Faiza Hameed and Ali Madeeh Hashmi  http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/wp-content/themes/hades/images/clock.pngTFT Issue: 06 Dec 2013

December 5 marks the death anniversary of Patras Bokhari who read discarded English newspapers under a streetlamp, issued forty books every week from the New York Public Library, was instrumental in Tunisia’s liberation and stopped the dissolution of UNICEF. He also wrote a tiny book that placed him in the annals of Urdu Literature as one of its greatest humourists. By Faiza Hameed and Ali Madeeh Hashmi


With Robert Frost whose couplet on Patras became his epitaph

“Isn’t it a pity that those who are small or weak are sometimes bullied by those who are big and strong and there is no one to stop them and people don’t get just and fair treatment?

We are better than wild animals and therefore should behave much better.

This book will tell you something about the United Nations. Also I hope you will like the pictures. Also I hope you will grow up to be kind to other people and peaceful and just.”

(‘Remembering Patras Bokhari’. Moneeza Hashmi)

Representing Pakistan at the UN

Representing Pakistan at the UN

So reads the foreword by Ahmad Shah Bokhari ‘Patras’, written for a children’s book on the United Nations. He sounds a little like Robin Hood; you can almost see him in a feathered hat, with a quiver full of arrows slung on his shoulder, dispensing heroic advice to a brood of adoring, wide-eyed children. He was, in fact the Under Secretary of the Department of Public Information at the United Nations (UN). The year was 1955. Patras had just been promoted to the U.N’s Public Information Department after four years of serving as the Permanent Representative of Pakistan. The high credentials did not intimidate him. He was famous for his irreverent dismissal of diplomatic drivel and the endless cocktail parties, calling them “A hangover from royal receptions. But in those days,” he would continue, “the equivalent of a cocktail party at least produced some excitement. A guest might wind up dead in the garden. Nothing like that ever happens now.”

“In those days the equivalent of a cocktail party at least produced some excitement. A guest might wind up dead in the garden. Nothing like that ever happens now”

He was not born Patras. In the beginning there was Ahmad Shah Bokhari – or ASB as his friends later called him – a blue-eyed boy from Peshawar, who discovered his love for the languages at an early age. His ancestors had migrated from Bokhara to Baramula and later to “Bokhari Manzil”, Peshawar in the early 19th century. He spoke fluent Pashto and Hindko even before he started school. As he grew up, he added Urdu, Persian and English to the fold. It is said that he perfected his English accent by listening to the British soldiers stationed in the city. He used to get his hands on the soldiers’ discarded newspapers and later read them under a street-lamp, since there was no electricity at Bokhari Manzil. This was the same man who, during his tenure at the UN, issued around forty books every week from the New York library. He used to read all of them and when he got done, he would write his comments on short slips and insert them into the books. Despite the standard library policy of issuing only four books per member, the librarian was only too happy with this special arrangement. “I enjoy reading his comments. On most occasions the comments make more sense than the book itself”. (Prof. A.S. Bokhari – Mentor, Boss and Friend by Bashir A. Khan)

In 1984 Faiz visited the Tunisian street named after his teacher, Ahmed Shah Bokhari

In 1984 Faiz visited the Tunisian street named after his teacher, Ahmed Shah Bokhari

ASB took up the pseudonym “Patras” during his years at Government College, Lahore, where he got his Masters in English Literature in 1922. He had been the editor of the distinguished college publication, ‘The Ravi’, and an active member of the Dramatic Club. By the time he graduated, he had already published several pieces of prose in both English and Urdu, in local publications like ‘Makhzan’ and ‘Kehkashaan’, first using “Petronius” and later “Patras” as his nom de plume. The name all but welded itself into his persona. Today very few people know him as Ahmad Shah Bokhari. To his multitudes of readers, he is Patras, the man who gave humor a place of its own in Urdu Literature.

Patras gradually awakened to the realization that the world wasn’t just divided between the Communist bloc and the non-Communist one

However “Patras, the writer” forms but a fraction of his legend. He was a polymath in the truest sense of the word, serving as Deputy Director General, All India Radio for six years and for seventeen at Government College Lahore, seven of those as Principal. He was Liaquat Ali Khan’s official speech-writer in 1949, after which he joined the UN as the Permanent Representative of Pakistan in 1951, and was still in service when he died of a heart attack in 1958. He had planned to join Columbia University as Professor of Political Science after he retired.

Prof. A S Bokhari and the Queen of Netherlands

Prof. A S Bokhari and the Queen of Netherlands

He published “Patras Kay Mazameen” in 1927 – his seminal short collection of humorous essays. He also wrote “Pakistan: The Heart of Asia” and a book about the educational system of Mexico. In addition to these he translated into Urdu the works of several literary giants like Shakespeare, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw, R.L. Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Anatole France and Bergson.

Along with his friend, Imtiaz Ali Taj, he translated Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for a stage production at Government College, Lahore. It was played to a packed audience, among them the Indian writer, Khushwant Singh, who later praised the translation effusively. Patras cheerfully told an interviewer, “You ought to hear Shakespeare in Urdu! The wonder of Shakespeare is that no matter how badly one translates him, something comes through.” He had the same unaffected air about him when asked about his own essays. “Some of the reasons for their popularity are the wrong ones. Critics have said that although they are funny, they may safely be introduced into homes. Patras is considered a thoroughly wholesome fellow in Pakistan.”

A recent picture of the Tunisian street named after A S Bokhari

A recent picture of the Tunisian street named after A S Bokhari

For all his apparent nonchalance though, Patras was very clear-sighted about the potential of literature and language as cultural binding forces. His translations were not a random undertaking. He genuinely believed in international harmony. For someone like him, who had imbibed the cultural flavor of both the East and West (he went to Cambridge University for his Tripos), it was alarming to see how far apart the two worlds seemed, and that the rift was more out of ignorance than geography.

During his years in New York, he was invited to speak at various platforms where he brought up Asia and its problems, often reminding the audience that more than half of the world’s population lived in that continent. Reminiscing about those talks once, he said, “I invariably received the somewhat disturbing reassurance the next day, from some telephone callers at least, that I was right because they had “looked it up.””

Patras gradually awakened to the realization that the world wasn’t just divided between the Communist bloc and the non-Communist one. There were other, much more serious divides. “Some of us went around like peddlers,” he reminisced, “obsessed like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner to unfold our tale. I remember how, for quite a while the bee that buzzed in my bonnet insisted that more and more American books should be translated into Eastern languages. I repeated this to the point of boredom, even to people who had never thought of translations or, indeed, of books.”

Ahmed Shah Patras Bokhari is buried at a cemetery in New York

Ahmed Shah Patras Bokhari is buried at a cemetery in New York

It was this personal motto of One World that he took with him to the UN, where he was almost single-handedly responsible for halting the dissolution of the UNICEF after World War II ended, argued emphatically against apartheid and campaigned for – and was perhaps one of the key forces behind – the independence of Tunisia. His witty speeches, delivered in his classic theatrical accent became the stuff of legend. To his colleagues, he was a “diplomat’s diplomat” and a “cosmopolitan crusader” – a worthy opponent who was always on top of his game.

Patras presides at the New York Times youth forum

Patras presides at the New York Times youth forum

The sobriquet that describes him best though was the one used by The New York Times for his obituary. It fondly remembered him as a “Citizen of the World.” He was the heart of his circle of friends – the distinguished Sufi Tabassum; another polymath and renowned educationist, MD Taseer, Imtiaz Ali Taj, Faiz, Manto, Abdul Majeed Salik and Chiragh Hasan Hasrat. He was pen-friends with Hollywood stars Marlon Brando and Greta Garbo. The Tunisians named a street after him for his efforts for their country’s independence. His brilliant successes could easily have turned his head and made an intellectual snob out of him; yet in his own words, he chose to “be gentle.”

“The Greeks had the word ‘kalos’,” he once wrote in a letter to his son, “which meant three things at once – the great, the good and the beautiful – for in their great wisdom they realized that all three were inseparable.”

Kalos: the great, the good and the beautiful. If ever a word were needed to encompass Patras Bokhari, it would be this.


Faiza Hameed is a final year medical student at King Edward Medical University, Lahore.

Ali Madeeh Hashmi is a Psychiatrist and a trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust. He can be reached at ahashmi39@gmail.com or on twitter @Ali_Madeeh


Translated excerpt from Marhoom Ki Yaad Mein

“Mirza sahib, what is the difference between animals and us?”

Mirza sahib said “Well, it must be something”

I said “Do you want to know?”

He said “Yes”.

I said, ‘There is no difference, between us and animals or at least between me and animals. I know, I know you are adept at nitpicking, you will say animals ruminate, you don’t. They have a tail, you don’t. But what do these things matter? All this proves is that they are better than I am; but in one respect, we are equals; they walk on foot and so do I. Since the day I was born, I have been walking on foot.

On foot! You don’t know what that means. By God, living this kind of life paralyses the brain, kills creativity, makes a man worse than a donkey.’

All during my speech, Mirza sahib kept smoking his cigarette with such nonchalance that I felt like crying. I turned away from him in loathing. It felt as if Mirza did not believe me; as if my troubles were imaginary.

I clenched my teeth and leaned over my chair, Mirza turned towards me. I smiled, a smile tinged with venom.

When I had Mirza’s full attention, I said, chewing on each word “Mirza, I am going to buy a motor car”. I turned away disdainfully.

Mirza spoke ‘What was that you said? You are going to buy a what?’

I said “Didn’t you hear? I’m buying a motor car”

Mirza said ‘hmm’

Now it was my turn to puff nonchalantly on my cigarette.

After a while, Mirza again said ‘hmmm’

I thought, it’s working, he’s getting intimidated. I wanted him to speak so I could see how impressed he was but all he said, again, was ‘Hmmmm’

I said “Mirza, as far as I know, you have learned two or three languages in school and college and in addition you know several words that cannot be repeated in school or college or respectable households and yet your speech is stuck at ‘hmmm’. You are jealous Mirza! In Arabic, your mental state is referred to as resentment”

Mirza said ‘No it’s not that, I was simply pondering the word ‘buy’. You said you are going to buy a motor car. Well, son, buying is an act that requires money. How will you arrange that?’

This had not occurred to me.

But I refused to give up. I said “I will sell some of my precious things”

Mirza said ‘Such as?’

I said “This cigarette case, first of all”

Mirza said ‘Well, that’s ten annas, if the other the two or three thousand rupees can be arranged, it will be alright’.

From “Marhoom ki yaad maiN”


Written by Faiza Hameed and Ali Madeeh Hashmi