Kashmir’s Renaissance Man: Remembering Dr Agha Ashraf Ali

Dr Arvind Gigoo. Dated: 8/12/2020 11:17:48 AM

Srinagar, 1967
I am studying at the University of Kashmir for MA in English. Seventeen girls are my classmates. All of them are excellent and speak very well. I am friendly with all. They love me in abundance. We visit Ahdoo’s Restaurant often and eat snacks and talk. Then we walk on the Bund.
One Rehana, lovingly called Lily, is very good and speaks wonderful English. She lives at Kak Sarai, a locality before my residence in the dirty downtown named Khankah-i-Sokhta. Other girls are also Convent educated and are very good at spoken English. Rukhsana is a very fine girl. So is Jagjit Kaur Raina. Tejendar Suri called Guddi is another girl. I often go to her place at Mandir Bagh. I have adjusted myself in their company very well and am comfortable with them in spite of my acute shyness.
One of the girls is Hena Agha. We become close friends soon. She is soft-spoken and good. Her regret is that she can’t speak Kashmiri. I lend books to her which she devours for she is competitive and wants to do the best in the examination. I often go to her place in Raj Bagh. Her mother Sofia serves snacks whenever I go there. She is very hospitable. She remembers Urdu poetry and often recites Urdu verses. She is from the family of the Zakir Hussain.
Ageless Humour
The Aghas are Shia Muslims. They originally belonged in the locality Khankah-i-Sokhta, Nawa Kadal, Srinagar (where I lived till 1990). The huge house where the Razdans lived later originally belonged to the Aghas. It is still there. The wide corridors, the stairs, the papier mache ceiling and the mosaics of stained glass fitted in the windows made the house attractive and unique. It is a heritage house now.
One day, when Dr Agha Ashraf Ali came to Khankah-i-Sokhta, he sought the permission of the Razdans to visit the rooms. The Razdans were delighted. He entered all the rooms and was nostalgic. He entered the premises of the graveyard, joined his palms and recited some verses from the Quran. Then he told me: “This is what happens in old age.”
I found him memorizing some passages from Virgil, Nietzsche and Goethe. He remembered many Urdu verses and recited them often.
Dr Agha Ashraf Ali had a tremendous sense of humour. When he attended my wedding he told me, “Many many happy returns of the day” and went on laughing.
• He introduced a reputed professor of Education to me like this: “This man shines against illiteracy.”
• “Sir, do you write?” “I don’t write. I talk and babble.”
• “Prof. Habib Ullah of Education came to me one day and asked me to dictate a book to him. I did so. Then he came out with a book Rahnuma. It is about me. I still possess some copies of the book. It is in Urdu. Then he gifted one copy of the book to me.”
Gandhi Bhavan, University of Kashmir: 14-Hundredth Anniversary of Islam
I have forgotten the year and the date.
Indian intellectuals, artists, artistes and authors are in the auditorium. Khushwant Singh is also there.
Khushwant Singh speaks on Islam. Khushwant Singh’s lecture is splendid. Then it is the turn of Dr. Agha Ashraf Ali to speak. When he speaks, the audience sits frozen in the chairs. Khushwant Singh is mesmerized. He is all praise for Agha Ashraf Ali. He says that he has never heard such a lecture. The next day, his write-up appears in the Hindustan Times in which he praises the lecture delivered by Agha Ashraf Ali.
One Day in the Auditorium of S P College, Srinagar
Dr Agha Ashraf Ali delivers a long lecture on Brahmanism. The pauses are brilliant.
Whenever one goes to his place in Raj Bagh one is overwhelmed by his hospitality. He serves the drinks himself. And there are guests always there. Agha Sahab doesn’t let anybody leave without having eaten something.
I go to his place along with my son Siddhartha. When I introduce my son to him he says: “Siddharth Shankar Ray” and touches his cheek.
Agha Ashraf Ali’s daughter Hena is going to be married. Prof. Mujib’s son, Kaul (Mamaji), Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, Mir Qasim and other dignitaries are there. Kaul (Mamaji) is a fund of knowledge. He talks about plants and flowers with passion and conviction. Prof. Mujib’s son is silent. He is a good listener. Bakshi talks to Kaul (Mamaji). I find thousands of guests there. Sumptuous dinner is served. We leave very late in the night and hire a taxi to reach home.
One day Dr. Agha Ashraf Ali sends me a jeep home. The driver of the jeep asks me to sit in the vehicle. I do so and he drives to a house in Trikuta Nagar. An elderly couple greets me. Dr. Agha Ashraf Ali says loudly: “We have to drink.” And he asks a young man to get the bottle of whisky from the jeep. He does so and we go on drinking. Agha Ashraf Ali asks the driver to drop me at my place. While leaving Agha Ashraf Ali hands over a bottle of Old Monk Rum to me. He gives strict instructions to the driver of the jeep to drop me near the gate of my house.
College of Education, Jammu
Agha Ashraf Ali delivers a lecture on the social set-up in Jammu and Kashmir. As usual, he is brilliant. He asks me to come to an auditorium. Ved Bhasin and other journalists are there. Prof Badri Raina too is there. After the meet, we are asked to eat.
Dr Agha Ashraf Ali is a lover of good food. He loves collard greens (saag, in Kashmiri called haakh) cooked by Kashmiri Pandits. He loves water melons and lemon.
There is no bitterness in Agha Ashraf Ali. He doesn’t know cynicism. He radiates joy and pleasure wherever he goes. And his laughter is infectious.
In his lectures he talked about the Upanishads and quoted from the Quran. The lectures were full of allusions to scriptures. In his youth he had been a leftist and talked about Das Capital and other such books. He had a vast circle of friends in the whole country. He was an ardent admirer of Abul Kalam Azad, Prof Mujib and other luminaries. His talk broadcast from All India Radio some years ago was splendid. He had a very sharp mind, ready wit and a sense of humour. He was an excellent narrator of happenings and day-to-day events.
Dr Agha Ashraf Ali was shattered when his son, Agha Shahid Ali, the English poet, passed away in the US at a very young age. His another son, Iqbal teaches Mathematics at a university in the US. His daughter, Hena, teaches English at a university in Amherst, US. His another daughter also works in the US.
With the death of Dr Agha Ashraf Ali, Jammu and Kashmir lost a big man who was larger than life. I shall always remember his sparkling eyes, white hair, white moustache, his bewitching smile and his loud voice.
“This was a Man” (Shakespeare)
(Arvind Gigoo is a writer, translator and sculptor. He is the author of The Ugly Kashmiri (Cameos in Exile), Gulliver in Kashmir, and the co-editor of From Home to House – Writings of Kashmiri Pandits in Exile (Harper Collins, India).
(Courtesy: The Quint)



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