Bokhari, Lahore's true geographer

By Khalid Hasan

Anwar Shabnam Dil, who spent many years working on Prof Ahmed Shah Bokhari's life and work and who produced a book of abiding value on him, told me in 1993 that "Bokhari's great work was done at the United Nations." He said that apart from being as great an internationalist as Dag Hammerskjold, he was the first advocate of liberation movements in colonised countries across Africa and the Middle East. That credit has been denied him by his countrymen, as they have denied it to Sir Zafralla Khan, though for different reasons.

Said Dil, "He was their voice and no voice was more eloquent than his. His great work was devoted to larger questions, the human condition itself. If the Third World is looking for heroes, Bokhari would stand tall in that pantheon, taller than most." A woman told Dil that when Bokhari walked into a room, he would light it up. If conversation is an art, then Bokhari was its most brilliant practitioner. From 1947 to 1951, he was Principal of Government College, Lahore (now ungrammatically called Government College University, something that must make Bokhari turn in his New York grave). What books Pakistan was able to get of its share from the Indian Office Library in London, it may owe to Bokhari who negotiated their retrieval. Were Bokhari alive today and were some sections of the collection still to be apportioned, it is not he who would be sent but some sifarshi who would return home with his bags filled, not with books but with shopping from Oxford Street with his "lady wife."

Had Bokhari no accomplishment other than Patras ke Muzameen, a slim collection of eleven humorous essays, his name would have lived. It has been said by his students that there was no finer teacher of English literature than him, nor one with a deeper understanding of its vast treasures of prose and poetry. His knowledge of Shakespeare was encyclopaedic. Legendary tales of his time as Principal of Government College have been recorded by his contemporaries and students, one of which goes like this. Bokhari was at his desk, looking through his papers when he heard someone walk in. Without looking up, he said, "Please take a chair." The man, a member of the Indian Civil Service, felt insulted, "I am so and so of the ICS," he announced superciliously.
"Then take two chairs," Bokhari said without looking up.

But it is those essays of light humour that give us the opportunity to take the true measure of the man. Here is Bokhari's foreword to the book (I hope he won't award me a D-minus for translation): "If someone has sent this book to you as a free gift, then he has done me a favour. If you have stolen it from somewhere, then I compliment you on your good taste. If you have bought it with your own money, then you have my sympathies. Under the circumstances, it is best that you consider this a good book to justify your lack of judgment. All characters in these essays are fictional, even those occasionally plastered with the first person singular, though they may claim they are not. . . If some gentleman wishes to translate this book into a foreign language, he should first seek the permission of the people of the country who speak that language." (Should I have written to the Queen?)
And here is his classic essay on "Lahore's Geography." Introduction: "By way of introduction, I wish to submit that it is now many years since Lahore was discovered, thus there is no need to prove its existence through Dalayal Buraheen (a forbiddingly learned tome by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan). Nor should it be necessary that the globe should be set in motion from the left till the country called India comes to a stop before your eyes, and on which you should start searching for the intersecting point of the longitude and latitude where Lahore is to be found. Suffice it to say that wherever you spot Lahore, that exactly is where Lahore is. This research has been briefly but comprehensively summed up by our elders who state that Lahore is Lahore. If you are unable to find Lahore where it is supposed to be, then your education is below par and your intelligence is of a lower order. A couple of mistakes I do wish to correct though. Lahore is situated in the Punjab but Punjab no longer is the Land of Five Rivers, since only four and a half of them actually flow. The half river is no longer capable of flowing, which is why it is commonly referred to as Old Ravi. Access address: This river keeps lying under two bridges built close to the city. The pastime of flowing it gave up quite some time ago. This makes it somewhat difficult to say if the city is located on the river's left or its right bank. Several routes lead to Lahore, but two of them are very famous: one from Peshawar and the other from Delhi. Central Asian invaders come by the Peshawar route and invaders from the United Province via Delhi. The former are called The Sword Bearers and they carry the nom de plume of Ghaznavi or Ghauri."

And here is an excerpt from his essay titled Dogs. "Inquiries made from zoologists and veterinarians, apart from much time spent in trying to understand as to what use dogs are, an answer has so far proved elusive. Take the cow: it provides milk. Take the goat: it provides milk, and it expels tiny balls of offal. What do these dogs do? The dog is said to be a faithful animal. If being faithful means you start barking come the hour of seven in the evening and continue barking without break until six in the morning, then we are better off without a tail . . . Undoubtedly, our relations with dogs have been somewhat strained, but we can swear that on no occasion have we turned away from non-violence. You may consider it unnatural but as God is our witness, we have never raised our hand against a dog, although various friends have advised that we carry a stick or a staff at night as it is known to be effective tool against a whole range of evils. However, we have no wish to create enmity with anyone. It is true that as soon as a dog begins to bark, our instinctive gentleness so overwhelms us as to give some onlookers the impression that we are cowardly . . . One night as we turned a corner on the road, we came upon a tethered goat, but to us it appeared to be a dog. Imagine a dog as big as a goat, in other words a dog dog. Our hands and feet swelled and the stick in our hand that we had been twirling around, came to a dead stop at a most unreasonable angle. The music we had been making by whistling underwent a tremor before slipping into silence . . . As long as there are dogs in this world who insist on barking, we can be said to have one foot in the grave."

And here is Bokhari's Mirza Sahib, who once sold him the world's worst cycle, "Take Mirza Sahib now. Quite a nice man you would say with such an innocent face that one could mistake him for a mosque Imam. Gamble, he does not, gulli-danda he has no love for, pickpocket he isn't, but pigeons he does raise, which provide him with his entertainment."

Ahmed Shah Bokhari! What a guy!
*(Khalid Hasan is a senior Pakistani journalist-columnist hailing from Jammu and Kashmir based in Washington).
-(Courtesy: The Friday Times)