Dr Ajaz Anwar says that M Athar Tahir’s debut novel has a narrative which is “worth investing some time in, if only for the sake of his command over the language”
ast Friday this scribe visited the Quaid-i-Azam Library in Lahore, only to learn that the launch of M Athar Tahir’s book, Second Coming, had been rescheduled.
As the guests arrived, there was a galaxy of old-timers rarely spotted on such occasions. Listing them would consume a lot of space.
The large hall was filled to capacity. On the stage were some chairs, the central one was reserved for the writer. Those seated included critics who read out lengthy but relevant appraisals. I had hoped to see Prof Shaista Sonu but I was told that she was unwell and could not make it to the event.
The speakers included Dr Syrrina Haque, Dr Waseem Anwar and Dr Rashid Latif Khan. Prof Naveed Rehan’s paper was read out by Mrs Mehreen Tahir-Chowdhry, a Fulbright scholar.
The book launch was moderated by the soft-spoken Oxonian Shezae Khan who was brief and to the point. The speakers too had come prepared, and must have browsed through the 190-page book. Somehow there was no repetition or overlapping as each speaker had their own points of focus.
M Athar Tahir experienced both Suez as well as Cape of Good Hope routes very early on in his life. Being qualified in English literature, he has written extensively – both prose and poetry. He is also very well versed in the art history of Pakistan which includes Gandhara, Indus Valley, Muslim and Colonial periods. He was once the head of the academics department at the National College of Arts. The college, recently upgraded from Mayo School of Arts, had mostly matriculate staff.
Tahir is also a scholar of Western Arts. He streamlined art history and English courses. However, at that junction, the teaching staff as well as the students were strongly divided into opposing camps. Hence, he started looking for other options. After qualifying for the civil service, he left the college which was a big loss for the institution. During his various postings, he repaired and restored the Palace of Chiniot.
He also served as the commissioner of Lahore. Besides, he headed the Lahore Arts Council. During his stint at the LAC, he improved and replenished the permanent collection of the gallery. He acquired Anna Molka’s three sculpture pieces from her daughter, Tahira Ayaz (as discussed in previous columns), and facilitated art publications and authored many listed in the book under discussion. He also created a conducive atmosphere for the artists under the tyrannical administration of Chaudhry Nazir.
His early childhood had acquainted him with the Far East, as his father was posted in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. Nature has been especially kind to the Far Eastern countries, what with their countless verdant islands and rivers big and small. The fruits Tahir mentions in the book include papaya, bananas, coconuts, pineapples and of course the sweetest fruit, durian, which Tahir has not cautioned against despite its foul smell (because of which it is not permitted in any hotel in the region). It’s a land of sea food and river fishes. Swimming is normal while countless small fishes nibble at your feet, giving you a ticklish feeling. Lobsters and shrimps are a staple diet. Eating in small portions and more frequently seems to be the secret of the health of the yellow races.
Thailand is the main theatre of this novel. It’s a tale of infatuation, a damsel being the main subject.
As I have been to several places mentioned in the book, I can safely say that Tahir paints the setting in words with utter fidelity. As the pantographic and kaleidoscopic details of events unfold, one tends to re-read some pages to find the missing links.
Tahir has a store house of memories which he uses to build his narrations. He is under the influence of Lahore, too. Yet, he is an ardent admirer of Prof Emeritus Khalid Iqbal who never painted a cityscape. His book on Iqbal’s paintings is a treat for the eyes. He has been lucky to have travelled to various countries to experience the architecture and art directly. There he draws comparisons with the Renaissance and the Gandharan samples.
Tahir’s knowledge of the Fasting Buddha in the Lahore Museum especially comes in handy when he visits the different Buddhist temples in Bangkok and elsewhere. He marvels at the richly decorated and colourful pagodas and other viharas (or prayer halls).
Though Buddhism originated in Kapilavastu, Nepal, and spread to the whole region and was allowed by Ashoka after the bloody battle of Kalinga, its fall in South Asia was as dramatic as its rise. The Asokan pillars are a testimony to its glory. The Bamian statues were sadly blown away by the Taliban. Its fall and persecution of its followers by Jains is a sad chapter of history. But the peace preaching religion swept through the land of silk or China and other parts of the Far East for Athar Tahir to experience firsthand the diverse cultures in similar geographical confines.
All journeys begin with some apprehension; so does Tahir’s narrative. The main character in this theatrical description is the middle-aged Sukhon Urairat alias Su, who has gone through three exes and whose skin is neither pale like the Koreans nor dark like the Malays; it is in between, like her country, Tahir writes.
Of particular interest is how the lady pronounces the English alphabets. Back and forth, Tahir analyses her habits and mode of psychedelic dos and don’ts. Tahir does not seem to have been unexposed to carnal instincts, yet he pretends to have avoided the brink. His company back in Lahore and his forays into the red light district as a reluctant visitor give an aura of hair-raising adventures.
Tahir simultaneously invokes his familial connections and happenings, pleasant and sad. He remembers his wife struggling with a fatal health problem, his sister and her in-laws, and the later happenings that took a tragic turn.
“Truly a strange commentary on aging, and the absence of it. Hauntingly seductive, and emotionally shattering!” says Navid Shahzad about the book. The comment is printed on the front cover.
Bapsi Sidwa, who shot to international fame by self-publishing her first novel, The Crow Eaters, also praised the writer for his sensitivity and self control.
Tahir has a keen interest in Arabic calligraphy which he calls the calligraphy-art. He established a working atelier in Arts Council’s Gaddafi complex. He has a rich collection of fine specimens of the art. Besides, his collection of paintings in different subjects and mediums on display at his residence is quite enviable.
Su earns her doctorate while struggling with English dissertation. When she is unable to hire an editor, Tahir comes to her help. He corrects the manuscripts for her. Thereafter they become e-friends. On various diplomatic assignments, he has the chance to meet her in person. Cultural barriers are explored within the censorship confines. The narrative is worth investing some time in, if only for the sake of his command over the language and his way of expression.
(This column is dedicated to Khalid Anis)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of the NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at email@example.com