Agha Ashraf Ali is no more. October 17, 2020, he would be ninety nine. Quite a long span of life. More than that a life full of action, accomplishment and effect. God the Almighty has ordained death for every human. Dust we are and to dust we return. Life of every kind must come to an end. This is the rule the creator of life has promulgated for all life that exists. We are mortals who in this caravanserai are destined to live either long or short, finally to pass away into that other unknown nonexistent called death. And yet death is as real as life. Death – the gate-pass to nothingness or to everlastingness where, we believe, we belong to eternity, to its timelessness. We enter the stage, play our part, long or short, good or bad, and suffer our exit. From time immemorial, precisely from the beginning, death has been galloping parallel to Life to claim it for the hereafter. Our days here on this earth are numbered. All what matters is how each of us have lived our allotted lifetime here on earth. That is what makes all the difference. In this reckoning, without being judgmental, a large number live the trodden path of routine, rite and ritual, a run of the mill role on stage and finally they make their exit. But there are unworldly success stories as well, people who do not live only for themselves, but for others as well. Rather more for the latter than former. They deal with life honestly, sincerely, seriously. They think and think it to the utmost how to make this dealing worthwhile, not just a ‘pass off’ matter. For which they are long remembered after they die. They are those who act and accomplish. For whom the motto is ‘play your part well, there all the honor lies’.
Agha Ashraf Ali died August 8, 2020. While I write my tribute to the colossus this man Agha Ashraf Ali was, poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal’s criteria for a purposeful life comes to my mind. In his jewel of a book Javeednama he writes that there are three states of life to one of which we may belong. It is so authentic. One of these three we do fit in. Ask yourself whether you are really living, or dead even while living. Or you are half-dead with your soul just on the brink of death. There are three witnesses to call upon to tell one as to what state one is at. The first state is one’s own selfhood to determine whether at this level one is living or dead or somewhere between these two states of being. A self-realization through active consciousness of one’s being. The second is the projection of one’s image or personality among the multitude of other. It is the society. It is here that there is a choice, either to be a socially useful person or live as a self-centered selfish person. The first two witnesses, conscious selfhood and perception, testifying that one is at what state of life whether living or living as dead wood, precede the third witness in a sense that without these two witnesses, the third cannot be called upon. Indeed the transformation from a routinized person to a creative personality would depend on these two states where a person should posit all elemental beauty of being that there is in his soul. The third witness to call upon in this context is the ultimate Truth. It is the god-realization. A stainless life, in purity of heart and soul, in service of God the creator of all that exists. If all these three witnesses testify to one’s spiritual health, then one is duely qualified to the state of living. Let me mention another dictum that should clarify what the great Iqbal says, says Fazal-ur-Rehman “the ultimate aim of Quran is to recreate man so that he is morally alive, spiritually awakened and socially active”. This is the paraphrase of Iqbal’s beautiful poetry.
Having remained in close companionship of Agha Ashraf Ali for forty years, it comes to my mind that he lived as a man, his life as delineated by Iqbal. He was a man apart with an organised mind. He was deeply drunk at the fountain of knowledge. He was my friend, my Guru, truly a torch-bearer, “Rehnuma” as his biographer professor Syed Habib rightly called him. He was a sufi as selfless and full of love who believed in kindness, compassion, humility, who loved all good things of life. Like a sufi he lived in a unique ecstasy of contentment and perseverance. I have seen him in penury. That was when he had resigned his post as advisor of education and his siblings were in America still in college. That was the time when self-seeking friends and acquaintances had stopped coming to him. He was his usual self even then, never losing his humor and intellectual grit. The same Agha Ashraf Ali which he turned out to be ever after when the sunny days came back to him. Hospitable and generous even to a fault, he loved to help the poor, entertain his friends and whoever would come, friend or not, at his table. I have yet to see a man who enjoyed his poverty like him. Many a time at the table in that hospitable kitchen of his house he called Harmony, at tea time, I recall, Agha Sahib offering Habib Irfan and myself Kashmiri Tschwaru with tea. Strange he would set apart the lower and the top of this Kashmiri Tchwaru and then spread fried red chilli powder on them to make a toast to relish tea with. Nicest of dishes, some Lakhnavi some Kashmiri, we have tasted at his table. Begum Agha Ashraf Ali was from Lakhnow. It was a treat to eat the meat dish Shahi Pasanda which Beghum Sahiba would so deftly make, dead long ago. Agha Ashraf Ali was a Kashmiri by heart. He loved Kashmir, all those things that would constitute culture of Kashmir. He was truly a cultivated cultured personality who encompassed in himself both noble and enlivening elements of western and eastern civilization. He was an absorbing conversationalist and in conversation it could well be made out that he was not only a man of knowledge but a man with a right kind of view point. He lacked the patience to write but if you would enter into a discussion with him he would make you soar high, take flights in the world of imagination. What was remarkable was the openness of his mind. It is well known that he was a voracious reader besides being a voracious eater. His memory was very sharp. Unfortunately his precious library was washed away in the huge flood of 2014. When I mentioned the loss of library to him he said “it is a loss for you. It is all in my mind”.
Born to an aristocratic family of Kashmir with wealth and luxury aplenty in the feudal glitter of Kashmir with forty servants to render service separately to the members of the family, this one scion of this family of Qazalbash- Agha Ashraf Ali Qazalbash choose to shed off all those nuances and aptitudes and instead embrace those of the main stratum of social hierarchy. He used to tell us silly jokes of this Qazalbash family. There are numerous stories of his honest dealing with those who had no access to any of the corrupt political elite of our unfortunate state. Now a narrow constriction- UT. He would only regard merit and right as a high rank education officer in J&K. he would take up cudgels with political higher-ups to make the right prevail. For which he had very often to suffer. He was bold to call a spade a spade to the establishment of time.
Agha Sahib was a multi-dimensional personality, a scholar, an educationist in real sense of the word, an intellectual, an orator and above all a man with beautiful mind. It would rather take a book to describe all my experiences during our long friendship, all novel and amazing. He was always his natural self to impress and inspire. His circle of friends was vast from all walks of life. His cordiality, his forceful conversation, his knowledge attracted people to him and he welcomed all. He was an institution in himself.
On 30 July, 2020 I went to see him in his house. He was in his bedroom sitting in a chair with his feet resting on a stool in front. He was looking sleepy with closed eyes. I stood two meters away from him to obey the diktat of COVID-19. Just for a moment he opened his eyes only to close them again. He was motionless, speechless and lifeless. I was shocked to find him thus. The memory of all my association swirled in my mind. I recalled that when I used to enter his house how warmly with a smile on his face he welcomed me. Here was that warm hearted man silent and pale under the shadow of death. Only after a week of my visit he was dead, leaving his friends and well-wishers and family members mourning his loss. May Agha Ashraf Ali Qazalbash rest in Heaven in peace.