Education and Careers

Children's Urdu literature fighting battle of survival

"Mein ne Urdu apni maan ke doodh ke sath pi hei!" (I drunk Urdu with my mother's milk). This is how I express my love for the sweetest and most civilised language of the world. Of course I never look down upon other languages as all these travel in the same boat. While my mother used to hum Urdu songs like, Chanda mama door ke… and an array of lovely stories, it percolated into my soul and gave me the impetus to write children's stories while I was a kid.

My children, who were wary and disapproving of learning Urdu, were warned by me that if they won't read and write Urdu, my ghost would follow and scare them. The ploy worked and I enrolled them with Jamia Millia Islamia's Arjun Singh Centre for Distance and Open Learning Urdu Certificate Course where anyone can learn Urdu via Hindi or English medium.

Quite interestingly, here I was told that even the granddaughter of Krishan Chander, celebrated Urdu short story writer and novelist, had enrolled herself at the centre as she wanted to read the all-time great stories by him. It is interesting to note that she is settled in the United States.

I've taught my children to read Urdu so that when I die, the considerable collection of Urdu books and magazines I have got must not be discarded as unwanted garbage, but retained as proud cultural possession.

Children's story writing

For me, story writing in Urdu for children began from 1971 when I began with riddles, jokes, letters, and short anecdotes. Regarding interfaith concord and anti-terrorism issues, education, secularism and socialism etc, through my trilingual (Urdu/ Hindi/ English) writing, I've made a mark on the national discourse. However, writing in Urdu for children has still been my penchant and will remain forever with me.

As in 1973, barely at 13, I had contributed my first story, Kiski zindagi bekaar hai? in  children's monthly Urdu magazine – Payam-e-Taleem–  only never to look back and to follow it up with added zeal with stories, cartoons, poems, questions from the editor, riddles etc in other children's magazines like  Khilauna, Toffee, Ghuncha, Bachchon ka Akhbar, Noor, Jannat ka Phool, Aankh Micholi, Chand Sitarey, Achha Sathi, Taleem-o-Tarbiat, Cartoon, Nikhar,  Kausar, Chandanagri, Honhar, Hilal, Shagoofa, Hidayat, Prem, Shareer, Phulwari, Phool, Kalian, Naunihal, Naubahar, Kaleem, Azeez, Ataleeq, Guldasta, Masoom, Ummeed-e-Bahar, Atfal-e-Adab, Kaleem, Nirali Duniya, Ghunche aur Kalian, Shaheen Digest, Gehwara, Sathi etc. Except Noor, almost all these magazines have closed down.

Those were the days!

That was a time when we used to write with the help of a sarkandey ka qalam (reed pen). My Urdu handwriting appeared as if printed or perfectly calligraphed. For writing, a takhti (wooden tablet) was used that was coated with Multani mitti (Multani clay) which was mixed with water and turned into a thick liquid for providing a smooth, white and perfect writing surface. The siyahi (ink) was made with soluble black granules in water and kept in a dawaat (inkpot) closed with a rubber lid.

Those were the days whom childhood was spent in serpentine lanes and bylanes of Shahjahanabad walled city of Delhi. The culture of Delhi was Urdu culture and the capital according to Emperor Shahjahan, was nothing less than bahisht (paradise).

In the words of Rais Amrohvi:

Likhney waley se zyada koi bebak hei kya
Qalam ki dhak se badhkar bhi koi dhak hei kya
Aslaha ahley sahafat pe na tano warna
Koi hathyar qalam se bhi khatarnak hei kya

(Can there be someone more daring than one wielding a pen?
Journalists are most valiant of all men
Must you not aim daggers at scribes to threaten
Can there be a weapon more dangerous than a pen?)  

Apart from children's stories, my lifetime achievement for the connoisseurs of Urdu and Delhi's monuments has been the restoration of world's most celebrated Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib's haveli at Gali Qasimjan via a PIL in Delhi High Court. Besides, through my PILs (Public Interest Litigation), I've been able to save from illegal encroachments the historic Anglo-Arabic School, Maulana Azad's mausoleum, the Shahjahani Jama Masjid of Delhi and the famed sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, besides fighting for Qaumi School whose building was razed to the ground during the infamous Emergency in 1976. These PILs were fought at the risk of life in cases of Ghalib's mansion and Anglo-Arabic School where encroachers had threatened to shoot me down as I got flak from my wife for "wasting time in fruitless pursuits"!

Putting Urdu-medium schools on a fast track

I've taken up the cause of Urdu writing in mainline English and Hindi dailies and journals regarding the pathetic state of Urdu-medium schools. I also formed an NGO, Friends for Education, with the help of my friends like Atyab Siddiqui and Iqbal Mohammed Malak for the uplift of Urdu-medium schools. Some 15 years ago their class 10 and 12 pass percentages used to vary from zero to 25. However, after the relentless struggle with the help of media, today the results vary from 70 to 100 per cent.

These neglected schools face problems like a large  number of vaccancies, non-availability of Urdu-medium textbooks, casual attitude of most of the Urdu-medium teachers, non-availability of funds and resources from the state government, insensitivity on the part of parents, barely functional managing committees and lackadaisical managers, total lack of motivation and extracurricular activities resulting in a large number of dropouts, no coordination between principals, teachers, parents and students, non-Urdu knowing principals and teachers in Urdu schools, and translation woes for Urdu-medium question papers.

Qaumi Urdu School demolished

The worst example of the neglect of the Urdu-medium schools in Delhi can be seen in Qaumi Senior Secondary School, managing from Delhi Eidgah in tents since the infamous Emergency from 1976 as its 5-storey and 23-room building was razed to the ground (on a promise of being rebuilt within 6 months) for erecting Janata flats that have been sold over the last 39 years as the school wallows in neglct. For the last 31 yeasr I've written to the authorities, including the Presidents, Prime Ministers, MPs, MLAs and the concerned agencies, but all in vain.

Writing in blood

Though I have graduated to writing columns, my penchant for writing kids' stuff hasn't waned. Recently, I got four Urdu books published, all meant for children, namely, Neki ka Inam, Majid ki Aqlmandi, Urdu Taleem aur School and Hanso aur Hansao and Bachchon ke Lateefey (the last in press, to be published by National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language).

Till date I've written more than a thousand children's stories in Urdu and roughly half of the same number in Hindi for magazines like Lotpot, Raja Bhaiya, Bal Bharti, Milind, Parag, Madhu Muskan, etc. Story writing was in my blood as I had inherited it from Maulana Azad, who was the younger brother of my grandfather Maulana Ghulam Yasin Abu-n-Nasr Aah. Both the brothers were litterateurs of their time in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. Though my father Nooruddin Ahmed wrote pleasant Urdu and English as he had studied at St Xavier's College, Calcutta, he never wrote a book.

The NCPUL (National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language) awarded me for writing for children at the Bengaluru National Urdu Book Fair last year. I still remember how people used to write appreciative letters to the editor in the Urdu magazines where my stories published with titles: Neki ka Inam, Karamati Puncture, Majid ki Aqlmandi, Bijli ka Engineer, Bandar ka Insaaf, Mohammed Ali Clay, Tohfa etc.

Urdu magazines fighting for their survival

As mentioned earlier, in my childhood there were many children's magazines, but today there are hardly any except  Noor, published by Maktaba Al-Hasanat (Rampur), Payam-e-Taleem by Maktaba Jamia Ltd. (Delhi), Gul Bootey (Mumbai), Umang Urdu monthly by Urdu Academy (Delhi) and Bachchon ki Duniya (Delhi) by the NCPUL. The tragedy is that there are hardly any children left to buy and read these Urdu monthlies. Nobody bothers these days and it's almost next to impossible to earn a living from these publications. Two of these magazines are government-run while the others are fighting for survival. There was a time when the most widely-read Urdu monthly Shama had its circulation all over the world. Its editor Yunus Dehlvi claims that in the 1960s and early 70s, its readership was more than that of any major English daily, including the Times of India.

The glorious Shama-Sushma era

When we are reminded of the Shama era, let me vouch that the contribution of the Dehlvi family to the development of Urdu in India, Pakistan, UK and the Gulf countries was monumental. Yunus Dehlvi, Idrees Dehlvi, Ilyas Dehlvi and their father Haji Yusuf Dehlvi's Urdu publications from the 1940s to the early 1980s were considered to be most widely-read magazines in any language outpacing the biggest players in India like The Illustrated Weekly of India. The publications included, Shama, Sushma, Khilauna, Shabistan, Doshi, Mujrim and Bano.

Flavours from childhood

Incidentally, I have retained a huge collection of the incomparable Khilauna children's Urdu monthly. I love to return every now and then to it to savour some of the half-forgotten flavours of my childhood. I also have some copies of other children's Urdu magazines. Together, they represent a self-contained universe where I occasionally seek refuge from the maddening humdrum of daily life.

I remember clearly how eagerly I used to wait on every 1st of a new month for my newspaperwallah who used to bring the inimitable children's Urdu monthly Khilauna with the subtitle "8 sey 80 sal ke bachchon ke liye" (For children from 8 to 80). Though a children's monthly, it was equally popular with the oldies. People of my age had learnt the flavour of the choicest Urdu from Khilauna.

Khilauna, a treasure trove of Urdu culture and heritage, had carved its niche in the hearts of both elders and children, with umpteen readable stories, poems, cartoons, comic strips like – Nanhi Munni Kahaniyan (a column for young writers), Hamara Akhbar (newspaper clippings), Suraj Ka Bahadur Beta Shamsi (a serial pictorial story), Muskurahatein (wit and humour), Hamarey Naam (letters from readers), Batao To Bhala (Readers) and much more. Ilyas Dehlvi, the editor, wrote the editorial as Apni Batein.

Renowned Urdu poets and writers of the time like Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Hafeez Jalandhari, Hasrat Jaipuri, Qateel Shifai, Ismat Chughtai, Salam Machhli Shehri, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Krishan Chander, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Balwant Singh, Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor, Ram Pal, Sahir Ludhianvi, Ram Lal, Siraj Anwar, Basheshar Pradeep, Shafiuddin Naiyar, Kaif Ahmed Siddiqui, Dr Nawaz Deobandi, Dr Kewal Dhir, KP Saxena, Azhar Afsar, Prakash Pandit, Aadil Rasheed, MM Rajinder, Jilani Bano, Naresh Kumar Shad, Abrar Mohsin, Masooda Hayat, Ishrat Rehmani, Abrar Mohsin, Khaliq Anjum Ashrafi, besides many others, used to be household names in those days thanks to Shama publications.

The stories and poems were not only informative and entertaining, the nature of these writings was also secular as they contained poems on Lord Krishna, Lord Rama, Guru Nanak, Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Buddha, Diwali, Holi etc. The trend of Urdu writing for children was also prevalent in the storybooks from the Khilauna Book Depot with attractive titles as Chand Shehzadi, Gauhar Pari, Mano ke Karnamey, Ghasita ki Bhutnashahi. People who read all that stuff as children can still recall them without effort, with all their wit and humour intact.

Politicisation of Urdu

It's unfortunate that political hawks have branded Urdu as a "Muslim language", even the "language of Partition", the latter being a grievous canard. Urdu is a language of cultural synthesis. Historically, Urdu newspapers made a solid contribution to the national cause during the freedom struggle. Having realised Urdu's importance, national leaders cherished slogans like Inquilab zindabad, used by Subhash Chandra Bose among myriad other stalwarts, and songs like Sarfaroshi ki tamanna by Ram Prasad Bismil and his fellow martyrs.

Urdu is like a fragrant flower

One of the great contemporary scholars, Barbara D. Metcalf states, "Urdu is undoubtedly one of the fragrant flowers whose beauty is essential to any linguistic garden." Urdu still remains the language of the bazaar, cities, casbahs and villages across different regions of India as it was at the time of Partition. Till date it is serving as the lingua franca throughout the whole of the Subcontinent. Owing to its cultural appeal, Urdu has a significant presence as the third most widely studied language in countries like the UK and USA after French, German and Spanish, according to Prof M J Warsi of Department of Linguistics, Washington University in St. Louis.

As an activist for the uplift of the language, I firmly believe that a revival of Urdu is vital for the rejuvenation of Indian national and social ethos. Urdu's renewal will show the survival of our secular credentials. Urdu cannot survive merely as a language of cultural expression unless it forms part of our education, business and governance. As per the trilingual formula, Urdu must be introduced centrally in all government and private schools as an option for students. Also, the tottering Urdu medium schools need a kiss of life.

Firoz Bakht Ahmed is a commentator on social and literary issues. He may be reached at firozbakhtahmed08@gmail.com

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