Reviving children’s Urdu literature

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Firoz Bakht Ahmed

“Mein ne Urdu apni maan ke doodh ke sath pi hei!” (I have consumed my mother tongue, Urdu with her breastfeeding me). This is how I express love for the sweetest and most civilised language of the world; of course never to look down upon other languages as these all travel in the same boat. While my mother used to recite Urdu songs like, Chanda mamun door ke… and the lovely stories, it all got percolated into my soul and gave me the impetus to write kids’ stories while as a kid only.

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 USA settled granddaughter of Krishan Chander, celebrated Urdu short story writer and novelist, had enrolled herself here as she wanted to read the all-time favourite stories by him.

I’ve taught my children to read Urdu so that when I die, the stupendous collection of Urdu books and magazines I have, must not go to garbage collectors and are retained as proud cultural possession.

Children’s story writing, the forte

For me, the story-writing in Urdu for the children began from 1971 when I began with riddles, jokes, letters, and short anecdotes. It’s another thing that in the field of inter-faith concord and anti-terrorism issues, education, secularism and socialism, etc, through my trilingual (Urdu/ Hindi/ English) writing, I’ve made a dent felt on the national fabric; 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, Kis ki zindgi bekar hei? in Children’s monthly Urdu magazine — Payam-e-Taleem, 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 — Khilona, 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 sarkande ka qalam (reed pen). My Urdu handwriting was so stunning that it appeared as if printed or perfectly calligraphic. For writing purpose, a takhti (wooden tablet) was used that was coated with Multani mitti (mud) which was mixed in water and turned into a thick liquid for providing a smooth, white and perfect writing surface. The siyahi (ink) used to be made by soluble black granules in water and kept in a dawaat (inkpot) closed by a rubber lid.

O, those were the days where the childhood was spent in the serpentine lanes and by lanes of the Shahjahanabadi walled city of Delhi. Basically, the culture of Delhi was Urdu culture and the capital according to emperor Shahjahan was nothing less than bahisht (paradise) in his Persian words, “Agar Firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast/ Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast!” (If there is Paradise on the earth/ It is here, it is here, it is here!). Truly the days spent in childhood were classic and flavoured.

The PIL expert — pen is mightier than sword

In the words of Rais Amrohvi:

Likhne wale se zyada koi bebak hei kya

Qalam ki dhak se badhkar bhi koi dhak hei kya

Aslah 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 dangerous than pen)

Apart from the 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 Qasim Jaan via 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 Auliya besides fighting for Qaumi School whose building was razed to the ground during the infamous emergency in 1976. Sometimes these PILs were fought at the risk of life in cases of Ghalib’s mansion and Anglo Arabic School where the encroached had threatened to shoot me outside while I got flak from my wife for “wasting my time in fruitless junctures”!

Putting the cajoled and hapless Urdu medium schools on a fast track

Not only this, 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 Malik 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 between 70 to 100 per cent.

These cajoled, forlorn and hapless schools face problems like — vast number of vacancies, non-availability of Urdu medium text books, non-serious attitude of most of the Urdu medium teachers, non-availability of funds and resources by the state government, numbness on the part of parents, almost defunct managing committees and their managers, total lack of motivation and extra-curricular activities resulting in big numbers of dropouts, no coordination between principals, teachers, parents and students, non-Urdu knowing principals and teachers in Urdu schools, 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-roomed building was razed to the ground (on a promise of being rebuilt within six months) for erecting Janata flats that have been sold for the last 39 years and the school is shedding tears of blood! For the last 31 years I’ve written to all the authorities including presidents, prime ministers, MPs, MLAs and concerned agencies, but all in vain.

Proclivity to writing in blood

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

To 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. Frankly speaking, story writing was in by 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 in of their time in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. Though my father Nooruddin Ahmed wrote very pleasant Urdu and English as he had studied at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta; however, he had never written a book.

The NCPUL (National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language) had also awarded me for writing for children at the Bengaluru National Urdu Book Fair last year. I still remember how umpteen 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 kids left to buy and read these Urdu monthlies. Nobody bothers these days and it’s almost impossible to earn a living from these publications. Two of these magazines are government while the others are fighting for their survival. There was a time when Urdu most widely circulated Urdu monthly Shama had its circulation all over the word and its editor Yunus Dehlvi claims that in the 1960s and early 70s, its readership was even more than that of any major English daily, namely, 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 ambience in India, Pakistan, UK and the Gulf countries was meteoric. Yunus Dehlvi, Idrees Dehlvi, Ilyas Dehlvi and their father Haji Yusuf Dehlvi’s Urdu publications from the 1940s to the early 1980s were astonishingly considered to be most widely read magazines in any language in the world outmanoeuvring the biggest players like — The Illustrated Weekly (India), Time (UK) and the Newsweek. The publications included, Shama, Sushma, Khilona, Shabistan, Doshi, Mujrim and Bano.

Golden flavours of childhood

Incidentally, I have retained a huge collection of the incomparable Khilona Urdu monthly to delve deep down memory lane and have my gala time buried in the golden flavours of childhood. Apart from that I also have some copies of other children’s Urdu magazines. All this is my treasure trove, more significant and far from the madding crowd and the rut of daily routine, I take refuge in these Urdu friends!

I remember clearly how eagerly I used to wait on every 1st of the new month for my newspaper wala who used to bring the inimitable children’s Urdu monthly, Khilona, with the title, “8 sey 80 sal ke bachchon ke liye” (Meant for children from 8 to 80) Though a children’s monthly, it was equally popular with the oldies. People of my age had learnt flavour of choicest Urdu from Khilona.

The stories and poetry were not only informative and entertaining but the nature of these Urdu was 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 basically form Khilona Book Depot with attractive titles as — Chand Shehzadi, Gauhar Pari, Mano ke karnamey, Ghasita ki Bhutnashahi… Now, only the childhood flavours of Khilona linger!

Politicisation of Urdu

It’s unfortunate that the political hawks have slotted Urdu as a “Muslim language” or the language of “Partition”. That’s a fallacy. 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 responded well to slogans like Inquilab zindabad, used by Subhas Chandra Bose, and songs like Sarfaroshi ki tamanna by Ram Prasad Bismil.

Urdu is like a fragrant flower

An Urdu pioneer, 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 bazaar, cities and many regions of India, as it was at the time of Partition and till date serving as the lingua franca throughout the whole of the subcontinent. Owing to its cultural appeal, Urdu has significant presence as third most widely studied language in countries like the UK and USA after French, German and Spanish according to Prof MJ 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 the Indian national and social ethos. Urdu’s renewal will show the survival of our secular credentials. Urdu cannot survive as a language of cultural expression in poetry or celebrations unless it forms part of our educational paraphernalia. As per the trilingual formula, Urdu must be introduced centrally in all government and private schools as an option for students. Besides, the tottering Urdu medium schools need a kiss of life.

Firoz Bakht Ahmed, “Reviving children’s Urdu literature,” in Pakistan Today, July 26, 2015. Accessed on July 26, 2015, at:

The item above written by Firoz Bakht Ahmed and published in Pakistan Today on July 26, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on July 26, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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