Pardon, your slip is showing

By F. A. Anvery December 30, 2001

The whole chagrin about foretelling, including political, weather and intellectual forecasting, is that it cannot be proved or disproved until after the time predicted has come and gone. The slip showing at the time is either covered up or made more visible, the hopes are either reinforced or abandoned.

This is the explanation I can give about my funny habit of plunging headlong into old books and magazines whenever I find them.

The writings of, and on, the late lamented Patras (Professor Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari) are some of them though the reason here is somewhat different. He never fails to refresh the reader with his ever-ready wit, his humour or subtle comedy. Each time my expected pleasure is unexpectedly overpaid!

I often admire his clarity of vision, his unbiased realism and his hindsights about many a slip visible on our bodypolitic. It is even more convincing when the passage of time has only served to show those slips turning into over-baked habits on which we have carelessly turned a blind eye during all these decades after Patras had the intellectual courage and honesty to point them out.

The bona fides, the candour and the scrupulosity of Patras as an avant-garde intellectual of his time are overflowing. He was a man of many parts and in each part did excel he — as an educationist, a master of English literature, an authority on English phonetics, an authority on drama, a wit, a humorist, a diplomat and a person exuberatingly effusing with humanity. He was the first non-British Director-General of All India Radio, principal of the prestigious Government College in Lahore, and Pakistan’s permanent representative in the United Nations Organization in which capacity he died with his boots on. He was buried in New York.

While he lived, the New Yorker proudly published an interview with him. When he died, Dag Hammarskjold wrote: “I first met Ahmed Bokhari soon after taking over my functions as Secretary-General. He was the head of the Pakistan delegation to the United Nations, famous for his wit and eloquence, but also respected as an extremely effective spokesman for his country. Our first discussion added something essential but not quite unexpected to his profile as it was known to the outside world. I remember how on that occasion he demonstrated his interest in the English metaphysical poets rather than in the more worldly affairs of the United Nations. A year or so later, when I was looking for a senior representative in the Secretariat for the Islamic world, my thoughts naturally turned to Bokhari. I was happy to see him willing to join our staff ... He was, of course, a wise and subtle counsellor ... On later trips to the Middle East I had, a couple of times, the privilege of his guidance ... All his friends know, he combined great natural warmth and simplicity with considerable shyness ... He was indeed a master of the English language as of the languages of his own region, and he was a critic of Western literature of an unusual espirit de finesse.”

Patras was much perturbed by the holes in our own social fabric and he never hesitated to air his views with his usual wit, insights and hopefulness. His single desire as a blue-ribbon intellectual (he had blue eyes) was to see Pakistanis as a diligent and cohesive nation, collectively and singly able to think its own thoughts and stand firmly on its own strong feet. Patras was apparently an admirer of Voltaire who said that once a nation begins to think, it is impossible to stop it.

Some of Patras’s verbal caricatures which may be captioned “Pardon, your slip is showing” (and which I take the liberty to translate into English) are worth repeating and remembering, hoping that some day we shall be able to remedy them. He is reported to have said:
* “Clangour is a built-in condition of our lives. In England and France, people walking along the roadside converse in such low voice that they appear to be whispering. We, on the other hand, have the habit of talking in treble rather than in bass. By God, we do not talk. We bawl out!”
* “When we deliver speeches, it looks we’ve had a contention at home and taking it on the audience! The height of it is that when he have to pass a doleful resolution, we sound as if we are about to declare war!”

* “Exaggeration has become a part of our nature. Every conference is an ‘international’ one though the participants may not be more than a dozen. Recently I happened to notice a shop inside Mochi Gate. It displayed a shattered harmonium and a tabla in a state of dilapidation, but the shop’s signboard boldly announced ‘International Academy of Music and Dancing”!

* “Our music is doleful, not lively. In Cambridge, I played six or seven records to my teacher (Sir Arthur) Quiller-Couch. When asked what he thought of them, he sighed: ‘One was sufficient to bore. The rest of them served little purpose.’”

* “The nastiest stigma on the British Raj is that it educated us for its own purposes more than for our benefit. It will be regrettable if the powers that be would continue to nurture it as such.”

* “We must do for freedom whatever we can. But we must also keep in sight the reality that a nation which has no identical attire, no fixed time for eating, and which shows no aspect of cohesion, how can it benefit from freedom?”

These are only a few pointers to the “slips”. There are many more to come across in the essays and other writings of Patras Bokhari. May his soul rest in peace.