ENCOUNTERS WITH WORDS, BOOKS AND WRITERS

  By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail

                       

I love words and I have been in love with words for as long as I can remember. I am fascinated and intrigued by them. They have a mystery. They have music. They have melody. They have meanings. They are full of affection, love, truth and wisdom. They are entertaining as well as enlightening.

            When I reminisce about my childhood, I remember my dad Abdul Basit introducing me to the written words. He used to bring books from the library and we both used to read them. The first book that I remember reading at the age of ten was tazkira-tul-aulia, which had fascinating stories of the saints. I thoroughly enjoyed those stories. Those stories introduced me to those characters who had unconventional personalities and non-traditional lifestyles. They could fly in the air and walk on water as they were saints and could perform miracles. As a child I was mesmerized by their magic and mystery.

            The stories of saints inspired me to write and I wrote an essay about my favourite saint Rabia Basri and sent it to a children’s magazine. After a few months I was thrilled to see my essay in the magazine bachon ki dunya [children’s world]. I discovered that not only I could read, but also write and create.

            My dad had a small library at home. In that library I found some books written by my uncle Arif Abdul Mateen. When I read those books, I was impressed by his poetry and philosophy as they were uplifting and inspiring. I felt proud that my uncle was a well known and well respected poet. I discovered my uncle through his poetry and I discovered poetry through my uncle. I remember wondering whether I would be able to create poetry and become a poet and a philosopher like him one day. That was a beginning of a dream.

            As I grew older I started going to the libraries myself. They were wonderful quiet places full of the knowledge and wisdom of centuries. I felt so happy and peaceful whenever I found myself surrounded by books. They took me to different places, eras and worlds. They introduced me to the worlds of religion, poetry, philosophy and psychology. I gradually became addicted to words and books as they intrigued me and inspired me. I was amused to read Sartre’s comments about books and libraries as I identified with him. He wrote, “ I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: among books…I had found my religion: nothing seemed more important to me than a book. I saw the library as a temple.”

            The first fiction writer that I studied seriously was Saadat Hasan Minto. I loved his short stories and his philosophy as he loved to challenge the norms, the traditions, the myths. I was impressed by his confidence, his faith in himself and his love for humanity. He had a soft corner in his heart for the poor, the downtrodden, the underdogs, even the prostitutes. Rather than judging them harshly, he was sympathetic and compassionate towards them. He saw an innocent and suffering woman hiding behind the mask of a prostitute.

            I was amazed and amused to find out from my dad that MInto was not only my dad’s neighbour in India, his stories used to be published in the magazine that my uncle Arif used to edit and once they both had to go to court as Minto was charged with writing pornographic short story. My dad attended the court during the trial. The judge dismissed the case stating that it was serious not erotic literature.

            I loved MInto’s stories about 1947 partition and was impressed by his views about peace and war. He introduced me to humanistic philosophy. One of his characters asks a question about 1947 massacre, “Why do we say that one hundred Muslims went to heaven and one hundred Hindus went to hell, why don’t we say that we lost two hundred precious human lives.” Minto helped me see people as human beings and not judge them based on their class, caste, language and religious background. Minto also challenged hypocrisy that was quite pervasive in that culture. He was an open and honest human, a committed writer and a dedicated intellectual. He was transparent. He confessed that when he drank he did not put cardamom in his mouth so that no body could smell alcohol and when he visited Red Light Area in Lahore he did not hide behind the scarf so that nobody could see him visiting prostitutes. I was inspired by his truthfulness.

            I was so impressed by Minto as a teenager that I wrote an essay about him and a short story named dast bosi [kissing hands] exposing the hypocrisy of our religious clerics who do not practice what they preach in their Friday sermons in the mosques. Both of those creations were published in the college magazine Edwardian in 1968 when I was sixteen. That essay and short story was my introduction as a serious writer. People who read them were impressed and I was thrilled to see my name and creations in print.

            The first psychologist that I read as a teenager was Dayle Carnegi. His books were about making friends and helping others. I still remember reading in his book that our happiness in life depends upon making two important choices in life: the choice of the profession and the choice of partner of life. Reading his books helped me gain self-confidence and make friends and also wonder whether I would like to become a psychotherapist one day and help people dealing with their emotional problems.

            While reading religious literature as a teenager the Muslim scholars who impressed me the most were Ghulam Ahmed Pervaiz and Abul Kalaam Azaad

They challenged the blind faith and literal interpretation of Quran. They introduced me to the idea that scriptures could be read in a symbolic way and stories of holy books are metaphorical stories that are part of folk literature of different cultures. As a teenager I discovered that words, books and writers can transform people’s lives.

            When I started reading the books on science and medicine, I realized that medicine can help people by decreasing their suffering and improving their quality of life. I became aware of the power of knowledge. It made me optimistic that one day I would be able to help the suffering humanity.

            By the time I was twenty I had developed a keen interest in sciences and religions and studied different poets and philosophers who belonged to the East. But those studies were a blessing as well as a curse. It had created conflicts within myself. I was torn between:

Science and Religion

And

Rational thinking and blind faith

I was preoccupied with the conflicts between logical and theological approaches to life.

I was quite perturbed when I saw

..men praying in the mosques to have rain and not understanding and trusting laws of nature 

and

…women going to holy shrines to pray to have babies rather than seeing a gynaecologist to investigate their infertility.

I was upset by the superstitions, poverty and lack of education of my culture.

The same books of religion and science, medicine and philosophy that I used to enjoy started bothering me. I came in touch with the dark side of words. They precipitated a prolonged intellectual nightmare. I became a troubled soul who used to spend sleepless nights wondering about the reality of truth. For the next ten years I remained restless. The tragedy was that I consulted many scientific and religious scholars and shared my intellectual conflicts and philosophical contradictions with them but they were either not interested or did not have answers to my troubling questions. They had university degrees and read holy scriptures, but they had not done the soul-searching that I was doing. The teachers of science had not studied holy scriptures seriously and the teachers of scriptures had not taken science seriously. They were all prisoners of their own unilateral truths. They could not help me. Gradually I realized that I had to leave the highway of tradition and travel on the trail of my heart, the road less travelled and become my own friend, comrade and guide.

            I was lucky to be able to read English as well as Urdu. Knowing English words opened my mind to world literature. And then I was able to study scientists like Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, psychologists like Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, philosophers like Bertarnbd Russell and Jean Paul Sartre and mystics like Kabir Das and Walt Whitman The same words that precipitated a breakdown were also helpful in creating a breakthrough. When I interviewed my uncle Arif at the age of seventy, a few years before he passed away and asked his views about the conflicts and contradictions between Religion, Science and Fine Arts, he stated, “ I have gradually come to the realization that Religion perceives reality at an intuitive level, Science conceives the same reality at a conceptual level and Art appreciates the same reality from an aesthetic point of view. I believe Religion, Science and Art complement rather than contradict each other. They are different ways to discover reality and truth. They help us break down walls that mankind erects because of lack of appreciation of unity and universality of life. Without Religion, Science and Arts we cannot discover and appreciate the mysteries of life and universe.”

            After graduating from medical school the only specialization that I found inspiring and compatible with my personality and philosophy was psychiatry. So I moved to Canada and became a psychiatrist. In psychiatry I discovered the discipline of psychotherapy, the talking cure, in which words are used for healing emotional problems. I was intrigued by the discipline and learnt different traditions from psychoanalysis to logo-therapy, from individual therapy to group therapy, to help suffering human beings. I realized that human beings were more important than schools of thought and professional disciplines. I also discovered that traditional psychotherapy was only using spoken words in therapy sessions. Being a poet and a writer I was aware of the power of words so I introduced writing diaries and journals in therapy and encouraged my patients to write me letters to discuss their emotional problems and I responded to their letters in writing to help them in their healing, rehabilitation and growth in therapy. I have discovered that written words enrich therapy and compliment the exchange of spoken words. Gradually I discovered common features between my values of humanistic philosophy and principles of humanistic psychotherapy and integrated them in my Green Zone Philosophy, a philosophy to lead a healthy, happy and peaceful life for myself, and others and then shared them with others in words and books titled Green Zone Series. I could do all that because of my love for words and my fascination with books and writers.

            Over the years words have become a bridge between my literary and professional lives. They helped me in becoming a poet and a psychotherapist. I love words as they make my life more meaningful and help me in my search for my own truth and truth of others in my personal, social and professional lives.

            I feel so fortunate when I meet people who tell me that they borrow my books from the libraries. My books are my gifts to the world. They are my love letters to my readers. Becoming a writer is my dream come true and it is only possible because of my love of words. A few years ago I had written a poem titled WORDS.

           

                                    WORDS

Words

            are arrows…that pierce our hearts

            are hooks…that retrieve our memories

.           are matches…that ignite our souls

            are mirrors…that increase our awareness

            are friends…that console us

            are therapists…that transform us

            are lovers…that seduce us

Have you ever taken them seriously?

Have you ever embraced words?

                                                                                                Sohail

                                                                                                August 2004

 

 

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