Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

‘No one believes the Professor’

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I first came to know of the ‘Professor’ from friend Farjad Nabi’s documentary film whose title I have borrowed for this piece. The film features an aging, square-faced rather good-looking man with long hair – the kind of face that belongs in an action film. The impression I got from the first few minutes of the film was that this was an absurd attempt in the tradition of Jonathan Swift through a gross misusing of the main character. But it turned out otherwise. When the show ended, I shook the hand of Orpheus Augustus Marks, who featured in the film, and whom I had earlier noticed among the audience. It was an honour, I told him, to make his acquaintance.

Here, I thought, was a man that needed to be discovered. And so recently one morning around ten I arrived at his second floor flat in Lahore’s Riwaz Gardens flat. In response to my knock, he opened the door a mere chink and said he was busy in his worship and would appreciate if I could come back after an hour. I returned at the appointed hour to be shown into a cluttered, unswept room with a charpoy (woven with synthetic tape) without bedding, a couple of chairs, a table and a settee all piled with books, old newspapers, unwashed items of clothing, old film posters and assorted stuff. A leaking blue plastic water cooler lay in a puddle on the floor – Professor Marks’ only modern convenience that was any good.

He ushered me onto the balcony saying electricity had been disconnected for he had been unable to pay his power bills and it would be better in the breeze. Like the room this too was cluttered: a room cooler, a broken charpoy, and a couple of broken chairs. We sat on the charpoy for a while and made small talk before the Professor decided we would be better off inside the room without the breeze than balancing ourselves on the broken charpoy on the balcony. I asked if that was all the room he had and Professor showed me the spare room: more broken furniture, books, old newspapers and disintegrating items of household linen. But there was no place to sit, much less to repose. So I asked him where he slept.

‘On the balcony, because it is an airy place.’ It was a simple statement of fact. There was no apology or self-pity. On one side of the small balcony was the toilet and next to it the kitchen. The latter was disused and locked for he always ate outside. It was ‘stuffed full of books,’ said the Professor.

In the spare room the high shelf had a copy of Ameer Ali’s translation of the Koran. I asked about it, and the Professor took it down, kissed it and handed it to me. It was a well-thumbed copy and he said he read the Koran as he read his Bible. As a child in school in Tanda Mota near Gujrat he had won a prize in a school festival for singing a Sikh hymn better than the Sikh students. By his own admission, he was equally good with the Gita as well.

‘I respect all religions, will kiss all religious books, but have never, will never, prostrate myself to a graven image,’ he said as he reached over and pulled out a laminated sheet from under some stuff. It was a letter from Libroitaliano, an Italian publishing house, informing him of the inclusion of one of his poems in an anthology of twenty poets from around the world.

For the first time I realised that the line between reality and delusion was not only thin but also obscured by a turbid mist. The Professor said that he must get to Italy to sign the contract before the book can be published. But there being no money to pay the fare, everything was on hold.

‘You do understand that I am one of twenty international poets – the only one from Pakistan,’ he said with felicitous sadness. ‘And I cannot get out there to sign the contract.’ When the contract has been signed and the book published, his work will be read in all the major libraries of the world. But for that Orpheus Augustus must wait.

Poetry, writing and painting were creation, he said. And so he was a creator. But he was a creator because he was acquainted with the works of those greater creators like Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Tennyson and Elliot. Not only was he acquainted with their work, he said, but he also acknowledged them as his masters and mentors. When one did not follow great men, one was removed from greatness for just the mere fact of following them is edification.

‘It is improper to call poetry just poetry. There is much more in it,’ he said. ‘And so too in acting. I have always wondered what goes on in the minds of those great film actors when they are doing a part. Is it a latent desire to become the part they are playing?’

The answer to this question came to the Professor when he read Greek mythology where the gods changed shape at will. Acting, the art of becoming someone else, was thus in a way the apotheosis of man. But apotheosis is not for everyone who playacts. It is in the purview of only the perfectionist, and in perfection lies madness.

‘So I thought it was better to be mad for a certain length of time. And I chose to be mad. I plunged into the world of insanity and for a time I thought I will never be able to return to normal life.’ In his intensity he broke off from his beautiful Lahori Punjabi into English. The art in his madness, he said, was to break into dialogue as he walked the streets of Lahore. (For my benefit he delivered his lines on madness and burst into laughter). It was all impromptu and it could go on and on. But those who shared the streets with him did not share his enthusiasm for art. They stoned him, threw rubbish at him and children followed him about screaming ‘Paghal ee oye!’

This seeker of apotheosis would however be too engrossed in his performance to be aware of anything. One day he nearly drowned. He was deep in dialogue as he walked past the old Beco factory in Badami Bagh. Nearby was a ditch filled with waste oil from the factory and the Professor walked right into it as he struggled aloud with the nature of truth and falsehood, of madness and sanity. He was up to his middle when someone grabbed him and hauled him out. Angrily the Professor turned on his saviour.

‘Why have you done this?’ he asked.

‘I’ve just saved your life.’

‘You fool, didn’t you realise I was doing something far more important than life itself?’

‘But,’ persisted the life-saver, ‘the ditch is very deep and you could have drowned.’ ‘Deep it might be, but not as deep as my thoughts or me!’ retorted the Professor. This man, it turned out, was an old student of the Professor’s father from the time the family lived in Misri Shah. In regard for his old teacher, the man took the son home where he spent two hours washing the viscous muck from the Professor’s clothing.

When it came time to end the madness, Orpheus Augustus prayed together with his religious mentor (whose name he did not deign to disclose) and the madness was over. This must have been in the late fifties. Sometime later (the Professor does not talk of years) he completed his Master’s degree in English Literature. General Fazle Raziq, a good family friend, suggested he join the Army Education Corps as an officer. Orpheus Augustus scoffed the idea: he was an artist and his goal was Hollywood and the Oscar Awards that he believed would naturally follow.

‘Had I accepted, it would have been another life,’ he said and I just discerned a touch of rue.

To be a film star was an abiding dream. When still a child he was once asked by his father what he would like to be when he grew up. There was no thinking, no ambiguity: he wanted to be in the movies.

‘I used to go to the cinema and then copy the likes of Spencer Tracy and Paul Mooney.’ It was in the 1950s that he read of Yul Brynner winning the Oscar and cabled him a challenge. Brynner wasn’t the greatest, he wrote, it was unknown, untried Orpheus Augustus Marks of Lahore, the uncrowned king of acting. Alys Faiz herself, he asserts, sent the message from the teleprinter at the offices of The Pakistan Times. Back came the reply that it may well be true that he was indeed the greatest actor of all times, but had he been tried?

The dream called Hollywood became an obsession, but unable to get there he joined the local film industry in 1975. The dream receded further into the distance when all he got were part roles. Even to face the camera for a minute brought him untold happiness.

‘Each minute in front of the camera was the brick that was to build the great edifice I dreamed of.’ But for a performer of his class there was little work in the studios of Lahore and its only reminder is a black and white picture or two of him posing as a soldier with a spear. The fantasy of Hollywood nevertheless refused to die. Even today when he says that he will eventually get out there to win an Oscar, the conviction is tangible. He is clearly not just saying it.

The line between the real and the imagined disappears when the Professor recalls his meeting with Ava Gardener come to shoot Bhowani Junction. She was in Room 9 at the Faletti’s, he recalls. There he dazzled her with his thespian skills. She offered to take him home to Hollywood, but his family got in the way. They would not permit him to leave and he lost his chance to fame and glory. He relates his meeting forty years later with Robert Feuchtman who publicly acclaimed him the greatest living actor. But again it is difficult to separate the grain of truth from the chaff of unreality.

When he wasn’t concentrating on the Hollywood dream, he was practicing cricket. In the late 1950s he was, by his own admission, the greatest fast bowler Pakistan could produce. He played first class cricket and claims there was no test cricketer in those days that he hadn’t bowled out for naught. Once again the family got in the way of the rise to glory and he had to give up cricket to resume studies that had been interrupted some years earlier. Later he tried short and long distance running – his spikes rest in one corner of the room. Had there been money for a proper athlete’s diet he could have won Pakistan laurels. And so yet another dream died.

The one dream that lives and is still real is the epic he is composing – an epic to end all epics. A work to surpass that of Firdausi, Dante and Milton. Running into thousands of verses, the poem, yet incomplete, is a dialogue between God and Satan. We do not know when we shall ever benefit from it.

They say the name affects the life of the person; to be named after great personages is to acquire greatness. But Augustus, the adopted son and successor of Julius Caesar, who ruled over Rome for almost fifty years, seems to have been defeated by Orpheus, the tragic hero of Greek mythology. Orpheus, the singer, musician and poet who played the lyre and the cithara. Orpheus whose song was so sweet that wild beasts followed him tamely when he sang; Orpheus who, being on the good ship Argo when it was struck by a storm, becalmed the sea and comforted the Argonauts with his song. When his much loved wife Eurydice died, the inconsolable Orpheus followed her into the Underworld to bring her back. There he charmed the monsters and gods of darkness with his lyre. Persephone and Hades, moved by his great love for his wife, granted him the desire to return to the World of Mortals with her.

But on one condition: he was not to look back until Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld, had rowed him across the Styx River and he and Eurydice were again in daylight. Just as he was reaching the light of day, seized by a terrible uncertainty, Orpheus turned to see if his beloved was indeed following close behind. She was, but the condition being violated, Eurydice died a second time and was returned to the Underworld. The unfortunate Orpheus was denied a second entry, and expelled to the world of the living unconsoled, unaccomplished.

There is a parallel of sorts here. Orpheus Augustus, a man of many talents, lives clinging to his dreams in the Underworld of rejection and failure. Surely he is responsible, in part, for bringing this sorry pass upon himself. But in a country where talent is not always acknowledged such is the natural end for many gifted but unconnected dreamers. The son of a school teacher and a nurse of the Army Medical Corps, our hero, unknown even in his own city, much less the rest of the country, wanders into the evening of his Underworld forever seeking daylight. Unaccomplished, unsung, unconsoled.

Related: Lovelorn Poet

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 5 February 2014 at 17:18, Blogger Unknown said...

Hello Salman Sahib.A wonderful piece indeed.An old fan n reader.Amazing that such characters are usually seen in many cities n towns.I personally know more than one such persons with lot of talent but unaccomplished dreams.
Let me recall you an interesting link from not so distant past.Once I invited you to visit Nowshera to cover some important historical monuments. You mentioned about an old friend n colleague Maj Irshad.He happened to be my neighbour in ASC Housing Society. Later I told him about my interaction with you. He was delighted.
Any how great to see your blog.I will continue to follow it.And by the way my earlier invitation stands even today. I would love to serve you.You can see your old friend/colleague as well.Regards.
M Ayub Khan.

At 5 February 2014 at 19:44, Anonymous Jane Sheeda said...

Where can he be reached?

At 5 February 2014 at 20:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Rags to Rags.....wht a pity!!!!

At 6 February 2014 at 09:47, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are so many 'professors' with their creations in their hands waiting to be discovered. And irony is that most of them will go down undiscovered.

At 6 February 2014 at 11:44, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Would love to meet the professor. Very interesting

At 7 February 2014 at 22:35, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I hear "Prof" Marx is now in an old people's home near Bhatta Chowk. Very near the chowk on the way to the airport.

At 7 February 2014 at 22:38, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ayub Khan, Thank you very much for the invitation. I will be in the region in April. I'll definitely come and see you.

At 3 July 2015 at 01:27, Blogger Unknown said...

I met him today at the old age home , near Bhatta Chowk


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days