Agha Ashraf Ali: A Man Like No Other

By Badri Raina. Dated: 8/12/2020 11:19:14 AM


I got to meet Agha sahib rather late in life. But then, there was no going back.
The man was sui generis, and irresistible; many hated him, and many many admired him, but not one could ignore him.
Agha sahib was a penetrating intellect with a fierce independence of mind and freedom of articulation that gave no quarter to any idea or any savant if he determined that these deserved correction. Agha sahib’s debating prowess was formidable because backed up by an erudition so steep and diverse that it disallowed him suffering fools or pretenders. If and when he came down hard, it was usually after giving due space to what could be said against him. Often, a Socratic sequence of questions followed, and if he found himself inadequately informed on an issue, his grace in acceptance was an education in itself. Never once have I known his no-holds-barred repudiation of another man’s half-baked assertions to have lessened or compromised his personal generosity to any antagonist.
Agha sahib was as much a scholar of religions as of anything else, and his open-minded catholicity of self-learning honed him early in his education with the legendary historian, Prof. Mujeeb, at Aligarh Muslim University into a liberal humanist par excellence. He despised nothing more emphatically than he did bigots who built castles of dangerous illiteracy and hate on little knowledge. Agha sahib’s knowledge of the numerous strands of Hindu thought could indeed be most usefully emulated by the self-styled gurus of the day, just as the tribe of Mullahs had much to learn from his study and critiques of the world of Islamic thought.
Agha sahib's humour was legendary. It was not of the slapdash variety, but
issued from a deep sense of irony about social and cultural mores, and the silly
contradictions that our thoughtless commitment to traditions often embroils us in.
Agha sahib’s love of music and poetry were infectious, and much as was the case with the late Khushwant Singh at Delhi’s Sujan Singh Park, Agha sahib’s evenings were invariably given to the choice master spirits of culture whoever stood available. Among his most intimate buddies were many Kashmiri Pandits. I am witness to occasions when at such evenings the intimate recall of the syncretic traditions of life in Kashmir brought tears to the eyes as songs came to be sung to those traditions and searing personalised memories. Hard as nails as Agha sahib could be intellectually, he was a dearly easy crier.
Agha sahib was a connoisseur of cuisine to a fault, and excused not one jot any dilettantes liberties being taken with the fostering of dishes, which he often had served in loving courses, instructing his company for the time how to go about dealing with the menu.
It may be obvious from this account that Agha Ashraf Ali was a long-standing institution, one of the last giants of learning and education not just in the benighted erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, but the sub-continent.
If many who desired to get near him were often rather terrified, it was for good reason. But those who persevered and burnt the midnight oil came to profit enormously for staying the course
Agha sabib never got over the tragic demise of his poet-son, agha Shahid, and nurtured his work and memory with a maternal devotion.
He lived a long life in unparalleled accomplishments, as also in heart-beaks and rejection from the satraps of the day.
But I may say of him what Antony said of Brutus:
he was the noblest Kashmiri of all
and the elements so mixed in him
that nature may stand up and say
here was a man.



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