A Chance encounter with a bibliophile

Greater Kashmir

Poets find tongues in trees and books in brooks, thus spoke Wordsworth . What do Bibliophiles find in books they are so enamoured of ?

The answers to this question are varied and variegated. Ahmad bin-e-Ismail says, “The book is a friend that can talk to you at night, and does not trouble you by broaching topics while you are in study, does not put you to inconvenience by calling you in your moments of rest. When you want to see and talk to him you need no formal preparations for that. A book is a friend that neither extols you to skies, nor does it deceive you…..an advisor protecting you from stumbling into error ( as happened in case of the late Dr. Agha when a book converted him to what he was not earlier according to a knowledgeable friend) protecting you from stumbling into error “.

Put succinctly, a book satisfies, soothes and heals your inquisitive minds offering solutions to troubled souls.

Book love, in the words of the legendary Bibliophile, Halbrook Jackson, lasts for life and it never flays or fails, but like beauty is a joy for ever. In the human history where do we find fanatic lovers of books and that too when printing did not exist. Books were written with hands and in a way the enterprise of writing and purchasing of books was ‘capitalistic ‘ in character . It was during the heydays of Muslim civilisation we find Wazirs and Kings so enamoured of books that a scholar chose to remain in the company of his books when summoned by the Caliph for some important consultation and the Caliph never took it as an offence. Hakam II, the ruler of Andalusia ( Spain) heard that Abu-al-Faraj Asfahani was writing a book Kitab al-Aghani. He sent a thousand dinars in advance as the price of the that book, that the writer took fifty years to write. On completion the book thus found its way to a far away place in Andalusia than in Iraq, the place of its writing.

Kashmir has been a place resplendent with men of eminence who illumined and inspired generations in diverse fields. Those sages, saints, and scholars are a treasure in our otherwise troubled past and present. In the field of education we have a fair share of them but two names keep on reverberating quite often and they are Prof. G.M. Hajini and Prof. Agha Ashraf Ali. I never want to belittle so many others but the duo are known for their scholarship, love of books and also for their respective share of eccentricities which added to their charm rather than diminishing them. Prof. Hajini came from a typical rural background retaining his rustic flair and used it nicely as a tool to convey profound knowledge, even conveying blunt messages to the rulers of the times.

Prof. Agha Sahib came from an aristocratic background but he too had his peculiar share of eccentricities in his method of sharing his ideas and views as per the reports of the students he mentored at the M.Ed. level who had been my only source of information till I had a chance encounter with the great scholar in 1978, when he was Chairman BOSE, courtesy one of his students, Late Nissar Sonauallah from a village in Bijbihara, my senior colleague at HSS Rajouri Jammu.

We happened to be at Jammu in connection with a state-level convention of teachers and my colleague wanted to meet his teacher and insisted me to join him. After some hesitation I joined him in this venture of sorts as it turned to be full of surprises. We entered the office and formally wished Agha Sahib the way Muslims usually do. To my utter dismay Agha Sahib did not give a damn to us and remained busy talking to some Police Officer who too was in the room when we entered. After a few minutes both of them left the room. I was seething with anger at my colleague who too was in a shock. I left the room followed by my companion and when we were about to go out of the Office premises we heard some yelling at us to stop. Looking back we found the person yelling was none other than Prof. Agha asking us to join him. My companion felt elated at this sudden warmth of his teacher and I hesitatingly joined him. Instead of taking us to his office we were ushered in his official residence in the Board Campus. Dr. Agha asked his cook to prepare tea. We sat in the guest room. After a few moments Agha Sahib joined us and initially, being a stranger, I chose to remain silent listening to what transpired between a famed teacher and his obedient pupil. The conversation initially remained confined to seemingly trivial matters about people of Rajouri, their manners and mores, the hotel we stayed in at Jammu, the purpose of our visit to Jammu, what the then Chief Minister, Late S.M. Abdullah spoke during his address to the teachers convention. In between I found Prof. Agha making quite humorous but crude jibes and jokes both at his pupil, the hotel we stayed in thinking that we could have stayed at a cheaper one which my companion tried to defend by explaining the good hygiene of the washrooms which again evoked a crude joke from Agha Sahib to which I retorted with a better one. Now the focus of Dr. Sahab shifted to me. At that point of time I was twenty five years old and feeling overwhelmed by what I had heard about the scholarship of Dr. Agha but his frankness helped me to overcome the hesitation that existed between an acclaimed scholar and a fry like me. After making some preliminary inquiries about my academic career and seemingly impressed by my interdictions between the teacher and his erstwhile pupil Dr. Sahab now brought some serious stuff on the table ranging from revolutionary philosophies, theories of education, politics, his unconventional and radical views about religion, Marxian stuff, his views about family life, women’s position etc. Saying goodbye to my initial hesitation I offered my views almost contradicting every assertion of the learned man. To my utter surprise Dr. Sahab like a true scholar bore me and my arguments with all patience unlike their shallow editions who are in the habit of dismissing every thing that challenges their shallowness. Anwar Sadat, the then President of Egypt became the main focus of the discussion. At that time Mr. Sadat was negotiating a peace agreement with the Jewish State of Israel. Dr. Sahab was all praise for Anwar Sadat whereas my contention was that Mr. Sadat like his predecessor was the product of a conspiracy, who first used Ikhwan cadres, otherwise a non-political organisation by then, and subsequently after using them killed them in thousands. My argument was that things hatched through conspiracies never last long and was contrary to all accepted codes of fair play.

This encounter between an acclaimed scholar and a small fry lasted for about two hours and at no point of time did the great man show any kind of fatigue nor was he dismissive of whatever little I knew and offered in defense of my views. Instead he was frank enough in his appreciation to the extent of comparing one of his sons, who was at the time doing some course in Cybernetics in America, candidly admitting that one of the reasons of his son being in America was the person of Dr. Agha Ashraf, as compared to all those students whose talent gets wasted for lack of avenues, exposure and patronage.

Thus what I had heard about the Scholarship of the learned Professor and his eccentricities came out cascading in torrents in this chance encounter.

Almost a decade back I got a chance of listening to a radio talk of the late Professor wherein it was evident that he had said good bye to some of his radical views about many things especially about Islam. What was the cause? Of course, he had gone through trials and tribulations. He had lost his illustrious son, the famed poet, Agha Shahid. He was living a lonely life in the company of his treasure of books which was also lost in 2014 floods. All this must have broken him from within but it was not all these tragic events that changed some of his radical views, it was again a book ” The Venture Of Islam ” written by an American author that reverted him back to the fold of his faith, according to a friend of mine and a former Director Of Academics BOSE, Mr. G. H. Malik.

“When we confer with a masterpiece, exchange and compare our ideas with them, we get most of them, not by absorbing them wholly, or by following them implicitly, but by remaining ourselves in our traffic with them, better, fuller, stronger…..” (Hallbrook Jackson)