a little confusing if you’re not used to it, so here is an example of how these multiple forms could be used:
.یہ دروازہ خود کھلتا ہے
Yeh darwaaza khud khulta hai (This door opens by itself).
.تم نے اس دروازے کو کھولنا ہے
Tum ne is darwaaze ko kholna hai (You need to open this door).
.اس دروازے کو کسی سے کھلوانا ہے
Is darwaaze ko kisi se khulvaana hai (Someone must be brought to make this door open).

3) Urdu also has the interesting feature of having rhyming series of certain pronouns and adverbs.

  • Is ka (his/hers, owner present) اس کا – Us ka (his/hers, owner absent) اس کا – Jis ka (whosever) جس کا – Kis ka (whose?) کس کا
  • Idhar (here) ادھر – Udhar (there) ادھر – Jidhar (wherever) جدھر – Kidhar (where?) کدھر
  • Itna (this much) اتنا – Utna (that much) اتنا – Jitna (however much) جتنا – Kitna (how much?) کتنا
  • Yahan (here) یہاں – Wahan (there) وہاں – Jahan (wherever) جہاں – Kahan (where?) کہاں
  • Aise (like this) ایسے – Waise (like that) ویسے – Jaise (however) جیسے – Kaise (how?) کیسے
  • Ab (now) اب – Tab (then) تب – Jab (whenever) جب – Kab (when?) کب

As you can see, there is a pattern, such that the first one always has to do with something removed from the present situation, the second has to do with something related to the present situation, the third is used for general statements applicable to any situation, and the fourth is an interrogative word for an uncertain situation.

4) Like many languages, Urdu has a rich vocabulary, but there is a focus on poetic and romantic words. There exist multiple words for things that have only one word in other languages like English. The reason for this is that some words have South Asian etymologies, while others have Central or Western Asian origins.

  • Dil دل – Man من – Jiya جیا (heart)
  • Nain نین – Aankh آنکھ – Chasham چشم (eye)
  • Zulfein زلفیں – Baal بال (hair)
  • Ishq عشق – Mohabbat محبت – Pyar پیار – Prem پریم (love)
  • Jeevan جیون – Zindagi زندگی (life)
  • Falak فلک – Aasmaan آسمان – Ambar امبر (sky)
  • Haseen حسین – Khoobsoorat خوبصورت – Sundar سندر (beautiful)

I hope that those who are interested in the study of languages enjoyed this post. Please feel free to comment below to ask any questions you may have about Urdu.