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.
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.
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).