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March 29, 2020

A military man’s reflections through lens of time

Islamabad

March 29, 2020

“Narration,” says novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, “is a very, very human thing. We do it all the time...everyone makes up at least one story—The Story of My Life...”

This book is the life story of the ardent translator from and into Turkish, Colonel (r) Masud Akhtar Shaikh, who was born in Rawalpindi during the British Raj in 1929. In a straightforward narrative from memory, he describes his childhood and youth, and then his professional life mainly in the Signals Branch of the Pakistan Army, and later, on deputation to CENTO in Turkey. This was followed by an active literary career rooted in his love of the Turkish language, which produced 25 books. Of these, 21 were translations of prose and poetry. His narrative characteristically traces out the personal and public aspects of his life experiences with un-embellished directness and candidness.

Autobiographies aim to rediscover lost time; they bring back to life, an ostensibly vanished past with the aid of one’s memory. This is indeed the autobiography of an extraordinary man possessing a prodigious memory. Nearly 90 years are recalled with an uncanny fluency. Even if some credit is due to diaries which the writer may have kept, the recall of minute details demonstrated in this book is simply mind-boggling. Events and episodes, names and dates, places and itineraries, times and timings, thoughts of the moment, issues of the day, and the arrival and exit of people on the stage hold the onlooker spellbound, like the eye of some Ancient Mariner.

The autobiography is a unique combination of an extended diary, a detailed chronicle, an extensive travel account, and an intensive recollection of people from the past. As a mirror of the times, the book throws a flood of light on history, sociology, politics, culture, administration, and the tone and temper of bygone years. In my view, an autobiography’s success is to be gauged by the way it presents landmarks and footprints, and actually captures the spirit of lived experiences. Col. Shaikh’s narrative may be reviewed as a triangle of experiences spanning his childhood and youth, professional life, and his literary pursuits. Let me share with the reader, my take on these three strands in the autobiography.

Col. Shaikh informs us that his forefathers were Sikhs and that his ancestor Gurdial Singh, on conversion to Islam, went on to perform Hajj11 times before he died. He recalls the family’s house in Rawalpindi and Peshawar, where his father served in the Railways. He remembers the general use of kerosene lamps and houses with no running water available. This indeed was the norm even for lower middle class families of the time. In an interesting anecdote, he recalls an old Hindu lady, who would continually clean the water tap because naughty Muslim boys would constantly drink from it to tease her. He also mentions the segregation between ‘Muslim water’ and ‘Hindu water’ on railway platforms in those days.

Life in Denny’s High School, Rawalpindi, is described in some detail. It appears that just like today, there was no furniture in primary schools. He gives examples of poor medical facilities in every city that his family lived. However, everyday commodities were cheap. For example, 22 seers of ‘aata’ cost only a rupee. He captures graphically, the day-to-day atmosphere in cities like Nankana Sahib, Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), and Rawalpindi. The writer was a good student and obtained a high position in the Matriculation examination. He joined the DAV College in Rawalpindi. But he recalls the atmosphere of fear even before partition, which resulted in migration of Hindu and Sikh teachers to India. Interestingly, he speaks of a temporary affinity that he felt for the Congress and Khaksars because of their simple habits and plain apparel. However, he soon turned back to participate in the Freedom Movement and proudly recalls a handshake with Quaid-e-Azam in Rawalpindi.

The second strand of the book pertains to Colonel Shaikh’s professional life, which began with his induction into the Pakistan Army through the Officers Training School in March 1949. In fact, he belongs to a cadre of officers who laid the infrastructure of the Signals Department in difficult terrains like Neelum Valley and other remote areas of Azad Kashmir. Clearly, he remained happy in the field but had a distaste for headquarter appointments.

The writer describes his sojourn in East Pakistan. By this time, he had four daughters. The poverty of East Pakistanis is described in moving terms. He was part of the famous Operation Close Door (1957), during the course of which he discovered that the communications circuit from Dacca to Sylhet passed through Indian territory for many miles. He took the initiative to rectify this unattended security lapse.

During the 1965 War, Col. Shaikh’s battalion moved to Kharian, where Gen. Yahya Khan was commanding the 7 Division. Col. Shaikh gives quite a favourable account of Gen. Yahya’s leadership in the Chhamb-Jaurian sector. He cites an interesting incident regarding the huge timber stocks that had collected in this area, brought downstream by the River Chenab. Senior officers kept lobbying with the General to allow its transportation to the Central Ordnance Depot in Rawalpindi. However, Gen. Yahya did not budge and gave the following answer: “I don’t want to corrupt my officers. If I agree to this proposal, I am sure many of my officers will be tempted to get half of the truckloads delivered to their residences. I don’t want even a single officer of my Division to be corrupted. So, don’t open this subject again.” One wishes that Gen. Yahya had shown the same character in other critical situations in the nation’s history as well!

Another event merits a mention in which the writer figures in his capacity as Deputy Director Signals posted in the General Headquarters. It pertains to the surrender message sent to Lieutenant General Niazi, Commander of East Pakistan, from the Army Chief ’s Secretariat. Before transmitting the message onwards, Colonel Shaikh decided to reconfirm its veracity at the highest levels. But after permitting the signal to go, he recounts how he broke down inconsolably. Indeed, this message transmitted in September 1971 brought tears to the eyes of the entire nation.

The story of Col. Shaikh’s professional life would remain incomplete without a reference to his posting in Turkey. He had attended a language course in 1961 and also participated in the Turkish Army Staff College course in 1966-67. In fact, the writer fell in love with Turkey and the Turkish language. Destiny brought him back to Turkey for four years (1972-76) on a deputation to CENTO, which at one place, the writer bluntly describes as “one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated upon a group of nations.” Another aspect of the writer’s professional life pertains to his role as a high-level interpreter. He recalls numerous occasions when his chair was squeezed between Turkish and Pakistani dignitaries.

The third strand of the book revolves around Col. Shaikh’s literary pursuits. In my opinion, this aspect constitutes the zenith of his achievement. He brought the hearts and minds of Pakistan and Turkey closer than ever before. He made the works of Turkish literary giants available to the reading public of Pakistan in both English as well as Urdu. These giants included Aziz Nesin, O mer Sayfettin, Res at Nuri Gu ntekin, Yas ar Kemal, Hamid Nutki Aytan, Necip Faz l K saku rek, Orhan Kemal, Fethullah Gu len, and Hasibe S ahog lu.

The respect that Colonel Shaikh came to enjoy in Turkey can be assessed from the rich tribute paid to him by Turkish Ambassador to Pakistan Kemal Gu r, in 2007. He described him as “a Chinar in the foothills of the Himalayas,” speaking the same language as “the Chinars of Bursa in Istanbul.” This tribute is certainly worth reading. Indeed, Colonel Shaikh’s contribution in cementing the cultural and literary bonds between Pakistan and Turkey will come to be valued more and more as time passes by.

History does not remember powerful people as kindly as it does those with a human touch. Col. Shaikh emerges from his autobiography as a person of great personal humility. Sweetness and sobriety are his hallmarks. He has remained a loving family man and is proud of his children. He does not suffer from grandiose pretentiousness. This book not only narrates his constant struggles to pray five times a day, but also testifies to a consistent love for Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) throughout his life. Col. Shaikh has devoted an entire section of this book to his dreams. Dreams with religious nuances are, in my view, a matter strictly between an individual and the Creator. But one dream which he passionately repeats pertains to the prediction of a future event, when he got an opportunity to visit the resting place of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in the entourage of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. He found himself exactly in the same location that he had earlier dreamt of.

Can I be a little blunt here? The saga of Col. Shaikh’s childhood and youth, the epic of his professional life, and the significance of the dreams he had, as recounted in this book, may pass into history or be preserved in family records or public libraries, but his work as a literary translator of the highest order, bringing Pakistan and Turkey closer than ever before, will assure him a place in posterity. He has attained distinction in making aesthetic renderings of creative works falling in diverse genres—plays, novels, short stories, and poems. His pen reflects a skillful balance between fidelity to the original and its expression in another language, which is both linguistically pleasing and convincing as a work of art. It has been said that “a good translator is an exquisite ambassador.” Indeed, this description fits Col. Shaikh like a glove.

(The writer is an English language poet and former

Cabinet Secretary and Federal Health Minister)