Though in my 50s, I am still fond of reading children&’s literature and on a recent visit to the World Book Fair at Delhi&’s celebrated exhibition rendezvous, Pragati Maidan, I despaired because I couldn’t find children&’s story books in Urdu except at the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language complex. I was left with the feeling that this language, one of the loveliest flavours of my childhood, was virtually on oxygen because I didn’t see many buyers at the few Urdu stalls there. Is it dying?

   A discussion was being conducted on Urdu simultaneously at the “Author&’s Corner”, and NCPUL director Irteza Karim asked me to say a few words. I started with, “Mein ne Urdu apni maan ke doodh ke sath pi hei!” (I drank Urdu with my mother&’s milk.) This is how I express my love for the sweetest and most civilised language in the world. Of course, I don’t look down on other languages as all these travel in the same boat. While my mother would hum Urdu songs like Chanda mama door ke… and narrate 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 were wary and disapproving of learning Urdu and I warned them that if they wouldn’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.

   Quite interestingly, it was there that I was told that even the granddaughter of Krishan Chander, celebrated Urdu short story writer and novelist, had enrolled at the centre as she wanted to read the all-time great stories by him. She is now settled in the USA. I’ve taught my children to read Urdu so that when I die the considerable collection of Urdu books and magazines I have will not be discarded as unwanted garbage but retained as a proud cultural possession.

   I began writing in Urdu for children from 1971 — 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 managed to make a mark on the national discourse. But writing in Urdu for children remains a penchant.

   In 1973, when I was barely 13, I contributed my first story, Kiski zindagi bekaar hai? to Payam-e-Taleem, a children&’s monthly Urdu magazine, and never looked back, following this up with added zeal with stories, cartoons, poems, 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. Almost all these magazines have closed down, save for Noor.

   That was a time when we would write with a sarkandey ka qalam (reed pen). My Urdu handwriting appeared as if printed or perfectly calligraphed. A takhti (wooden tablet) was used that was coated with Multani mitti (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. My childhood days were spent in the serpentine lanes and bylanes of Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi. The culture of the capital was Urdu and, according to Emperor Shahjahan, the place was nothing short of bahisht (paradise).

   Apart from children&’s stories, my lifetime achievement for connoisseurs of Urdu and Delhi&’s monuments has been the restoration of the world&’s most celebrated Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib&’s haveli at Gali Qasimjan via a Public Interest Litigation in Delhi High Court. I have also 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 during the infamous Emergency in 1976. These PILs were fought at the risk of life in cases of Ghalib&’s mansion and the Anglo-Arabic School, where encroachers threatened to shoot me. I even got flak from my wife for “wasting time in fruitless pursuits”!

   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 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 vacancies, non-availability of Urdu-medium textbooks, the 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.

   The worst example of neglect can be seen in Qaumi Senior Secondary School, which operates from tents in Delhi Eidgah because the infamous Emergency saw its five-storeyed, 23-room building razed (on the promise of being rebuilt within six months) to allow for Janata flats that have been sold over the last 39 years even as the school wallows in neglect. For the last 40 years I’ve written to the authorities, including Presidents, Prime Ministers, MPs, MLAs and the agencies concerned — but all in vain.

   Though I have graduated to writing columns, my penchant for writing kids’ stuff hasn’t waned. I recently got four Urdu books published, all meant for children — Neki ka Inam, Majid ki Aqlmandi, Urdu Taleem aur School, Hanso aur Hansao — and Bachchon ke Lateefey is in press and will be published by the NC PUL.

   Till date I’ve written more than 1,000 children&’s stories in Urdu and roughly half that number in Hindi for magazines like Lotpot, Raja Bhaiya, Bal Bharti, Milind, Parag, Madhu Muskan, etc. Story writing is in my blood, inherited from Maulana Azad, who was the younger brother of my grandfather, Maulana Ghulam Yasin Abu-n-Nasr Aah. Both 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 awarded me for writing for children at the Bengaluru National Urdu Book Fair last year. I still remember how people would write appreciative letters to the editor in Urdu magazines that featured my stories like Neki ka Inam, Karamati Puncture, Majid ki Aqlmandi, Bijli ka Engineer, Bandar ka Insaaf, Mohammed Ali Clay, Tohfa, etc.

   As mentioned, in my childhood there were many children&’s magazines but today there are hardly any except for Noor, published by Maktaba Al-Hasanat (Rampur), Payam-e-Taleem by Maktaba Jamia Ltd (Delhi), Gul Bootey (Mumbai), Umang, an Urdu monthly by Urdu Academy (Delhi), Bachchon ki Duniya by the NCPUL and Paigham-e-Taleem (Delhi). The tragedy is that there are hardly any children who 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. I recall a time when Shama, the most widely-read Urdu monthly, had global circulation. Its editor, Yunus Dehlvi, claims that in the 1960s and early ’70s, its readership outstripped that of any major English daily, including the Times of India.

   Talking of the Shama era, I can vouch for the fact that the Dehlvi family&’s contribution to the development of Urdu in India, Pakistan, the UK and the Gulf countries has been 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 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.

   I have a huge collection of the incomparable Khilauna, a children&’s Urdu monthly, and love returning 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 and, 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 would wait for every first of the month for Aslam Bhai, my newspaperwallah, to arrive with Khilauna with the subtitle “8 sey 80 sal ke bachchon ke liye” (For children from eight to 80). Though a children&’s monthly, it was equally popular with the oldies. People of my age learnt the flavour of the choicest Urdu from Khilauna. This magazine, a treasure trove of Urdu culture and heritage, carved its niche in the hearts of both elders and children with umpteen readable stories, poems, cartoons, comic strips, 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 used to be household names, thanks to Shama publications.

   The stories and poems were not only informative and entertaining, but their nature 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 like Chand Shehzadi, Gauhar Pari, Mano ke Karnamey, Ghasita ki Bhutnashahi. People who read all that stuff as children still recall them without effort, all their wit and humour intact.

   Unfortunately, political hawks have branded Urdu a “Muslim language”, even worse, the “Language of Partition”. It is, instead, 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.

   Barbara D. Metcalf, a well known contemporary scholar, states, “Urdu is undoubtedly one of the fragrant flowers whose beauty is essential to any linguistic garden.”. Indeed, it continues to remain the language of the bazaars, cities, casbahs and villages across different regions of India, as it was at the time of Partition. To date it serves as the lingua franca throughout the whole of the subcontinent. Owing to its cultural appeal, Urdu has a significant presence as the fourth most widely studied language in countries like the UK and USA after French, German and Spanish, according to Professor M J Warsi, of the Department of Linguistics, Washington University, St Louis.

   I firmly believe that a revival of Urdu is vital for the rejuvenation of India&’s national and social ethos. However, it 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 needs to be introduced centrally in all government and private schools as an option for students. And the tottering Urdu-medium schools need the kiss of life.

The writer is the grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and comments on social and religious issues. he can be contacted at [email protected]