For the longest
time, as a child one wondered why the witch wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel
in the story by Brothers Grimm. In his book ‘Teacher Man’, Frank McCourt
mentions an incident where a student comments that such a horror story is an
extremely unlikely tale for children. Yet, both the children were thrown out
of the house by a step mother who had no love to give them and a witch, again
female, who is ready to eat them.
The children are at the
mercy of adult females who happen to actively dislike them whereas, quite a
lot of literary narratives simply idealise women’s love for children. On
one hand, there is the narrative that dwells on a woman’s love for a child
and on the other there is a counter narrative which seems to rebel against
From Russian folklore to
German, there is a witch who is ready to eat children. Whereas the male
villains mostly look for pretty females to marry by use of force, the female
villain is either so vain about her looks that she would eschew motherhood to
retain her youthfulness; or, simply, find a reason to eat children on the
slightest pretext. Again, an attitude not conducive to motherhood, or its
In books for adults, it is
seldom that a mother’s love for children is under scrutiny. Still, way more
women succumb to depression after having children. In her 2009 talk at BBC
World book club, author Lionel Shriver commented that women can have a
troubled relationship with
children but that has never been explored in
In her book ‘We Need to
Talk About Kevin’, she creates a situation in which a child’s
relationship with his mother is seen through the mother’s eyes and at that
not a loving mother’s eyes. The outcome of this failure to love, if one may
call it, is horrendous. The child in his turn becomes a psychopath.
‘Black Milk’, another
recent title by Elif Shafak, explores the issue in greater detail by
documenting what the modern woman may feel about the birth of an offspring.
It seems that such narratives create a more detailed study of the witch who
wanted to eat children even though they are almost always rescued by someone
or by their own ingenuity. Metaphorically speaking, maybe these fairy stories
are a cover-up for a woman who may have a love-hate relationship with her
Other than troublesome
females, literature for children mostly has a curious set of villains. It is
quite a test of well-written work to have a villain who is as bad — or as
good — as a young child’s imagination can handle.
With Roald Dahl, most
adults are totally foolish and are most of the time antagonists. What
qualifies as villainy in Dahl’s world seems to be a claim to stupidity as
an adult. At least, such is the case in Dahl’s work, ‘Matilda’.
Matilda is a young girl
with telekinetic powers whose parents are dim-witted and indifferent to her
talents and her headmistress gives abusive physical punishment. Here, again
the gender ratio is two antagonistic females — her mother and the
headmistress — to one antagonistic male, her father.
Coming back to fairytales,
Cinderella has step sisters and a step mother as villain. Snow White again
has a step mother for a villain. All these characters are villainous women.
Baba Yaga, another witch in Russian folklore, eats children. ‘The Little
Mermaid’ is again totally done in by a witch and another woman. Other than
the mother-child relationship, these narratives also point to an arguably
more primal emotion, that of jealousy.
So many examples of women
being antagonistic to little kids might lead one to the conclusion that
literary narratives are biased against women but such a generalisation is not
In his work on criticism,
Northrop Frye has elucidated the role of symbols, myths and generic
conventions on creating literary meaning. He uses a word, archetype, to talk
about recurrent patterns in stories. The archetype of woman as the child
eating witch might be a symbol through which adult women have explored their
relationships with children. With more and more women writers coming up, this
area of a woman’s life will surely receive more attention and, hopefully,
human beings will be able to understand themselves better in the stories they
create to mirror their experiences.
For a twist on the older
tales of women, Angela Carter has edited an anthology of work called
‘Wayward Girls and Wicked Women’ which explores women’s account of
different phases in life without conforming to an imaginary ideal of what
this account could be.
From the children’s
perspective, the writer Alison Lurie has studied the phenomena of how
children can become part of subversive narratives where adults are simply
evil or mostly annoying and dim-witted. Children are also capable of having
less than ideal relationships with their mothers, or fathers though in
classics like ‘The Railway Children’ or ‘Little Women’, mothers and
fathers are the most stable of creatures. But as we have seen, children’s
literature is not always populated by positive adults.
It seems pretty open to
debate what villains really signify in stories of children. But one can
safely assume that they also have stories to tell. The question is, that
without antagonists, evil witches, dim-witted parents and malicious step
mothers, would the stories be as riveting or if they will lose their appeal.
. If villains told their stories, how far would we be willing to go along
with their twisted ideas of right and wrong. Only storytellers can experiment
and tell us if villains can be redeemed. Only storytellers can experiment and
tell us if that can happen.
On a lighter note, even in
fairy stories the old conventions are being shaken. One has to thank the
makers of ‘Shrek’ for letting the princess be a giantess and marry what
otherwise would be the traditional villain. This sort of subversion shows us
what archetypes we have been holding on to regarding fairytales, and the
notions of good and bad with which most stories with villains concern
wrote, “Memory is a substitute for the tail which we lost in the
happy process of evolution”, while lamenting his exile and recollecting the
world he left behind in his beloved St. Petersburg in Russia.
Idris Babur doesn’t lament his exile,
but grieves the loss of language and civilisation, he dreams the undreamable.
His debut collection of poetry ‘Yunhi’ opens with a stunner “Khamosh Reh Kay Zawal-e-Sukhan Ka
Gham Ke’ay JaiN/ Swaal Yeh Hay Keh YuN Kitni Dair Ham Ke’ay
Idris Babur doesn’t lament his exile, but grieves the loss of language and civilisation, he dreams the undreamable. His debut collection of poetry ‘Yunhi’ opens with a stunner “Khamosh Reh Kay Zawal-e-Sukhan Ka Gham Ke’ay JaiN/ Swaal Yeh Hay Keh YuN Kitni Dair Ham Ke’ayJaiN.” Idris has won this year’s Faiz Ahmad Faiz Award for his debut book ‘Yunhi’.
I first met Idris 18 years
ago at the Bhola Canteen of University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in
Lahore where I was a newcomer and Idris was in the final year. Those days at
UET, legends like Dr Khurshid Rizvi were frequent visitors not only to the
campus seminars but to our rooms where Rehman Hafeez, Shaheen Abbas, Zulfiqar
Adil and many of us spent our time not studying electromagnetics but poetic
Idris Babur is the most
gifted poet of our generation; his diction, craft and innovation was unique
from day one. He is not a poet of mere rhythm and rhyme, but a liberator of
captive lyricism. Ghazal is a strange form of poetry, loved and not so loved
at the same time. Support system of radeef
is a survival kit for the empty brains and a challenge to the
postmodern theme. Idris not only accepted this challenge but relished it, in
his own words “Ajeeb Haal Tha Iss Dasht ka MaiN Aya Tu / Na Khaak Thi Nah
Koi Khaak Udaanay Wala Tha”.
‘Yunhi’ one comes across a
new set of metaphors and acute expressions that are fresh and contemporary.
Collection of 67 ghazals mainly captures the years that belong to Idris’
student life. This is the period when he discovered
his poetic potential and
started a journey which was costing him every passing day. He writes and
edits anthologies, translates Nobel laureates from Seamus Heaney to Wis?awa
Szymborska and from Octavio Paz to Tomas Tranströmer and is still neglected
by the literati.
Time, memory, dream and
loss are the primary themes of this book. One sees varied shades of life and
art in his poems that are often in the form of a dialogue with the world.
Range of his subjects is diverse, clean from clichés not only in the subject
matter but in the use of language and its music; “Darakht Subh Taaza Dam
Thay, Hum Say Pehlay/Rasool Apni Baste’yoN Ko Ro Chukkay HaiN.”
In strict terms, exact
rhymes and crisp sentences give birth to lyrical verse, which can be called
the first step towards transformation. For Idris Babur
‘Yunhi’ is the first phase to
that transformation. The living legend of Urdu ghazal Zafar Iqbal who is
blunt to the level of rudeness, has called Idris as the “model poet”
whose poetry is not only the poetry of today but tomorrow. He further adds
that Idris with his modern sensibility has discovered new dimensions of usual
Idris belongs to the short
list of poets who have their own diction and unique sensibility. These are
the poets who attract imitators and Idris got a fair share of such
‘technicians’ who picked up on his stuff with utmost urgency during his
absence from the scene (even his presence doesn’t deter them) but failed to
grasp the depth identified with him and his poetic world only.
‘Yunhi’ cleanses our
soul, removes any hangings and this is the poetry which shields us from the
onslaught of vulgarity; local and global, internal and external. Idris
Babur’s verse ensures its readers that poetry is not dead, yet; “Iss
Qadar Matt Udaas Ho, Jaisay / Yeh Muhabbat Ka aakhri Din Hay”
Mahmood Awan is a Punjabi
poet who works and lives in Dublin.
Poet: Idris Babur
Publisher: Caravan Book
started composing verse almost two decades ago. His poems adorned the pages
of the prestigious Urdu magazines like ‘Auraq’, ‘Symbol’, ‘Funoon’,
etc. attracting the attention of serious readers and critics alike. In these
two decades he has published only two collections of poems. ‘Katha Neelay
Panion Ki’ was his first book which received rave reviews for masterly
crafted poems that are deeply entrenched in our locale.
Meraj stands firmly on the
soil where he was born and raised and he gels well the phraseology of the
regional languages in his poems. For him a nazm is synonymous with love and life. He rationalises, “In nazm you need
to dent the hollow tradition in order to keep pace with the changing times.
Tradition takes you back in the bygone eras and then you are cut off from
your present scenario. I have also avoided using ornate prose and have
incorporated the words of Punjabi and other local languages”.
Meraj believes that Urdu
should align itself more with local languages and dialects to be a truly
national language. Urdu can gain little by associating itself with Persian
and Arabic, he argues. “Punjabi, Seraiki and other languages are
progressive languages and one can’t afford to ignore them if one wishes to
weave a modern poem,” he says.
He believes that as long as
a society is unable to do away with so called taboos it can never be a modern
society. A creative writer, according to him, should try to challenge the
taboos, and useless traditions that muzzle freedom of thought. That’s what
widens the canvas of his poems as apart from love he also explores the socio
economic themes in his poetry. The anguish, frustration, and disappointment
of a modern man can be felt in his poems.
“The background of my
nazms is rural Punjab but I also know that cities are expanding and we are
living in urban environs. I am the citizen of semi-feudal society which is in
throes of rapid urbanisation. So you need to have a multi-dimensional outlook
under such conditions. A writer should need to keep all these things in
mind,” he says.
Without being judgemental,
Meraj builds up a strong case for nazm in the coming days. He hopes that more
people will be writing nazm in the days to come as it is an urban genre like
short story. “People want to get entertained and seek pleasure and ghazal
serves the purpose fully. On the other hand, nazm and short story show you
the mirror and we are not yet ready to see our image in the mirror. Nazm have
always flourished in the societies that value rationality and progressive
thought. However, I am very sanguine about nazm as urban environs will compel
us to write more nazms and short stories,” he says.
Meraj is all praise for
prose poetry too because he things that when you create something without
rhythm, which is an essential ingredient of poetry, it’s no mean feat.
He says he is indebted to
Dr Wazir Agha for his guidance and motivation as ‘Auraq’ polished his
skills in the early days of his poetic career. Among contemporaries and
friends he is grateful to Daud Rizwan for his support. Among his seniors he
is beholden to the craft of Abdul Rashid, Anwar Fitrat, Abrar Ahmad, Masood
Qamar, Waheed Ahmad, Javed Anwer etc. Of his contemporaries he alludes to the
names of Husain Abid, Fahim Shanas Kazmi, Saeed Ahmad which in his opinion
are doing a good job in the realm of nazm.
His most recent book which
will be out within a week titled ‘Doston Kay Leye Nazmein’ is a tribute
to his seniors as well as his contemporaries who made him what he is today.
“You know you get influenced and then you try to carve a path that is
completely your own,” he muses. “My poetic sojourn has been very
fulfilling in the sense that I got a chance to rub shoulders with many a poet
and writers and there were others whom I could not meet like the formidable
Gulzar. In my new book I have told the story of my life through various
friends and mentors. A poem on Gulzar is my humble tribute to that great
verse wielder whose contribution to Urdu literature is enormous.”