Ahmed Shah Patras Bokhari - Prince Among Men

By Hafeez Javed,
The Pakistan Times, December 6, 1964

It was on this very day in 1958 that Professor Ahmed Shah Bokhari’s friends and admirers woke up to learn the dreadful news of his sudden death in his Manhattan flat in New York in the early hours of the previous morning.

Here in Lahore, the prevailing sentiment was that the world of letters had become the poorer infinitely by the passing away of an illustrious son of Pakistan, even as the corridors of the United Nations House would for ever remain the lonelier.

As I have said, it is exactly six years today since that ‘prince among men’ uttered his last words. They were addressed to his doctor, a devoted student of Shakespeare, who had rushed to Bokhari’s side when he was suddenly taken ill on the night of December 5. As the doctor bent over and said a word of cheer, he also suggested that he had better hang on, because the attack of the old disease, he thought, was much too serious for the patient to be left alone.

But Bokhari managed to smile a faint smile for his thoughtful doctor and his intimate friend, and said, “No, doctor! The nurse is there to take care of me, I suppose that should do. Thanks a lot.” But Professor Bokhari, who came to be known better as ‘A.S.B’ than by his full name. To my mind however, he belongs to legend as much as to reality.

His initials A.S.B. remind me of a literary parallel, GBS (George Bernard Shaw of Ireland). I mention the country of his origin because the Irish are a most lovable people, with their musical voices, their endless hospitality, There is another reason too for mentioning that country, which is that the British Press, by and large, failed to pay sufficient homage to the Wise Man of Ireland when he died with undisputed fame.

Yes I begin to notice a profound resemblance between A.S.B. and G.B.S. The later was the greatest master of English Language (these are Churchill’s words, and Churchill is no idle worshipper). Bokhari was a greatest master Urdu prose, both in humour and criticism. He also possessed prodigious powers as an orator as the U.N. records and eye-witness account of his performance in the General Assembly and the Security Council show. Bernard Shaw was the foremost exponent of a new theatre, in fact a new world, a new way of life. And what he was to Britain, Bokhari was to the fair town of Lahore, and his love for the theatre was only matched by his knowledge of stage and his resolve to create a living, new theatre in the part of the world. Incidentally among other English plays which Bokhari adapted for the stage the memory of his Urdu version of Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ and his faultless production of the play at the local Government College and the unique performance of the Director himself and his class fellow and lifelong friend, Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj, still lingers in the minds of the theatre-goers of the early thirties. Imtiaz Ali Taj, together with A.S.B., formed what gradually came to be known as the ‘inseparable twins of the theatre-world’.

And in the context of a new way of life in Pakistan, it was Ahmed Shah Bokhari who first raised his voice against literary and religious gangsterism. He wrote a memorable article, called “”Dost ke Nam (to a friend) in which he sounded a forceful warning against the vulgarization of art and literature. And later, when some of self-styled custodians of religion in Lahore came out with scissors in their hands, and went about cutting pigtails of every young, unprotected, non-purdah- observing lady on the streets of Lahore, Bokhari struck fast. He ran a series of letters in this newspaper, under the assumed name of ‘A Mere Woman’ in which he poured boiling oil over the so-called warriors of Islam.

Bernard Shaw’s great merit as a playwright and the social performed failed to the recognized by the overloads of the theatre and the large section of the intelligentsia of his country until the author was well in the prime of his life. Until then his own countrymen were made to recognize in the author nothing better then a bearded charlatan who practiced sorcery in his private moment and wrote putrid stuff unworthy of being read out in decent company. The British and the American big business brandished G.B.S. as a dangerous revolutionary and thanks to the high-salaried manipulators of public opinion across the Atlantic the good old man was ridiculed in the Press and the music-hall as an unpredictable buffoon. If this is not literary persecution, what is?

Bokhari was persecuted in another way. He had not even completed 30 year of his life before he rose the prominence at the Government College. But his very graces as a first-class teacher of English and his unbounded wit and humour became his deadliest enemies. A strategy was soon turned on against the young scholar, and some of the friends and most of the foes advocated a policy of ‘killing the young upstart with faint praise.’ But Bokhari was not faint-hearted individual, as you will presently see.

It was at this time that Bokhari was summoned to the presence of the Director of Public Instruction who had to his credit the authorship of innumerable books, ranging from work on cookery and palmistry to work on subjects of a more serious nature. But, before time and unchallenged repetition have given their sanction to misconceptions, I must point out that all these works of art and no-art were invariably manufactured by scores of ill-paid school teachers and down and-out pen pushers, more for the welfare of the Education Chief than with all view to the enlightenment of the hapless reader. A very good example of ‘corrupt education’ at both ends.

As soon as Bokhari was admitted to the august audience of the Director, he was ordered to produce a final draft of the Five-Year Education Report the following day, and loaded with all relevant and irrelevant data collected haphazardly by the clerkly orders in the establishment. This was a most frivolous order but it had to be carried out. So, Bokhari took a cart-load of typed papers and hand written sheets to his cosy, little flat, on McLeod Road; cancelled all his engagements for the day and the evening left world with his man and his master’s abode would be out of bounds for the next 24 hours to all callers, and set to work in right earnest.

The report had been completed by the small hours of the night, and nearly 30 typed pages of a very sensible document were handed in at the Director’s office, the first thing in the morning. The Director without as much as a word of artificial gratitude, glanced through the script in a matter of a few minutes and returned the verdict: “Well, Bokhari, old man! I suppose I shall have to take a great deal of pains to give your handiwork any final shape. So, long, then! ”

Bokhari quietly got up from his seat, caught hold of the typed report and tore it into pieces forthwith, depositing the result in the Director’s waste-paper basket, and took his leave.

Back at his flat, Bokhari was having a nice cup of coffee, when the bell rang. It was the Director’s messenger saying, would the professor make it convenient to call at the Director’s office immediately. When Bokhari landed on the scene, he noticed a thoroughly discomfited adversary, taking great pains indeed pasting stray pieces of the torn-out report into order, and thereby establishing the truth of the part of his earlier comment.

And now for the last point of affinity between A.S.B. and G.B.S. Among British authors, Shaw will also be remembered perhaps, as the most delightful debunker of his time. He removed from their pedestals many a celebrity of dubious qualifications, running the Government of his country or otherwise meddling with important question of public welfare, including morals and aesthetics.


Bokhari has also demolished time-old citadels of ostentation and questionable merit with his ready wit. But, being a Government employee nearly all his life, he could not open his mouth too wide against the powers that be: He is therefore, seen at his best when he tears to pieces the worthless literary criticism of some of his contemporaries.

When one Mr. Tamkeen Kazmi, who had formerly earned insufficient discredit for his puerile Urdu version of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” subsequently published his humorous work, so-called “Ghuncha-i-Tabassum” (Smile in Bud), and added a rather pointless preface to his book and, over and above, commissioned four of his very close associates to contribute an equally meaningless preface each, Bokhari could not be consoled. And out came his “A Review of the Preface to Smiles in Bud” which is a masterpiece of witty and critical writing, I shall however restrict myself to the translation of only a short extract from this literary manifesto. Bokhari says something to this effect: “Of late, we have noticed that the incidence of the plague of preface-writing is on the increase every days: A ‘mulla’ (a person learned in Muslim Theology) produces a book, and there is the eternal Haji (a pilgrim to Mecca) to oblige with a preface, and the other way round, too, the purpose of such an arrangement being no other than the calling into being a Mutual Admiration Society. We grant that, the state of public ignorance being what it is, and the high degree of obscurity being an essential item of the literary paraphernalia of some of our writers, a solitary preface to every book is perhaps indicated; otherwise a large readership runs the risk of failing to appreciate the niceties of the original work. But as many as four prefaces to one single book would appear to be the limit. Mr. Tamkeen Kazmi is already widely known both by his name and literary achievements. It is, therefore, all the more astonishing that the author should require at least four pall-bearers to lend him movement.”

My first meeting with Professor Bokhari took place rather unexpectedly. It was on a beautiful morning in the rainy season when he called on Professor Taseer at his drawing-room in the Barudkhana, Lahore. Bokhari was glowing all over. And he had a good reason for being so pleased with himself. And he had just completed his literary tirade I have just referred to above and was dying to read it out to a discerning hearer before sending it on for publication. And Professor Taseer was the man after his heart who could be relied upon for a final ruling on the quality of Bokhari’s composition.

Before I met Mr. Bokhari in person at Professor Taseer’s place, I had actually made his acquaintance much earlier in absentia. That was when I had good fortune of acquiring the first edition of his inimitable “Patras Ke Mazamin,” a collection of personal essays in a lighter vein. This is what Bokhari has to say in the preface to his humorous writings:

“If you have received this book as a complimentary copy, the sender has, indeed, done me a great favour. If you have pinched it form somewhere, I must admire you good taste. If you have, on the other hand, purchased it with your own money, you deserve my sympathy, In such an event, you couldn’t do better to justify your folly than think well of the work.”

“The characters appearing in these articles are imaginary. Even where the ‘First Singular Person’ has been employed, the characters remain fictitious. You (Dear Reader) are, of course a knowledgeable person. But there might be some readers who have never read a book before. So, there is no harm if they are guarded against error.”

I shouldn’t forget to relate one of the many triumphs. Bokhari achieved in the matter of public-speaking. When he led Pakistan’s delegation to the India Office Partition (Literary Assets) Negotiations (London, 1947), some of us, of the BBC,s Pakistani Service, arranged the first Iqbal Day meeting on the professor advice. It was a truly distinguished gathering including some of the most accomplished literati and statement of London. Allama Abdullah Yusuf Ali presided.

After about half dozen eminent Pakistani and British speakers had paid their tributes to the Poet of Pakistan, Professor Bokhari was requested to take the floor. He spoke for a little over fourteen minutes and then resumed his seat amidst tremendous applause. From then on, every one who stood up to address the audience, nearly forgot the subject of the commemorative meeting and sat down after singing praises of professor Bokhari’s oration. The result was that Iqbal Day was is no time turned in to Bokhari Day.

Professor Ahmed Shah Bokhari of blessed memory was, in short, one of those rare personalities:

Whose fires
True Genius kindles and fair
Fame inspires.