Anwar Shabnam Dil, who spent many years working on Prof Ahmed Shah Bokhari's
life and work and who produced a book of abiding value on him, told me in
1993 that "Bokhari's great work was done at the United Nations." He said
that apart from being as great an internationalist as Dag Hammerskjold, he
was the first advocate of liberation movements in colonised countries across
Africa and the Middle East. That credit has been denied him by his
countrymen, as they have denied it to Sir Zafralla Khan, though for
Said Dil, "He was their voice and no voice was more eloquent than his. His
great work was devoted to larger questions, the human condition itself. If
the Third World is looking for heroes, Bokhari would stand tall in that
pantheon, taller than most." A woman told Dil that when Bokhari walked into
a room, he would light it up. If conversation is an art, then Bokhari was
its most brilliant practitioner. From 1947 to 1951, he was Principal of
Government College, Lahore (now ungrammatically called Government College
University, something that must make Bokhari turn in his New York grave).
What books Pakistan was able to get of its share from the Indian Office
Library in London, it may owe to Bokhari who negotiated their retrieval.
Were Bokhari alive today and were some sections of the collection still to
be apportioned, it is not he who would be sent but some sifarshi who would
return home with his bags filled, not with books but with shopping from
Oxford Street with his "lady wife."
Had Bokhari no accomplishment other than Patras ke Muzameen, a slim
collection of eleven humorous essays, his name would have lived. It has been
said by his students that there was no finer teacher of English literature
than him, nor one with a deeper understanding of its vast treasures of prose
and poetry. His knowledge of Shakespeare was encyclopaedic. Legendary tales
of his time as Principal of Government College have been recorded by his
contemporaries and students, one of which goes like this. Bokhari was at his
desk, looking through his papers when he heard someone walk in. Without
looking up, he said, "Please take a chair." The man, a member of the Indian
Civil Service, felt insulted, "I am so and so of the ICS," he announced
"Then take two chairs," Bokhari said without looking up.
But it is those essays of light humour that give us the opportunity to take
the true measure of the man. Here is Bokhari's foreword to the book (I hope
he won't award me a D-minus for translation): "If someone has sent this book
to you as a free gift, then he has done me a favour. If you have stolen it
from somewhere, then I compliment you on your good taste. If you have bought
it with your own money, then you have my sympathies. Under the
circumstances, it is best that you consider this a good book to justify your
lack of judgment. All characters in these essays are fictional, even those
occasionally plastered with the first person singular, though they may claim
they are not. . . If some gentleman wishes to translate this book into a
foreign language, he should first seek the permission of the people of the
country who speak that language." (Should I have written to the Queen?)
And here is his classic essay on "Lahore's Geography." Introduction: "By way
of introduction, I wish to submit that it is now many years since Lahore was
discovered, thus there is no need to prove its existence through Dalayal
Buraheen (a forbiddingly learned tome by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan). Nor should it
be necessary that the globe should be set in motion from the left till the
country called India comes to a stop before your eyes, and on which you
should start searching for the intersecting point of the longitude and
latitude where Lahore is to be found. Suffice it to say that wherever you
spot Lahore, that exactly is where Lahore is. This research has been briefly
but comprehensively summed up by our elders who state that Lahore is Lahore.
If you are unable to find Lahore where it is supposed to be, then your
education is below par and your intelligence is of a lower order. A couple
of mistakes I do wish to correct though. Lahore is situated in the Punjab
but Punjab no longer is the Land of Five Rivers, since only four and a half
of them actually flow. The half river is no longer capable of flowing, which
is why it is commonly referred to as Old Ravi. Access address: This river
keeps lying under two bridges built close to the city. The pastime of
flowing it gave up quite some time ago. This makes it somewhat difficult to
say if the city is located on the river's left or its right bank. Several
routes lead to Lahore, but two of them are very famous: one from Peshawar
and the other from Delhi. Central Asian invaders come by the Peshawar route
and invaders from the United Province via Delhi. The former are called The
Sword Bearers and they carry the nom de plume of Ghaznavi or Ghauri."
And here is an excerpt from his essay titled Dogs. "Inquiries made from
zoologists and veterinarians, apart from much time spent in trying to
understand as to what use dogs are, an answer has so far proved elusive.
Take the cow: it provides milk. Take the goat: it provides milk, and it
expels tiny balls of offal. What do these dogs do? The dog is said to be a
faithful animal. If being faithful means you start barking come the hour of
seven in the evening and continue barking without break until six in the
morning, then we are better off without a tail . . . Undoubtedly, our
relations with dogs have been somewhat strained, but we can swear that on no
occasion have we turned away from non-violence. You may consider it
unnatural but as God is our witness, we have never raised our hand against a
dog, although various friends have advised that we carry a stick or a staff
at night as it is known to be effective tool against a whole range of evils.
However, we have no wish to create enmity with anyone. It is true that as
soon as a dog begins to bark, our instinctive gentleness so overwhelms us as
to give some onlookers the impression that we are cowardly . . . One night
as we turned a corner on the road, we came upon a tethered goat, but to us
it appeared to be a dog. Imagine a dog as big as a goat, in other words a
dog dog. Our hands and feet swelled and the stick in our hand that we had
been twirling around, came to a dead stop at a most unreasonable angle. The
music we had been making by whistling underwent a tremor before slipping
into silence . . . As long as there are dogs in this world who insist on
barking, we can be said to have one foot in the grave."
And here is Bokhari's Mirza Sahib, who once sold him the world's worst
cycle, "Take Mirza Sahib now. Quite a nice man you would say with such an
innocent face that one could mistake him for a mosque Imam. Gamble, he does
not, gulli-danda he has no love for, pickpocket he isn't, but pigeons he
does raise, which provide him with his entertainment."
Ahmed Shah Bokhari! What a guy!
*(Khalid Hasan is a senior Pakistani journalist-columnist hailing from Jammu
and Kashmir based in Washington).
-(Courtesy: The Friday Times)