You, My Father
This poem was written for my father shortly before he left us forever. While dedicated to my father who I respected and loved immensely his generation becomes a metaphor for the older generation that lived and worked in the British Raj. On the surface there was stability but the undercurrents were strong. Those like my father clung to their culture to keep it alive while serving the British. They resisted in their own ways but never lost sight of the idea of freedom. My father was the generation that had transitioned from being subjects of the Raj to those who literally created Pakistan following the Quaid “like Moses to the promised land of Pakistan.” The poem attempts to capture the predicament, dilemmas and challenges of that time.
You, my father
I saw in those forgotten files
a fading daguerreotype
of you, my father
now so gentle
white and near
you, my father
half-seen in the yellowing solar topee
knee-long shorts and the Imperial stance
the faithful servant of the Raj
that strode a world
so secure and warm
under the never-sinking pink sun;
misted autumnal khaki world:
cricket flannels, Simla summers
polo and pith helmets
sherbet and shikar
Indian heat and gymkhana retreat;
not always shared
and the distant tread of gandhian
feet naked in the night.
Yours a simple wardrobe:
the other native mask
inturned, cloth-spun, clay-made
that looked over your shoulder
to a favourite Mughal
to some Ghalib,
and even Iqbal.
Inside: lapped about
in the sure susurrant waves
in the ocean of shared Muslim cultures,
ruffled by the deeds of dead Muslim heroes.
Outside: basked in the warmth
of an Empire at high noon.
You stood to attention when your father
(or an Englishman)
you walked your morning constitutionals
(or played tennis if the sahib so wished)
you fought to pull up babu standards
(and to strive up to the bara sahib’s).
But that misted subliminal stance
on the two stocky legs
of security and confidence
In my repertoire:
the Mao book, the American scheme
the English tweed, the Indian dream
the Mughal drug, the Muslim scream
and I rest bewildered
weary-legged and stooped in youth
the forest is thick
the night black
and the sky-lights too many
and the sky-lights too bright.
I put back the gray daguerreotype
a little atavistic nostalgia
a little admiration
and some envy.
Dr Akbar S Ahmed is an American-Pakistani academic, author, poet, playwright, filmmaker and former diplomat. Dr Ahmed currently holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and is Professor of International Relations at the American University in Washington, DC.. He was the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to the UK and Ireland.