The way it was: Iris and the river of fire —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

In cold marble the poor things, especially Aphrodite, appear so bashful. One hand up and the other down — a clever device to draw attention precisely to their vital endowments, which the deities pretend to conceal

I wonder if it is politically correct to express admiration for beautiful women. One has to be careful these days so as not to be branded a male chauvinist pig by the feminists. According to the law, ignorance is no defence. But this is not a matter of law but propriety and respect for others’ feelings. As for the law, I would rather not even carelessly step on her toes, not out of deference but because it exudes a terrible odour. Let us not, for the moment, talk about nauseating issues like the law, which is proverbially blind — peeping only when the interest of the privileged need to be safeguarded.

I have an amiable friend named Khursheed who takes proverbs rather literally. He takes things at their face value, and sometime fails to pick up humour even when it is served on a plate. Khursheed along with three other friends, Freddy, JS and Fano arrived in Spain for a brief holiday, while they were students in England. As soon as they disrobed on the beach for a proper suntan — their natural dark complexion, according to JS, looked pale and sickly after having living under the grey, cloud-cast English skies. It was not long before Freddy got into an altercation with Fano over some trivial matter. Fano would not let anyone get away with bullying him. Khursheed, proud of his fair complexion, had refused to tan at any cost. He sat upright, as much as he could, in a beach chair under a striped umbrella that matched his striped three-piece suit, reading the London Times. Khursheed being neutral and fair was asked to intervene and settle the dispute.

Khursheed was reading law at Cambridge so he addressed the issue gravely, and finally after much thought gave his verdict in favour of Fano from Cambridge. Freddy of Oxford was riled at Khursheed’s judgement. Looking straight into the eyes of the law, Freddy railed, “Khwaje da guwah daddu”. I am afraid the proverb cannot be appropriately translated in English.

Frankly I don’t know why Khawaja should be charged for having a frog (daddu) for a witness. I could understand if instead of Khawaja an Englishman had been charged for having a frog as his witness. Khursheed’s fair face became livid in anger. He glared at Fano for daring to call him a frog. Even his father had never addressed him thus.

He refused to be placated even when Freddy and later even Fano, the complainant, tried to explain that it was merely an expression and that Khursheed should have no fear whatsoever that it was a comment on his demeanour. Khursheed refused to be pacified. He strode off in a huff and took the first plane back to Heathrow, where he summoned a taxi and had himself transported all the way to Cambridge. How dare anyone call him a daddu?

I cannot qualify how beautiful Iris Murdoch seemed at the advent of the sixties. I never ever saw her in real life, but on the reverse side of the paper back editions of her books, she seemed like a deity — a deity in a black and white photograph, looking divinely more prepossessing than if a Greek master had carved her in stone.

I confess the comparison is trite. Dianne and Aphrodite, except for the boobs and the bums, didn’t have much grey matter. Dianna with her bow, a quiver full of arrows and bloodhounds can be an awesome sight. Rarely anyone risked peeping at her even from behind a bush while she bathed in a forest pond. Let me not describe what happened to those who tried. If Degas had been around –who was bit of a peeping Tom and loved to look at women through keyholes — it would have been his last pastel and an unfinished one at that.

In cold marble the poor things, especially Aphrodite, appear so bashful. One hand up and the other down — a clever device to draw attention precisely to their vital endowments, which the deities pretend to conceal.

During the Gothic period and the Renaissance, the painters of Northern Europe used flora to protect the modesty of Adam and Eve. A fig leaf or a listless hand was employed to conceal the space below the naval and a frond to hide the orbs. The Greeks and the early Christians adopted these innocent devices knowing little of what man would be ‘Xcercising’ in the 20th century.

There are people today who have even more voracious appetites. But moving from the terrestrial to the sublime, I must confess that if Iris Murdoch had stepped into our flat at Panton Street, less than fifty paces away from the Cambridge Labs, where the life cell was dissected for the first time, I would not have dared to look her below the chin. Fortunately there was little chance of that happening. She held a studentship in philosophy at Cambridge but returned to Oxford in 1948. When I was a student at Cambridge in 1961 she was a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at St Anne’s College Oxford. I confess I was infatuated with the existentialists then. I read Marx later.

I believe I should have read Aag ka Darya when I was younger. Doesn’t the name of the author, Qurat ul Ain Haider resound like the title of the novel, The River Of Fire? She was a stunning woman, and seemed more attractive than Kamini Kaushal. I never ever saw her in person. She left Karachi and settled in India. Ahmed Bashir, who has recently produced an unusually absorbing novel Dil Bhatgay Ga, tells me that while QUAH was at Karachi she didn’t think much about the Punjabis. She often asked,” Who are these Punjabis?”

Apparently after living in India she came to believe that people of UP were mehroom log (deprived people). She observes that in 1848, compliant Urdu teachers accompanied the British forces to harness the Punjab, and by 1906 Punjab had produced Iqbal, Faiz and Noon Meem Rashid. The one who was so beautiful now in the vicinity of eighty thinks she is a ‘horror’? That can’t be true. It is true that Sakyamuni after traversing the trials and temptations of life, before achieving narvana, comes to realise that all life was an illusion. But is it not also true that good wines age well. Doesn’t the fire burn out only when it dies? Is that not true? Rivers take ages to dry.

It is ironic that one reminisces about the past, about things that may not have ever really existed or things, which are salvaged from the unconscious, while reflecting on the present. Often faces and offensive little miserable crowd of things, details and deeds are assembled out of their context in a sequence and lent substance and meaning. Iris Murdoch writes, “If we consider our lives from moment to moment we observe ... how much of the sense of what we are doing has to be put afterwards. We observe the fabricated and shifting character of our memories. Meaning vanishes, yet we have to restore it.”

She then asks, with her unflinching commitment to truth, “in doing so can we avoid lying?” I suppose we cannot. But in all sincerity, in order to fine-tune ourselves and our consciousness of the present, we have to constantly demolish our thoughts and values, erase the memory of our past, re-ascertain the veracity of our impressions and past actions, which are often selectively chained together.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist