M. Athar Tahir ~ A Wrestler’s Quartet

Sonnet XCVII

Soon after the call to pre-dawn prayers
We lads of the neigh­bour­hood gath­ered at
The dirt-pit to car­ry out our labours.
First the soil was raked for peb­bles that

Could injure. Then pulling logs and running,
Sit-ups with neck heavy with a stone ring,
Exercises with Mughal clubs, twisting
Rotations and push-ups and practising

Moves and grap­ples and taut limb-entangling
Tackles Khalifa-ji showed us in round
After round; and final­ly how to fling
The oppo­nent, in one swing, to the ground.

Over and over again we had proved
If we gave one push, the whole world had moved.



Our soil-smeared tor­sos glistening
With sweat and then the pin-and-submission
Hold or the shoul­der throw sent deafening
Shouts around the pit. Now as tradition

Dictates, in fes­tooned ton­gas to beating
Drums in the lanes we parade, garlanded
Till the nose, and girls show­er coveting
Looks, like petals, from bal­conies crowded

With veiled females. The head, wrapped in starched red
Turban, could swell to the victor’s silver
Gurz held up for all to behold. Instead
The eyes turn moist and images blur.

Such times jus­ti­fy all the pain and strain,
A feel­ing no con­ti­nent can contain.


Sonnet XCIX

The mus­cles are no longer quite able
As once they were, to grip, twist and exert
Or car­ry­ing stone weights remain stable
Or force the oppo­nent to hit the dirt.

The feet once tree root-firm are unable
To keep the hold, or hands and arms divert
Each move, and the mind remain capable
Of antic­i­pat­ing, and quite alert.

As Khalifa, I sit out­side the pit
Directing young hope­fuls to overcome
Every tor­so knot, and not submit.
Ah, the heart still beats to the wrestling drum

Sending the blood rac­ing through thickening
Veins, lend­ing life a moment of meaning.


Sonnet C

They look at me sit­ting still, these youngsters
And Begum Sah’bs, bar­ing my sag­ging skin.
Just like wrestling this is a discipline
I have to get used to. Soon they are blurs

In a cir­cle, pen­cilling me into
Paper exis­tences or paint­ing me
Far more colour­ful than I wish to be
Or ever was in my rig­or­ous two

Decades before the body began to
Give in, and akha­ras start­ed to close.
I bet my mous­tache not one of them knows
That I was once, by many, looked up to.

I pose for hours, stiff and not at ease.
All this for a few sweat-soiled rupees.


M. Athar Tahir is thrice the recip­i­ent of Pakistan’s high­est award for Literature in English, and the Founder of the International Centre for Pakistani Writing in English, Lahore. He was the 1974 Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University where he read English, a Rotary International Scholar, a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow and a William and Flora Hewlett Awardee.

Of Tahir’s six vol­umes of poet­ry, three won the Patras Bokhari Award: Yielding Years (2002), The Gift of Possession (2010) and The Last Tea (2015). His poems have been set as text for Secondary Schools and for the ‘O’ Levels, University of Cambridge, and includ­ed in sev­er­al Oxford University Press, and oth­er, antholo­gies. They have been pub­lished, in orig­i­nal and in trans­la­tion, in numer­ous mag­a­zines in China, France, India, Italy, UK and US. His books on Literature, Art and Culture, have won 11 nation­al and inter­na­tion­al awards.

Editor of the forth­com­ing Oxford Companion to Pakistani Art, Tahir is an Elected Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Life Fellow of the Pakistan Academy of Letters. He has been con­ferred Pakistan’s high nation­al hon­ours: Tamgha‑i Imtiaz (Medal of Distinction) and Sitara‑i Imtiaz (Star of Distinction).