DAWN - Features; July 29, 2008

Published July 29, 2008

‘Tilt the cup but don’t let it spill’

By Rauf Parekh

Gone are the good old days when a person was not considered educated and refined unless he knew Arabic and Persian. Even till the late 1960s, Arabic and Persian were compulsory subjects at our schools and students had to opt for either of them at secondary level. This writer, too, studied Arabic for three years at school from grade six to eight (though never being able to speak it fluently or comprehend it fully is another story – a sad one).

Then Persian was shunted out at school level and, alas, according to a report appearing in a section of the press some time ago, the departments of Persian at several Karachi colleges have been shut down for want of students. And now no college in Karachi offers Persian as an optional subject. What a fall for a nation that took pride in knowing Persian!

People with a good knowledge of Arabic and Persian in our society are now few and far between. These are, generally, the ones who studied these languages at school and some even at college. With the dwindling number of such persons, now the treasures of Arabic and Persian literature are looked down at and English pulp-fiction is conquering the world relentlessly.

In such circumstances when one finds a book in Urdu that discusses the slightly altered wordings of Quranic verses and Hadith quoted or paraphrased in Persian and Urdu poetry, one can only read on and be amazed. Amazed not only because the author has such a deep study of Persian and Urdu literature but also for his command over prosody and the Arabic language and a perfect eye for the religious texts quoted in Urdu and Persian poetry.

The book, thoughtfully titled Kajdar-o-Marez, borrows a Persian phrase for its name that means ‘tilt the cup but don’t let it spill.’ This is an allusion, of course, that refers to an order impossible to be obeyed or commands extremely difficult to follow. The title is apt as the book surveys the slightly divergent versions of Quranic verses and Hadith used in Persian and Urdu poetry and it is impossible to tilt the cup that holds the divine texts without spilling it.

One is also amazed for another reason: this is a touchy topic; the slightest alteration in any Quranic verse is tantamount to interpolation and hence profanity and is fraught with treacherous, even dreadful outcome. No Muslim in his senses can even think of changing the words of the Quran or the Hadith, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). But as the author Abdul Aziz Khalid says, sometimes the poet has to slightly change the language in order that it fits into the prosodic frames.

This ‘law of necessity,’ writes the author in his preface, grants the lyricists a ‘poetic licence’ to practise a little irregularity at their disposal, quoting an Arabic axiom that says what is prohibited for others is allowed to the poets. But such departures are allowed to poets alone and prose writers must refrain from taking liberties when quoting religious texts.

This may be kind of asking for trouble as this writer too, like so many of you, feels that this is an encroachment that may not be allowed to anybody no matter how great a poet he or she is, as the scriptures and sacred books should not be treated like any other worldly book. But one is surprised to see that poets like Shams Tabrez, Rumi, Sanai, Attar Neshapuri, Jami and Saadi, who are more saints than poets, indulge in this practice quite frequently. From Urdu poetry we find, on top of all, a poet like Iqbal, whose leanings towards Islam and its Prophet (Peace be upon him) are too well-known to be explained otherwise, takes such liberties.

The author has quoted the verses of a great many poets of Urdu and Persian that either have a changed order of the sacred wordings or wherein, for poetical or technical reasons, the diacritic marks of certain Quranic verses have been changed.

Aside from the debate as to whether or not such deviations should be allowed in poetry, one has to acknowledge the hard work and the years of study that have gone into compiling a book like Kajdar-o-Marez. Abdul Aziz Khalid, eulogised for his vast study and profound knowledge of Arabic by a great authority like Prof Abdul Aziz Memon, is a veteran poet with a large number of poetry collections to his credit and is known for his diction and erudition.

Published by Sarmad Academy, Attock, the book is priced at a mere Rs200, which can easily be afforded if you just skip a trip to the fast food parlour around the corner.

Correction: Writers do make mistakes, as you know. But when I make one, it is important to put the record straight, of course. The response to my last week’s column on these pages (‘Ibn-i-Safi: the imam of Urdu detective fiction’) was not only warm and heartening for me but a bit educative too. Ahmed Safi Sahib, Ibn-i-Safi’s son, was kind enough to point out a couple of inaccuracies that crept in. Nooh Narvi, says he, was Ibn-i-Safi’s maternal uncle and not his maternal grandfather. Like a few other readers, he also has mentioned that the gentleman with whose collaboration Ibn-i-Safi launched Nikhat was not Ali Abbas Hussaini, the well-known progressive writer, but another fellow named Abbas Hussaini, who ran a book-selling and publishing business at Allahabad’s railway station.

I stand corrected and educated and am grateful to the readers who took out their precious time and e-mailed me. It also made my belief firmer that Ibn-i-Safi was a very popular writer and his fans miss him greatly even today, 28 years after his death.


Mental health begins at school

SUICIDE is tragic enough as it is. All the more so when the victims are teenaged students, whose lives are prematurely ended by their inability to cope with the disappointment of failure in examinations.

Within a week, two adolescents in Islamabad had succumbed to the urge to take their own lives after news of their failure in the federal board’s Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examinations.

The first victim was an 18-year-old boy in Islamabad city proper who failed his SSC Part II examinations (class 10), results of which were released on July 14. The second victim was a girl in the outskirts of the capital who failed in her SSC Part I examinations (class 9), results of which were announced on July 19.

Could these two suicides have been prevented if the victims had access to support in the form of mental health counselling services in their respective institutions?

This year some 17,547 students in Islamabad failed to clear their SCC Part II examinations, while 25,452 failed in one or more papers in their SCC Part I examinations. Of the 25,452 students, some 473 students failed to clear their SCC Part I examinations, they having failed in all their papers.

According to statistics released by the Federal Directorate of Education on 24 July, 1,443 students failed this year’s Class 8 middle centralised examinations while 1,812 students failed the Class 5 primary centralised examinations.

This totals over 46,000 students. Who knows how many of these students are clinically depressed by the growing competition, the desire to succeed and to meet the expectations of parents, teachers and peers, and thus are finding it difficult to handle their failure.

One indication that stress levels of students have increased is the rush at many private tuition centres in Islamabad.

Many students are resorting to extra coaching or tuition outside of school hours because not only do they have to cope with ever tougher and tougher syllabi in local board examinations or external board examinations (O and A levels), many professional courses now require students to sit for competitive entry tests as well.

There is no time to relax, complains an FSc student who has been taking tuition since the summer vacations started to prepare for entry test into Nust while anxiously waiting for his FSc examination results expected in early August.

Why can’t the syllabus for entrance tests be incorporated in the regular school or board syllabus so that students do not require additional coaching which is difficult for many students to handle, both mentally and financially, asks this FSc student from an Islamabad model college whose parents had to cough up Rs7,000 for his tuition.

In some cases, misguided parents are responsible for the undue pressure.

It is natural for all parents to want their children to do well in examinations and then get a professional degree, as both are considered as passports to success in job and a comfortable life, says a third year engineering student at Comsats.

But in harbouring high expectations from their children without properly understanding their abilities, capabilities and limitations, parents risk pushing their children overboard, she adds.

A student who has failed in examinations is usually already depressed, dejected and sad, and this emotional state can become quite unbearable if he starts getting bitter scolding from his parents for failing, especially in centralised or board examinations.

However, according to mental health experts, stressful life events like failure in examinations are usually only trigger factors in suicides. Suicide does not arise from a single cause but is due to a combination of factors that cause depression and anxiety like personality disorders, low self-esteem, increased self-consciousness, reduced social support and impaired coping skills.

Studies elsewhere have also found that the prevalence of depression is much higher among adolescents of low socio-economic status. Indicators of the latter include low levels of parental education, low parental income and high economic burdens, e.g., large families.

To combat depression in adolescents, schools need to give, apart from good academic education to children, education in life skills also. This takes the form of mental health counselling as well as other means like talks, workshops and exhibitions to raise and improve awareness of the importance of mental health.

Adolescents need to be informed about what constitutes depression, its symptoms, its causes, its implications and the options available to combat this. They need to be taught the importance of handling adversity positively, either independently or co-dependently with family members.

Most of our educational institutions still lack this increasingly important counselling support system for their students. As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved, especially if shared with a professional and experienced consultant who is able to help students deal or cope with their emotional anguish.

Undiagnosed childhood depression can lead not only to adolescent suicide but also to various long-term, detrimental psycho-social consequences such as school dropout, and depression and suicide in adulthood.

Unless the kind of mental health problems leading to the recent suicide of the two SCC students are nipped in the bud, Islamabad could well lose more of its children in this manner.



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