A man of letters

November 8, 2020

The last part of The Tales from Diaspora explores the tremendous contribution of M Athar Tahir to the literary world

M Athar Tahir is one of those maestros of prose and poetry who, while firmly rooted in their soil, aimed for the universal by mastering the particular. Out of the countless accolades he has to his credit, Tahir was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in 1974; a Hubert H Humphrey fellow in 1984 at the University of Southern California; a Rotary International Scholar from Pennsylvania University and a winner of Bhitai Award and National Book Council Prize in 1990 and 1991, respectively. His works have been published the world over and his texts are taught to students at Heidelberg University in Germany. Being one of the most valuable writers in Pakistan today, Tahir has always advocated the importance of rootedness and versatility of style. In Shoaib bin Hassan’s words: “Like him, Athar Tahir’s poetry is neat and clean, suave and subtle. Gained by mastery over inner turmoil and tension. Man and poet. East-West centrist, deep-rooted, many-voiced, another and the same, his perceptions have weight and authority. Perspectivistic, his poems are exploratory of new directions, of other seasons, of diverse dimensions.”

Tahir says that language, and hence terminologies, do not come without cultural baggage. The rootedness of the narrative is quintessential to driving home a forceful message. It has to be of the land, the country, the locality in order for it to be exact and poetically correct.

In Inspector of Schools, a story from his short story collection, Other Seasons, Tahir tells the tale of an inspector who goes to inspect a public school, where he interacts with peasants, students and the schoolmaster. The story explores how despite being sensitive to the educational situation in these public schools, the inspector cannot help fix the debilitating condition of the place as he is merely a cog in the bureaucratic machinery. Tahir explores the issues, themes and events pertinent to his time and surroundings in this story.

Moreover, he works on the style of writing. In another one of the stories, A Colonial Octogenarian, an old army man narrates his tale of working with the British. The comparisons given are made more interesting as he uses the stream of consciousness technique. Meandering speech – distinctive of an old person – and lack of proper sentences yet a sharp memory. “He wore no glasses. To stress a point he patted one on the arm. He would go on the helter-skelter. In English. In Urdu. Both more vigorous than correct.”

In The Diamond Market, he explores the red light area of Lahore, illuminating the longing of an old woman for the past – older, nicer times when these women had respect in society as courtesans and gatekeepers of literature, art and music of the city. “With great respect and honour that time was spent”. The old woman remembers a time when women like her did not have to eke out a living from this shoddy locality. Now politicians and bureaucrats and rich people have marred their reputations by frequenting this place. She misses the time when respectable men came and married their girls. Things are not like that any longer. The old woman’s words seem like she is cognizant of some morality and all compass has not been lost. She is but a creature of her circumstances. “As Time is, so with Time we move.”

Poetry is language charged with feeling and sentiment. In a few words, a greater message can be driven home. In his collection of poetry The Last Tea, Tahir says:

“Unlike the flute that mourns/ Its parting with the reed/ The silent pen atones/ For it with a song freed”

In his poem, Seventeen Ways of Looking at the Monsoon, he writes:

“Approaching clouds-/ hundred beaks in banyan trees/ discover new silence.”

In Twenty One Ways of Looking at Silence, Tahir writes:

“1.Next to a reed-pen/ A white sheet of paper/ 2.The mosque-dome/ Between prayers/ 3.Mountain ranges/ From a blue distance/ 4.Sunshine slanting/ On a whitewashed wall”

This use of imagery is exquisite. The style and the plot of his writing weave together to render poetry the colour of the soil. Religion, culture and environment have all been used to turn it into a masterpiece of Pakistani literature. He talks of the local flora and fauna. In Bulbul, he says:

“Red-bottomed bulbul / So many songs in its throat/ The monsoon vibrates.”

In the section Japan Journal, he writes,

Maizuru 2

“Slender bamboo trunks/ Bend and bow with foliage./ Native courtesy.”

Hillside 1

“Pine tops, arrowheads/ In the green quiver of hills./ An ancient land speaks.”

In his book Just Beyond the Physical, he writes some poetry which is inspired by religion. Even the name of the book has been inspired by the interpretation of Michelangelo’s divine artwork, Creation of Adam. In his poem on Karbala, he says:

“There comes a time/ When words ring hollow/ When to bend is to break./ That is the time/ When the sun shines hardest;/ That is the time/ When the long day’s march sticks in the throat;/ That is the time/ When water is too distant;/ That is the time/ When the future is what you clench in your hands/ That is the time to say/ “I stand.”

In his poem, Desert, he writes about the eternal message of Islam. About the revelations, he writes,

“i. Below in the valley, lay his dark,/ so he wrapped the dawn about him and descended.”

“ii. Those who could see/ Did see and believe/ And those who had ears/ did hear/ and believe/ but these were few.”

“iii. And those who were left were left/ For sometimes a burden greater/ Than one can bear, one bears.”

“iv. Each day five times bowed west/ And mud mosque minarets/ Like index fingers bore witness”

“v. And no matter/ What your race or shade of skin/ No matter to/ Which tribe you belong/ …O people,/ Just as the red of thine blood/ You are one.”

The message of universality, plurality, egalitarianism and unity has seldom been so beautifully achieved. The author does not lose sight of his own culture, geography, history and roots, and yet delivers an astounding message of hope, universally acknowledged ethos and unity.

As we reach the end of this magical Pakistani Anglophone literature series we can perhaps conclude that hope lies in our being rooted, owning ourselves as we are, and acknowledging the treasures we have as a country and as a people and then building ourselves through the written word, from the ground up.

The writer is a columnist and an author of A Child of the New Millennium Stories and Essays from Pakistan (2015)

A man of letters