Translated from the Urdu by Raza Naeem
Firstly, congratulations on completing three-quarters of the century of your life. In this three-quarters of a century, you have seen countless ups and downs on a personal, social, national and international level, and also made us able to see and comprehend them.
There are several such examples in which parents wrote different types of letters to their children and gave them advice, taught them the manners of spending life or gave the consciousness of learning from and understanding history (e.g. the letters of Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi).
Translator’s Note: Muhammad Rashad Mahmood, currently Pakistan’s senior-most communist, was born 90 years ago today on July 9, 1932, in Bombay and got his primary education from the Anjuman –e-Islam School there. After the death of his father in 1944, he had to abandon his education and took to working from the age of merely twelve. He carried on his passion for reading at the same time and through the newspaper of the Communist Party sold on the streets he came in contact with the progressives of Bombay, Kaifi Azmi, Shaukat Kaifi, Sardar Jafri, Sultana Jafri, Mohammad Mehdi, Niaz Haider, Krishan Chander, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and others, who he had the chance to see and listen at close quarters; especially Kaifi and Jafri, under the shadow of whom he carried on the process of studying and observation. He fully participated in literary and political activities and attended the sessions of the Progressive Writers Association regularly. He transferred to Pakistan in 1954 and kept working along with participating in left-wing politics. He also carried on the connection with writing and reading. He was quite active in the National Awami Party and still adheres to his secular and progressive ideologies after passing nine decades of his life. This open letter to him penned by his son Dr Naazir Mahmood occurs at the end of the book of Rashad Mahmood’s essays published recently by Badalti Duniya Publications as Marxism Aur Aaj Ki Duniya (Marxism and the World Today). Originally written on his 80th birthday a decade ago, it is a unique letter of its kind, in which a son has mentioned the important qualities of his father. It in turn offers us lessons for our own dilemmas and struggles in the 21st century, especially for the millennial generation. The letter is being translated into English for the first time, both as a tribute to an extraordinary, little-known life on his 90th birthday and also as a means to introduce him and his work to the uninitiated Pakistani and South Asian readers. (RN)
Such examples are also present in which parents wrote to teachers and granted them advice about education (e.g. Abraham Lincoln’s letter to the teacher of his son). But through this letter, I want to express the things which I learnt from you.
Life, an open book:
The most important thing which I learnt from you is perhaps that life should be like an open book in which there should be no passage of pretence and artificiality. Often it has been seen that with the passage of increasing age, people exaggerate their past life but I have always found you resorting to candidness in every aspect of your life.
Whether it be your life spent in Bombay, the struggle of your childhood life or the compulsion of leaving school; the bounds of youth or the relative comfort afterwards; you never tried to describe your past with exaggeration. This is a lesson which I learnt from you and approved. Candidness about your personal life and pride in your struggle presents you in a form which does not hide realities, has no gilt and there is not even a suspicion of disguise.
Love of hard work:
Since we gained consciousness, we never saw you fall a victim to laziness and lethargy; always physically and mentally sound and ready to take responsibility for any new task at the time. Despite coming into the senses of a relatively prosperous family in Bombay, the tyranny of circumstances made you see the adverse conditions of poverty in childhood; instead of being disappointed or hopeless, you matured as a courageous and hardworking person. You gradually not only improve your own life as well as that of your family members but there are many such people among friends and relatives who you helped stand on their feet with their own hard work. You never searched for a short path or shortcut for prosperity; never became concerned with prize bonds or a lucky draw and also saved us from this thinking. You only supplied us with the resources attained by hard work; upon which we feel great pride.
The reading habit:
Dear father, even if we leave all other things, then just this one habit of reading is such a personal quality before which other things are insignificant, whether it be the reading of newspapers or of literature, history; interest in magazines and journals or with psychology and politics. Your interest and reading in nearly everything have kept you informed at all times and this is a quality which I have attempted to borrow from you. Leave aside poetry and philosophy, from science and social sciences to religion and geography, you not only take interest in every topic but deem the study of things related to them important. My own habit of reading is very much granted by you to a great extent. Had you not made us used to the habit of reading newspapers daily very much in childhood, perhaps such a great gap would have remained in my life to fill which would not have been easily possible.
The consciousness of health:
Your being mentally and physically sound at the age of 75 is proof of the fact that you have cared for your health. We have never seen you smoking cigarettes or eating a lot. The habit of eating less has kept you safe from illnesses otherwise at this age problems of the heart and liver and sight and waist afflict most people; you would not have been saved from them. I have learnt to read continuously about health from you too. Since childhood, we saw that Hamdard Sehat came very regularly in our homes along with other newspapers and magazines and was read. In addition, I learnt to converse with my children on health topics from you as well. You kept reading about various diseases and their prevention not only yourself but also kept talking with us about them; which led to us getting the attitude of being careful about health very much since childhood from you. Thanks!
Despite being the offspring of a religious father you not only saved yourself from religious shortsightedness but also kept your children away from it. We learnt to respect all faiths from your secular thinking and knew that no single faith or sect has a monopoly over truth and righteousness and nor should any such claim be accepted. We learnt from you that faiths appeared in various eras of history to fulfil different social needs and played their one historical role. Where faith has been the reason for uniting tens of millions of humans, innumerable killings and looting also happened in its name. In the world today, religion for you does not have any more importance than a historical reference and not having it overpower daily life is your success. The secular thinking received from you has saved us from many possible hatreds and misconceptions.
Along with secular thinking, your study of Marxist philosophy has elucidated your thinking a great deal. This is your and our good fortune that you became associated with the labour movement of Bombay very much in your adolescence in the decade of the 1940s and not only saw Kaifi, Sardar Jafri, Krishan Chander, and Niaz Haider at close quarters but came close to Marxist philosophy thanks to them. Though the fundamentalist interpretation of Marxist philosophy has failed today; Marxist philosophy is still the best helper in understanding society and participating in the process of social evolution. You not only studied and understood Marxist philosophy yourself but also transferred it to us, whereupon I can say with pride today that society is not a black box for us but is an open text on every page on which new things are written to be learnt from. I have received this dialectical thinking of mine very much through you from Marxist philosophy.
Taste in films:
The ways of viewing and understanding society which we learnt from you, one way is awareness of society through films. You have remained fond of good films from Sohrab Modi’s Pukaar to Shah Rukh Khan’s Devdaas and from Bridge on the River Kwai to Titanic and have transferred this taste to us. Your memory of old films is enviable. In addition, you very much introduced us to names like C.H. Atma, V. Shantaram, Ashok Kumar, Bimal Roy, Salil Chowdhury, K.L. Saigal and others otherwise like an ordinary film-goer my access would perhaps very much have been mere to recognized names like Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. Good films like good literature have given me the skill to understand society, the credit for which goes to you.
Hopefulness and enlightenment:
We have always felt these two aspects of your personality very clearly. We have never seen you disappointed for a great period of time. Though in the last few years you have definitely been faced with the condition of pressure or tension sometimes but not to expect this from any human will be an injustice. If temporarily –appointed fluctuations are ignored, then you are seen to be a full and hopeful person, who despite having a perception of problems on a personal and social basis does not become hopeless and does not let go of enlightenment. Your enlightenment is evident from the fact that where many friends either turned towards religion with intensity or began to ignore their secular and Marxist thinking but you persist in your dialectical thinking despite the destruction of the socialist bloc, which is a fundamental means of hopefulness and enlightenment for us as well.
Now in the end, I would like to once again congratulate you on completing 75 years of your life in 2007 and immediately along with this, am presenting some requests which you may consider a son’s suggestion.
You should definitely write down your observations of three-quarters of a century so that how you have seen the world-changing, many of its corners can come before the people.
All your children are spending life well by themselves so you should spend more time writing and reading so that you can maintain your mental freshness.
Despite having good health, you should keep having routine medical checkups and tests regularly so that you do not have to face some sudden illness.
Our heartfelt wish and desire is for you to complete the century of your life meaning a hundred years and keep bestowing us with your guidance.
This essay was first published in The Friday Times