I was introduced to my uncle Arif by his poetry and I was
introduced to poetry by uncle Arif. When I was old enough to read books,
I found my uncle Arif’s books in my dad’s small library and I felt very
proud that my uncle was a famous poet. The more I read his poetry and
the more I got to know his personality and philosophy, the more my sense
of pride increased. He was a caring and compassionate man and was full
of love, peace and wisdom.
Uncle Arif used to live in Lahore while I lived in Peshawar with
my parents Basit and Aisha and my younger sister Amber. Whenever I went to
Lahore to see my grandma, I went to visit my uncle Arif to have intellectually
stimulating dialogue. Whenever I met him and asked him questions about life, he
listened to them patiently and answered them respectfully. There were many times
my younger cousin Rozi sat close to us and listened to our dialogue. When one
day I was leaving he said to me, “Sohail bhai
[ brother] you get more out of our dad in two hours than we get in two years. I
smiled and gave him an affectionate hug. In one of those dialogues, when I asked
my uncle why do people commit suicide he shared Schopeanhaur’s quotation, ‘When
the horrors of life outweigh the horrors of death, people commit suicide.” My
uncle had a unique clarity of thought and a special command on articulating his
When I was twenty he came to visit us in Peshawar with his wife aunty Shehnaz.
By that time he knew that I was writing poems and short stories. My dad used to
say that I was more like my uncle than him. He never felt jealous. He always
encouraged my emotional relationship with my uncle that he loved and respected
as an older brother. A few days before he went back he took me to Green’s Hotel
and ordered tea and snacks and we had a heart to heart talk. I told him that I
had read dozens of books on human psychology and philosophy and studied many
translations of Quran and I no longer believed in God, scriptures, prophets and
life after death. He listened to my philosophical confession, smiled and said,
“My uncle, your grandpa had become an atheist at the age of 60, I became an
atheist at the age of 40 and now you are becoming an atheist at the age of 20.
Majority of people follow the highway of tradition while a minority follows the
trails of their hearts. Many of them are poets and philosophers, reformers and
revolutionaries. You are one of them.” My Uncle’s words were reassuring and
In one of my visits to Lahore I shared my poems with him. He read
them carefully and marked his favorite poems that were of high literary value.
My uncle’s feedback helped in my selection for my first collection of poems
titled Talaash [ Searching].
After coming to Toronto when I published five books in five
years, my writer friends became quite nervous and shared their concern with me.
They thought that if I wrote and published that frequently, I would become
barren and stop writing. I did not believe in them but I was still nervous, so I
consulted him. After listening to that dilemma, he smiled gracefully and said,
“Do not worry. Only those writers worry whose writings are primarily based to
their imagination. In your case they are based on your observations, experiences
and encounters with life. Later on I read the same argument by Leonard Woolf for
his wife Virginia Woolf.
When he moved to New York to live with his son Rozi he had become
old and fragile. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease and depression, which is
one of the complications of Parkinsonism. One day he called me to discuss his
prescription of Prozac and I supported him.
Once when I went to New York to visit him, he told me that his
time to leave this world was coming closer as he ‘ could hear the footsteps of
death’. I thought it was quite a poetic expression. Later on he shared that he
had hard time going to the washroom at night and was afraid he might lose
control of his bladder. He wanted to leave this world before he lost his
One evening while we were chatting he asked his granddaughter
Rabeea to get his latest poem from his bedroom so that he could read it to me.
While he was reciting his poem I saw a note ‘incomplete’ at the end of the poem.
When I asked him why he wrote that, he said that the poem was incomplete and if
he died suddenly in sleep, he did not want people to think that it was a
complete poem. I was impressed by his dedication to his poetry, that remained
till his last days. His body was failing but his mind remained active and
creative till his death. After that visit he died within a few weeks.
I was quite touched when he published his last collection of
one-line poems with this inscription, “Dedicated to my nephew Khalid Sohail, who
is so much like me in his thoughts and feelings that I feel that nature has
given me a new life in him” After reading that many writers all over the world
found out that he was my uncle.
When he came to visit me in Toronto, I received numerous calls
from writers from different walks of life who wanted to talked to me. I did not
know he was so popular in Toronto. In one of the poetry functions that he
presided he was approached by an elderly writer Aqeela Shaheen who asked him if
he was the same Arif who had death threats against him just after partition.
Uncle Arif said yes he was the same Arif. On the way back Uncle Arif that when
he saw thousands of innocent men and women and children killed in partition he
wrote a poem challenging the political leaders of Congress as well as Muslim
League. Challenging Muslim League and Pakistani government was perceived as
being non-patriotic and anti-Islamic act by mullahs. One evening when he was
going home, he was surrounded by young men, who told him that they were going to
kill him because he had written anti-patriotic and anti-religious poem. When
Uncle Arif showed him the poem they apologized realizing that his poem was not
against Islam or Pakistan, it was against Muslim League and Pakistani
Government. I was quite impressed that my Uncle Arif had paid sacrifices for his
ideas and ideals. I felt proud of him. He is not with me anymore but I cherish
his fond memories and his poetry, personality and philosophy have been a source
of inspiration even after his death. I feel proud knowing that his collection of
poems is a part of Master’s course in Punjabi literature in Pakistan. I wish
there were more uncles like him in this world.