Memoir| When I Spent A Glorious Summer At Cambridge University

Memoir| When I Spent A Glorious Summer At Cambridge University
Dr Akbar Ahmed will be writing his memoirs for TFT about his eventful life and multiple pursuits. This is the first part of a long series. Editors

Perhaps the most peaceful and happiest summer of my life was spent in 1964 in Cambridge. I had just graduated from Birmingham University to join Selwyn College at Cambridge University, and was offered accommodation before term began. The previous summers I had travelled to Europe and North Africa as a student. Those were exhilarating journeys of discovery. But for a student short on cash, they were also grueling exercises in balancing budgets and arranging cheap travel, often through what was then known as that precarious mode of transport: hitchhiking. But I had not turned 21 yet, and was bursting with restless energy.

That summer – and here I request the reader to indulge my autobiographical note and bear with me – I lived in the lap of what for me was luxury. I was given rooms in a large house on West Road which once belonged, I was told, to the Trevelyan family—a name famed in the world of scholarship. A retired policeman and his wife were the official housekeepers and looked after my needs. The house had its own little beautiful garden ablaze in reds, yellows and whites. The air was intoxicating with the smell of roses. And when I tired of the garden, I could walk to the back and sit by the river Cam: with the full view of King’s College Chapel, one of the most magnificent buildings of Europe. There is nothing quite as beautiful as Cambridge in the full bloom of summer. I fell in love with Cambridge, and it would be a love that would not fade for the rest of my life.
Passionate nobleman with poetry in their souls and pining housewives searching for romance. And somewhere lurking in the background, the towering figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. The sweep of European literature matched the turbulence and magnificence of the continent's history

The best part of it was that I had the whole house to myself. After having just finished a hectic tour as President of the Pakistan Society and the Founder Editor of Shaheen at Birmingham University, I was now enjoying being left entirely to my own devices without demands for lectures, functions and articles. Being the eldest among my brothers and sisters, holding positions as prefect at school or as President of a Society at University, had meant a constant pressure that imposed a sense of responsibility on me. For perhaps the first and last time, I was truly free of any responsibility.

It was a strange sensation to be entirely on my own and suspended between two quite different educational periods of my life. I had grown at Birmingham University but would come into my own at Cambridge. Social and intellectual life would be markedly different, especially among Pakistani students. The sons and nephews of the presidents and ministers of Pakistan studied at Cambridge; while the scientists and research scholars who depended on their hard work found their way to Birmingham. From the former I learned of the nature and thinking of the Pakistani elite, and from the latter I became better acquainted with Muslim history and theology. The former drove about in E-Type Jags and Mercedes, while the latter walked and took buses.

My love of English literature had been generated by my Senior Cambridge studies at my school Burn Hall, Abbottabad.  But most of what I was exposed to were English authors: the mainstay being Dickens, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. There was some superb light reading when the packed timetable of classes and sports etc. permitted it – notably John Masters, H. Rider Haggard and P.G. Wodehouse. I discovered more heavyweight   writers like Aldous Huxley in the Higher Senior Cambridge. At Birmingham University, my course reading was heavy with Karl Marx and Max Weber. I slipped into reading about Muslim history and other English writers like E.M. Forster when I could.

Clearly, there were large gaps in my reading.

So I asked myself: how should I spend this time of leisure? It was pleasant enough just to sit in the garden by myself and read poetry, but I decided to read some of the world’s great literature, that I had heard of but not fully engaged with. I bought a huge pile of books and devoured them over the summer months. In particular, I read the European “greats”—Balzac, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. I was discovering new worlds. Worlds in which characters were drawn with great sympathy and understanding. It was like becoming acquainted with armies of individuals speaking different languages and living in different cultures.

This, I thought to myself, was literature at its best. Passionate nobleman with poetry in their souls and pining housewives searching for romance. And somewhere lurking in the background, the towering figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. The sweep of European literature matched the turbulence and magnificence of the continent's history.

"Preparation for the Examination" - Ilya Repin - 1864

I traveled to France, Spain, Italy and Russia in my imagination. I visited private homes and witnessed personal tragedies and misfortune. I was uplifted to know the strength and consistency of the actors in the novels. I became aware of the vastness and profundity of the human spirit. I developed a sense that the more I read, the more I realised how little I knew. It would be a feeling that would stay with me all my life.

But when the reading got too heavy – and no one reading the great Russian authors can escape that feeling of wondering: "Is this is really for me?" – I always had my book of English poetry to fall back to. I heard the nightingale in the English garden and saw the dancing daffodils in the field. What greater joy than reading Keats or Wordsworth, the poets of nature, in an English garden in full bloom?

The summer lingered as I made the acquaintance of poets and novelists across time and space. Too soon, my year at Cambridge would end and I would sit for the Central Superior Services (CSS) examination and be accepted for the Civil Service of Pakistan. Within two years from that glorious summer at Cambridge, I would be a full-fledged officer in Pakistan, and not long after, be given charge of a subdivision with several million people.

My day would be spent administering justice, maintaining law and order, ensuring that my officials remained honest and efficient, and that the people in my charge had access to me to share their grievances. I carried my Keats and Wordsworth with me to escape to, and perhaps the friends I had made that summer in Cambridge helped me preserve my sense of humanity—and often, sanity.

Sometimes when the world would be too much, I would read Keats and I knew what he meant in his Ode to a Nightingale:

“The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.”

Then I would turn to Wordsworth and his poem, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud":

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

It was like moving from Ghalib to Iqbal — from one kind of brilliance to another.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland