A ninety-seven year old boy called Agha Ashraf Ali

File Image of Agha Ashraf Ali

My first encounter with Prof. Agha Ashraf Ali was a typical jab we met story with a local twist. In late nineties as a young reporter, I was asked by Rashid Shahid, the then Executive Editor Greater Kashmir to attend Agha’s lecture and come with a story. He thought I would come with bouquets, I came with brickbats. I was sent to get inspired, I got provoked. Frankly I didn’t like Agha’s speech for being too incoherent (which much later I discovered was the real beauty of his expression). I wrote a disparaging piece hitting him hard – left, right and center.

I knew if my editor sees my story before going to print, he will squeeze the whole bile off it. (That way it would be hollowed out like that good old 370 that had remained a shell before being finally knocked down). I knew Agha was a cult among many and I wanted to face the music once it’s played out against me. I wanted to see what happens when the thing happens first. (Call it a disease, a disorder or a manufacturing defect that always tempted me to shoot below the belt, but this was the itch I loved to scratch, the fruit I loved to taste). Here Agha Sahab was my unscratched itch, my un-tasted fruit. So I didn’t let Rashid Shahid come in between me and my target. I bypassed the Shahid desk as if I was evading my nearest checkpoint to smuggle cocaine. As a gatekeeper, he too didn’t check my bags thinking all is fine, not knowing that I had planted a mine on his desk that will go off the next day morning.

The next morning hell broke loose. Agha’s fan club was out to club me for the heresy I had committed. Shahid was a great Agha fan. He couldn’t imagine I will prove a renegade in the camp. Shahid was not just an editor, he was like a caring teacher and I had bitten the hand that taught me with care. Professionally I did no wrong by doing the story the way I deemed right, but if emotions count in the court, I committed a breach. I let my editor down. He too is no more. May God bless his soul.  (Hope Shaid meets Agha there and tells him that the fault was mine not his.)

I had two sins on my shoulders to atone for. First I had done exactly the reverse of what my editor had asked me to do. Second I had been irreverent towards a name who was held in great reverence by his fans and followers. `You don’t know the stature of a personality like Agha Ashraf’, Shahid roared like a lion and I listened like a lamb in front of him. Now what to do? Shahid set a task for me which was – professionally and emotionally – doubly painful. `Go and apologise to him’, he said. As a chit of a boy who was still finding his feet in journalism, I had no choice. I didn’t say I will apologise, but I said I will go and meet him. Again.

It was a three-part lecture series spread over three days held in the University of Kashmir. So the second day I had to undo the damage I had done on the first. My criticism amid all the generous praise looked like a cockroach on a tray of cherries. So I went to attend the second day. I didn’t want to aplogise, I just wanted to be there with a sense of apology not for Agha Sahab, but for Shahid Sahab who – despite being a gentle soul would eat me alive if I don’t save this little grace for him. As Agha Sahab stood up to speak, he mentioned me and my story. He said he was happy seeing it in the newspaper. `I am usually praised by all, but let it be a different dose today’, as he said this, I whispered a shout in the hall itself as if I had won a lost game. When the speech ended, Rashid Shahid presented me to Agha Sahab. Initially I felt like a hand-cuffed criminal asked to seek mercy for his life, but a single warm hug from Agha Sahab followed by a full-throated laughter brought a sad scene to a cheerful end. Agha twisted my story the same way as I had twisted Shahid’s story as a reporter. Today when his fans remember him for his contribution, I remember him for that one hug, for that one laugh. I have seen people ideally peaceful, but practically violent when criticized or – in some cases less praised. Write a word against them, the humility flies and out comes an ego with all its dark and dirty forms. I can’t forget the grace he showed, the heart he opened. To me that grace, that heart defines the man I owe a tribute to.

That day I fell in love with a charisma called Agha Ashraf. Not that he shaped my thinking or kindled my thought or inspired any intellectual curiosity in me, but his sheer exuberance as a human being was something that stayed with me for long. I loved to hear him for the passion he spoke with. Surrounded with bores who speak to themselves on the stage and presume we listen to them, Agha Sahab was an artillery piece, a firecracker that exploded in the face of audience. Before his natural and wicked sense of humour would pale any dull and made-up decency. I would prefer his random, disjointed, unprepared, but flashy talk over a structured and prepared speech of many witless, punch-less speakers. The incoherence I had disliked the first day I heard him, I later became fond of. His asides, one-liners, digs, jibes, eye cues (sharper than the IQ of many) and his seductive gestures would make a master flirt sit at his feet and learn the art of seduction. Where professors of repute put you off in the first five minutes, there we had a professor who would keep you on the edge of your seat. Where someone’s keynote address acts like a sleep-inducing pill, there his thunderous burst would rock you in the hall. You would forget the topic, remember him for the charm he exuded in every word he spoke.

We thrust virtues upon the people in the name of tribute and that is our problem. Virtues that don’t match the person we remember. We judge hunters by the crop they produce, farmers by the kill they hunt down. We can’t profile Agha Sahab by the number of minds he produced, books he wrote, theories he put forth (none of which he did). We profile him as a statue of warmth who was lovely, lively and magnetic in appeal. In his company I felt like I was with Al Pacino (and those who know Al Pacino may feel the same). Let’s celebrate him for what he was, not for what we wanted him to be.

If Churchill had a cousin in Kashmir in whom echoed his buoyancy and brilliance – it was Agha Sahab. In an atmosphere filled with fatigue and boredom, he sizzled. A naughty glint in his eyes might have murdered many beauties in their youth. For discovering a serious intellectual thought or for playing with a profound and original idea, he was a wrong choice. But if you loved to see a Prince charming of his time who mixed history, philosophy, poetry, religion, folklore and joke-lore to make a jigsaw puzzle to educate and entertain you in the same breath, here was the legend.

Agha was a montage of dash, flash, flare, love, passion, impishness, and a self-deprecating humour. Elements mixed so well in him that Shakespeare will be once more tempted to say `Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.”