Revisiting Mohammad Khalid Akhtar’s writings on his 100th birthday
Today marks the 100th birth anniversary of one of the great Urdu satirists and novelists, Mohammad Khalid Akhtar (1920-2002). Ideally, his birthday should have been celebrated and acknowledged across the nation, perhaps even commemorated in the form of a Google doodle. Nonetheless, here I have humbly presented this original translation of his Informational Primer for Children, with an accompanying audio recitation, as my own small tribute to this great writer.
A series of Akhtar’s comic writings were published in the 1950s in literary journals under the title of Maloomati Qaeda (Informational Primer). Two essays of series were also published in his collection Khoya Hua Ufaq (The Lost Horizon), in which Akhtar has written truthfully about the various trends, behaviours, isms in society and about humans; and has adopted a new method to reduce the pricking caused by humour, and has created opportunities for thinking and reflection in the manner of teaching children. In this primer, the meaning and definition of things are presented by actually narrating reality with light hyperbole with such beauty that we simultaneously laugh and reflect upon these things. He has also made various aspects of our country the topic of his primer, in which the manner of his satire is very unique and aggressive; and with him nothing is unsaid for fear or prudence. Here he also deals with certain aspects and conversations which are usually hindered by plain and humble deference.
In this primer, he has exposed the reality of everything in the manner of advising children. He has only too well noticed the political struggles and lust for power during the days when Pakistan had become newly-independent; evidenced by the fact that various leaders have been targeted. There is also a satire on weak national laws, and even political parties have not been spared. Then he has satirised Pak-US relations in a terrific manner, which is to be found in most of his writings. In addition, the negative activities of leaders, the extravagances of the rich, the miseries of the poor, inflation and various human attitudes have come within the range of his sensitive pen. I hope you find his words as illuminating as I have found them to be.
“Dear children! Since long, we had no national anthem. Hearts remained dejected owing to this deficiency. We were not capable of walking with heads high. Afghanistan had a national anthem, Tibet had one, so much so, the cannibals of Bodaland had one. If a national anthem was missing, it was ours. You probably know that respectable nations can live without food and clothing but not at all without a national anthem.
Alhamdulillah! Now our government has filled this deficiency. Now it has prepared for us a national anthem costing 5,000 rupees. Children, sing it in high notes with the force of (your) lungs and thank God. Do you know it is in which language? It is in Arabic, our mother tongue. It even has four words of Urdu (Make a list of these words)
The national anthem does not need to be understood. When you will grow up to attain the degree of Munshi Fazil, then you will automatically understand this anthem. For now, it is enough for you to know that every single word of this anthem is worth weighing in gold and just after reading it once, the grandeur of the Glorious God is revealed.”
“Children, nowadays it is the era of democracy; whoever you see is drunk with the beautiful sight of the goddess. Come! Let us tell you what is meant by democracy? A European sage has defined it in that democracy is government by few men for the benefit of few men.
A million thanks to God that the democratic system is prevalent in our country as well. Our rulers are elected, meaning that they have elected each other, they are all in great comfort. If you ask them they will not tire counting the benefits of democracy.
Children democracy is not a new thing, it is a very old system. It was also very popular among the ancient Romans and Greeks. By comparing the democracy of that time and the democracy of today, we come to know that the world has not really progressed in the period of 2000 years. A little while before the Christian era, a Roman emperor named Caligula used to rule in Rome; this was a grandee with many qualities. He used to consider himself as the constitutional emperor and used to say that I am emperor merely in name. The Senate can remove me, if it wants. You will be surprised that there used to be a Senate or parliament in those days too; its members were chosen literally in the same manner as in our own country. What came into Mr Caligula’s mind that he had his horse Incitatus (in the text Akhtar wrongly names him as Sejanus – RN) elected as a member of the Senate. No one dared stand against Incitatus for fear of Caligula and Incitatus was elected unopposed as Senator. Incitatus would arrive in the session alongside Caligula wearing a crown of flowers, laden with jewels, ornaments and garlands. Ordinary members had one vote but the Senate passed with consensus that Incitatus will have two votes. Afterwards Caligula appointed Incitatus as the praetor of governor of an Asian province of the Roman empire. When Incitatus died, his corpse was despatched to Rome. Caligula buried his beloved Senator with full military honour; he was mourned for twenty days. It is proven from history that even at the time of the respected Zil-e-Subhani Caligula, there used to be an opposition party in the Senate. In our country, this party is indeed thrown into jails just a short while before election. Mr Caligula used to have members of the opposition party wrestle with lions. This is not possible in the democracies of today. Live lions are available with difficulty.
Children, see how much of a good thing democracy is. Thanks to this, an ordinary horse progressed to become a member of the Roman Senate. Though Incitatus’s brain cannot be yours, but still do try. Then you too can attain a position like Incitatus.”
Mr John Foster Dulles
“Children, you will have read the name of Mr John Foster Dulles many a time in newspapers. Come let us tell you about Mr Dulles.
Mr Dulles is the Foreign Minister of the United States of America. In addition, he is also the Interior Minister of many countries. But this is a thing to be said a bit quietly. He is the right hand of Uncle Sam; and wanders about in search of smaller nations, with four or five wallets hanging on his shoulder. Come let us see in proximity what is written on his wallets. On one is written ‘NATO’ in English; on the second ‘MEDO’; on the third ‘SEATO’. He puts the smaller countries one by one into these wallets, shepherding them with a bitter smile. There are many such countries which have their hearts in NATO, their torsos in MEDO and legs in SEATO.
In order to amuse and savor, he has many different sweets and goodies for the smaller countries. One pocket has chewing gum; the second has bottles of Coca Cola; the third has Life Saver candy; the fourth has toys of airplanes, tanks, etc. The hydrogen bomb is to be found in his inside pocket.
Mr Dulles is a very serious and competent politician. His forehead is always furrowed. He has to think a lot. At the moment, two wallets are a bit empty. Very few people have seen him smile. He just does not have the time (for it). Indeed his friends keep tricking him at all times. One of his friends is Anthony Eden. Mr Dulles had high hopes of him but he has greatly grieved the latter by getting France and Vietnam to an agreement in Indochina.
Mr Dulles is always ready to help such weak nations which demand military aid for their security. This aid and help is a clear proof of his peace-loving and pro-democratic dispensation.
Come children. Let us request Mr John Foster that when he leaves this august office, then he should come here so that the leaders of this newly-independent country and people can benefit from his statesmanship and knowledge.”
“Children. You must have heard and seen the radio. It is possible that your house too has a radio. Radio is an amazing invention of the 20th century. By the looks of it, it is an ordinary wooden box. If you rotate the key, various kinds of tongues will be heard. On some wave, qawwali is being performed; daadra on the other; Shuddh Kalyan on another. God knows how our ancestors lived their life without the radio?
Be there any earthquake, flood or storm anywhere in the world, its news immediately arrives on the radio; often the thunderstorm is heard besides the news. In the country of Uncle Sam you can see the storm or earthquake on the television screen as well. Our ancestors were bereft of this blessing. It is not a surprise that they used to be fast asleep. Children, how can we even sleep when a whirlwind is passing by, attacking at a distance of just 8,000 miles from us.
One advantage of the radio is that one can hear eyewitness accounts on it as well. If a match is held at a distance of 500 miles or if horses are racing somewhere or there is some opening ceremony, you can hear its eyewitness account just sitting at home. For example, the day before yesterday the Honourable Chamme Mian, Minister Jams performed the opening ceremony of a biscuit factory in Shakrauli. I heard its entire account on radio: ‘800 men are sitting in the tent. See, there is some noise at the door. I cannot see clearly. I think…No no I am sure Honourable Minister Jams is arriving. A lot of people have gotten up to welcome him. I am sorry now we know that this was not the minister. A goat barged in. Secretary Abdul Shakoor is pushing it out. I see, it is a long-horned goat, probably Ghastaani. One cannot say with authority from such a distance. From the platform Seth Haji…sorry I forgot the name…anyways the platform is resounding with the shouts of Honourable Chamme Mian Zindabad. Many people are jumping while throwing biscuits on the minister. A biscuit has also fallen near me. It is nice, delicious and crisp.’ Etc, etc.
Children! Now you know the benefits of the radio! Not only can one listen to news and eyewitness accounts, but thoughtful speeches too can be heard. In the evening a very interesting program of the ‘Nok Jhonk’ (Argument) type is broadcast from the stations of two foreign countries. During the break, records are played on the gramophone on request. The patriots of both countries listen to these programmes with a lot of pleasure.
In short, children! Radio is a very nice invention. The best thing about it is that it has a key which can be rotated to turn it off. Had this key not been there, many a radio would have been thrown to be smashed daily.”
“Our country believes in free capital. There is freedom here to earn and spend money in every way. Children, if you like, you can earn 10,000 rupees daily. There is no hindrance on you from the government. You can become a millionaire; live in palaces of steel and glass; drive around in long, expensive motorcars. You are openly permitted to do all these things by the government. There are many such countries in the world where the system of free capital is prevalent. How lucky we are that there are great landlords, millionaires and nawabs in our country, without them life would be so bland and tasteless.”
“In which language is our national anthem! There is mention of ‘Avaam’ (people) in one of its lines; how did the poet commit such a mistake?
List the names of other Senators of the status of the horse Incitatus.
Why does John Foster Dulles love smaller countries so much?
Describe the advantages of the radio.
Define free countries.
What would be the condition of free countries without millionaires, landlords and nawabs. Write in detail!”