Why you’ve got to introduce Amir Khusrau’s riddles to your children

The mystic poet displayed an attitude of tolerance that we could do well with in these times.

 |  4-minute read |   16-12-2016
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“Deh na dekhi, naram kahaaye

Buraa lagay aur hansi bhi aaye”

(Invisible, but they call it tender

Feels bad, but it evokes laughter)

Ankit Chadha relays this riddle repeatedly, carefully, in a charmingly sing-song voice and waits for a response from his youthful audience. "A fart!" exclaims a young girl.

This is not the answer Chadha was expecting, but he is thrilled by it; as is the gaggle of gigglers among the audience of young children and their parents at the Peek a Book Festival in Mumbai last weekend.

That’s the beauty of a riddle, he says, it can have several answers.

At the children’s literature festival to promote his excellent book Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles, writer and storyteller Chadha has his listeners enthralled. He gives the children a few clues, breaking down the meaning of the masterfully worded riddle, until the right answer is deduced: it’s a tickle!

Of course, the children immediately want more and Chadha obliges:

“Ek achambha maine dekha, murda roti khaye

Bole se bolat nahin, maarey toh chillaaye

Saanp sar ki chutia lekar, naahariya gurraaye

Kahiye Raja Bhoj se, ye kaun janavar jaaye”

(What a miracle I witnessed, by a dead body, bread being eaten

Remains mum when told to speak, it screams upon being beaten

With a pigtail hanging from its head, like a lion it growls

Ask King Bhoja, which beast is this that prowls?)

Chadha is careful not to reveal all 20 riddles his book contains (and I certainly won’t reveal all the answers), but he does slip in tales of Khusrau’s greatness and his prowess as a poet - how the "father of the qawaali" would write in various different poetic styles, how despite being the royal poet for several rulers of the Delhi Sultanate he’d revel in playful wordplay and double entendres.

While he’s left out the double entendres in the book, Chadha does manage to weave in facts from Khusrau’s inspirational life around each of the riddles. It is a wonderful way to introduce young children to the poet, statesman, scholar, historian, musician, astrologer and mystic.

Living in turbulent times during the reign of Allauddin Khilji in the late 13th century, Khusrau had a way of looking at the “brighter side of God’s design” thanks to his spirituality and Sufi leanings.

khusro-emed_121616022700.jpg Living in turbulent times during the reign of Allauddin Khilji in the late 13th century, Amir Khusrau had a way of looking at the “brighter side of God’s design” thanks to his spirituality and Sufi leanings.

The mystic poet displayed an attitude of tolerance that we could do well with in these times.

“While he ridiculed certain practices of some communities, his laughter held malice towards none. His contempt for hypocritical scholars and poets who plagiarised his verses was also expressed in good humour,” Chadha notes in the book. 

Like Khusrau himself would do, Chadha begins his book with the name of God, or rather a riddle on God. He gradually unravels tales of war, love, Khusrau’s life and his passion and unmatched flair for writing.

Just as knowledge was passed on by singing pahelis (riddles) in medieval India, hidden between these stories are little nuggets of wisdom from the poet himself: “If a young man runs after money, he’s a beggar. A loaf of bread earned by dignified labour should keep him content. If he becomes wealthy he must remain low like the branches of a pomegranate tree.”  

Beautifully illustrated by Urmimala Nag, the rainbow coloured pages of the book are most certainly not just for children. In fact, most young readers will have to be read aloud to and parents will enjoy the collaborative style. A note from Chadha: “Riddles are never said, they’re sung.” 

At the end of his hour-long session, the children chant: “One more, one more;” unwilling to let Chadha leave the stage.

It’s clear how much they have enjoyed the guessing games, but in the process the author has successfully managed to get the little brats curious about a poet who lived in medieval India and whose words continue to hold the significance they did seven centuries ago.

Also read: How Sanskrit subhashitas are a perfect blend of joy and reason

Writer

Moeena Halim Moeena Halim @moeenah

The writer is associate editor for Simply Mumbai, a city-based supplement of India Today.

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