Updated Aug 15 2017


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Abdul Wahab Khan titles the compendium of his life’s trajectory Ordinary Life. Rightly said, one would suppose, given that the collection of memories so flawlessly put together could easily be read as an extended official file from somewhere in the archives of the national Secretariat and its allied departments.

The little bit about his birth, the unruliness of the first 17 years of his life, the evolution of a rare brilliance as he took one exam after another with laurels, his selection into the civil service of Pakistan, exposure to men and women of all kinds, the milestones covered as successfully as to make any civil servant proud, the friendships nurtured, the chance to see some of the world’s best art and architecture and opportunities to discuss all this with some of the finest of brains are all — as he would have us believe — run-of-the-mill experiences that add up to an average life.

And yet it is doubtful that the man himself was or is ordinary, for who but an extraordinary person could have a memory so immaculate as to describe in detail a raised eyebrow, a woman’s dress and carriage, or the colour of somebody’s eyes after almost three decades of having seen it.

It is not possible to define the great and the sublime without the ordinary and the ridiculous

Meticulously covering a little less than 500 pages of a readable font size, the most moving part of the publication is undeniably the book’s preface, in itself a piece of classic beauty. It is in these two pages that the author’s brilliance as a man of letters and learning shines through as he discourses briefly about how — driven by an old myth — he is convinced that only “the great and the powerful reach the height of sublime immortality.” Quoting classical Greek mythology whereby only the high and mighty reserve the right to rule, he finds the same relevance in early monotheistic times when it was only the prophets, sages, saints and oracles who were deemed infallible. Frederick Nietzsche’s superman, Charles Darwin’s theory about the survival of the fittest and Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s ‘Mard-i- Momin’ are all about that power and greatness. Then why did Khan go on to write about his own life which he repeatedly describes as ordinary and totally driven by the forces of destiny? The reason is classic: because he believes it would not be possible to define the great and the sublime without the ordinary and the ridiculous.

The first two chapters starting with the writer’s birth in Banaras [Varanasi] have to be grudgingly accepted as a social history of sorts as Khan veers between the personal and the public: the personal as visible pride in ancestral accomplishments and the fashioning of his own personality in that milieu, and the public as a very informative synopsis of the history of the subcontinent down to the birth of Pakistan and the rise of Bengali nationalism. Both make for an absorbing read even as Khan moves back and forth in time, almost as if he were convincing himself that about these things, write he must. Hence the delay in embarking upon penning what should be taken as the ‘body’ of the book.

Induction into the civil service meant that Khan had to commit himself to taking the sour with the sweet even as the ‘wild child’ within him — by his own admission — kept teasing him to do more. The account of his Federal Public Service Commission interview, that eventually led to him being pushed far below the expected rank due to the chairman’s bias, sets the tone for what is to follow. Starting active service with an Export Promotion Bureau posting, Khan writes unselfconsciously about how he made a mark on his seniors while at the same time coming into direct verbal conflict with some others. Thereafter it is a tale of how superior intellects are more often than not pushed to the margins by those who have made it to the upper echelons of Pakistan’s civil service either by sycophancy, public relations expertise, or fate.

It goes to the author’s credit, however, that he stuck to his guns and eventually went on to prove his mettle as an honest, hardworking bureaucrat for the next 20 years. Being posted to Islamabad early in his career was the launch pad for international travel beginning with Italy, Switzerland and India. Trips to the many cities of the world were welcome interludes that allowed him to pamper his innate love of the aesthetic and intellectual. There he ran into some very interesting persons, and discoursing with them about the finer things in life balanced the travails of officialdom that a free spirit such as him was forced to tolerate. Put together, both experiences form a compendium which is at one level a travelogue and at another a tale of servitude borne with patience as well as one of suffering fools. Daniel Tabone’s verse from his poem ‘Fragments’ — “This is a prison/ Guarded by bureaucracy/ And funded by those in power/ We gave up our freedom/ For a little bit of money” — all but sums up the content of Khan’s book.

The minutiae of officialdom that have been penned with so much detail would certainly be of interest to Khan’s service colleagues, a good many of whom appear to have been instrumental in pushing him to write. To those colleagues he pays back a debt of honour by dedicating an entire chapter to their opinions about the potentials of his own creativity — if the book was to come under the head of creative writing, that is. However to be fair, one needs to thank Khan for taking other readers on fascinating forays into foreign lands. From Kazakhstan to Canada, to the many capital cities of the world, the coffee breaks with female companions in balmy Mediterranean climes, the pen-sketches of people ordinary and not so ordinary, the vivid reproduction in words of art pieces in world-famous galleries — Khan makes it sound like the world has been his oyster. Stop press. And yet the concluding chapter negates all this as Khan pours forth his disillusionment about his life’s trajectory to make for a sad but highly philosophical ending by a thinking man who wanted to take the road not taken, but who was driven by the forces of destiny to toe the ridiculous.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development

Ordinary Life
By Abdul Wahab Khan
Zaki Sons, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 13th, 2017