A Meditation Room, A Headstone, and a College Dorm

A verse by Robert Frost dedicated to the Urdu essayist Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari AKA Patras, who introduced us to a Cambridge feminist, Mabel, deserves a Connection Post— like Connection poems that reveal relationships between events, places, and people.

We’ll make those connections in the Meditation room at the UN, a graveyard in New York, a dorm room in Cambridge University, and a college in Faisalabad, Pakistan.

Robert Frost and Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari

Here’s how it unfolds. Robert Frost is asked by Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari, UN undersecretary in charge of Public Relations, to write a verse dedicated to the altar in the newly created Meditation room at the UN.

Representing stillness required for meditation, the room is furnished with two items: a slab of iron gifted by the King of Sweden and a fresco by Swedish artist Bo Beskow. For Frost, the iron slab represent the divisiveness of humankind, and hence the couplet, “From Iron: Tools and Weapons”:

Nature within her inmost self divides

To trouble men with having to take sides.

Frost admits the verse is dark. Nature divides men, he proclaims. And in later lectures, he explains this somber choice.

They want me to decide, I think, what it [the slab of iron]symbolizes. They hope I’ll do it in verse, and maybe I will…They think it’s just one thing. But, of course, it isn’t. A lump of iron is at once tools and weapons…And so I made them a couplet like this…

Meditation

Tools and weapons seem a far cry from meditation. Like fasting for the body, meditation trains the mind for clarity and stability, ultimately leading to an understanding of our common humanity. But, as history has shown, those who choose to meditate don’t necessarily unite. Even in 2021, Buddhist monks in Myanmar are divided on their reaction to the resistance movement. And meditation is intrinsic to their belief, as it is to so many other belief systems. Frost’s verse just might have been fitting for where it was planned.

The Valhalla Cemetery and Frost’s Verse

But if you visit the Meditation room at the UN Headquarters on 42nd Street, New York, you won’t find Frost’s verse. You will find it a hundred miles north at the Valhalla Cemetery in New York. You’ll find it engraved on the headstone of the first Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations, Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari. When he requested Frost to write the verse dedicated to the Meditation room, he didn’t know it would be selected for his own headstone.

More about Syed Ahmad Shah Bokhari, aka Patras Bokhari

Shah was born in Peshawar, in British India. After moving to Lahore, he left for Cambridge in 1920 to study English Literature. On returning to India, he taught English at the prestigious Government College Lahore. Later, after stints in broadcasting and garnering fame as an essayist, he spent his last years recognized by the New York Times for being the “Diplomat’s Diplomat”.

Having taken the pen-name of Patras Bokhari, Shah is known by readers of Urdu Literature for his humorous essays, most prominently for the essay, “Mabel Aur Main” “Mabel and I”/“میبل اور میں”/“मेबल और मैं”

At Cambridge

At Cambridge University, Shah studies English Literature at Emmanuel College. In Cambridge, he meets Mabel. She’s a feminist. The young Shah, arriving from India in the early twenties, is intimidated by her. Feminism is the new unknown for many at that time. Even Cambridge is not ready for such ideas.

Women at Cambridge University

At that time, Mabel might have attended Girten, the first college in Cambridge founded for women in 1869. She cannot be Shah’s classmate at Emmanuel College. They didn’t take women until much later.

Can you believe that? I ask Selma when I tell her this. Like me, she is fascinated by this nugget I dug up from the University website.

She wouldn’t have even received her degree from Cambridge in the 1920s. I add with a raised eyebrow.

How is that even possible?  If she attended all her classes, why wouldn’t she receive the degree? 

Cambridge University, the center of learning and creativity since its inception in 1209, did not grant women degrees till 1948, the last of such universities to do so. Before that, students would travel to Ireland to receive their degrees. And when they first attempted to receive recognition for their work and were denied, the male scholars celebrated that denial.

Closer to our Lifetime

Selma urges me to continue. The dates are getting closer to our lifetime. Our father, Subhani’s, memory of the Partition of India in 1947 has merged into our own.

She reminds me of what Mummy told us about her mother in the 50s and 60s of England.

Granny wasn’t able to open a bank account without Grandad’s signature. That changed in the 70s. That is during our lifetime.

Mabel in the early 20s of Cambridge is up against a lot. No wonder she uses whatever it takes to impress Bokhari with her knowledge. And she has the temerity to pull it off.

Reading with Mabel and Patras

To return to the story of Mabel, she brings over ten books to Patras’ room, and, for weeks they both argue about their content and style. These intellectual discussions build an underlying tension that is released the day Bokhari falls ill. Suffering from flue, Shah feels weak. Mabel comes to visit. He breaks down and confesses he has not even opened the books they have been discussing. Now, he promises, he will read them all.

We never know her thoughts but she leaves the books in Shah’s room until he realizes that even she has never opened these newly published books.

I like Mabel’s audacity.  She’s done what those she’s responding to have done for so long.  And is now memorialized for her tenacity in this essay. I might even write her side of this story someday. 

Selma Became the Reader I wanted to Be

Selma and I have a similar story from when I was eight and she ten. Always a step ahead of me, she became the reader that I wanted to be. Flipping through mummy’s paperback novels, she convinced me that she was able to finish a book in an hour. She took the trouble to read a few words ensuring some truth to her pretension. It took me some time to realize how long it really takes to finish a book.

But we continue with our discussion and bring it closer to home.

It wasn’t till 1979 that Emmanuel College allowed women to join. That late. I tell Selma

And?

Clearly 1979 does not stand out for Selma as it does for me.

That’s the year I went to college in Faislabad. It’s the year the hudood laws were enforced by the military dictator Zia ul Haq. That same year Russia invaded Afghanistan which strengthened the fundamentalist dictatorship in Pakistan.

Create Cultural Memories of Literature and Art

Zadie Smith is a Cambridge University graduate. Her collection of essays, Intimations, is a mediation on where the world is today.

5 Comments »

  1. Its uncanny! I also think in the same way you do, ma’am! From days to events and things unfolding in the world! Must be yours and Ms. Selma’s magic touch in Olevels.

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