Ralph Russell

My early life
I was born in 1918. I became a communist at the age of 16 and am still content to call myself one despite the traumatic experiences from 1946 onwards of the corruption and eventual collapse of the communist movement and the Soviet Union, because I still hold to the humanist values which made me a communist. I believe that true communism is not only consistent with these values but is a logical development from them.

From 1937 to 1940 I read at first classics and later geography at St John’s College, Cambridge, and took my degree within days of the fall of France in June 1940. I was at once called up and spent almost exactly six years in the army, of which three and a half, from March 1942 to August 1945, were spent in India on attachment to the Indian Army.

Learning Urdu
Urdu was the language of the army and that is how I came to learn it, achieving considerable fluency at the level of everyday communication with my sepoys. But it was not primarily to meet the requirements of Indian army life that motivated me to learn Urdu well. As a communist I wanted to meet the needs of the people whom the communist movement is supposed to exist to serve. In the army this meant first of all instilling some degree of political consciousness in the unpolitical village boys who were my sepoys – unpolitical because the army would not recruit anyone who showed any signs of political awareness. By the end of my time with them I had a group of them who read communist literature and contributed money from their very meagre pay to the Communist Party of India. All of this is described in Findings Keepings.  Victor Kiernan later wrote to this, ‘You deserve high praise for what you did in India. I could not have done it.’

I also learnt the Urdu script. By reading Urdu translations of some of the Marxist-Leninist classics, I acquired a knowledge of the literary language, albeit one with a rather specialised vocabulary.
Part 1 of my autobiography, Findings Keepings, gives a full account of this period.

Urdu literature
During those years I had no opportunity of making the acquaintance of Urdu literature. This I acquired from 1946 onwards when I was awarded a studentship at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. I took my degree in Urdu with Sanskrit as my subsidiary subject in 1949 and was at once offered and accepted a lectureship.
For a year (November 1949 to October 1950) I was on study leave in India and Pakistan, spending most of my time at Aligarh Muslim University but also visiting other centres of Urdu both in India and Pakistan. During that time I became fluent in the Urdu of educated speakers and made the acquaintance of many of the major Urdu scholars and writers of that time.

That year also marked the beginning of a forty-year close friendship and collaboration with Khurshidul Islam. From 1953 to 1956 he joined me as ‘overseas lecturer’ at SOAS and we formed the plan of working jointly to produce a series of books which would introduce the best of Urdu literature to the English-speaking world. This was to be done both by translation and by interpretative studies of the literature.  

Our first joint publication was Three Mughal Poets, and his contribution to writing this was outstanding. To make a suitable selection from the poetry of Mir he read the whole of Mir’s collected verse which runs to well over 2,000 pages in the standard edition. His contribution to Ghalib, Life and Letters was somewhat smaller but still substantial.
Part 2 of my autobiography, Losses Gains, gives a full account of this.

Teaching materials
During my years of teaching at SOAS I devoted a lot of time to developing teaching materials. A course designed to meet the needs of my university students was published by myself in 1980 under the title Essential Urdu, with a number of accompanying cassettes, and I also published A Primer of Urdu Verse Metre (probably in 1981).

In 1980-82 I published A New Course in Urdu and Spoken Hindi, whose subtitle, “for learners in Britain”, indicates the scope of the course. It was designed for adults who wished to communicate with Urdu-speaking immigrants and their children but had no time in the first instance to acquire more than the everyday spoken language. The course is in four parts, and I worked on the principle of helping people to learn what they wanted and needed to know, and not burden them with information they neither wanted nor needed.

Urdu teaching in the community
This course book was the product of a period dating from about two years before my early retirement in 1981 when I sought to meet the different needs of this non-university audience. The Urdu teaching then being provided for them was horrifyingly inadequate, and I went myself to teach courses in, among other places, Waltham Forest, Birmingham, Blackburn, Chorley and Sheffield. The course I had written, and from which I taught, was primarily intended for them.

Urdu teaching in schools
Meanwhile I and others were campaigning, with some measure of success, for the introduction of Urdu into the school curriculum, and I hoped that A new course in Urdu could be adapted by teachers for this purpose. The story of this campaign is currently being written, and information about it will be added to the website when it is ready.

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