Some time ago the Pakistan Post Office issued a special postage stamp to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari. This was a tribute well merited, for A.S. Bokhari was one of the rare people of whom this country can be truly proud. While his fame in Pakistan rested on his role as an Urdu writer and as an inspiring teacher, he earned world fame for his country through his work in the United Nations.
Sporadic meetings were held in Lahore and Peshawar (his home town) to commemorate his life and work, but I feel that Bokhari's personality called for much more than routine remembrance. In Government College, Lahore, where he was principal for many years, there is a Patras Bokhari Auditorium (Patras being his pen-name), but he certainly deserved a more public memorial, though it may be difficult to decide whether it should be as an educationist or as an international diplomat.
I never had the honour and pleasure of meeting ASB, but as a student of Forman Christian College in Lahore, some of us went once to listen to him lecturing on Shakespeare to the B.A. class. One reason for going there could be that I had many close friends from Model Town in Government College, but I recall that it was his reputation as a great exponent and interpreter of the Bard, that drew us there. We were not the only outsiders there that day, for even some of his own teaching colleagues used to gather to hear his lecture.
I have attended many functions in Islamabad convened by organisations and individuals to pay tribute to a departed famous man. In all of them, even when they were well-deserved, I felt that if a man was great and outstanding and worth honouring, and that we, his compatriots and admirers, should be proud of him and his genius and achievements, then it takes much more than a half-an-hour off-the-cuff speech, replete with fulsome and often irrational praise and hackneyed expressions to do justice to his personality.
That is why when Professor Anwar Dil's collection of Bokhari's speeches and writings was published six years ago, which really gave one an idea of what a fine diplomat and an impressive speaker he was, I praised it profusely in this column. Titled "On This Earth Together, Ahmed S. Bokhari at U.N. 1950-58" it was widely reviewed, including in a perceptive article in Encore, the Sunday magazine of this paper. Today I was moved to write about Bokhari, after seeing a photograph of his with Dag Hammarskjold, the then UN Secretary General, in a UN publication.
Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan paid an official visit to the United States in 1949. Among his many speeches there, his address to the joint session of the Congress was widely praised as a remarkable document of human sensitivity and a stirring call to the world for co-operation to achieve the welfare and progress of mankind. Long afterwards we came to know that A.S. Bokhari had drafted it. I have a feeling that the address had much to do in his selection as UN Assistant Secretary for Public Information, a notable honour for Pakistan in those early days. Later, of course, his close understanding with Hammarskjold and their mutual affection became a byword in UN circles.
As someone who has spent a lifetime in government public relations, let me tell you which of Bokhari's utterances left a deep impact on me. If I were to pick just one piece out of his numerous speeches and writings from the published collection as mirroring correctly his eminence, I would plump for his press conference on return from a trip with Dag Hammarskjold to eight countries, including China and India. I can't really find words to do it proper justice.
His performance was a masterpiece of how a good PR man should talk to the world press. It was totally frank and yet restrained, and full of narrative. He gave nothing away that the Secretary General did not want him to say, and yet made a fine story. There was the impression that he knew much more than he was revealing, without appearing to be pompous about it. It is a marvellous performance.
As someone has said about that press conference, the transcript should be made compulsory reading for every minister of information in Pakistan. It is a very good idea, but what have the usual run of ministers of information in this country to do with truth, frankness, rapport with the press, friendly public relations, projecting a rational image of the ruling regime, readiness to furnish all kinds of information and being useful to both journalists and the government, with a cerebral basis and (most important) without blowing one's own trumpet.
Let me say that Bokhari's writings and speeches make fascinating reading. It is impossible not to be inspired by his eloquence in English, the elegance of his diction, his wit and learning, and his ability to feel at home with the highest in the world. Interestingly, revealing pictures of these highest, also come out of the book when they interacted with the man who was undoubtedly the most outstanding diplomat that Pakistan has produced.
Such a venture, such solid work as this book, is the best means of paying tribute to an admirable man, instead of just talking in the air about his imagined attainments. But I must confess that it is almost impossible to decide after reading about Bokhari as to which aspect of his multi-faceted personality comes out best, as an expert on Shakespeare, a confident and sincere spokesman for the smaller states, as one who overawed all those who dared to have wordy duels with him in the UN, as a literary giant, a compulsive teacher, a brilliant conversationalist or a heart-warming friend.
A study of Bokhari's life and the encomiums he earned at the UN make one proud to belong to the country that produced such a versatile genius, whose range of intellectual pursuits was awesomely wide and who was able to make a lasting impact on notable people from the most civilised and most influential countries. When he suddenly died in New York it was rightly said of him by Dag Hammarskjold, "He was truly a citizen of the world."