Sunday, April 8, 2012

Literature as a bridge between East and West

Iqbal's poems for children are very well-known and popular in Pakistan and parts of India. Almost every child who goes to school in Pakistan learns such poems as 'Lab pay aati hai dua bun kay tamanna meri'. What is not very well-known is the fact that practically all these poems are translation of English poems, usually very well-known in the English speaking world in their original form.

Iqbal included seven poems for children in his third book of poetry Baang-i-Dara (1924). They are translations of:
About three years ago I wrote a separate piece about each of these poems at this blog, and the items in the list above are linked to those posts. They are in the chronological order of the biographies of the poets.

Interestingly, Iqbal changed this order while including them in his book. Also, he revised his translations, most of which had been written in the early 20th Century. In the revised form and in thanks to the order in which they appear in the book, these poems represent a gradual process of self-development. Just like Iqbal's later work Javid Nama, the story is told in seven stages.
  • A Spider and the Fly: 
In the revised translation of the poem of Mary Howitt, the encounter where the spider tempts the fly into walking into its trap becomes a parable about the starting point of self-development where the self is naive, and this comes out in the personality of the fly who seems to be fond of small talk and repartee: instead of walking away after refusing the spider's offer, she stays on to engage in a pointless conversation which leads to her destruction. A low self-esteem is clearly discernible.
  • A Mountain and the Squirrel: 
The squirrel of Emerson's 'Fable' becomes the higher stage of the fly in Iqbal's sequence: her self-esteem is clearly higher than that of the fly. When the mountain taunts her for being small and agile, she replies bluntly. However, at this second stage, the self seems to have discovered a common link that binds all creatures in a bond of Love: "Nothing is useless in the world," the squirrel says in the end. "Nobody is worthless in the workshop of Nature."
  • A Cow and the Goat: 
Replacing the ass in the poem of Jane Taylor with a goat, Iqbal signifies the third stage in self-development. The fly, the squirrel and the goat are in the ascending order in terms of size as well as in the "maturity" reflected in their speech. Unlike the two previous creatures, the goat seems to have mastered the art of speech completely, and displays it while convincing the cow about the superiority of the human being over other creatures.
'The Child's Prayer', 'Sympathy', 'The Mother's Dream' and 'The Bird's Lament' represent the remaining four stages, which I hope to elaborate some other time at this blog, but I hope that this gives a general idea about how Iqbal utilized his sources in creating this tapestry about self-development. I have treated the subject at length in my Urdu book Roshni ki Talash (2010), which received a national award in Pakistan last year.

Can you guess the poem of Iqbal
which was translated from the one being sung here?


  1. lab pey ati hai dua bun kar tamanna meri?

  2. hmm....Shadique Sahib....very nice post.

    All the poems have one distinct feature...which is SELF ANALYSIS...

  3. Greetings,

    Thank you for this very nice post. I have often found so-called "children's literature" to convey some of the most potent life teachings.

    All good wishes,