Books and Authors 10.07.01

Review : History of a historian

By Murtaza Razvi

There is something refreshingly honest about Dr Mubarak Ali's writings, and nowhere else has this streak of his been so evident as it is in this autobiographical work. Much like Albert Camus, Ali seems to be a stranger in a world too busy with its mundane pursuits. It is in this world that the writer's actions, reactions, friendships, social and literary quests, all come as a discovery to himself and his readers. A scrupulous historian, he vets his thoughts and personality traits as they develop in his growing persona; he confesses to his own share of contributing to his misery, and yet, at the end of the day, he can hold his head high because he has never compromised on principles. Not everyone has the courage and forbearance to live life like he has.

The book begins with Ali's earliest memories, going back to Tonk in Rajasthan in 1952 on a hot summer day when, probably at the age of eleven, Ali left his hometown with his family to migrate to Pakistan. Ominous as the beginning is, the eleven year-old's account of the emotional baggage, only half of which was carried across the border into the new country and the other half was left behind, is very gripping. After this emotive short chapter setting the tone for what's to follow, the book begins in earnest.

The next chapter is definitely the work of the historian that Dr Mubarak Ali is. There are no skeletons to be hidden and locked away in the cupboard, no claims of grandiose descent to be made, it's plain and simple, honest history writing. The minutest details of what lay where in the house, how the family lived in Tonk, what its interaction was with relatives and the community at large, are all recorded in an earnest vein. And while he's at it, the chapter also gives very useful insights into what life was like back in those days.

Going in chronological order, the next chapter is about Hyderabad, Sindh, which the family made its home after migrating to Pakistan. It was here that Ali went to school, college and university. And it would be here that he would later teach at the university for 21 years. The account of his formative years and how he struggled to make a living and educate himself, again, is very vivid and vindicates the writer's claim that in writing his autobiography he has virtually relived his childhood and adolescence.

From a social historiography standpoint, there are facts to be deduced from this chapter about life in Hyderabad, back in the fifties and sixties. The city held promises of developing into a centre of excellence and fostering an urbane civilization back then, when its institutions were being built. The feeling of doom, however, began to set in with the reign of Ayub Khan. Of particular interest and value are the writer's observations about Ghulam Mustafa Shah, who was then the vice chancellor of Sindh University, and an almost devotional account of his interaction spread over several years with his former teacher and latter day colleague, Ahmad Bashir.

The next chapter opens a whole new world to the reader when Ali gets a scholarship to study at London University. He takes the reader with him on the journey of discovery of the western civilization. The chapter gives useful insights into what it was like to be a university student in the UK in 1970, how the British institutions worked and what kind of international socio-cultural exposure they entailed for a foreign student.

The following chapter is about Ali's enrolment in a German university for a PhD programme. Here again, there are interesting incidents that take place and observations that the writer shares about multiculturalism, reflecting the then prevailing social trends in the old West Germany, at the height of the Cold War. Written with a candid, personal touch, this chapter is highly readable.

Ali returned to Pakistan in September 1976 after completing his degree and rejoined the Sindh University at Jamshoro. Here, Shaikh Ayaz, the renowned Sindhi poet, was the vice chancellor and Hamida Khuro the head of the History Department. This chapter is particularly an eye-opener, as it gives a highly credible account of how the two illustrious people, helped by many others, conducted themselves at the university. Ali and few others like him were not only denied their due respect, they were also victimized when it came to even the routine affairs, such as collecting one's salary and applying for leave. Ali strutted along, doing his work and teaching full time until things came to a head in 1989 and he took retirement. The university never paid up his dues in entirety.

It was after retirement that he was persuaded by friends to move to Lahore with his family. Here again life proved to be a continued struggle. He worked for a publishing house, and headed the Goethe German Institut for four and a half years as its director. Uncompromising and not willing to trade in his principles for worldly gains, Ali now spends his time as visiting speaker at seminars, both in Pakistan and abroad, and takes out a quarterly history magazine. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Lahore.

The last two chapters, one about his trip back to Tonk in the 1990s and the other about his overall reflections on life, are particularly written with a lot of emotion and gusto, and remind the reader of the eleven year old boy who had set out for the new country with his parents in 1952. In the final analysis, the sensitive boy in Dr Mubarak Ali still longs for a pleasant, perhaps this time a lasting, turn in life. And it is in this apparent expression of near helplessness that there still lingers the hope of a better tomorrow, even if only in a bizarre, existentialist, way.

The book is a must read for anyone interested in, well, life; that is, life without any strings attached to it.

Dar dar thokar khaye : Aap beeti

Autobiography of Dr Mubarak Ali

Publiched by Fiction House, 18, Mozang Road, Lahore

Tel : (042) 724 9218, 723 7430







1 1