AS Bokhari, unlike any other

By Khalid Hasan

Had AS Bokhari done nothing except write Patras ke Muzameen , his name would have lived; but he did a great, great deal more, which is why he is remembered with both admiration and affection, a rare combination, to this day. Even before independence, his distinctions were many. The first Indian director-general of All India Radio, he was principal of the most famous college in the country, Government College, Lahore (which now bears the ridiculous name of Government College University). There perhaps never has been a finer teacher of English than Bokhari.

Here is Bokhari on the river Ravi, which I take the liberty of translating into English. “In this land of five rivers, today there are only four and a half rivers that actually flow. The half river, one should add, is no longer capable of flowing, which is why it is known as the old, decrepit Ravi. If a meeting is desired, one need only be acquainted with the two bridges close to the city, under whose arches the river can be found languishing in the sand. Since it has suspended its occupation of flowing, it is difficult to say whether the city is located on Ravi’s left or right.”
And here is Bokhari on Lahore: “It is said that there was a time when Lahore had a physical location. However, for the convenience of students, the municipality has had it cancelled. Today, Lahore is surrounded on all four sides by more Lahore, which replicates itself constantly. Experts are of the opinion that in a few years, Lahore will be the name of the province with Punjab as its capital.”

I wonder what Bokhari would make of the city and its almost completely disappeared river today. A friend, Tariq Masud in Islamabad, has come upon a wonderful piece of writing by Bokhari. It is a letter he wrote to one of his sons in Liverpool. It is in English, which saves me from the sin of translating Bokhari’s luminous prose. The letter is long and given the constraints of space, what are reproduced are just excerpts:
“My dear Rooney,

“You know all that it is important to know and have seen more of life than I had seen at your age. Nevertheless parents have an incurable habit of giving good advice, in season and out of it, even when it is not needed. It arises from affection and from protective desires and from anxiety for your welfare, born of love. Let me therefore give way to this incurable habit, and if you find my advice superfluous, as I sincerely hope you will – I am sure you will – you can ignore it forgivingly – that is to say without being irritated by it. I will make it as brief as I can.
“First of all, a very simple piece of advice – avoid breaking the law. I don’t mean resist the temptation of committing a murder or robbing a bank. Your life is not heroic enough to have such monumental desires, as you haven’t had the ample opportunities that are provided by having been brought up amongst hoodlums and gangsters. But one is always liable to break laws in little things. One had better avoid that in foreign countries.

“Secondly, women. This is not a delicate subject. I am not going to speak about the ‘delicate’ side of this matter. . . All that I wish to say is that when you meet women, you are bound to show off a little – we all tend to do so, more or less according to the amount of vanity and the amount of desire to appear good and great in addition to being good or great. But do not try to impress women or for that matter anyone with your money . . . It is like smoking. Smoke if you want to – it is a mildly sinful, mildly expensive and mildly soothing activity, but there is a difference between smoking and chain smoking; also between smoking and taking drugs like opium. The next two or three years are important in your life. On them depends how comfortable your life as an individual or as the husband of a wife or the father of children will be in years to come.
“Thirdly, as time goes on, your letters to us will become less and less frequent and also more and more brief. This is nothing to feel guilty about. It will be a sign, not of callousness, but of an expanding horizon and a change in perspective. But two things I will still like you to do. Do write regularly to Mummy – however brief the letters. You are more important to her than she is to you. Also with the years her need of you will grow greater, your need of her less. Therefore be kind and considerate. Her demands will be urgent to her, but not great or difficult to fulfill . . . As for me, write to me just when you feel, whether it is for money, for advice, for consolation or for mere fun.

“This letter has almost become like Polonius’ speech to Laertes. I am too close to it to see whether it is full of clichés and as pompous as Polonious’ string of wise sayings was. But I am not afraid of exposing my pompousness to you, if I have it in me. You and I have been friends for many years – you have been a jolly fine companion to me and I do not mind if I reveal my worst weaknesses to you. I am sure you will forgive them, and at the worst will smile at them with understanding and affection. I am studying the Mexican system of education, on behalf of our government. A large part of the Mexican population is illiterate and backward, but since the Mexican revolution of 1910, there is a great stirring of the soul in this baffling and picturesque country and their struggles to rise and redeem their cultural soul are fascinating and inspiring.
“Mummy asked me to send you some clothes from here. I’ll be sending you money instead, as clothes rationing is off in England – sending stuff from here is expensive and complicated. A little later you might give me a picture of how you stand financially, so that I send you a steady supply of filthy lucre according to your needs. I was going to say that I am not rich, but you know how rich or poor we are. What you may not know fully is that, nevertheless, at all times we should be not only ready but delighted to treat your needs as the most paramount in the family . . . Have a good time – I am using ‘good’ in the Greek sense. The Greeks had the word kalos , which meant three things at once – the great, the good and the beautiful – for in their great wisdom they realised that all three were inseparable.

“P.S. Keep your Urdu alive. Ask Mansoor to keep you supplied with an occasional book or magazine. This is important.”
This entry was posted on Friday, March 24th, 2006 at 1:20 pm .