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Scoops of Fun & Lessons for Life: Best of Children’s Literature in Urdu Poetry

Known as adab-e atfaal (atfaal meaning children), children’s literature in Urdu has had a rich and varied tradition.

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Children’s literature is more often than not didactic; it aims to educate and instruct, teach the right moral values, and instill principles in young minds. Seldom does it also include pure and simple entertainment in its objectives. Written mostly by adults, equally seldom does it capture the child’s eye for the small and the seemingly insignificant, the whimsical and the whacky. But in the few instances when it does include entertainment with instruction, it can be pure magic.

Known as adab-e atfaal (atfaal meaning children), children’s literature in Urdu has had a rich and varied tradition. By far, the most famous, and most prolific, writer for children was Ismail Merathi (1844–1917) a school teacher and educationist. Some of his poems such as ‘Nasihat’ (‘Advice’), ‘Barsaat’ (‘Rain’), Humaari Gaye (‘Our Cow’), Subah Ki Aamad (‘The Coming of Morning’), Sach Kaho (‘Say Something’), Baarish Ka Pehla Qatra (‘The First Drop of Rain’), ‘Pan Chakki’ (‘The Water Mill’), ‘Shafaq’ (‘Twilight’), found their way into school textbooks because of their edifying contents as in Nasihat which warns children to guard against envy and greed, to apologise for one’s mistakes, to forgive others when they express regret:

Bhalai karo to karo be-ġharaz

Gharaz ki bhalai to hai ik maraz

(If you do good do so selflessly

Doing good for a reason is a disease.)

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In these days of lynching by cow vigilantes, Ismail Merathi’s nazmHamari Gaaye’ needs to be re-read for the love and veneration it teaches for the cow:

Rab ka shukr ada kar bhai

Jis ne hamari gaay banai

Uss malik ko kyuun na pukarein

Jis ne pilain duudh ki dharen…

Subhan Allah duudh hai kaisa.

(Praise the lord, brother

Who has made our cow

Why should we not call out that Lord

Who has given us streams of milk to drink

Praise the God, how good is this milk.)

The much-derided Muhammad Iqbal, recently dropped from the syllabus of Delhi University and the subject of periodic controversies and censure, has written some delightful nazms for children, such as ‘Bachhe ki Dua’ that got a school principal in Pilibhit fired and an FIR lodged against him in 2019. Written in 1902, it was inspired by an English poem by Matilda B Edwards (1836-1919) titled ‘A Child’s Prayer’.
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Lyrically evocative, it is written from a child’s perspective and is a sweetly poignant plea to be saved from any form of wrongdoing. But this doesn’t matter to those who find it offensive; what matters is the use of the words ‘Khudaya’, ‘Allah’ and ‘Ya Rab’ without thought for precisely what is being asked of this God:

Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri

Zindagi shama ki surat ho Khudaya meri!

Duur duniya ka mire dam se andhera ho jaae!

Har jagah mere chamakne se ujala ho jaae!

Ho mire dam se yunhi mere watan ki zeenat

Jis tarah phuul se hoti hai chaman ki zeenat.

(My wish rises to my lips like a prayer

O lord make my life like that of a candle

So I may remove darkness from the world

So I may spread light with my brightness

Let me add to the adornment of my country

Like a flower adds to the adornment of a garden.)

Other poems by Iqbal written for children are ‘Pahaarh aur Gilheri’ (The Mountain and the Squirrel’), ‘Eik Makra aur Makhi’ (‘A Spider and Fly’), ‘Maa ka Khwaab’ (“A Mother’s Dream’), ‘Hamdardi’ (‘Sympathy’) and the sweetly lyrical ‘Tarana-e-Hind (‘The Anthem of India’) which I remember singing at school assemblies. The sweet irony of our times is that this nazm by the very same Iqbal we love to hate in New India has been adopted by not one but several military bands of different regiments of our Armed Forces as their marching tune, and rightly so for its combination of nationalistic fervor and rousing musicality:

Sare jahan se achchha Hindostan hamara

Huum bulbulein hain is ki ye gulsitan hamara.

(Our Hindustan is the fairest in all in the world

We are its nightingales and it is our garden.)

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Several major Urdu poets have written poems for children especially poems marking the saalgirah (birthday) of their children where they spell out what they would want for their sons/daughters and by extension all children all over the world. There is Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s 'Muneeza ki Saalgirah’ (‘Muneeza’s Birthday’), Ale Ahmad Suroor’s ‘Meri Beti Jab Badi Ho Jayegi’ (‘When My Daughter Grows up’), Sara Shagufta’s 'Shaili Beti ke Naam’ (To My Daughter Shaili’), Gulzar’s set of three poems for his daughter Meghna (aka Boski) and the most unusual ‘Doraaha’ (‘Crossroad’) penned by Javed Akhtar for his daughter Zoya. Other memorable poetry for children is Kishwar Naheed’s ‘Chidiya aur Koyal’ (‘The Bird and the Nightingale’), Zehra Nigah’s 'Mitthu Miyan’ (‘Mitthu the Parrot’), Syeda Farhat’s ‘Nayi Kahani’ (‘New Story’), Sufi Tabassum’s ‘Raja Rani ki Kahani’ (‘The Story of the King and the Queen’), Zubair Rizvi’s ‘Tabdeeli’ (‘Change’) on school-going children, among others.

Much of Urdu poetry has drawn the children’s attention to the marvels of nature such as this poem on the moon by Afsar Merathi that I distinctly remember from my own childhood:

Tum naddi par ja kar dekho

Jab naddi men nahae chand

Kaisi lagai dupki uss ne

Dar hai duub na jaae chand.

(Go to the river and see

The moon when it bathes in the river

See how it dives into the water

I am scared it might drown.)

Then there’s ‘Machhliyon ke Masterji’ (‘The Teacher of Fish’) by Hafeez Jallundhari:

Nannhi ho tum bachchi ho tum

Sab aql ki kachchi ho tum

Aao miri baten suno

You are a child, just a lil girl

You are still of tender years

Come, listen to me.

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Coming to the modern times, two names stand out for their whimsicality and quirkiness. Forsaking moralising and teaching, they write with joyful abandon. Here’s the delightful Ibn-e Insha writing Billu ka Basta (‘Billu’s Schoolbag’) that is stuffed full with all manner of things:

Urdu na jaano

English na jaano

Kahti ho ḳhud ko

Bilqis Bano.

(You don’t know Urdu

And you call yourself

Bilquis Bano.)

And Gulzar who has kept alive the child in his heart with poems such as ‘Lakdi ki Kathi’ (‘The Wood of Wood’), ‘Sher aur Khargosh’ (The Lion and the Rabbit’), and the delightful ‘Ut-Patang’ (‘Nonsense);

Kanon ki ik nagri dekhi jis men saare kaane dekhe

Ek taraf se ahmaq saare ek taraf se siyane the

(I saw a city of one-eyed people where everyone had one eye

All the idiots on one side and the clever folk on the other.)

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Life Lessons in Storytelling

A fair amount of short fiction too has been written. Here again, Ismail Merathi has possibly written the lion’s share. His stories, like his poetry, aim to instruct and educate in his somewhat didactic stories such as Eik Gadha Sher Bana (‘A Donkey Became a Tiger’). Dr Zakir Husain, India’s third president, wrote some delightful stories for children such as Abbu Khan ki Bakri (‘Abbu Khan’s Goat’), Poori jo Kadhai se Bhaag Gayi (‘The Puri that Ran Away from the Wok’) at a time when a host of Urdu magazines were being published such as Khilona (‘Toy’), Payaam-e-Taaliim (‘The Message of Education’), Ghuncha (‘Bud’), Phool (‘Flower’), Bachhon ki Duniya (‘Children’s World’). With Urdu publishing shrinking it is left to contemporary writers such as Zakia Mashhadi with her Kabootar ki Eid (‘The Pigeon’s Eid’) or Gulzar in his ‘Paaji Badal’ (‘Naughty Cloud) or ‘Narangi’ (‘China Orange’) to keep the glorious tradition of adab-atfaal alive in India.

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Urdu poetry 

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