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Be Gentle

Editorial, The New Yorker, September 18, 1954.  The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

Pakistan's permanent representative to the United Nations, Professor Ahmed Shah Bokhari, who is generally considered one of the ablest spokesmen for the Arab-Asian bloc, is also, we learned the other day, generally considered the leading humorous writer in Urdu, the language of Muslims in Pakistan and India. Being interested in both permanent representatives and humorous writers, separately or in combination, we tried to lay hands on the Professor's writings, only to find that almost none of them have been translated. Determined to pursue the matter, we telephoned the Professor himself, and received an invitation to lunch in the U. N. Building. Well, the Professor is one of the most light-hearted, most urbane, most learned permanent representatives, or humorous writers, that we have met in a long time. He led us to a dining-room table overlooking the East River, ordered steak and tomatoes, and said that until 1948, the year after Pakistan gained its independence, he was a teacher, translator, and writer, rather than a diplomat. Since 1947, he has been principal of Government College, Lahore; during the thirties, as professor of literature there, he kept the institution's experimental theatre supplied with material by turning out Urdu versions of, among other things, a good deal of Shakespeare and Shaw, Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine. "The last forty years have been the most intense period of translation in the Muslim world since the apogee of ancient Baghdad under Harun-al-Rashid," the Professor told us. "Back in those days, Muslims were translating everything they could get their hands on in the fields of philosophy and science. Now it's literature. You ought to hear Shakespeare in Urdu! Bottom is great fun in the local Lahore dialect. The wonder of Shakespeare is that no matter how badly one translates, something comes through."

Professor Bokhari, who has piercing blue eyes and was wearing a tweed suit and a blue knit tie, has also translated British and American nonfiction, edited an Urdu humor magazine, and written literary criticism in English and Urdu. His reputation as a humorist rests on essays and short stories, appearing under the pen name Patras. "Some of the reasons for their popularity are the wrong ones," he told us with a smile. "Critics have said of them that although they are funny, they may safely be introduced into homes. Patras is considered a thoroughly wholesome fellow in Pakistan. The few stories that were translated into English made a hit with the British for the same reason; the British claimed to be astonished to find an Oriental humorist who doesn't concentrate on gazelle eyes and exotic situations." We asked what Patras does concentrate on. "There's a pattern in the stories," Professor Bokhari said. "Always a little man, with little inadequacies, drawn by human foibles into a situation in which he doesn't belong. In one story, he tries to become a critical demagogue. At the end, he is a nicer man for having failed. I used the first person, so the joke would be on the narrator. Pakistanis love that. My motto is 'Be gentle.'"

Born in Peshawar in 1898, Professor Bokhari studied at Cambridge off and on for six years during the late twenties and early thirties, was director-general of broadcasting for India during the Second World War, began his diplomatic career as head of Pakistan's delegation to the International High Frequency Broadcasting Conference at Mexico City in 1948, and has been Pakistan's head U.N. man since 1950. He is an expert phonetician, and once spent six months mastering the nuances of Cockney. "Cockney has its own grammar and vowel system, you know," he told us warmly. We looked expectant. "I wouldn't dare try it any more," he said. "I'm afraid I've backslid into the King's English - reversed the 'Pygmalion' situation." We inquired how diplomatic duties mix with humorous writing, and the Professor replied that his output has been considerably reduced. "One difficulty is finding time," he said, "and another is that in diplomacy the things you laugh at and the quantity of laughter are fixed by tradition. I love New York - I'm a big city man although I am still constantly chided about my slowness in walking. Drugstores fascinate me. When I was first here, I ordered a sandwich in one, and the counterman said, 'White or rye?' It took some time to establish his meaning. Oh, your language! 'Check' means 'bill'. What next? I used to send long letters about America to my students at Lahore, to be read to them in groups. In one of them, I mentioned that there is a drugstore on every corner. They wrote back in alarm, and in my next letter I had to explain that drugstores are not for dispensing narcotics. Someday, when I am wise enough, maybe Patras will write about America."